The actress is playing the character and is in the audience, behind us, next to us, in there, and its dark, and she asks us if we want a cup of coffee. Or maybe she asked if she could have a cup of coffee.
There you go, artists, this can be a little bit of insight into what an audience member might remember months later.
Something about coffee to start off with. Set a good tone. If it were me producing this particular event, probably a good chance I'd have distributed actual coffee at that point. But I wasn't and they didn't. That's fine. Still set the tone. If I was producing it, I might have had to pee later in the play and spoiled the momentum of my audience experience.
So in essay on something I liked in the past year, including why I liked it, what I liked about it, I pick Chimera by Deborah Stein & Suli Holum, by the Workhaus Collective, at the Playwrights Center.
Chimera was pretty multi-media, creative video and interactive projections, one might call it artsy. Which is fine, but not a criteria for judgment.
I remember really liking The Count of Monte Cristo on the Showboat a few years back. Like Chimera, it compelled me not to fidget, and as an audience member, made me feel like I was cast in the experience.
The rules of this essay are name your criteria, so here you go:
- I forget to FIDGET
- Audience becomes part of the experience
One, I'm really fidgety, so its true I ALSO like when the theater/audience framework is set up to allow fidgeting, moving around, going to sleep. BUT the criteria I'm using here is being engaging to the point where I forget to fidget. Of course this can happen sitting in a row in a seat, but extra points if I'm allowed to fidget and still forget. (On the other hand, yes, I may tend to judge poorly theater that takes for granted that an audience will sit still and pay attention for two hours, 90 minutes, 10 minutes just because that's how an audience should behave.)
Two, I'm NOT talking about audience participation. I think audience participation should be used judiciously and to a purpose. But I like theater where you can tell the actor knows you're in the room and appreciates it. You may not be a specific character in their world, but you're welcome in it, part of it on the molecular level. The actor may or may not talk specifically to the audience as an audience, but you're subtly included all along the way.
In this case, the coffee opener was a nice breaking of the ice. I don't remember any particular bustle in the audience, talk back, commentary or moving around. But it felt like permission. Its cool, we're all in the same room, lets do this thing.
After I got over my own pre-conception (well I would have passed out actual coffee, la la la, du du du), I settled into a steady, slow unfolding of a story. The writing, pacing, very precise physical acting all supported a tone of “I've got something to share with you... but I'm not quite sure how to share it.” It set up a tease that made me interested to know more, and sustained the momentum of knowing more, but, again the pacing, slowly, steadily – so my curiosity felt supported, like I could come along for the journey. Time even where my mind could wander, follow a thought sparked by the words and action, wander into my own experience and back again, oh yeah, this is where I am, that play about having a twin living inside you, cannibalizing DNA or some such something.
If I remember correctly, Chimera was in that 90 min or less category that a lot of performance falls these days. But if you're meeting the first criteria of Forget to Fidget, I'm fine with 3, 4, 5 hours. One of my favorite, fondest early-in-my-Minnesota experience was Generations of the Dead in the Abyss of Coney Island Madness at Penumbra, which I'm pretty sure clocked in over 3 hrs, and I so did not want it to end, not even a little bit of fidget. Chimera didn't have to end either, but it was fine, I think it was the fine length of time for that experience.
Here's the fun part though, happens in a lot of plays I really like, when Chimera was about 3/4's of the way done, I was done. I felt like I heard enough of the story, got enough of what the character was trying to tell me about, on the left side of my brain, let's say. But it didn't end. Risky.
Might have made me mad if it just spent another 15 minutes for an informational recap or sentimental holding onto the moment.
Technically, as I recall, Suli maybe went behind a scrim and there were projections. I don't know what was said content-wise. As I said earlier, the multi-media, projections, design were fine, I felt like they supported an excellent script, performance and didn't get in the way.
But maybe I'm wrong, maybe at the end there were NANO-bots involved. Because toward the end, the play got inside of me, I felt conscious of and curious about my cells. I went beyond getting the story the character was telling to feeling the unsettling question of who you are on the genetic level.
Something like that. I don't want my skin—well, really my cells—to crawl every time I go to see a play, but for this play, that's what it was about, so, hell yeah, make me feel it.
Afterward my date said, “You must have really liked that, you didn't even FIDGET.”