Taylor Myers’ No. 9 Shows Us How Real We Can Be When Playing Make-Believe

Immersive theater company Roll The Bones debuts a new experience that forces audiences to reckon with reality through intimate conversation.

Director Taylor Myers and visual and sound designer Michale Ryterband felt despondent watching the world becoming increasingly digitized and decreasingly connected. Their new immersive theatrical experience No. 9, now playing in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is an intervention. A response to our always-on culture of eyes on screens, its theatrics are oriented towards harnessing our raw humanity through intimate conversation.

The production starts in a Dead Letter Office, a defunct branch of the USPS that sorts undeliverable mail. ROLL THE BONES/No. 9

The theatrical performance is only one portion of the experience; there is also a working bar and CARGO, the after-hours club in the back. The one thing you won’t find at a staging of Roll The Bones’ No. 9 is a cell phone. Each one-hour show is a unitary take on immersive theater; rather than transporting audiences into an alternate reality (a la Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More), the theatrics take us deeper into what is real.

No. 9 is set in a Dead Letter Office—a branch of the USPS, now known as the Mail Recovery Center, that sorts undeliverable mail. “You are the package,” Ryterband, who manages sound and visual design, told Observer.

When I arrived for my entry time—of which there are three per hour—I received a letter from the inhabitants of one of the show’s environments. I’d chosen 1986 Asheville, North Carolina, during a thunderstorm, but other rooms take ticket holders back to 1993 and Twentynine Palms, California under the stars or to a triple-decker treehouse in 2007 Redding, Connecticut.

“We’re playing with smells, textures, memories, nostalgia and high-fidelity scenic design to bring people into a space of disarmament, vulnerability and reflectiveness,” Ryterband explained. And indeed, we were noticeably in a different time, in an experience designed to “peel the layers away,” according to director Myers, who is the show’s creator and a Sleep No More alum. The 2007 environment is as close to the present day as No. 9 gets, “on the brink of the past, the digital age I think this is all a counter to.”

In my letter, the owner of the house told me she “missed me” and was writing from the porch deck of a new home she was struggling to settle into. The post-office manager, played by Myers, explained that “a dead letter is like a time capsule,” and handed us watches that would eventually beep, signaling the end of our experience.

His performance was the most obviously theatrical moment of No. 9; for the rest of the experience, audience members couldn’t be sure who was an actor and who was real. Most of what the audience sees and hears is improvised. When you enter each space, there is an actor who answers questions, helping to situate you in the environment, but there are also five other people. We’ve been dropped into a strange space. Our objective is to engage in conversation and discover one another.

“It’s joyful, it’s weird, it’s a fucking party,” Myers said. “It’s working through trauma, it’s wondering about all kinds of shit. The only rules are that it is not the same mundane conversation you would expect to have at any other bar.”

Audience members become the architects of the experience. ROLL THE BONES/No. 9

Claire Karoff, No. 9’s head of scenic design, also worked on the team at Sleep No More. But it was after their past work with immersive Roll the Bones’ Galleria Esperienza that they were inspired to continue the company’s tradition of non-conditional immersive theater.

“It’s not all murder mystery; it’s not all sex and haze,” said Myers. “The thing that got us excited was this sort of liminal space where I think a lot of audience members get to exist, where they are invited to introduce themselves and introduce their history, and their condition, and really show up unmasked.”

Back in 1986, in North Carolina, I was welcomed onto a cozy porch deck that guarded us from the thunderstorm brewing outside. The owner of the house, and the only character, offered me a choice of bourbon, moonshine-infused peaches or a Miller High Life. Certain the moonshine couldn’t be real, I took a bite of one of the peach slices soaking in the hooch and quickly realized some things were more authentic than I was prepared for.

A man from Baltimore began quizzing us on what skills we’d bring to the table should we all be deserted on an island. We had a storyteller, a cook and a hunter. One woman told us she could be the entertainment and proceeded to perform a brief rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables. And just like that, audience members were the architects of the experience.

The conversation touched on everything from the bed-bug crisis in Paris, departed relatives and whether love and the heart can abide by the manufactured notion of time. As the moonshine flowed, the conversation became increasingly penetrating. At the start, it was hard to break away from instinctual small talk. “I couldn’t immerse myself in the experience because at the beginning they set the rules so strict that they didn’t give me the freedom to explore the set or the actress,” one audience member told me.

But Myers says it’s not supposed to be straightforward. “If it were instantly easy, it would be a different experience.”

Other audience members clearly came expecting a full performance; some looked around the set, lifting books and boxes, searching for hidden meaning. But the real spectacle was the audience itself. Every twenty minutes, two participants would leave and new people would arrive. “It’s like high school,” Myers explained. “When you get in. You’re a freshman. You don’t know who’s there. Exactly twenty minutes later, two people leave, and now you’re a Sophomore, Junior. Twenty minutes later, you’re the oldest audience member there.” It’s a process of gradual acclimation; we sit in the discomfort long enough to be comfortable with the vulnerability of ourselves and others.

Yet I was left slightly baffled. I wondered: is society so soiled that we can only have honest conversations with strangers by buying a ticket to a discomfiting experience? I found it helpful to think of No. 9 as not just an experience but an exercise. The show trains our brains and bodies to sit alongside one another long enough to break down the self-imposed barriers we’ve built between us. While talking to strangers isn’t entirely an artifact of the past, society is slowly making connecting with strangers in real life more difficult. No. 9 takes us back in time to remind us of the value of communication without digital mediation and urges us to recreate this authenticity when we return to the present.

Drinks are included in the ticket price. ROLL THE BONES/No. 9

Then there’s CARGO, which opens at 11 p.m. and conversely exemplifies everything that’s good about modern-day Brooklyn. Soulful house beats spill into the space as patrons make their way to the dance floor. In the hallways, peep show-style openings give club goers a view of the environments, where actors put on a wordless performance on a loop until closing time.

In one room, a group of three girls in California are drinking and partaking in other more ambiguous party favors. In the other, a couple in Asheville, plays cards, arguing and eventually falling into a passionate kiss and partially disrobing each other in the throws of passion. The crowd huddled around the window frames awaiting the main event: “It looks like the beginning of an orgy,” remarked an attendant before they hurried to the dance floor. “It’s been 45 minutes of foreplay,” said another.

The voyeuristic aspect—a cornerstone of many immersive experiences—was notably present as we peered through the windows into moments so private and mundane that we felt out of place. However, in this case, the scenes did not veer into the sexual and surreal; as time passed, the characters simply became more human, making the experience feel even more intimate.

No. 9, with its bar and club, is one of the most unique spaces in New York City. By integrating candid communication between strangers into theater, Myers and his crew have built mini make-believe worlds that show us just how real we can get.

Taylor Myers’ No. 9 Shows Us How Real We Can Be When Playing Make-Believe