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id="article-body" class="row" section="article-body"> It began in a bar.

The experience -- a project called Behind the City -- asks for two people, by name, no more or less per appointment. My friend and I meet down in Manhattan's Tribeca neighborhood, and walk to our designated address, a bar. With a check-in desk. The Macallan logo — the Scotch company that was sponsoring the entire affair — is projected on a wall. Dim lighting pools around quiet tables. A woman types poetry on demand in a glass-walled vestibule. We order cocktails -- provided by The Macallan, of course -- and wait.

We're eventually called up, led downstairs, and enter a basement room past a kitchen where we wait longer, with another pair of people. Photos and unknown objects are everywhere. We're served another drink.

Then, we are led to a massive refrigerator. It's not on. An office is inside. A woman in pristine color-coded clothing that matches the desk is poring through papers. We are given things to hold in a bag. Told a story. I am separated from my friend, and led down a hallway... and here, things get fuzzy. Time gets fuzzy. Now I'm with a stranger, one of the two in the room. We're led up an elevator into the sunlight of the city at dusk, and someone meets us. We're taken for the beginning of a long tour.

Scott Stein/CNET World bleed
Welcome to the world of immersive theater. There is no HoloLens or Magic Leap-style digital headset technology here -- this version of "augmented reality" is much more literal: You enter into a voluntary illusion, an experience where you're both a viewer and a participant. 

It's a world I've been to before, but not everyone has. Unlike escape rooms, self-contained multiplayer puzzle boxes that have spread to thousands of local spaces, immersive theater's best performances tend to happen in larger cities and over short spans of time. In this case, my experience lasts about as long as a movie -- two hours or so -- and extended over several blocks of downtown Manhattan.

The most fascinating shows are easy to miss. VR companies like Oculus are already trying to take immersive theater to living rooms, but the best experiences still remain low in tech and very site-specific, staged in real-world places, decoration and kept mostly phone-free (I turn off my phone during shows).

Created by Third Rail Projects, a New York-based theater company that made the acclaimed and still-running intimate immersive theater piece Then She Fell, Behind The City was an open, relentlessly coordinated work of impossible time bends. I entered rooms in random buildings. Had snacks from strangers. Listened to odd messages. Wore headphones that directed me to places. Sat in lobbies. Stared up from the street into windows where performers acted, and listened on my headphones from below. Plugged wires into strange circuit boards with a group of operatives that claimed to send messages through time.

I went through parts of the real city, waited on street corners and in hotel lobbies for events to happen, had conversations with a stranger, a fellow audience member with whom I walked for blocks and blocks, and who I realized halfway through lived in the same town as me. Moments happened in ways that felt like reality was now in flux. Was that movie theater in the hotel always there? Who is that person across the street? Is my companion a performer, or another "audience" member?

Third Rail Theater Projects In a year where I've seen a lot of attempts at making augmented reality become a magical thing, this theater piece was probably the best augmented-reality experience of all.

The aforementioned Then She Fell, produced by Third Rail Projects and still running in Brooklyn, was -- in many ways -- the best VR I experienced in 2016. In similar ways, Behind The City stands as an amazing and improbable demonstration of the possibilities of realities blending in AR.

"Then She Fell is to virtual reality as Behind the City is to augmented reality," agrees Zach Morris, co-artistic director of Third Rail. The way the performance layered live theater on top of the living streets of New York City, it caused a blend of realities. It bent time.

"One of my co-artistic directors has a great term she calls 'world bleed.' Most of the time you're trying to avoid world bleed, you're trying to build a 360-degree terrarium, and you don't want the outside world getting in. It's a bummer if someone pulls out an iPhone, or a fire truck goes by. We realized early on we wanted to embrace that."

Maps projected on maps: part of Behind The City's experience, in a strange room up a long flight of stairs.

Rebekah Morin, Ethan Covey Photography Funding improbable art
The show's gone now. It ran for just a few weeks, with a limited run of tickets given away for free. It was also a sponsored work, a piece of funded art completely paid for by Macallan.

It was the most incredible, unusual theater piece I've seen this year, and also, maybe, a harbinger of where immersive branding might be heading next -- for pop-up, unexpected, interactive experiments that walk a fine line between entertainment and advertising. The show stood as an impressive experience on its own. Does the fact that it was sponsored infiltrate my memory, in some way? Does my sharing of the experience act as a form of advertising, too?

We're entering a weird world where immersive experiences are being sponsored by brands. It's not even the first immersive theater experience created by an alcohol brand: Bacardi had an immersive theater performance about the history of its rum earlier this year in New York, hiring a Cuban-American playwright to tell the story. And way back in 2011, Stella Artois commissioned Punchdrunk, the UK-based creators of the long-running immersive show Sleep No More, for a free immersive project called The Black Diamond.

Third Rail Theater Projects' Morris explains how Behind The City came about: "The idea was hatched sometime early last year when I was thinking about what it would be like to create an experience with just two people that you could gift to someone," he says. "I loved the idea of what it might mean to create something for just two people."

Behind The City was a performance spanning blocks of New York City, taking place in rooms in separate buildings, hotel lobbies, and performers coordinated perfectly. It was even more amazing because it was intimate, made for miniature audiences of two at a time, like a bespoke performance.

"At the end of the day, we realized that this project was beautifully improbable. Were we to sell tickets for it, they would be thousands of dollars," Morris says of the show.

Third Rail Theater Projects doesn't have current plans to restage the experience, mostly because its scale is so improbable and expensive. But Behind The City might indicate where things could be headed for future performances. "We're interested in exploring different modes in creating work: what are the alternate ways that work might be supported in this cultural moment, especially in the wake of so many of our arts funding being systematically dismantled," says Morris. "We settled on The Macallan underwriting this really improbable project and offering tickets free to the public, and also making The Macallan speakeasy, a gathering place in its own right."

The brand behind the curtain
Getting a brand and an artistic company to coexist isn't easy. Morris said the goal was to "be very transparent about the relationship: they're sponsoring, and the scotch is over here, and the art is over here.

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