'Conjuring the King' - Trans Actor Stars in Immersive Elvis Fan Experience

Susie K. Taylor (left) and June Raven Romero play an Elvis fan club president in Juggerknot Theatre Company’s world premiere of the immersive “Conjuring the King.” Photo courtesy of Scott McIntyre.

When it comes to extreme fandom, Elvis Presley’s devoted followers have made him the G.O.A.T. of celebrity worship for 70 years.

Sure, the Swifties have an insatiable appetite for all things Taylor Swift right now.  But almost 50 years after his untimely death, the man known as The King fuels a never-ending stream of creativity, including movies (Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” in 2022, Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla” in 2023), books, TV projects, compilation CDs and stage shows (“The Million Dollar Quartet”).

Beginning March 1, and running through April 28, the enduring spirit of Elvis will enter another realm as Miami’s Juggerknot Theatre Company presents the world premiere of “Conjuring the King” in the city’s Little River neighborhood.

Although Juggerknot made its name with various iterations of “Miami Motel Stories,” large-scale immersive experiences set in repurposed hotels and motels, the pandemic forced the company to adapt.

Two editions of “Long Distance Affair” (2020 and 2021), in which audiences watched virtually as solo actors in cities around the world performed; a virtual “Miami Bus Stop Stories” for students in 2022; and the small-scale, in-person solo show “The Blues Opera” in 2023 kept the company moving forward as it tested different ways to produce theater.

Tanya Bravo, founder and executive artistic director, says Juggerknot is workshopping a new large-scale production and expects to do a live version of “Miami Bus Stop Stories” in the future. But for “Conjuring the King,” it’s back to more intimate work.

For a script, she turned to India-born, New York-raised playwright Dipti Bramhandkar.  A five-minute scene about an Elvis fan that Bramhandkar wrote for a showcase at Manhattan’s LAByrinth Theater Company (she is a member of LAByrinth’s ensemble) had stuck with Bravo.  So, the producer pitched an idea.

“What if you had an iconic, complex figure, and a fan club, which is closed and intimate and you have to become a member?” Bravo muses. “Dipti has written such an extremely vulnerable, complex woman, and she’s holding up a mirror to the audience. Why do we become obsessed? What does it mean to be lonely?”

For her part, Bramhandkar calls the brief piece that first intrigued Bravo “the seed of an idea, not even a sapling.”  But starting a year ago, the writer developed a full-fledged play, going back and forth creatively with Romanian-born, New York-based director Ana Margineanu, a Juggerknot veteran who is credited with “immersive concept and direction” for “Conjuring the King.”

“I was less interested in creating an Elvis experience, more interested in creating a fan experience – why in some cases it becomes a huge obsession, what’s that thing that drives us toward being obsessed?  We project ourselves into that mythology,” Bramhandkar says.

Here’s how Juggerknot’s newest immersive event is structured.

Every Wednesday through Sunday during the show’s run, an audience of 15 people will gather outside a “secret” location (you’re sent the address once you buy your ticket).  A woman named Avery welcomes you into the Miami Elvis Fan Club, a place bursting at the seams with Elvis memorabilia. The evening follows Bramhandkar’s script but necessarily includes some improvisation as the actor interacts with audience members.

Avery leads trivia games, a dance session, karaoke and miscellaneous activities – a Juggerknot show always has elements of engagement and fun – but the heart of “Conjuring the King” is what its title implies.  No one plays Elvis, but as her stories accumulate, Avery (a Mississippian, like the Tupelo-born Presley) clearly makes her version of an icon seem present.

His voice and hits are part of the storytelling, of course.  You’ll hear snippets of famous Elvis recordings – “Trouble,” “A Little Less Conversation,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “That’s Alright Mama,” “Burning Love,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” – a playlist to steep you in Avery’s obsessive world.  Ticket buyers are also invited to dress in the spirit of Elvis, his different eras, his fans, however they interpret that suggestion.

