In 2015, the Grace Theater Company had the privilege of being the first company to perform “Hall Pass,” a first-of-its kind, site specific show commissioned by NYU.
One afternoon this summer as I was getting ready to attend a friend’s wedding in Los Angeles, I received a text from the creator of “Hall Pass,” Blake McCarty. It read:
Sabrina-- This is super out of the blue, so apologies for that.
However, would you (and by proxy Grace) have any interest
in remounting Hall Pass as a featured event in a major arts
summit in NYC in October? (I know, crazy)
The show was created throughout 2014 and early 2015 through a series of interviews and surveys conducted with teens across the country. More than twenty professional playwrights and composers were tasked with creating short plays and musicals that take place inside of a high school, using the interviews and surveys as inspiration. One of the driving forces behind this show was the desire to create something for young people that didn’t talk down to, simplify, or minimize their experiences, as much of the work out there for teens tends to do.
The idea of remounting this show was a bit crazy. We already had a show planned for the fall, one purposely chosen to give the theater department a little more breathing room after a few years of stretching ourselves. We had produced roving Shakespeare productions, surreal plays with original music, high concept musicals with 35 actors, student-written plays about conspiracy theories, not to mention an immersive musical event that took over the entire high school building. We could have, frankly, used a bit of a break. So, until that out-of- the-blue text from Blake, we were ready for a simpler, quieter fall season.
The summit Blake mentioned turned out to be The Future of Storytelling Festival (FoST), a prestigious week-long gathering of innovators in media, technology and communications all working in immersive storytelling. FoST focuses on reinventing and reimagining the way stories are told, primarily through the act of putting the viewer in the center of the story. And they wanted us, a high school theater company, to present our show alongside companies that are changing the trajectory of performance all over the world. Suddenly all of that simpler, quieter stuff went out the window. Within 24 hours, I had written to Mr. Mahabir to pitch this great idea. He agreed, and we were off and running.
The structure of the show put the power of choice in audience members’ hands. At the top of the show, the audience gathered in the cafeteria for an assembly, where they were given the task to rethink the same old school superlatives that appear in the yearbook by taking a peek into the lives of students to see who they really are behind the hollow labels of “best hair” or “most likely to succeed.” With that in mind, audience members were given a school schedule that showed what would happen in each period. At any given time, there would be up to four different performances taking place throughout the school on all floors of the building. Each play or musical was performed in the exact locations where they are meant to take place, and the audience could travel throughout the school to "choose their own adventure" and decide what they wanted to experience in each period. Audience members might witness an awkward first kiss taking place in the girls’ bathroom and actually be in the girls’ bathroom, an experience as intimate as the content of the play.
The students not only felt a close connection to the material, but the show also stoked their passion for innovative performance while simultaneously drawing the entire Grace community into the excitement of immersive, site-specific theater. This type of theater is a relatively new form that is catching fire around the world, and it is brand new at the high school level.
“Hall Pass” has since been produced at different high schools around the country. Its premiere at Grace Church School is special and means that we will always be connected to the show. That, coupled with the fact that FoST invited us to be involved in their festival alongside shows like “Sleep No More,” was a big honor—a strong message that what we do here is a part of the future of performance. We are setting the stage for adventurous theatrical experiences at the high school level. This time not just in our own community, but in the global theater community as well.