Editor's Note: For the last four years, we've honored the new theater season with a look back at what made for great work in the past theater season. If you enjoy what you read here, please help us pay for more great writing by joining our Indiegogo campaign.
I've kind of given up on sports lately.
I still appreciate the beauty and physicality of the games themselves, but I just can't get invested or keep up with the standings the way I used to. I could point to any number of factors underlying that shift, from disgust at the regressive social attitudes revealed in any number of athletic scandals to contempt for the Vikings blackmailing their way into a publicly funded stadium to just plain not having enough time to sit down and watch a baseball game these days. I suppose I could sum it up as a general feeling that I have better things to do with my time.
The one exception is basketball. I still love basketball. I play in a winter pickup league, practice layups at my local playground and catch just about every Timberwolves game (and some Lynx too) on TV. I've been wondering what it is about basketball that sets it apart for me (other than the fact that it's a sport that unfairly rewards tall, hulking brutes such as myself). I think it comes down to basketball's adaptability. As long as you have a ball and some manner of hoop, you can play some semblance of basketball in virtually any setting, indoor or outdoor, with anywhere from 1-10 people. It's not a game confined to strict rules, designated playing fields or time limits. The beauty of the game can shine through without being tangled up in ceremony or surroundings.
I love live theater for a lot of those same reasons.
It's equally at home in an extravagant playhouse with elaborate sets as it is in a dingy storefront or a city park or borrowed garage. Or in a sweaty living room in Saint Paul.
Packing it in
That was the setting for my first experience with Small Art, an occasional performance series curated by Laura Holway and Ben McGinley that, along with its sister series Small Dances, has taken place in homes and other intimate spaces all across the Twin Cities. This installment was in Holway and McGinley's second-story apartment in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood, by all appearances a lovely, reasonably spacious living area when not packed with several dozen perspiring art lovers.
Under those circumstances, though, the apartment was transformed into something altogether different. The audience piled onto couches, folding chairs and assorted flat surfaces, developing an immediate intimacy necessitated by the setting. The living room became an auditorium and an incubator, a place where the audience could truly connect with the performers as they developed their ideas. Half of the evening's six performances were at least partially unscripted, a perfect fit for a venue where the artists fed off the audience's energy even more than usual. The results varied. Singer-songwriter Kristen Graves' folky acoustic sets were lovely, if less risky than the other acts. Samantha Johns and Lucas Koski chopping vegetables while improvising a slightly testy conversation about eggs was confusing yet compelling. Charles Campbell interviewing a very game volunteer from the audience about topics both mundane and profound was equal parts hilarious, moving and intense.
The stakes were raised when everyone packed up and moved to the kitchen - a multi-venue evening of theater within the confines of a single apartment! - to watch the second stage of Johns and Koski's collaboration. As Koski cooked up an appetizing mess of shrimp tacos, Johns read him a lengthy letter addressing their recent real-life break-up. It was raw, ragged stuff that left both performers exposed and weeping. There were plenty of tears flowing all around the swelter of the kitchen too, and I found myself wondering whether the performance would have elicited the same reaction on a more traditional stage.
Celebrate the ephemeral
That gets at the heart of why Small Art was my favorite theater experience of the past year. The thing that sets theater apart from many other art forms is its impermanence - every show exists only in its own specific place and time and will never be seen exactly the same way again.
It can be easy to lose sight of that when you're watching a polished, professional production on a big stage. When everything goes like clockwork and you're sitting fifty feet from the stage, a play can start feeling a bit like a movie. But when you're right on top of the performers, squeezed in with a tribe of like-minded imbibers, there's no denying that this is unfolding in the moment, a singular occurrence that no one not currently in the room will ever have the privilege of seeing or understanding. That spirit permeated and elevated every moment of Small Art, from the awkward pre-show audience chit-chat to the final movements of Campbell's odd and enthralling closing solo dance piece.
Could the performances I saw at that evening's Small Art be replicated in other environs? Certainly. Campbell and Graves had both performed variations of their pieces in previous venues, and even the conceptual business of Johns and Koski's material could be translated to a more traditional theater setting. They'd be fundamentally the same but - I don't want to say less effective, but perhaps differently impactful?
It's the difference between heading to Target Center for a Timberwolves game and sitting on the sidelines watching a hard-fought playground pick-up game. I'm technically watching the same game in both settings, but one is something I watched while the other is something I experienced.
I'm grateful to have access to both, but give me the choice and I'll go for the latter every time.