Historic Lippitt House is the star in Strange Attractor’s latest piece, “Back to the Work”

No matter what subject they have set their sights on, Strange Attractor Theatre brings to it a thirst for knowledge and a quest to understand the human side of a story. Jed Hancock-Brainerd and Rebecca Noon are co-directors of Strange Attractor, and they use what they refer to as a “deep-dive” investigation of a subject to create award-winning and intelligently crafted experiences that often defy categorization. Last summer’s Sea Pageant was a one-day, all volunteer 100-person dance performed on Newport’s First Beach during a solar eclipse. Their touring show Sans Everything set Shakespeare on a spaceship in a frighteningly automated future. School House Long House saw the creation of a movable wooden structure built within the RISD Museum.

In 2016, Preserve Rhode Island was looking for a new way for visitors to experience their Lippitt House museum, one of the best preserved Victorian interiors in the country. Built in 1865 for Henry Lippitt, 33rd governor of Rhode Island and owner of several RI textile mills, the three-story building remained in the family for 114 years. Their hope was to focus on the craftspeople who built the 30-room home, the servants who lived in and maintained the lavish interiors and the people who are tasked with the home’s upkeep and maintenance today.

“We had heard about the interesting projects Strange Attractor had done in other non-traditional theater spaces,” Preserve Rhode Island director Carrie Taylor explains. “The idea of collaborating with a non-traditional theater group in our very traditional museum space was interesting, so we reached out. Thankfully they were game to try something new and innovative, but still grounded in the history of Lippitt House.”

The Lippitt House dining room

The Lippitt House dining room

Noon and Hancock-Brainerd are keenly aware of what makes an experience theatrical. When exploring ideas for the project, they concluded that they didn’t just want to perform some sort of historical reenactment with actors: “That didn’t seem right to us.” They also agreed that they didn’t want to replicate the (now) typical experience of going to a museum and having to stand and listen to recorded oral histories. “I discovered that when I go to press the button, I stop listening as soon as it starts,” said Noon.

Through months of collaboration with the staff of Preserve Rhode Island, they created Back to the Work: Encounters with Historical & Contemporary Voices, an immersive experience that featured the Lippitt House itself as the star. They partnered with multi-sensory performance artist Andy Russ, designer Emily Shapiro and Stray Creatives to bring the stories of the Lippitt family and the servants who worked for the family’s four generations to visitors in a way that Noon hopes “feels exciting and makes you want to listen.”

In addition to the historical context, the group has recorded interviews with the people who are currently responsible for the upkeep of Lippitt House. The experience features a timed entrance, so visitors explore the rooms together. While it is not guided, visual and sound cues move guests through the “active” environments within the museum, as well as to secret things found within each room, which help visitors piece the stories together in surprising ways.

“Theater is cool because it asks everyone to pay attention to the same thing at the same time, but that’s always what makes it … boring,” Noon said. She points out that people like the freedom of museums where they don’t have to stay in one place for any length of time. “We are trying to combine those things. Each group that goes through will be different, depending on who you are with.”

Developed with funding from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities (RICH), this collaboration will be shared with other museum groups throughout the country.

Back to the Work: Encounters with Historical & Contemporary Voices opens March 4 at the Lippitt House Museum, 199 Hope St in PVD. The multi-sensory installation runs Tuesdays at 7pm and Sundays at 2pm, Mar 4 thru Apr 29. Free, but reservations are required due to limited capacity. For more ivisit lippitthouse.org or call 401-453-0688.

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