On a hot summer night a couple of years ago, I arrived at a certain designated corner in the Loop and waited. After a few minutes my phone rang and the caller spoke to me by name even though we had never met. She patiently guided me down the street until suddenly the doors of the grand Cadillac Palace Theatre, which I happened to be passing, were swung open to me and I was ushered inside its vast, empty lobby. There a woman in an evening gown descended the staircase and sat beside me to explain how to work the special smart phone she gave me as a guide through the rest of my evening. From that point on, the city opened to me in the most remarkable ways as I moved through it: People emerged from alleyways and crevices between buildings to give me secret messages. In a luxury high-rise apartment I found myself climbing into bed with an anonymous stranger. I was driven, blindfolded, down Lower Wacker and through downtown and when the blindfold was removed I found that I was on the stage of another grand historic theater, dozens of blocks from the one where I’d started, with blinding stage lights glaring down on me. This was Since I Suppose, an immersive audio and video tour of downtown Chicago based loosely on Measure for Measure, which was created by the Australian company one step at a time like this, and commissioned by and developed with Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Richard Jordan Productions in 2014.
So when I arrived at Navy Pier on a cold and windy afternoon not long ago for the newest audio-guided tour from one step at a time like this, undreamed shores, I was ready for Navy Pier to similarly come alive once I put my headphones on and started walking. But undreamed shores was a decidedly more atmospheric and solitary affair, a moody wander for one in which, as the sole audience member, I was encouraged to pretend that the people around me were not really there and to move through a world inhabited only by myself and the disembodied voices in my headphones. There was a twinge of disappointment when I realized the pier was not going to become a responsive, immersive, fictional world the way the Loop had two years earlier. I imagined being beckoned onto a gondola as I approached the Ferris wheel and being lifted into the sky. I hoped, as the audio track instructed me to pause near the entrance to a seafood restaurant, that I might be invited in for a specially prepared amuse-bouche. I wondered, as I approached the doors of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, if they would be flung open to me for a special command performance for one in the Courtyard Theater. But none of that happened. Navy Pier had not been stocked with carefully planned encounters and surprises, it remained itself, a place to be discovered and observed as it is. This made for a more furtive and subdued, though perhaps no less strange, experience. Instead of riding the Ferris wheel, I was instructed to lie down on a ledge beneath it and look up at it turning against an ominous sky while the voice in my ear talked to me about the mechanics of the universe.
I remembered then that some of the most effective moments in Since I Suppose had occurred just between myself, the soundtrack, and the city: a pause on a bridge over the Chicago River as music swelled in my ears; the view from a rooftop poolside balcony of fireworks going off over the lake across downtown, tiny but visible; collaged fragments from Measure for Measure enveloping me as I walked down the street. These quiet, reflective, essentially internal moments, when the strategically composed audio overlaid and altered the ordinary environment, recruiting the city into a private and subjective spectacle, best made the case for the unique potential of the immersive audio tour, or sound walk, as a theatrical form. undreamed shores was made up of such moments. Framed simply as a journey down Navy Pier, it comprised a series of opportunities to notice the pier and its environs, including parts of it one might never visit—lovely and decidedly unlovely, both. What each lone audience member made of that journey was ultimately up to each of us. “Take your time,” the person who had handed me the headset at the beginning of undreamed shores had told me, “whatever that means to you.”
Even though it took an abstract, fragmentary approach, Since I Suppose had Measure for Measure as a structure and reference point, but the structural device for undreamed shores was markedly less well defined. Its themes and ideas washed over me along the journey like the concept of water that vaguely flowed through the piece. The voices guiding me wanted me to think about the pier itself, particularly its history at almost 100 years old, and about the city that surrounds it, and about the relationship of that city to the lake it sits beside. And they also wanted me to think about Shakespeare and his time 400 years ago, and how people then thought about the world and bodies of water and the universe and death. And still more, they wanted me to think about aquatic ecosystems, and pollution, and climate change, and the loss of sea life, and the environmental changes evidenced by the water. They wanted me to think about all of these things together—mortality and longevity and relative lengths of time. A walk down the pier of an hour or so is vanishingly brief from this perspective, but it is nonetheless time passing, just as the years that make up my life are time passing, or the 100 years since Navy Pier was built, or the 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, or the 14,000 years since the lake was ice, are all passages of time at the end of which we are each located. When was a long time ago? Before I was born? When the pier was built? When Shakespeare lived? The last Ice Age? And when is a long time from now? What will this all be like then?
