Walking Through freeFall’s Fairytales at The Rose and The Beast

July 13, 2021 | By Talia Fish

Through August 29
freeFall Theatre
Details here

As we attempt to enter the world again, I can’t help but feel a little groggy. Maybe Sleeping Beauty on Disney+ is influencing me a little extra today, but it seems like I’ve just woken up from a nap that was far too long.

You know the one – where you feel disoriented and like time itself has run away from you? Maybe you remembered the dream you were in, or one of the many episodic adventures you went on – or maybe you were just left with a bad taste in your mouth and no recollection of what your brain busied itself with while you left consciousness behind.

At freeFall Theatre this summer, they’ve installed an interactive walk-through experience that can only be described as breathtaking. The Rose and The Beast: Fairytales Retold is like being let loose at a playground again – everything is bigger than you and nothing is off limits.

When I took a stroll through this ever-changing storybook in St. Pete, it felt as if I was walking through a dream. Now, I don’t quite remember my dreams once I’ve woken up, but some mornings there is a small timeframe where I can still touch those hazy memories and swear to myself that I’ll remember them long enough to write them down. The Rose and The Beast: Fairytales Retold feels strangely akin to those sleepy, dawn-streaked mornings of holding onto dreams. Sometimes I was the heroine, but other times I found myself as the nosy bystander.

Actor Heather Baird performs in The Rose and The Beast

When I arrived at freeFall Theatre, my party and I were checked in and we got set up with the Zapper app on our phones and some complementary headphones from the theatre.

I must admit, I was thrown for a loop for a moment when I read that I was being encouraged to use my phone in the theatre. Every fiber of my being told me no, but it was also new and exciting. Here’s a quick rundown on how Zapper works – after downloading the app to your phone, you scan the black-and-white code on the wall (or flower, or bed, or ceiling) to reveal the narration for that area. Hidden around each room, every “Zap Code” has a new piece of the narrative puzzle – and there’s no wrong order to go in.

The best part of this experience is discovering where to go next and knowing that you can take your time doing it.

What I’m trying to get across is that this was no regular night at the theatre, I didn’t get to turn my brain off, and I most certainly never met a dull moment. After experiencing the full run of stories, I wanted more. FreeFall’s interactive narrative adventure starts with Eric Davis, the Theatre’s beloved artistic director. Full of reverence for the wonder-filled director, designer Steve Mitchell teases that “what goes on in Eric Davis’s mind is a mystery to us all. If you looked up ‘Enigma’ in the dictionary his picture should be there, but he is too enigmatic for that.”

The Rose and The Beast: Fairytales Retold experience at freeFall is based on the best-selling book of the same name by Francesca Lia Block where she reimagines the Grimm Brothers’ stories. Having been a longtime fan of Block’s work, Eric got the idea for a walk-through experience of the stories in early March of this year and got to work. “Eric’s leadership really allows each artist to be bold and bring their A-Game,” Michael Raabe, freeFall’s resident music director, told me.

Composer and lyricist Michael Raabe with vocalist Ericka Womack and lyricist Amanda Elend

While picking his brain as to how he thought up this spectacular adventure, Eric told me that “once the designs for the rooms were completed, I looked for 10 moments from each story to use within each space.” Now, I know what you’re thinking – 240 pages, nine rooms, and he picked how many slices from each story? It may not seem like much when you think of the number in an entire book, but that’s the point! This experience isn’t supposed to be the full meal – it’s the appetizer that makes you crave more, that ‘more’ being the book.

“Some audiences have a very hard time letting go of the expectation that they’ll be hearing every story in its entirety in a linear fashion,” Eric shares. After all, they’re just fairytales. We know the stories, and their endings – why do we need to hear them in order?

Eric sheds some light, “Our goal in each room is to present our impressions of each story and to sort of give each room the memories of that story. When a particular object is scanned, it yields up its memory from the story in whatever order each person encounters them.”

Just like a dream, you’ve got to give in, to fully enjoy it. And you can’t worry solely about the audio story with a wall full of shattered mirrors in front of you.

The goal of The Rose and The Beast is to create your own experience. While you’re listening to the narration, maybe you look for the next Zap Code you want to explore, or you’re feeling the many different clothes hanging on a rack, or you’re looking at the hand-printed walls and floor, the life-like props, or maybe the mirror comes to life and you’re the only one in your party who catches it.

It’s your experience to craft, and you decide where it goes next.

Director Eric Davis and The Rose and The Beast creative team

I spoke to the three designers who helped manifest this magical experience – Tom Hansen, Rebekah Lazaridis and Steven K. Mitchell. Looking at the rooms, I couldn’t help but wonder about the brilliant brains that designed them (as well as the wonderful and spectacular props masters and set dressers who helped realize the rooms along the way).

