At first glance, the only way to distinguish the crumbling Governors Island residence from its colonial neighbors is a small sign on the front door bearing a bright orange question mark — but this is no ordinary house.
Free and open to the public every weekend during summer, the Surprise House is one of the latest projects to take advantage of the island's growing public programs. An immersive, multi-sensory “experience,” each room has been designed to appeal to the viewer's curiosity. It’d be cheating to reveal much more — just think of it like a haunted house without the haunted, where cheap tricks or tawdriness have been replaced with down-the-rabbit-hole delights. It's the work of New York consulting company Surprise Industries, who took up residency inside House 7A last month.
“We want people to feel like children again, exploring and discovering every nook and cranny,” says Surprise Industries co-founder Tania Luna.
Although the concept is similar to other immersive theatrical experiences like Sleep No More and Then She Fell, there are no actors or behind-the-scenes goings-on in the house. People enter in groups of five or six and are left to explore at their own pace. Luna says she didn’t want the house to feel too exclusive. “A lot of similar experiences in New York are built up because they’re so hard to get into,” she says. “We wanted our house to be accessible.”
To achieve this, Luna enlisted the help of NYU grad school student Adrienne Carlile. Carlile is currently studying theatre costume and set design — unlike her previous projects, this one called for an environment people would feel comfortable touching. “On stage, you work with actors who are told very clearly, ‘Do not touch anything unless it is your prop,’” Carlile tells me on the day I visit the house. “This is the exact opposite. I had to find objects that appeared delicate without looking off-limits.”
It’s a testament to Carlile’s skill that it takes a while to for this to sink in. It took me five minutes to shake off my initial reverie, and another five before I found the courage to reach out and tentatively poke something. Curiosity and exploration is vital; sometimes, you can only leave a room once you’ve found the door to the next one. Celebrating this kind of ambiguity is one of the reasons Surprise Industries exists. “Adults can become too serious,” Luna says.
Luna founded the company in 2008 with her sister, Kat. They began curating surprises for small groups with varying budgets — everything from trapeze classes to musical saw lessons. When this became financially unsustainable, they switched to public surprises, charging $25 a head, and corporate team-building activities for private companies. Last year, they learned of plans to give abandoned houses on Governors Island — once officers’ homes during the island’s days as a military base — to different artistic and cultural organizations to create free public programs. They applied, and were granted a summer residency.
Although the houses are free, some have been abandoned for more than twenty years. Luna, Carlile and Surprise Industries director Carolyn McCandlish spent a week peeling crumbling plaster from the walls before they could officially move in. They used money raised during a Kickstarter campaign to buy furniture and props.
Luna is waiting for me on the porch when I finally wander out. She asks for my thoughts.
“I think I need some time to process everything,” I say, truthfully.
She smiles. “Everyone says that.”
Surprise House, located at Nolan Park, No. 7A on Governors Island, is open every weekend from August 16 to September 14 from 1pm-5pm. Cost: free.