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Up Close And Personal: Introducing Intimate Theater

Jan 1, 2012
Originally published on January 2, 2012 3:15 pm

Theatergoers are used to being anonymous, hidden in the darkness, part of a crowd. They're free to fidget, yawn, even tune out; the actors won't know. But in an innovative kind of theater popping up at fringe festivals and independent venues the spotlight shines on the audience.

Intimate theater relies on tight spaces and unconventional stages to collapse the distance between performer and viewer.

Take a Melbourne performance that takes place in a taxi. In this tiny theater, the audience (all two of them) sit in the back. In the front are the actors: a driver and his various passengers

Actress Anna Marais plays a particularly disagreeable passenger. She says that since the action occurs in such a small space, there is no escape. None for the audience, and none for the actor.

"There's an intensity to this, feeling someone so close behind you. It actually heightens the stakes for the actor."

Intimate theater can be experienced in Melbourne and Sydney, Edinburgh and London, New York and Montreal. Small dramas unfold in offices, elevators, hotel rooms and theaters built just for two.

In Times Square recently, a short play was staged in a red plush booth about the size of an office cubicle. The project is called Theatre for One, and its creator Christine Jones, a Tony award wining set designer, drew inspiration for the booth's design from other small spaces — peep shows, confessionals, even Maxwell Smart's cone of silence — studying what kinds of spaces were conducive to intimacy.

New Yorker Rick Kaye attended Theatre for One, even though he normally hates audience participation. But when actor Dallas Roberts reached over to take his hands, Kaye went with it.

"It felt very, very real. I sort of forgot this was an actor doing a monologue. It felt like someone was just telling me something, like being in a therapist position."

Kaye says he communicated with the actor only through body language and eye contact. But sometimes in these intimate spaces, audience members feel compelled to speak up.

Performance artist Sarah Jane Norman describes how one woman responded to her one-on-one show, "Rest Stop," in which she leads an audience member into a dark space, lit with fairy lights, lies down with them and spoons them silently.

"In the first performance," Norman says, "A woman came and lay down next to me and said, 'Oh, you are so smart to come up with this. I haven't done this in such a long time.'"

At first the staged performance — snuggling so closely with strangers, "giving and receiving" — may sound more like foreplay than theater. But Norman says nobody has ever tried to make the encounter sexual. What does happen, she says, is that thank her — profusely. And corny as it sounds, some laugh. Some cry.

"There's a very pronounced sense of melancholy in a piece like "Rest Area," Norman says. "It's about a deeper sense of loneliness that all of us experience."

And when her work is criticized for being too touchy-feely, for being therapy in the guise of theater, she responds, "Theater is therapy," and profoundly healing whether for a huge crowd, or an intimate audience, of one.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Usually when you go to see a play, you're anonymous, part of a crowd. The actors can't see you in the dark. You could even nap for a while, they'd never know. But none of that is true in the type of theatre we're going to hear about next.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It takes place in small spaces for small audiences, sometimes as small as one. Intimate theatre is taking hold at fringe festivals and independent venues around the world, including Australia where Neva Grant starts her report.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES)

NEVA GRANT, BYLINE: It's a dark night in Melbourne and we've just gotten into a taxi. It's also a tiny theatre. In the back seat is the audience - all two of us. In the front are the actors, a driver and his passenger, who is directing us into a deserted park.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: There's nothing through here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Just a bit further.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: But you can't take the car through that, man.

GRANT: The two actors are so close you can hear them breathe.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Acting) Please, shut down the engine.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Acting) No. You want me to just sit here and wait?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Acting) It's the serenity. Please, that's all I need. Two, three minutes, maybe.

GRANT: This is a play about the demanding and difficult people that a single cab driver has to deal with in a single night.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Acting) Lady, sorry. I'm on break now. I can't go anywhere.

ANNA MARAIS: (as Passenger) You - oh no, I'm sorry. Excuse me. Your light was on which means you're taking passengers. So get in the car and let's go.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Acting) No.

MARAIS: (as Passenger) Chop, chop - in a hurry.

GRANT: That passenger is played by actress Anna Marais, who says because this play unfolds in a tiny space, there is no escape. None for the audience, none for the actor.

MARAIS: It's almost that you can't really - you can't be bad.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARAIS: You have to be good, because the audience is right there. I mean I know that's the case I guess. But I think when there's a distance from the audience, you can separate yourself more. And you feel a bit more cocooned, in a way, on a stage. But I think there's an intensity to it, of really feeling someone so close behind you. It actually - it heightens the stakes for the actor.