It was difficult to put my finger on any of this, though, as I climbed stairs, rode elevators, walked through closed doors, lay down on benches, and gazed out windows. Philosophical musings on facts about the lake, the pier, the city, Shakespeare, and the environment paired with snippets from Shakespeare’s plays—some about water, some about death, some about cities—floated in one ear and out the other. There was a lot from The Tempest, unsurprisingly, though surprisingly not only about water and islands and shipwrecks, plenty of love and death, too; the description of Ophelia drowning from Hamlet, of course; and the Chorus in Henry V envisaging the sails of ships as a city on the sea; but there was also Macbeth at his metatheatrical bleakest. The quotes were tossed in incidentally, riffing tangentially on a particular nearby feature—window, city, ship—as much atmosphere as anything else. Sometimes they washed over me, at other times one hit and stuck, capturing something meaningful between the physical place and my subjective headspace. But the factoids and Shakespeare snippets hardly seemed to be the point.
The point was that the point was the journey. Emerging onto the north side of the pier midway through the tour, I was guided to a particular bollard and instructed to tie a bit of rope I found in an envelope I had discovered secreted in a little mailbox on top of the parking garage half an hour earlier to the chain running along the water. I tied it beside all the other lengths of rope tied there by each successive audience of one who had made their way along the pier before me. I paused and looked down at the water. There was no significance to this sequence of actions other than having gotten to the same point as everyone who had come before me. I found something one place and I left it another, where I saw evidence that others had been there and had done the same thing. Now someone else would come along and tie their length of rope next to mine. No need for a narrative or metaphor, this was life being lived, making connections and hitting milestones and seeing evidence that I am in the world with others, some of whom have gone before me, and doubtless some who will come after. And because I took this journey and was curious and attentive and followed signposts and the advice of those who showed up to guide me along the way, I found many things I otherwise would not have, and saw things that I did not expect to see.
By the time I reached the very end of the pier, I did feel as if I had been on a journey. It was not exactly strenuous, but I had been in motion almost the whole time (I found myself aware of the privilege of having a relatively able body—there were many places where someone with impaired mobility would not have been able to go, and no alternatives were offered.) Reaching the end, I got to sit down and rest and look out at the lake, reflecting on where I was and where I had been. It helped that in many ways I had literally gone back in time, from the shiny new and getting newer layers of redesign and renovation on the west end of Navy Pier to the east end, where the solid brick buildings remain seemingly unchanged from the pier’s original construction almost 100 years ago. It was a cold and blustery afternoon, and the benches at the end of the pier were empty except for me, and the bronze statue of Bob Newhart (check it out)! In the ballroom just behind me, though, an elaborate graduation ceremony for new firefighters happened to be taking place, and young people dressed for the special occasion hurried in and out of the hall, eager to see their loved ones embark on a grand new adventure. Excitement was in the air as the sky darkened and the ballroom emanated the kind of golden light that made me think of wintertime parties, flushed cheeks, warmth from food and drink and dancing, pleasures that could have been indulged at any time during the pier’s 100-year history.
I had reached the end of my journey. I sat on my bench and looked out at the gray expanse of lake and sky and listened as the voices that had guided me all that way asked me to imagine myself, the pier, the lake, the world 100, then 400, years from now. What would still be here? The pier? The city? The birds? The lake? I felt myself fading into insignificance, just a blip on the horizon of all that time passing, a brief jaunt down a short pier, before their voices stopped. I remembered the advice to “take my time” with which I had begun and, as I sat there, looking out at the lake, I felt that was exactly what I was doing, taking time—this time, the only time I had. I remained there, even after I had pulled the headset off and someone had come by to collect it, even after undreamed shores had ended I remained there for just a little while longer, taking my time.
Ira S. Murfin is currently completing his doctorate in the Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre & Drama at Northwestern University. His research focuses on the relationship between language, performance, and media across arts disciplines in the post-1960s American avant-garde. He holds an MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BFA in playwriting from New York University.