Jazz is celebrated more in New Orleans than possibly anywhere else. We live and breath the stuff as we stand on the shifting soil from which it was born. But even still, taking in more traditional sets throughout the city can sometimes leave you feeling like you’re watching a performance of something kept under glass.
The team behind the upcoming immersive theater project and venue The Fallen Saint hopes to shake some of those unfortunate stereotypes of the genre as stodgy and strictly of the past by transporting audiences to jazz’s sweaty and unruly roots.
When it opens next year, The Fallen Saint will give audiences the chance to choose which characters and storylines they want to follow as they move through the intimate space to see un-amplified performances by musicians and actors tasked with taking people back to an era they never saw.
“A lot of times, [the performance] is happening up there on the stage. You’re sitting. There’s a PA. And there’s a real separation between your experience of it and what they’re doing up there,” explained co-creator Todd Perlmutter. “We’re trying to create the visceral feeling of being right there in it. What if all of the audience was on stage with the band and the PA didn’t matter? That’s more of the goal. That’s the feeling we’re trying to create.”
Perlmutter and Jennie Willink both worked for years with the Blue Man Group and Willink has worked in the immersive Queen Of The Night. They hope to apply that same sense of audience involvement to their latest project set in the Jazz Age in New Orleans.
The new space being assembled in the Lower Garden District drops viewers into pre-Prohibition New Orleans, allowing them to get as close to the musicians and actors as audiences in Storyville and Algiers no doubt were to the legends of the genre’s early years.
“The origins of the music being dangerous and sexy and dirty doesn’t always get portrayed and there’s a vibe that we’re trying to get out there by being so close to the music.” Perlmutter said. “Hopefully, we’re able to change some people’s experience of the music.”
Willink said that part of the inspiration for the project was working closely with those other shows and being allowed to get close to the action.
“So many people don’t have that experience. They have to sit far away from the band,” she said. “The can only get GA tickets and have to fight their way to get close to the music. So, I think that was an impetus for this piece..thinking about creating a way to see genre. We just want people to be able to get closer to the musicians.“
“The experience is different when you’re close. When you can see it and feel the actual acoustic vibrations. Even though it’s not as loud as coming through a PA, I think it’s more visceral and you get more of a feeling from it,” he said.
Given the limitations of the show, the era and the space, Perlmutter said that he’s looking to create incredible moments using as little technology as possible.
“We have this motto ‘low tech, high impact.’ Unlike a very modern show that will have a ton of special effects…we’re using very, very old technology. But just trying to stage things in a way that are still surprising,” he explained. “I have worked on a lot of hi-tech stuff and its very cool but if the content doesn’t make you feel anything, then its just flash. I would rather spend the time and money and energy on this very personal experience that will blow your mind.”
While the creators were tight-lipped about the stories at the heart of The Fallen Saint, Willink did share one example of the moments that audiences can expect.
“One of the women might ask you, this incredible vocalist might ask you to slow dance with her,” she said. “And then just like sing right into your ear. Like, that’s goosebump-y.”
The creators said that they plan to severely limit the amount of people in any given performance to maximize the chance that audiences will be wowed by smaller, personal moments with the cast.
“We can put 10 million people in that space. But we went with 200 or 250 because that way, with 25 cast members and 250 people you have a better chance for those kinds of experiences. We’re not interested in cramming bodies in a room,” Perlmutter explained.
They also wanted to stress that their space is not a perfect, historically accurate representation of the city. Story and experience come before veracity at The Fallen Saint.
“It’s not a lesson, it’s a party. But there is a transformation musically; there’s transformation in the characters,” said Willnik. “They want to make their lives better; they want to make their community better. There’s no moral of the story in the end, but I think people will leave being sort of uplifted and inspired.”