The ritual of going to live theater is usually the same: you arrive a little before curtain, get your tickets checked at the door, maybe grab a drink or stand in line for the restroom, then  settle into a red velvet seat and wait for the curtain to rise. But at Bottom of the Ocean (BOTO) you will do none of those things. Instead, you will follow a small white neon light outside of Bushwick United Methodist Church, descend the stairs and stop at a large steel door. The door will open slightly, and you will be asked for the password. “BOTO,” you will say.

BOTO is an immersive theater experience from Houseworld Immersive, the group that also created the shows Houseworld and Whisperlodge. Houseworld Immersive specializes in immersive theater for small audiences, allowing for a more intimate experience. BOTO was created by Andrew Hoepfner, also the founder of Houseworld Immersive. Hoepfner first got the bug to start creating immersive theater in 2014 when he saw Sleep No More, one of the most successful and well-known immersive theater shows in the city. In Sleep No More, audience members don masks and explore through the world of the show as a group, but audience members can sometimes be taken into one-on-ones with cast members and truly become a part of the show. When Hoepfner saw the show, he was disappointed to never receive a one-on-one, but then he thought: “What if I made a show that was all one-on-one?” 

Hoepfner enjoys creating pieces for an intimate audience; in BOTO there are only five audience members per performance. This format is what Hoepfner wants for his audience, allowing them to “exist in a different state for two hours,” to “turn off [their] phones and be present.” Hoepfner describes BOTO as a “serene guided meditation,” where “you enter a hidden underworld in Bushwick and five guests are led by three spirit guides through a sequence of invented rituals.” Each individual person will come out with their own unique experience through each room.

BOTO is held at Gymnopedie, a performance venue and arts rental space in the basement of Bushwick United Methodist Church. Hoepfner originally came across the space when scouting locations for his other shows. When BOTO went into development in late 2019, he felt that this was its perfect home. Now Gymnopedie is an eerie, raw, yet beautiful environment, but when Hoepfner and his collaborators first arrived, it was an abandoned basement left untouched since the 70s. They had their work cut out for them, “removing a junkyard of floorboards and rat corpses,” Hoepfner said, fixing extreme water damage and more, all in exchange for the usage of the space. 

Restoring a damaged building comes at a cost. Once Hoepfner and his team were finished, money was running low. That’s when Hoepfner began renting out Gymnopedie, first to some of his dancer friends for a small fee. As time went on and word spread about this unique space, “hundreds and eventually thousands of people wanted to film here,” Hoepfner said. Dancers, filmmakers, photographers, musicians and others have used Gymnopedie in their own unique ways. Not only is Gymnopedie a space for artists in the Bushwick community and beyond, it also serves as a permanent home for Houseworld Immersive’s current and future projects. “The shows that I made in the five years before this, I was in the space for limited amounts of time,” Hoepfner said. A big goal Hoepfner had going into this project was “finding a space where we could make a show and fiddle with it,” and that’s exactly what he and his cast are doing with BOTO.

Providing an audience with an intimate theatrical experience in the world of COVID is a challenge, but BOTO is taking every precaution to keep its audience safe and comfortable. Audience members show proof of vaccination at the door, all cast members are fully vaccinated and you’re never in a group any larger than eight people. There are times during the performance when cast members may request to make contact, but they encourage you to only consent to what you are comfortable with. 

BOTO is currently sold out, but new dates are being added. “We want everyone who would be interested in this piece to get a chance to come see it,” Hoepfner said. And while BOTO is not your typical theater experience, its individuality and fantastical beauty is not to be missed.

Tickets are sold on the BOTO website. Look out for new dates in February and March in the next few weeks.

All images provided by BOTO.

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