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Creating A More Intimate Theatrical Experience

Shows like Sleep No More, Vincent River, and Elective Affinities are using unusual venues to connect individual theatergoers to the work. logo
Luke Murphy in Sleep No More
(© Thom Kaine)
All that you really need for theater, the saying goes, is an actor and audience in a room together. And whether they're using an apartment, a stately living room, or a converted warehouse that's been redesigned as a "hotel" -- as in the megahit Sleep No More -- producers, directors, and playwrights are expanding the venues they use in order to create works to play to small -- sometimes individual -- audiences.

For example, Hotel Project, which was presented by the Internationalists in February at hotels in New Jersey and New York, took place in three rooms of a hotel that were especially created for the show -- and performed for one spectator at a time.

"People should feel that the performance is for them, not in spite of them, says Tamilla Woodard, a founding member of the Internationalists. "When you're the only one in there, obviously, it's for you. It doesn't exist if you're not there."

A similar sentiment pervaded Theatre for One, which was presented last summer, during which individual audience members entered a booth in Times Square (created by Tony Award winner Christine Jones) for a series of 10-minute performances by such actors as Marin Ireland, Tasha Lawrence, and Dallas Roberts.

Audience members can find themselves alone at Sleep No More, created by England's Punchdrunk Theater company, even though hundreds of people attend each performance. Loosely based on Shakespeare's Macbeth, the show takes place in the 1930s-era McKittrick Hotel (which was created out of several buildings on West 27th Street).

Audience members wear masks after entering the building and may not speak or touch performers, although performers can touch them. They can follow a crowd, or wander from room to room alone, or even enjoy drinks and music at the speakeasy that serves as the show's landing point.

"I tell people to go through Sleep No More by yourself, otherwise it's frustrating, like surfing the web with a friend. You'll argue over the mouse," says producer Randy Weiner. "You might open a drawer, finding some amazing clue about Hecate, and you feel like it's just yours, something that was made for you."

Weiner also points out that it's literally impossible to take in the entire experience in just one viewing. "If you did all the scenes in Sleep No More, it would be a 20-hour play, but it's all going on at the same time."

Being in someone's living room has become a popular way to change the relationship between actor and spectator. In 2006, Ethan Youngerman's The Sublet Experiment traveled to different apartments each weekend, including ones in Queens, Chelsea, and Washington Heights. This past December, the LIDA Project in Denver explored the health care crisis with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, six full-length plays set in various living rooms around town, and starting on April 5, Boston's Theatre on Fire company is set to present performances of Philip Ridley's drama Vincent River in a variety of Boston-area homes.

Zoe Caldwell in Elective Affinities
(© Julietta Cervantes)
Last fall, Soho Rep sent theatergoers invitations for David Adjmi's Elective Affinities, but it wasn't to see a play, per se, but to spend the evening with the main character, a wealthy Upper East Side socialite named Alice, in her living room (actually, the American Irish Historical Society). As each of the evening's 30 guests arrived, Alice (played by four-time Tony Award winner Zoe Caldwell) greeted that person as a friend. "You left me high and dry at that Sotheby's thing," she would say. "Or did Tina get into Brearley?"

"The charge in a small space is transformative," says Sarah Benson, the artistic director of Soho Rep, which presented the play with Rising Phoenix Repertory. While the play had previously been done at London's Royal Court Theatre on a living room-set, Benson and Adjmi both wanted a production that felt as if you were in the living room.

As a result, a living room was painstakingly created by designer Louisa Thompson, down to the smallest details. "There were 25 emails about which teacups we should have," Benson recalls. "It mattered, because the teacups are telegraphing something about Alice's world."

Ultimately, Benson points out, that intimacy can happen anywhere. "What makes theater so specific as a form is that we're all in the same room and acknowledging that," she says. "Still, there is an interest in what can happen in a space that isn't also trying to disappear."

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