GRANT: These intimate plays are flourishing on the fringes of theatre and beyond - in Melbourne and Sydney, Edinburgh and London, New York and Montréal - small dramas play out in cars, offices, elevators, hotel rooms, and theatres built just for two.

DALLAS ROBERTS: (Acting) Hey, you want to see something? Or not really like see it. More like hear it, feel it...

GRANT: This is a scene from a short play staged recently in New York's Times Square. One actor faces one audience member in a red, plush booth about the size of an office cubicle. The project is called Theatre for One and its creator is Christine Jones.

CHRISTINE JONES: As an audience member, you are seen by the actor and your actions and the choices that you're making are part of the equation. It's almost like a first date. Your gestures, your response will have an effect on how the performance goes. And I think the actors feel that keenly.

GRANT: In one play, actor Dallas Roberts sits knee-to-knee with the audience member. But even that isn't close enough.

ROBERTS: (Acting) Actually I'd like to hold your hands, if that's all right. It's not anything weird. I just want to tell you a story and we need to holding hands for it to work, like a psychic or palm reader or a séance...

GRANT: Theatre for One's creator Christine Jones is a Tony Award-wining set designer. When she built the booth for these plays, she considered other small spaces: Peep shows, confessionals, even Maxwell Smart's Cone of Silence. The intimacy creates a mood, she says, that can get addictive for the actors.

JONES: Because, you know, often they'll be performing for a large group and they see somebody fall asleep in the front row, or a cell phone will go off, and they find that this opportunity to be so engaged with the audience member that most seem to find it quite intoxicating.

GRANT: And what about the audience? What's it like for them?

RICK KAYE: Believe it or not, it didn't bother me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KAYE: If anything, it sort of made it an even more intense sort of experience.

GRANT: New Yorker Rick Kaye says normally he's the type of person who hates audience participation. But in Theater for One, when actor Dallas Roberts reached out to take his hands, he says he went with it.

KAYE: Somehow this felt a lot safer to me because there was no one else around. We weren't performing for anyone else and it was just, you know, a one-on-one experience.

GRANT: And Kaye says yes, this was a play but it didn't feel like a performance.

KAYE: It felt very, very real. I sort of forgot that this was an actor doing a monologue. It felt more like someone was just telling me something, like being in the therapist, sort of, position. I would even think about asking him a question.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KAYE: But I pretty much steered away from that.

GRANT: Kaye says he communicated with the actor only through body language and eye contact. But sometimes in these intimate spaces, audience members feel compelled to speak up.

Performance artist Sarah Jane Norman describes how one woman responded to her one-one-one show.

SARAH JANE NORMAN: And I remember in the first performance, a woman came in and lay down next to me. And she just - she was just like, Ah, you are so smart to come up with this.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORMAN: So she said, I haven't done this for such a long time.

GRANT: Norman has performed her piece, "Rest Area," in Australia and Germany. As an audience member you're led into a dark space, lit with fairy lights. She motions you onto a comfy bed, then takes your arms and puts them around her. She doesn't say a word. For several minutes, you just lie there and spoon.

NORMAN: They spoon me first, usually. And then it's evolved over time to include me rolling over and spooning them. And then maybe rolling back. And so, these two bodies are gradually becoming comfortable with each other, and alternating receiving and giving, receiving, giving.

GRANT: This may sound more like foreplay than theatre. But Norman says nobody has ever tried to make the encounter sexual. What does happen, she says, is that people thank her profusely. And corny as it sounds, some laugh, some cry.

NORMAN: I think there's a very pronounced sense of melancholy in a work like "Rest Area." It's really about a deeper sense of loneliness that many of us experience - I think all of us experience probably in some way or another, whether or not we have a designated hugger in our lives or not.

GRANT: Sarah Jane Norman says some people say her work is too touchy-feely to be theatre - it's more like therapy. But to that, she has a time-honored response: Theatre is therapy, she says, whether it's for a huge crowd or an intimate audience of one.

For NPR News, I'm Neva Grant in Sydney.

INSKEEP: You don't quite have to travel all the way to Australia to be an audience of one. Theatre for One, which you heard about in Neva's report, starts up again in New York City in June. You can look during the summer for the portable theatre-booth in New York City's Times Square.

WERTHEIMER: Or to see photos of the booth and other intimate theatres, go to NPR.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.