And You May Ask Yourself … How Did I Get Here?

Abraham Burickson’s Odyssey Works creates daylong immersive performances for an audience of one.

How Did I Get Here?

One morning last summer, Carl Collins, a 32-year-old information architect in New York, was awoken by his clock radio. As he drifted into consciousness, Collins noticed a few unusual things about the NPR program playing. It concerned mapping, his area of professional expertise, and was eerily aligned with his particular interests. Then the radio announcer began addressing him directly, telling him where to go to start his day and what to bring with him. Strangest of all, Collins realized, he didn’t even own a clock radio.

The dreamlike day that followed was the product of months of planning, dozens of artistic collaborations, and one big idea that poet, professor, and architect Abraham Burickson, MFA ’08, has been nurturing for more than a decade.

A few months before his big day, Collins came across a listing on an Internet message board announcing a call for applicants by a mysterious theater company. The company, Odyssey Works, promised the potential applicant “an immersive performance that is all about you.” The performance would be free of charge and would last all day, “surrounding you with extraordinary experiences that take place in your home, at your workplace, and all over the city where you live.”

Fascinated, Collins filled out an application. Questions included, “What are your favorite sounds?” “What is your biggest fear about yourself?” “Would you be willing to be blindfolded?” and “How do you feel about your mother?”

As the designated day of his odyssey approached, he had no idea what to expect. For a fastidious planner like Collins, that alone was a welcome thrill. “How often are we just open to a new experience?” he says, looking back on the weeks leading up to the performance. “We can Google anything—right? I know people that prepare before going to new restaurants and already know what to order before they are seated.”

walk in park16 primer readers

Odyssey Works was born in 2002 through a series of conversations between Burickson and his erstwhile collaborator Matthew Purdon. For Purdon’s birthday that year, Burickson and his first group of collaborators presented him with an eight-hour experience. Throughout the day, he was symbolically killed and then brought back to life. At one point they buried Purdon alive at a beach with only a breathing tube protruding from the sand. After digging himself out, Purdon, visibly exhilarated, tore off his clothes and dove into the freezing North Pacific. That’s when Burickson realized he was on to something.

Since then, Burickson has slowly expanded the project, first creating odysseys for friends, and now for strangers. When he came to Austin to study poetry at UT’s Michener Center for Writers, the project continued to evolve. “It was the first time I developed a whole team from scratch, people who hadn’t worked with Odyssey Works before,” he says.

In trying to explain his work, Burickson often invokes the 1997 David Fincher and Michael Douglas movie The Game. In that film, Douglas’ protagonist gradually learns that his life has been infiltrated by actors and that forces more powerful than himself are manipulating him into dangerous, pre-arranged scenarios.

Burickson emphasizes that while faux kidnappings, arrests, identity thefts, and supernatural intercessions are par for the course with Odyssey Works, his group does not share the sinister approach of the fictional performance company in The Game. “There’s a major difference,” he says. “They’re about pushing people to their limits, and we’re about moving people into new modes of experience.”

For his “Moveable Feast” odyssey in Austin in 2007, Burickson ferried a group of participants in canoes across Lady Bird Lake to an uninhabited island where they were serenaded and offered a sumptuous feast, so long as they abided by the rule of only speaking in the present tense. For another odyssey two years later, inspired by the film Wings of Desire, Burickson filled the San Francisco Public Library with actors in angel costumes.

Those projects encouraged him to dream bigger, reaching further afield for collaborators and seeking out institutional support for his work. Recent commissions include Cornell University, the Brooklyn-based BEAT Festival, and the Zellerbach Family Foundation. These sponsors allow Burickson to create individualized odysseys free of charge for one lucky applicant. He also offers privately commissioned odysseys that go for $35,000 apiece.

Diagram-script of Carl's Piece

Collins’ odyssey was a series of constant surprises—even beginning the night before he expected it to. While he was cooking dinner, a man in a goat mask appeared in his kitchen and threw a pie in his face. “Things were starting to feel a little weird,” Collins says.

The next day, the odyssey began in earnest with the radio program. He was instructed to walk from Brooklyn to Manhattan, where the goat man appeared again and chased after him. As he boarded a subway train and took a seat, the two people sitting on either side of him were having a conversation about mapping and the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, who was doomed to roll a stone up a hill for eternity. As he exited the subway, one of them gave Collins his own heavy stone to carry and told him to walk on foot across the length of Manhattan.

As he walked, Collins was confronted with several scenes that involved mapping, a constant theme of the day. At a park in Lower Manhattan, he encountered about 50 actors mapping the area around City Hall, taking measurements of leaves, buildings, and sidewalks. While Collins was eating dinner in a community garden by himself, the goat man reappeared and forced him into a plywood cage.

The cage was loaded into a van that transported Collins to a forested area outside the city. There, a mix of friends and actors gathered for a pagan bacchanalia, feeding each other hunks of meat and fruit and tying Collins to a tree. They piled tinder around his feet as if to burn him at the stake. But at the last minute, he was granted a reprieve and permitted to join the party. Finally, completely exhausted by a long day of walking, rock-carrying, and dancing, he was blindfolded and loaded into another car, where he promptly fell asleep.

The next morning, Collins woke up in an unfamiliar house and a woman pointed him toward a  typewriter to reflect on his experiences. Energized, he wrote for hours. She then told Collins that his odyssey had ended and encouraged him to find his own way back to his apartment—a three-hour drive away—with no phone, wallet, or identification.

Burickson titled the odyssey he made for Collins “The Map is Not the Territory.” His aim was to gently push Collins out of his day-to-day life, which he spends mostly on the Internet, and into a fuller engagement with the physical world. “Carl is a man who is sometimes so lost in thought that he falls down the stairs,” Burickson explains. “We wanted to get him out of his Carl-ness and into an entirely different relationship to the world.”

It was a day Collins won’t soon forget. “It’s with me forever,” he says. “The creativity that was shared with me has influenced my sense of possibility.”

Being the focal point of so much attention and hard work, Collins says, has been humbling. “After such an experience I wanted to earn what was done for me,” he says. “And I still feel like I’m coming up short.”

For his part, Burickson wants to do even more. “We already start productions months before the day itself,” he says. “I’m interested in getting to a model where an odyssey lasts for an entire year—and you don’t know when it’s happening.”

From top: Carl Collins’ mysterious day culminates in a Joan of Arc moment; a scene Collins encounters while walking through the park; a detailed map of Collins’ odyssey.

Photos by Ayden L.M. Grout

 

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