Elizabeth Braaten Palmieri had just moved to Columbia from the East Coast when she met Emily Adams.
Adams had recently moved to Columbia from the United Kingdom and shared the same challenge of trying to work as an artist in a new environment. Both were interested in theater, but neither had found a way to channel her talent.
Greenhouse Theatre Project was the result, a collaboration planned over meetings in a coffee shop that became a reality in 2011.
Called a “site-specific theater,” the Greenhouse team finds locations around Columbia from rooftops to yoga studios to fit the stories they want to tell.
“We’re always working in these interesting spaces,” Palmieri said. “That was kind of born out of necessity because obviously we didn’t have a space. We didn’t have a theater.”
She and Adams had spent time in a number of places around the world and knew the kind of storytelling they liked was going to be off the grid.
“That was always kind of what excited us,” she said.
Palmieri and Adams have written some plays and gain permission from other writers or pay for the rights to perform works that are otherwise protected.
To date, the Greenhouse Theatre Project has presented 35 performances, including “A Christmas Carol,” “Macbeth” and “Dark Creation: The Mary Shelley Project,” which Palmieri and Adams wrote together.
The places are staged in various locations around town. Art designers transform each site to fit the theme of the upcoming show.
“We don’t build sets,” Palmieri said. “We choose the space we’re in because of the interesting details they give us, and then I hire artists to help elaborate.”
Mary Shelley’s classic “Frankenstein” was performed in a building with a series of studio rooms. Palmieri hired two artists to collect bones, body parts in jars and other creepy items to place around the space as Frankenstein himself would have furnished it.
The audience was able to wander through the building while the action happened around them.
“We performed our first piece in an art gallery in town, and it did really well and it kind of just took off from there,” she said.
In 2014, Adams moved back to England to start the Greenhouse Theatre Project UK, leaving Palmieri to be the sole artistic director in Columbia.
After Adams’ departure, Greenhouse began to collaborate with film festivals. In 2016, Palmieri wrote a piece called “Lost Letters,” an interactive, puzzle-solving production she developed with the True/False Film Festival.
“That was a total success, so we started doing more things like that where we were creating performances specifically for either film festivals or certain events,” she said, “but we still have a normal season as well.”
In Columbia, Palmieri has a crew of three or four people, including house manager Kristen Thackery.
Thackery oversees ticket sales on the online platform, communicates with audience members and welcomes audience members to the site during in-person shows with an informational talk.
“I just love that Liz is always bursting with new creative ideas, and our small team of folks is always ready to take on the next challenge,” Thackery said.
Ann Mehr is a Greenhouse member and former art teacher who discovered the company when it connected with Locust Street Expressive Arts Elementary School. She goes to every Greenhouse production unless she is out of the country.
“Their site-specific idea actually turns the venue into one of the characters,” she said. “They interact with the venue in a different way than traditional theater groups.”
Mehr attended Greenhouse’s first performance of “A Christmas Carol” at the Columbia Art League where three people played every character.
“The characters always seem just perfect for the roles. I think that’s a credit to Elizabeth in terms of knowing her play at a deep enough level to seek out just the right characters,” she said.
When the pandemic put a halt on in-person shows, the adjustment was for challenging Greenhouse.
“When you see our work, we’re very physical actors and we like to use the spaces that we’re in. Going from that kind of platform to all of a sudden being on Zoom and having the confinement of this box has been an experiment for us actually,” Palmieri said.
They were able to make the new online environment work very quickly.
When the pandemic first started, Palmieri performed a play by herself in her basement through Zoom. She played a woman who seems to be trying to stay safe during a tornado, yet the plot was much deeper.
She sought permission from the woman who wrote it to perform it on Zoom instead of in person, as it was originally intended. Palmieri said it was a success.
“People basically said they couldn’t imagine seeing the play in person now after seeing it on Zoom,” Palmieri said. “It seemed like it was so much more terrifying that you couldn’t reach out and help the woman.”
The virtual experience has also expanded the audience beyond Columbia, but Palmieri still hopes for life to go back to the way it was soon.
“We don’t want it to be forever, and we can’t wait until the time comes when we can all gather and commune once again and share space when we’re telling our stories,” Palmieri said.
She has a bucket list of shows and guests she would like to bring in and wants to grow the company’s budget, but she’s not in any rush.
“What I’ve learned about this business is it’s all about going with the flow. Things happen,” she said. “A pandemic happens, and if you can’t adjust and reinvent yourself, then you’re just not going to make it. I just want to keep the good fight going.”