When Theatre Gets Real — small

Matt Doyle in Jasper In Deadland (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Matt Doyle in Jasper In Deadland (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

I had the privilege, recently, of seeing Ryan Scott Oliver and Hunter Foster’s Jasper in Deadland. It was a great piece of writing, in words and music. Clever and funny. And it was performed in a great little venue uptown, the West End Theatre, housed in a part of the La Gree Baptist Church.

It got me thinking about how small-scale pieces being performed in intimate venues is often some of the coolest and most powerful theatre I’ve seen.

Mary Testa and company in Queen Of The Mist (Photo: Hannah Oren)

Mary Testa and company in Queen Of The Mist (Photo: Hannah Oren)

Take for instance 2011’s Queen of the Mist, with words and music by Michael John LaChiusa, presented by Transport Group under the direction of Jack Cummings III (notorious for staging shows in intimate and sometimes odd places). It was staged at Gym at Judson, the basement of Judson Memorial Church. This piece had me sobbing like a child all the way through Act II. I can safely admit that this was due in large part to LaChiusa’s score, but let’s be honest, this piece probably wouldn’t have had such an impact on me if Mary Testa hadn’t been pouring her soul out onto a stage 10 feet in front of me. If it had been performed in, say, The Gershwin theatre, so much of that power would be lost.

Transport Group also staged a production of LaChiusa’s Hello Again in a 4th floor loft in SoHo, and for those of you who don’t know the show, the abundance of graphic sex in the musical combined with the intimate staging made the audience’s traditional job as voyeurs about a thousand times more real, and it was that much more affecting and moving as a piece.

I saw a really great performance of Sophocles’ Elektra (my absolute favorite of the Greek dramas) at The Wild Project, presented by Phoenix Theatre Ensemble. It’s another tiny space, a house of 89, and a small stage, where cast members enter and exit through a door stage left. You haven’t seen teen angst and family murder on stage until you’ve seen it from the front row in an 89 seat venue.

Theatre For One's residency in Times Square, 2010

Theatre For One’s residency in Times Square, 2010

Taking it a step further was a mildly recent theatre piece that ran in Times Square for a bit, called Theatre for One, the work of set designer Christine Jones, in which one actor and one audience member sequester themselves in a small box for a performance of a piece lasting ten minutes, completely free of charge.

Intimate theatre has become a very real thing in New York, a place known by the general public as a home for huge musical extravaganzas, made possible in part by the import of the shows of Andrew Lloyd Webber, which are, generally speaking, enormous.  Don’t get me wrong, I think there is a place for these types of pieces, and the thought of trains on roller skates was an early reason I wanted to write for musical theatre, but they are far from the only works causing a stir in the community.

Downtown theatre houses. Off-broadway. Off-off broadway— the works being performed in these venues are nuts, ultra-creative, extremely powerful, and often even affordable. If you’re a member of TDF, these shows are likely available for nine dollars. They also often have generous student discounts, as well as rush policies.

Take a look at what’s new in the off-broadway, off-off-broadway scene, being performed in church basements and what have you. If you can see the performers spitting as they speak and sing, if you can make eye contact with them, if you can feel the vibrations of their movements in the floor below you, you know you’re in for something seriously real.

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