Work began with Eric and Tom when they collaborated on designing nine rooms connected as one fluid experience, which Tom compared to a haunted house. “We went through three different layouts and finally decided on the layout that was installed in the space. Coincidentally, a top view of the layout looks like the number 9,” Tom shares with me.

After reading the source material, and sometimes the source’s source material (Rebekah referenced an old copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales “that must have been my grandmother’s because it’s from the 1930s.”), many times over, the designers got to work sketching and 3-D modeling their ideas for the rooms. Tom even turned to his fiancée and her daughter for their reactions to the stories, which “greatly influenced” his designs for the rooms.

Steve looked to modern art installations, immersive walk-throughs, and photos of the forest in and around Los Angeles and Northern California for inspiration. “The really luminous moss greens in those redwood forests and the unsettling nature of the forests overlooking LA, where many a person – especially young women – have gone missing over the decades played a significant part in my feeling for these stories and this author’s particular take on them,” he shares.

I want to highlight the designers’ favorite parts of the experience
as a small preview of what you should look forward to. . .

“I loved working on SNOW. I love those looming backlit blue trees that feel somber but friendly at the same time. Almost like they want to give you a soft hug.” – Rebekah Lazaridis

“I believe painting a kind of block print, pastoral Wallpaper pattern in the TINY room was my favorite thing to attempt. I decided to make a stencil and use rollers to apply the paint. The stencil disintegrated after a few passes, but I finished enough of it to be complete.” – Steve Mitchell

“I would say BONES was my favorite, with ICE in a very-very close second place. BONES, the story, was very descriptive in its physical settings, and I wanted those elements to all work together in one small space. Tilting the giant portrait towards the viewer,  I felt, was menacing and intimidating, bringing some discomfort and intrigue to the room. And if the tilted large portrait of the woman with steel blue eyes staring at you didn’t do the trick, the chains surrounding the room, or the mysterious shadow would definitely keep your interest and keep you on your toes.” – Tom Hansen

“Adding in the music, special effects and songs by Michael Raabe and Amanda Eland transformed the room into a complete visual and audio sensory experience,” Tom writes.

Looking to the duo responsible for the audio atmosphere, we’re met with Michael Raabe and Amanda Elend. Longtime colleagues, they got to collaborate for the first time on this project, exploring both of their lyrical talents. Michael says that “honestly, I don’t recall who contributed what lyrics in certain spots.”

Though they had some wiggle-room, they obviously had to stay true to Francesca Lia Block’s original text. But the real challenge was deciding what needed to be sung. Is it true to the characters? Would they be moved to song? Luckily, Francesca Lia Block’s lyrical writing lends itself very well to being musicalized, as Michael shares. And “As part of this adaptation of her work, we sent all lyrics to her to be approved to make sure they were a true representation of her characters.”

Amanda and Michael wrote three songs for this project, Michael writing the music and both collaborating on the lyrics. But that’s not all – Michael also created additional themes, soundscapes and sound effects to add to the experience and world-building of each room.

Michael leveled with me, explaining why there wasn’t a musical’s worth of songs in this one, “Because you only have so much time in each room, we wanted to make sure the music didn’t overwhelm all the other amazing elements in each room.” While experiencing The Rose and The Beast, you may even recognize the three local actresses interpreting these original songs – Ericka Womack, Alison Burns and Heather Baird.

Arts Coast Journal correspondent Talia Fish and her friend Haley experiencing The Rose and The Beast

The biggest song that Michael and Amanda created is featured in ICE, the final room in this walk-through experience. “The Girl in The Song” has more of a narrative arc than the other two pieces, which serve more as smaller moments within the puzzle. “We put a lot of time and heart into this song trying to match the voice and poetry of Francesca. Ericka really connected to it and knocks it out of the park musically and emotionally,” Michael shared with me. He also tuned me into two other musicians that worked on the arrangements and process with them, Paul Stoddart and Burt Rushing, as well as sound engineer and “genius” mixer Stephen Kraack.

“I’ve heard this described as an immersive audiobook. I think for audiences, this is really a thrilling innovative way to experience a story,” Michael Raabe told me on opening night.

I didn’t know what to expect when I ventured down to St. Pete for this experience, but Michael was right to tell me that, “There is so much detail, care and artistry put into this adaptation. It’s an amazing group of local artists at the top of their game all collaborating together to bring you a one-of-a-kind World Premiere experience in our own backyard.”

What I took away from this night on my feet at the Theatre is that maybe I just need to slow down, look at things from a different perspective, and learn to let go a little in the process.

Not everything happens in order, right? So, why do I stress when things get knocked a bit out of place? Maybe I need things to get knocked around in order to see something I missed.

Walking from room to room, it was truly a wonderful feast of senses. Sometimes a little detective work is exhilarating and sometimes piecing together a puzzle as you experience it breathes life into your surroundings.

Sometimes, though, you just have to go down to freeFall Theatre and experience it for yourself. Running through August 8, you have all the time in the world to escape into your own living dream – what’s stopping you?


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