We arrived at a nondescript building shortly after 7:10. It took some hunting to figure out which building was the site of the show, but we did find a door with a small “Then She Fell” sign past a wrought iron gate. We arrived with an older couple and were greeted immediately by a young woman dressed in an old-fashioned nurse’s uniform. She crossed our names off the list she carried on a clipboard and checked our ids before going over some of the parameters of the evening – All drinks except the tea would be alcoholic, all food was vegetarian, the truffle has nuts. There will be no breaks or intermission. The restrooms are down these stairs. The lobby is through the black curtains on the left; you can meet up with your group there after the show.
The older woman interrupted, “So we might be separated?” She asked anxiously, clutching her husband’s arm.
“Yes,” the greeter confirmed. “You will be separated.”
After a quick restroom stop, we went through the curtains and found a sizable room set up like a doctor’s office. An orderly was pouring drinks, and we were each handed a drink and a knotted loop of thick green string with four keys hanging from it. “Feel free to explore,” the orderly said, “but do not open any closed doors. and please put back anything you pick up.”
We joined the other audience members in looking around the room. There were filing cabinets, glass displays, and several folders set out with worn paperwork inside – photographs of Alice Liddell, including the ones famously taken by Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll), and patient records documenting diagnoses such as “bad blood” and “jabberwocky bite.” There were also several boxes with padlocks around the room, which my keys opened up and which also contained photographs and scraps of poems.
Shortly after 7:30 a woman dressed as a doctor in a white lab-coat and glasses entered purposefully. She stood behind the desk and instructed us to take our seats. Jason and I joined the other audience members in mismatched chairs that lined the perimeter of the room. There were 15 audience members total – a restriction that made the tickets to the show both difficult to obtain and incredibly enticing.
The doctor sat and pulled a thick, gray desk microphone, the kind that would be used over a P.A. system to her. She flipped a switch, and began speaking, her voice carried through loudspeakers in the corners of the ceiling and over the soft, old fashioned music that had been playing since we entered, and which continued throughout the building and the evening.
The doctor first laid out the rules for the evening yet again. Alcohol, tea, food. We were free to explore, but do not open closed doors and put back what you pick up. Do not talk unless spoken to. Welcome to Kingsland Ward hospital.
She then began a monologue about liminality – thresholds, the middle grounds within rituals – and about falling. It was a factual lecture, full of definitions and Latin word origins. As she spoke, the orderlies began approaching people and, silently, leading them away through various doors. A young woman silently held her hand out over laps, person by person, counting off five people, then beckoned them to follow her. I was number five, so with a shared glance and smile with Jason, I left him to his own adventures.
The young woman led us down the stairs near the entrance as the doctor’s voice and the music continued through the speakers in each room. She opened a pair of dark wooden doors at the bottom of the stairs and ushered us inside, closing the doors behind her. We were standing between two sets of doors behind a dark waist-high wooden fence that separated us from a room built for private worship. There was a prie-dieu, an altar, and two confessionals that flanked a large mirror. In front of the barrier was a wooden bench, and laying on that bench was Alice.
With long dark hair, a white blouse, a full blue skirt, and a wide white sash, Alice was easily recognizable. She lay on her stomach in front of us, her bare feet crossed in the air. She had a glass bottle filled with scraps of paper, and she was meticulously piecing together a note by smoothing out each scrap and fitting them together.
We watched her work for a few minutes before she sat up and acknowledged each of us with a slow, pensive look. Then, still without saying a word, she quickly stood up and crossed to the doors we had entered from. She peered through the crack between them, then flung them open to reveal a man dressed in a black suit sitting on the staircase. With the doorway as the proscenium arch, we watched Alice and Lewis Carroll dance a pas de deux on the staircase that was absolutely lovely. Their dance wove under and around the handrail, up and down the stairs, and they balanced precariously between the stairs and the hallway that ran alongside the staircase, using the chair rail for footing. It was a dance about love, about desire and wanting and restraint. It did not resolve, but Lewis Carroll left Alice on the stairs and closed the doors, cutting off our viewing of their scene. As he did so, another nurse opened the doors opposite and beckoned for us to follow her into another room.
That was the opening of the show that motivated our trip. I’m delighted with and fascinated by the immersive theater movement, and when Third Rail Projects extended the run of their acclaimed exploration of Lewis Carrol’s creations as well as his real-life relationship with Alice Liddell, Jason and I jumped at the chance to get tickets.
Like “Sleep No More“, “Then She Fell” is a show that allows the audience to explore and even participate in the story. The audience’s role in this show was incredibly structured – I could practically see the stage directions dictating what Audience Members #1, #2, #3 did at each point, who they were with, where they should go. By being restricted to staying within closed doors, my explorations were limited to the immediate room that I was in. It did not have the freedom of “Sleep No More,” but it was incredibly intimate. When Jason and I compared noted afterwards, we found that we had both experienced about 70% of the same vignettes, although never together and never at the same time.
