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March 11, 2010

Please don't tell me when to wear sneakers

OUR TOWN CAST.jpg"It's a two-hour version with no intermission, and it's very action-packed," said Mr. Burdman, who's directing the play. Audiences will be able to get in on the action to some extent by following the show as it moves around the center. "Wear comfortable shoes," Mr. Burdman said. "We've got seven flights of stairs." NYT 3/5/2010

This New York Times excerpt is from a story about a New York Classical Theater production of "Hamlet" directed by the company's artistic director Stephen Burdman. The show is in rehearsal for its opening in April at the World Financial Center, a sprawling space in Lower Manhattan. But the excerpt also tells us a little something about the increasing power of audience participation in live theater - in its process and performance. It's the age of the video games and reality TV, after all, and we want live theater to be engaging not only of our minds but of our bodies, too. We want to be stakeholders in the narrative. Theatergoers and even passersby who witness a sword fight between two Danes downtown should not be alarmed. It's just art. And on the night of the show, you can fully expect to use those comfortable shoes to "get in on the action."

Live theater is now a performance event for everyone!

In Cambridge, Mass., where I live, American Repertory Theater's artistic director Diane Paulus has put muscle into audience participation. Last year, she re-staged her crowd-inclusive "Donkey Show"; it's now running indefinitely in the theater's annex space where nearly nightly crowds turn out to dance alongside the "Midsummer Night's Dream"-cum-Studio 54 disco cast. One addict apparently has seen the show 30 times. (I've been three times.)

Last year, Paulus also produced "Sleep No More," which required audience members to wear masks while walking through three darkened floors of installations, including art montages and live enactments of scenes from "Macbeth" and Alfred Hitchcock movies, in an abandoned school building in Brookline. You could stay for an hour, or for four. With no beginning or end, you could play a kind of theater sudoku, hopping from one room to another to try to find the answers to the question: What's going on here? You could sit on the bed as Macbeth killed the king, or witness Lady Macbeth bathing the blood off her husband's frazzled body.

Keep your mask on, keep your hands to yourself, watch out for the live eel in the bathtub - but otherwise, go for it, Citizen Actor! And if you'd like, take a break in the bar, have a drink and listen to the chanteuse. Many theatergoers went bonkers for the experience and returned to see "Sleep No More" two, three or a dozen times. (My count was two.)

Audience members joyously tweeted about the show - and from the show. They planned birthday parties around performances. They mourned when the show closed. In the end, "Sleep No More" turned out to be the biggest box office hit in the history of A.R.T.

I've seen the effect of both shows and have witnessed the game looks in the eyes of young theatergoers, the bewilderment of some more traditionally centered, though supportive, older attendees.

And I've learned I'm a fourth-wall-loving woman. Some people like hockey. Some people like baseball. Some like cabbage. Some like tomatoes. Just because we love theater, sports and vegetables, we don't have to adore every single manifestation. I'm passionate about theater, but I'm not much of an acting participant or improv talent. Certainly, I can dance to disco, but I don't like to be told what kind of shoes to wear.

I get the audience empowerment scene. But I happen to enjoy taking a break from performing in my own life, and it's a relief to me when the lights go down on my life and come up on somebody else's drama. I'm not against participatory theater. I support it fully. I just don't want to do it. Please, Macbeth, don't mind me - go on with the show.

And yet, there are degrees of audience participation. At the end of Paulus' show "Best of Both Worlds," the audience was nudged to its feet to dance and clap to local choirs singing gospel music. I was OK with that. It was kind of a Puck moment, a built-in standing-O, but with rhythm.

And a few nights ago, I saw David Cromer's immensely popular production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York City. Cromer's unadorned approach - actors in street clothes, no makeup, house lights up - is the longest running production in the play's history with more than 430 performances.

Wilder's homespun understanding of love and death in Grover's Corners is meant to draw the audience closer but Cromer takes it a step further. With the lights up and actors nearly brushing up against audience members, those of us in our seats become a poignant part of the story - our smiles, tears, surprise and yawns are every bit as visible as the actors' movements. The other night, one woman in the front row averted her eyes when an actress stationed herself too close. Another eager audience member blurted out an impromptu comment when the Stage Manager asked, "Now, is there anyone in the audience who would like to ask Editor Webb anything about the town?" (The line is typically taken by an actor planted in the audience, but in Cromer's production, the Stage Manager hands a piece of paper to an audience member to read aloud.)

This is my fourth-wall-breaking kind of theater. It allowed me to retreat into my own imaginative experience without feeling I had to also be part of the action - or, in the case of theater that allows you to amble freely, potentially miss the action. And yet I was deeply part of Grover's Corners in those moments. As I looked around at the other theatergoers and watched them experience theater, I saw myself as belonging to the great audience of life, to the streets and schools and households and, yes, graveyards evoked that very night.

By the way, I'm told that "Our Town," which has no closing date at the moment, will most certainly break the Barrow Street Theatre's record for longest running play.

CAPTION: The cast of David Cromer's production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" in performance indefinitely at Barrow Street Theatre, NYC. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

March 11, 2010 7:22 PM | | Comments (0)

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