There is this thing that Jenna Soleo-Shanks said she regularly tells students in the University of Minnesota Duluth’s theater department: All you really need to make theater is an empty space and an audience willing to watch a performance.
But a year ago, when the department was lining up its 2021-22 season schedule, they didn’t know for sure which empty space would be safe at this point in the pandemic — one of the theaters in the on-campus Marshall Performing Arts Center or something outdoors, like it did last fall with “Henry V.”
Soleo Shanks went one step further.
“I’ve always loved immersive theater and site-specific theater,” Soleo-Shanks, assistant theater professor, said. “I’ve had a dream of doing theater in Glensheen mansion and using the attached grounds.”
With the empty space secured, they just needed a show that would play well within its grounds.
“Alice in Wonderland,” based on the story by Lewis Carroll, runs at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 13-16, 18-19 and 24-25 in the area surrounding Glensheen Mansion. Tickets are $25 adults, $15 for students, $10 for UMD students. The audience will follow the action throughout the lawn, woods and beach with stops at various vistas, before ending on the back terrace.
“The real work of the director is to create the stage picture,” Soleo-Shanks said. “That part was super easy.”
Soleo-Shanks said part of the inspiration for this production is based on one she saw with students in London a few years ago. “Alice’s Adventures Underground,” at The Vaults — an arts space of tunnels beneath Waterloo Station — split the audience into two groups based on whether they wanted to “Eat Me” or “Drink Me.”
For UMD’s adaptation, she said they toured the estate and looked for stages, like the bridge over Tischer Creek or the Bent Brook tunnel, and a good place for the Mad Hatter’s picnic table and festive lights.
Audience members will first line up on London Road for a full-on view of the mansion, and the opening scene is in the courtyard. Everyone will get an invitation to the queen’s party — and occasionally the guard characters will ask to see it. Guests will follow the white rabbit, played by Mikela Anderson and encounter the Cheshire Cat, Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, the caterpillar and more.
UMD’s theater department had already tested an outdoor venue about this time last year with its production of “Henry V” in the university’s courtyard — a clever, socially distanced showcase of masked actors, no-touch choreography and zero props.
The immersive part is new, though, and tends to be done in controlled environments that aren’t affected by rain or poor air quality from nearby wildfires.
For the actors, this is a lesson that falls outside of the university’s curriculum.
“Our training here at school is more black box theater and proscenium,” said Thressa Schultz, who is Alice. “We’re learning how to bounce our voice off trees instead of walls. It’s really unique.”
They've brought in guest audiences to see how a viewer might respond to the character interactions and scenes.
Mikela Anderson, who plays the White Rabbit in a way she described as "anxiety, but make it funny," said this experience feels like going back to the roots of theater and offers a new way of looking at storytelling.
“It’s possibly theater you’ve never seen before,” she said. “And it might be a while before you see something like this again.”
If you go
What: UMD theater department presents "Alice in Wonderland," based on the stories of Lewis Carroll, directed by Jenna Soleo-Shanks
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 13-16, 18-19, 24-25
Where: Grounds of Glensheen Mansion, 3300 London Road.
Tickets: $25 adults, $20 senior/UMD faculty/UMD staff/veterans, $15 student, $10 UMD student at z.umn.edu/alicewonderland.