Imagine this for a moment: What if everything about today was curated just for you? Who you meet, what you see, even how you feel? Everything, including this story (with eye-catching phrases written just for you).
That’s the same approach taken by Odyssey Works, a group of artists based in San Francisco and New York. They make long-form, immersive theater productions that can last anywhere from eight hours to several months -- and they do it all for an audience of one.
Recently, an email from Odyssey Works arrived in my inbox, asking me to show up at the De Young Museum on a Saturday at 2:45. It said to come wearing all black.
It was an invitation to take part in the group’s latest production, along with the 40 or so other people who’ve arrived. By the time we’re all assembled on the day of the event, we’ve still received no hints as to who the production is for, except for this: she’s the type of person who could sit in front of a painting for an hour.
The email said the artists were interested in seeing if a group of strangers could spend that hour with her, emulating her typical museum experience, with the De Young as our setting. That’s where I am, with the other “extras” in attendance, about to take part in a uniquely different kind of museum tour.
The participant in the day’s Odyssey -- a performance created and curated just for her -- is Darian Turner. This moment we’re anticipating is one of the final, culminating scenes in her day-long adventure.
Turner is an artistic type. She also has a business side, and is working as an office administrator. She’s conflicted by this. She refers to the more adventurous side of her personality as "Dare".
“Dare tends to be a little bit more out there, if you will, and weird,” she says. “[She’s] ready to talk about ideas and excited by the world in a way that Darian just isn’t.”
And Dare has had a dream to start a new kind of museum, one with only a few pieces. Her vision is counter to the traditional museum experience: “Instead of seeing all the greatest hits, and seeing 10 different objects in an hour and then fleeing,” she says, “You might just go and sit with one piece.”
That tension -- between her two halves -- is something her Odyssey pressed upon.
Odyssey Works has been around for more than a decade. During that time, they’ve sent people on a vast array of journeys: They’ve made a participant walk the length of Manhattan, while carrying a heavy rock. They’ve wrapped another in a cocoon overnight -- she woke up the next morning in a field of butterflies. There was one Odyssey where a man was buried alive and forced to dig his way to freedom.
“We study a person for months and months and months,” says Abraham Burickson, the artistic director of Odyssey Works. He says that when it comes to the chosen participant, the team behind productions does its homework.
“We’ve spoken to their mother and their lover and her husband and her wife and her boss,” he says. “We’ve gone to the place where they work and we’ve dug through their house … everything.”
They start with a call for applications. To figure out who they’ll choose for one of their two or so annual productions, they ask people to answer all sorts of questions. Questions like: "Tell us the story of your life;” “How do you feel about your mother?;” “What is your relationship to sexuality?;” “What is your favorite color?”
For some people, the application can take up to 10 hours to complete. It’s a long vetting process of several interviews until the single participant is chosen, followed by months of research into their private lives. But Turner’s a special case, as her production was especially commissioned for her by a friend. She had no idea what was about to take place.
An Odyssey begins
Here’s how her Odyssey started: That morning, Turner was shopping at the Alemany Farmer’s Market in Bernal Heights. She stopped by to visit a friend who sells apples there, who handed Turner a silken pouch.
Inside, she found a coin with ships on it, and Greek letters spelling out H-O-M-E-R.
That’s when Turner, already familiar with Odyssey Works' productions, knew she was about to embark on her own.
That's when five of her closest friends running over to her, yelling and screaming. They blindfolded Turner, threw a blanket over her head, and walked her to a car. Every single one of them wore pink onesies: “Everyone in the farmer’s market probably thought we were psychotic,” says Turner.
In the car, Turner’s friends chatted about baby nieces and nephews, and their sense of childlike wonder -- a mundane conversation crafted specifically for her to take note. When the group arrived at their destination -- a fenced off, rundown area covered in broken glass -- Turner’s friends pulled off the plywood and waved her inside.
She found herself in an abandoned rose garden, one neglected for years. Inside, her friends had set up a picnic, and each shared something they’d prepared for Turner. They ate persimmons, her favorite fruit, and one friend read Oscar Wilde, whom she loves.
The picnic was followed by instructions to head to a cafe. On that walk, Turner began to question the nature of reality and that of production. The stranger by the bikes -- was he a plant? Perhaps the man walking the dogs was here specifically as a part of her Odyssey. Meaning and purpose seemed everywhere. “[It] makes you question the reality of everything,” Turner says. “Or the wonder of everything.”
At the cafe, Turner was met by another friend, and the two walked to a nearby firefighter training facility, in the Mission. That’s when they began to play a game, looking at each of the windows of the building. For each one, they thought of things they would save from a fire.
Instead of what seemed like the most obvious first choice -- her laptop, with all her work files -- Turner chose her grandma’s handkerchiefs.
“That was a very weirdly eye-opening experience,” she says, “in that I chose things that I didn’t naturally think I would’ve chosen.”
Turner thinks the experience revealed her true priorities, ones that surprised her.
“I was much more taken with the sentimental objects and the things that represented something to me that wasn’t necessarily practical, but was equally if not more valuable,” she says.
For Burickson, these revelatory moments are what makes the months of preparation for a performance worthwhile.
“We want somebody not to just look at what we’ve done and say that’s great, but to go so deep into it that they are part of the work, and that they are changed by the work,” he says. “If the person isn’t changed by an Odyssey Works performance, maybe we didn’t try hard enough.”
And past participants have indeed been changed by the performances. They’ve quit their jobs, they’ve ended relationships -- or instead, they’ve decided to take more risks.
Before leaving the firehouse, Turner’s friend handed her a key with a map, which led her to a house she didn’t recognize. A letter on the living room table told her about a fire in the Mission that took place last year, which consumed this very block and barely missed the house she stood inside. The writer wrote of the one possession the owner of the house took -- what she valued, in case of a fire: a stroller, to get her baby to safety.
From there, Turner was driven to an empty field in Golden Gate Park -- where she found the owner of the house waiting for her. She’d hung up several empty frames, and suspended them from trees. The woman directed Turner to look through them.
“I think I saw my future in a way,” says Turner.
She’s referring to her dream of creating an intimate exhibition, the one with a handful of pieces. “That moment of sitting with the frames proved -- no, this is important .... You need to offer the world a space to think what you’re thinking right now.”
The final act
That bring us back to the initial email I received, asking me and more than 40 others to show up at the De Young on a Saturday afternoon, dressed in black.
What Turner’s talking about -- her dream museum -- is the inspiration behind this Odyssey, and behind this culminating scene in her day: Burickson and the Odyssey Works team decided to let her see what that museum would look like, in reality.
Our job as actors in the scene is to look at art, similarly to the way Turner does herself: she walks up to the pieces, looks behind them, from up close and then from afar. In the museum, we, true to her ideal scenario, focus on only three pieces. We’re part of making her dream a reality.
After the scene in the museum, Turner says she felt an internal shift.
“I walked away from my Odyssey with two words: ‘I’m ready,’” she says. “I’m ready to engage with the arts as my career. I’m ready to explore these different ideas. I’m ready to experiment. and experience, more importantly. I’m not afraid anymore.”
Shortly after this day, Turner quit her job working for a hedge fund. And in just a few weeks, she’ll move to Baltimore to pursue a career working in the arts.
Near the end of the afternoon, I’m still entranced by one of Turner’s favorite pieces, Cornelia Parker’s “Anti-Mass”, and I fail to notice when she leaves the room. But while all of us in black are still absorbed in the work, Turner’s whisked away to the final part of her journey: a party deep in the woods where all her friends will greet her, still dressed in their onesies.
For more information on Odyssey Works, go to odysseyworks.org.