I’m the sort of person who really enjoys stand-up comedy but hasn’t ever been to a live show. Beyond the dearth of time and money, it’s much more comfortable to watch from the safe distance of a screen where if I get tired or bored or offended I can easily toggle away. To do that in a live show I’d have to physically walk out which, whether I left in a huff or not, would be rude and draw too many eyes (and maybe even some humorous heckling from the comic).
So it goes with all shows. The screen, of course, offers the greatest anonymity and free escape for the audience, but traditional theatre-going also offers the audience a lot of padding. You are in a large group that is physically separated from the story telling space and your interaction consists of watching, laughing (or not), crying (or not), clapping (or not), and discussing it over dessert afterwards.
Theatre that asks more of us than we are used to giving, that strips us of our herd and places us in a position of being seen rather than just being the one who sees is a little scary. I can see why some people avoid non-traditional theatre. A show I recently attended may convince you that you shouldn’t.
The play, A Brief Waltz in a Little Room, is a series of short pieces on a theme that the audience of 10 people experiences individually as they move in different orders between 10 rooms the size of a dressing room (their function in a previous incarnation). Some contain an actor playing a scene but many are installations that flesh out the story or further place us in the role of the main character, Walter.
We went into each room twice and the play’s creators did something so lovely with that–we got to experience several locations entirely on our own as a bit of a break from the intensity of the play before discovering them again in the context of the story. This practice served as a rest/release for the audience and also added such a profound layer to the subsequent scenes as, more than we ordinarily would, we brought our own experiences and memories (distant and very recent) into the scene. It made those scenes so beautiful and emotionally engaging.
Throughout the piece there is a lot of attention paid to the audience’s experience and how that informs the storytelling. The actors are very careful to ask you before engaging with you physically (like putting a costume piece on you) and let you establish your own space and how close you will be so even the one scene that is very in-your-face is oddly comfortable. Well, comfortable isn’t really the word for it, but I trusted the actor. And I don’t generally trust strange men standing between me and the exit. This is the main reason I think you should give the play a try even if you don’t generally go for this sort of thing. They have taken pains to make this a safe space for the audience and because we feel safe we can experience the storytelling in a totally unique and engaging way.
This is the point in the review where you need to stop if you haven’t seen the play yet and come back when the next few paragraphs are no longer total SPOILERS.
Where to get your tickets: Sackerson.org
Ok, so now that the room is populated only with People In the Know, I’ll tell you about the two experiences in the show that impacted me the most. Part of the impact was not knowing they were coming so that’s why I sent the other folks away (seriously! Go see the show and come back. It’ll mean more to you.)
The first was when I was in the chapel with Walter’s daughter. I was immediately impressed with the idea that not only was I having an up-close view of her, she was having an up-close view of me. I sat next to her and thought about how I was simultaneously Walter and myself in those few minutes so I tried to give her the attention and love I would give my own child if she was saying those things to me. By the end I felt I had to say something. The music was playing and I was supposed to leave. But as a mother and as a child with her own unfinished business I couldn’t just walk away. I thought about what I would say if this was my child and what I would want my father to say if I had been in this daughter’s position. I stood up and as I was walking out I turned back to the actor and whispered “I’m sorry.” Because of the place I was coming from it was loaded with meaning for me, but I was shocked when the actor’s head snapped up and tears were forming in her eyes. I have no idea what her side of the equation was but for me it was an electric moment of connection. That was the moment the play became something I was feeling more than I was watching. I became even more of a participant rather than an intimate observer and it resonated fully.
The other room that had a stronger impact on me was the bathroom. I loved the concept but was wary of the camera on the first time through and when I landed in the bedroom before my second trip to the bathroom I was seized with a bit of horror at seeing footage from the bathroom projected above me. And I hadn’t even written my worst secret on the wall! Actually, I didn’t even fully write the secret I wrote because I decided it would be misinterpreted so I didn’t finish the sentence and added another clause that made it nearly unrecognizable. Still, though, I truly felt that mortification of being caught in my secret for a moment or two.
Then I laid there and enjoyed the pontifications of my fellow audience member. My favorite part was when she said, “And that’s all I have to say” and then turned back a second later with “Actually, it’s not…” I greatly regret not going up to her after the show and giving her a hug. She was delightful! Seeing that, though, made me acutely aware when I entered the bathroom a second time that I was being watched. I could only choke out two sentences before turning away from the camera and I was glad not to know who was on the receiving end. The encounter had really brought home the feeling of secret keeping and being exposed.
I could go through each room like this–the quiet intimacy of the car, the sweetness of the clementines under the stars, the stark isolation of the phone messages, the uncomfortable fracturing of the mirrors (a beautifully jarring backdrop for the moment of love and acceptance), etc. The play was truly a sampler of storytelling and each pass brought us closer to the core–not the core of the play, but the core of ourselves.