Making Theater Personal

Two recent posts tie into something I’m extremely interested in: breaking down the weirdly formal atmosphere that accompanies most theater.

I’ve worked front of house quite a bit — taking tickets, working concessions, standing around not doing much of anything (a.k.a. “ushering for a large theater”) — and always went out of my way to engage with the patrons.

I may have picked it up from M, who, when we ushered together, once noticed a woman running in seconds before the doors were about to close and took a moment to smile and say, “It’s okay. You made it.”

You could see the woman make an instant mental shift from her awful commute to “This is a fun night out,” with two seconds’ worth of a genuinely human connection.

As a patron, I find I have two distinct experiences. At the cool little indie theaters, there’s generally a festive atmosphere, a cheap beer, a community of people who know each other, and oftentimes a member of the cast taking tickets, selling drinks and handing out programs.

The play starts and hey, there’s that guy who sold me Two Buck Chuck, and now I’m pulling for him because he seemed like a nice guy and gave me the broken cookie for free.

At the larger institutional theaters, on the other hand, I’m usually the youngest person in the room, surrounded by a bunch of strangers all quietly staring at the closed doors and waiting for them to open — not unlike my experience in the elevator at my grandmother’s nursing home.

That’s why Travis Bedard’s experience at Robert Faires’ one-man Henry V struck a chord:

On arriving at the OffCenter and receiving my complimentary champagne… I was informed that I would be seated. This is odd for our fringe spaces, but what the hell… not my show. I waited. And Robert greeted me and showed me to a seat of his choosing.

On setting out to perform a one man version of Henry V, Mr. Faires wasn’t pacing out back trying to find his inner Dionysus, cramming scene 4, or opening his 4th chakra, he was personally greeting and seating all 60 of his guests.

Did he then run out back to compose himself 10 minutes before curtain? No. He simply stepped on stage, surrounded by 20 of those guests, adjusted his props and began when his lights shifted.

If you want to do plays that “emphasize the liveness of theater,” this is where to start.

Why? Well, Ken Davenport says it’s because we have a “natural instinct to want to interact . . . especially with things put on display. It’s so much of the majority’s curiosity that we have to put up signs telling us not to, when it’s not appropriate or not safe.”

I also went to see a show on Sunday. This show took advantage of our natural curiosity and had actors handing out programs, had the star talking to the audience, and even had a couple of audience members on the stage. And a better time was had by all as a result.

It’s simple, and not ground-breaking, but it works every time. Why? Because it’s part of who we are.

We want to feed the animals.

Look, not every show allows for this kind of stuff. I get that. I can’t imagine helping to sell beer and hand out programs and then flipping a switch and starting to play Hamlet. Then again, I wouldn’t have imagined helping to seat people and then flipping a switch and starting a one-man version of Henry V.

The point is…well, the point is what Travis said:

That, my friends, is what we should strive for in the aura around our storytelling, that personal touch. That will curtail the feeling of entitlement on both sides that enables the behavior that we bitch about at the bar and keeps them from showing up in the first place.