Theater dead in New York? Not quite. If there's a place drawing a crowd--speakeasies, churches, parking lots, libraries, public parks, wrestling matches, museum gardens--count on its transformation into a dramatized zone before too long.
Take the southwest corner of Washington Square Park--host to the furiously athletic Gorilla Rep production of A Midsummer Night's Dream--which has long since abandoned its identity as a paradise solely for skateboarders and dogs. These days, in the ever-competitive and costly world of producing plays in New York City, many local directors and producers are finding the city's nooks and crannies which speak to them, and are developing, liberating, and coaxing theater into existence.
For many directors, the drive to create an outdoor production stems from a desire to create a certain rapport between audiences and actors. "Every night we take audiences and actors and we create one larger thing, a new connection. It's so palpable, you can feel it," says Christopher Carter Sanderson, founder and artistic director of Gorilla Rep. For him, the four to five rows of audience members circling the performers creates "a perfect acoustic bowl." The actors in his productions frequently address audience members as if they were participating characters. "We break the fourth wall," Sanderson says cheerfully, "And audiences love it. You can see it on their faces."
At the end of his senior year at New York University, Sanderson was strolling across the big rocks in Washington Square Park when a vision of a set instantly occurred to him. "I blocked the whole play in ten minutes," he recalls. Gorilla Rep, which also performs in traditional venues, has a mission to bring the highest quality of free theater to people in their immediate locale. Sanderson directs his actors to "blaze through Shakespeare, since it's poetry"--his Midsummer Night's Dream runs just under two hours. This summer, Gorilla Rep will bring Macbeth back to the Cloisters, where last summer they drew large crowds, including many from the museum's neighborhood. They will also stage The Tempest this summer--on a pier.
Brooklyn resident Matt Daniels is an actor who first got involved with Gorilla Rep in the summer of 1997 when he played the King of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. "I was encouraged to play everything out to the audience, thus breaking all the conventions I had just learned at Juilliard," Daniels says. "There's a feeling of euphoria, like riding the edge of never knowing what's going to happen. You see audiences' faces lighting up. Though you lose some subtlety acting outdoors, you do get to know the audience better."
Jerry McAllister, producing director of Expanded Arts, known for their wildly successful "Shakespeare in the Parking Lot" series, attests to the power of theater taking place on the street. "We get kids and gang members who come by to make fun of everyone," he says, "but then stay and watch the play, and come back to watch." Performing Shakespeare's plays on a Ludlow St. parking lot since the summer of 1995, the company keeps the set minimal, the acting intensely clear, and the flow of lines "like jazz. We play with the poetry's rhythms," says McAllister. The lot holds 100 chairs and the shows start at 8 pm. "Last year we got everyone from Shakespeare scholars, neighbors who spoke only Chinese, and tourists from everywhere," McAllister adds.