Here are a couple of my favorite moments:
The White Queen, a kind-looking and very pretty blond young woman, kept me and one other girl about my age behind while our original group of 5 moved on. She sat us at a table, then unlatched a wooden box mounted on the wall above us. A cascade of letters fell onto the table, and at her encouragement we began sifting through and reading them. As we did the perpetual music changed from instrumental to a song sung by a young man. The White Queen settled on one letter in particular, one from an envelop with the stamp of the Red Queen on it, and she began to read it out loud. “My beloved,” she read. “I saw you with her again.” She continued reading as she stood and indicated for us to follow her.
She read the letter out loud as she led us up the stairs to the second floor. The letter, a love letter wrought with jealousy and longing, eventually synchronized with the words of the song playing above us, and by the time she led us into a small bedroom, the final words of the letter perfectly matched the plaintive lyrics. The song ended, the letter ended, and the White Queen handed it to the other audience member as she shut the door.
The room was a small one – about the size of my single dorm room at the U. A set of closets and drawers lines one wall, a small desk sat under a window, a narrow metal-framed bed was pushed into the corner along the other wall, with a coat stand at its foot. The White Queen pushed herself away from the door and indicated the bed. “Time for a bedtime story!” she declared.
The other audience member and I looked at each other while the White Queen looked at us expectantly. I sat on the bed, then swung my legs up and laid down on my side, my back to the wall. The other woman laid down on her back next to me. The White Queen turned off the lights so the room was only lit by the glow of the streetlights through the heavy curtain and sat on the stool next to us.
“Close your eyes,” she said. Hesitantly, we did. “Once upon a time,” she began, “there was a girl who lived in a house as big as memory.” She told us a story that was simple and sad, about a girl who lived backwards and who fell in love in reverse – at the beginning of the relationship, she knew everything about the boy, but by the end she had forgotten all. I peeked a few times at the beginning, unable to keep my eyes closed as I lay there on a strange bed in a strange room next to a stranger; but I found myself easily slipping into the comfort of listening to a new story from a soothing voice in a dark, quiet room.
The story ended, and I lay there with my eyes closed listening to my neighbor’s breathing and matching my own breaths to hers. Then the White Queen snapped on the lights, “Time to wake up, Doormouse!” and disappeared through the door, closing it behind her.
Later, the white rabbit left me in a room with a cabinet of curiosities and a writing desk. I had just discovered a box of quill pens in the back of a drawer when Lew Carroll entered. He looked at me, I looked back at him. “Do you take dictation?” he asked, indicating the quill in my hand.
“I can,” I said.
He shut the door, crossed to the desk, and pulled out the chair. Upon his gesture I sat, and he handed me a piece of thick cream-colored stationary and a silver pen from the stand on the desk. Then he moved away from the desk, standing with his back to me, hands clasped behind him. “My darling,” he began. As he spoke, I transcribed and he paced between me and the door. Halfway through he paused and held out his hand for the letter. I handed it to him and he read it, then nodded curtly at me and said, “Follow me.”
He led me around a corner and down a short hallway. As we walked, the floor turned from worn carpet to wood to planks laid over a pool over water. I followed Lewis Carroll around corners on this boardwalk into another small room with a large purple easy-chair in one corner on the boardwalk, and another across from it in the water. He indicated that I should sit in the former, then handed me back the letter. It was now clipped to a board, reverse-side up to give me a blank page to continue on. He resumed his dictation and I continued writing. This time as he spoke, he removed his shoes and socks, then rolled up his pant legs. As he finished the letter, he took it from me once more, and again read it over as he stepped into the water and crossed to the other chair. He sat, the water lapping at his ankles, and pulled a small glass bottle from his coat pocket. He twisted up the love letter, inserted it into the bottle and sealed it with a cork before tossing it away from him into the water between us. That was when I noticed the other bottles of letters bobbing in the water under the edge of the wooden planks.
Near the end of the show, an orderly led me back to the staircase from the beginning. This time we walked down the hallway that ran alongside the stairs, and she paused when we reached a door and indicated an opening under the stairs. “Sit down,” she said. I found that there was indeed a chair there in the darkness, and I sat in the little black-painted cubby space, facing out. “Wait here until someone comes for you,” she instructed, then she opened the door to reveal a full-length mirror hanging on the other side and propped it open at just the right angle for me to see through the mirror into the room beyond. There at the far end were pale blueish-green tiles; a long, white industrial sink with water running into it from long-necked silver fixtures; and on a stool at the sink sat Alice, topless, with her back to me.