Because Juggerknot wanted to present two shows per night, a pair of actors has been cast as Avery, with each performing one show a night.  Actors Susie K. Taylor and June Raven Romero have appeared in multiple Juggerknot shows, so both know their way around immersive theater.

What’s unusual in this case is that a character is being created around two performers, not one.

“Each brought a lot, so Avery became even more multidimensional than what is in the text,” says their director, Margineanu.  “Susie and June are wonderful actors with different skill sets. Susie is an unbelievable dancer. June is an unbelievable singer. They are two rivers that poured into the same character. Each came and brought to the character their own struggles as an artist, their struggles with being a woman, their personal relationship with loneliness.”

Taylor says that, rather than being competitive in working out how to play Avery, she and Romero are more like sisters.

“I’ve never had this before, two people building the same character; we’re like two different branches of the same tree,” says Taylor. “June is incredibly powerful, magnetic, and she has an incredible voice.  I’m bringing the essence of my performance art work to it.”

Although Taylor has been in three Juggerknot productions, she had never worked with Margineanu, cofounder of the international immersive group PopUp Theatrics. But being in a Margineanu-directed show was on the actor’s bucket list.

“I felt like a pretzel. I knew she would push me beyond [where] I have been before.  She’s the most powerful director I’ve ever worked with,” says Taylor, who believes she has found her tribe in a company largely made up of women. “Juggerknot is the beginning of the immersive conversation here … Tanya is one of the top immersive producers in the country. She’s always ahead of everyone.”

Romero is a transgender actor and community advocate whose professional performing career began in a 2018 Area Stage Company production of “Cabaret.”  She appeared in Area’s “She Kills Monsters,” two editions of “Miami Motel Stories” and is a member of the Pioneer Winter Collective.

“As soon as I saw the script, I said yes,” says Romero of her response to Avery.  “Tanya’s selective in the best ways. I’m lucky to be part of things that are cutting edge. Juggerknot is one of those playgrounds.”

The actor sees similarities between herself and Avery – sadness, social marginalization, glamor, power – but after initially not feeling excited about developing the character with another performer, she has flipped that script.

“We have had fusion rehearsals during the process. It’s like a cheat code to a one-woman show. You pick the best of each interpretation.  Here we are, innovating again with Juggerknot,” says Romero.

Bramhandkar finds the differences in the actors’ performances intriguing and hopes that theater fans who can afford it will try to see both Romero and Taylor in the play.

“June has a profound sense of the different identities Avery has throughout the play, starting with her first fandom. She brought that transformational story to the table,” the playwright says. “Susie connects with ageism, experiences, expectations. Both of them said, ‘I feel like the script is really speaking to me.’”

Though she had never written an immersive piece, Bramhandkar describes creating “Conjuring the King” as transformational.

“Immersive is one of the futures of theater.  It doesn’t hold people ‘hostage.’  It’s much more responsive, more like the digital world. But it’s not just style over substance,” she says.

Style does count, though. Bravo and the Juggerknot team have turned to eBay, OfferUp, collectors and fans in their quest for the Elvis memorabilia that has turned Avery’s lair into a shrine.  Even Elvis toilet paper has a place there.

One surprising query came from an actual Elvis fan club president, who let Bravo know that the vast network of Elvis fans had become aware of “Conjuring the King.” She wanted to know whether Juggerknot’s fan club was registered with Graceland, Elvis’s Memphis estate, final resting place and the mothership of Presley fandom.

“I love that, when you really blur the line with true immersive theater,” says Bravo. “I hope we get a lot of those people coming to the show. We’ve all fallen in love with Elvis.”

WHAT: World premiere of Juggerknot Theatre Company’s “Conjuring the King” by Dipti Bramhandkar 

WHERE: Exact location in Little River neighborhood of Miami disclosed after ticket purchase. 

WHEN: Performances began March 1; shows at 7 p.m. and 9:20 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday and Sunday; 7:30 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. Friday-Saturday, through April 28 

COST:  $81 (includes fee), $112.50 VIP (includes fee, one drink and Elvis swag) 

INFORMATION: 786-757-1986 or juggerknottheatrecompany.com 

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