published by the Canadian Theatre Review Issue 126
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THEATRE FOR SMALL AUDIENCES by DUSTIN SCOTT HARVEY
I am standing inside a beat-up camping trailer from the 1950’s. This morning, the unit was towed to a secret location on Gottingen Street in Halifax. The interior of the trailer has been modified at one end with a seating rake consisting of two short rows that will accommodate a total of eight people. The section takes up nearly half the space. It is where the audience will sit for the first and only performance of ‘Cowboy Show’- the second production in the Theatre For Small Audiences series. The floor is littered with peanut shells. I am outfitting the rear wall with an American flag when a young actress pokes her head in and abruptly and asks, ‘Is this the secret play?’ I tell her it is. ‘I won’t be able to make it’, she says, ‘when will you be putting it on again?’ She doesn’t believe me when I tell her that it is one night only. ‘What do you mean’, she insists, ‘only eight people will ever get to see it?’ The reaction is a familiar one. Finally, she muses, sighs, and concludes, ‘All that work, all for nothing.’
The Theatre for Small Audiences (TSA) series is a strategy to subvert the popular theatre model and challenge contemporary measures of success. It emerged from a project I was developing with Newfoundland writer Elling Lien, in 2003. It was our intention to discover a physical closeness between the audience and the performers. In the beginning we focused on parody, and the influence of the economy on social life. We also examined the ‘sold out audience’ as a measure for success. Equally influential was the dialogue happening, at the time, within Halifax’s theatre community that pointed out the lack of performance venues in the city. I discovered, at the end of two projects, that the limited space confronted the audience with questions and answers that are of a more philosophical nature than mere entertainment. The choice of space gave the productions a feeling of rare beauty, and while it shrank the size of the audience it does not shirk the performance.
The Tragiparody ‘Winding-Up Godot’ was the first performance to surface from the TSA exploration. Parody not only served as a theme in this production, but as a grand design. This solo performance cut up ten minutes of Samuel Beckett’s play ‘Waiting for Godot’, and submerged it in drunken voice-overs, songs, and tangents. The key to the parody was the inadequate and ridiculous reproduction of Beckett’s play hallmarked by the casting, which was made up of cheap plastic wind-up toys that resembled robots and Mexican banditos. The performance was staged to make a commentary on contemporary models of production, specifically the ones that value success based on full houses. Central to the staging was its secret location in an abandoned apartment building. The choice to use this space meant that people would be asked to go to a place not normally used for theatre. The space held a maximum capacity audience of fifteen therefore it was also likely to be ‘sold out’ very easily. The secrecy of the location also held a seductive appeal. The challenge when staging a show for an audience of fifteen people (in a location hard to find, with the details mostly left in secrecy) is turning these conditions into a language that can translate into a meaningful experience. From the start, every element is used to serve the production. The reduction of audience capacity made the shared experience more personal. As guests arrived at the secret address, they were offered a pair of binoculars, which could be used to enlarge the wind up toys. The group was then lead up a narrow stairway into the abandoned apartment, which was under construction. The playing area was about the scale of an average living room. The audience section was wide enough for three rows of five people who sat shoulder-to-shoulder, spanning wall to wall. This restriction provided people with an opportunity to rub elbows. The space was illuminated by paint can lights at one end and a series of LED instruments at the other that focused on a miniature proscenium stage, which was raised on a few beat up suitcases and framed by a red velvet curtain. Although this found location was a rough space, the presence of the onlookers and the careful elements of the production combined to make it feel exquisite. The depth of the theatrical event thrives from this kind of audience contact. In the rendering of ‘Winding-Up Godot’, I stood above the suitcases dressed in a black tuxedo poised to operate the tiny wind up toys. The rapt audience could sense every sound and each movement. The anticipation prior to the event was overwhelming, but as soon as the first wind up robot powered its way across the stage, the onlookers giggled enthusiastically.
From my personal perspective, the intimacy of the site allowed a great amount of concentration that served the subtleties and spontaneity of my performance. Compared to the popular models of dramaturgy, the division of space between performer and spectator was less intimidating and supported the play’s underlying parody. In fact, before the performance even began I was able to make contact with each and every individual- that is not usually possible with large audiences. Philosophically, these elements combined to create a lesson in the human condition; but, unlike Beckett’s play, the outcome was far from existential. The lesson was in how we gathered. Socially, ‘Winding Up Godot’ presented a model of public gathering that confronted an audience with questions and answers about our choice of space. It was easy to see that creating a unique experience was one of the factors that determined our choice. The other, less visible factor was that we wanted to avoid turning the theatre space into an economic commodity. The problem with a commercial exchange is that it degrades the human experience from ‘being’ into ‘having’. The consideration of shared space acknowledges that a meaningful experience depends on both performer and spectator taking part in a personal exchange. It also makes most audience members feel special, which is an opportunity seldom afforded in popular entertainment.
Despite the small-scale audience ‘Winding Up Godot’ was very successful at generating attention from the public and the local media, which only grew when Beckett’s Estate refused to accept any use of their text in a parody (regardless of the wind up toys) and threatened us with a lawsuit.
The Anti- Spectacle
In the second production for TSA, ‘Cowboy Show’, I used my role as project leader to take a closer look at society’s relationship to the spectacle¹. Working closely with designer Louisa Adamson and popular country music front man Andrew Cull, we explored the possibilities of generating a representation of the commodity world against the TSA model of production. We also wanted to confront an audience’s theatrical expectation. The goals remained the same as those in ‘Winding Up Godot’- to examine the language of space, and to devalue the concept of ‘sold out’. The play was staged for one night only, in a derelict camping trailer. The interior of the vehicle was modified to accommodate a seating rake of two rows that could hold a maximum of eight people. This choice was a key part of the commentary on spectacle. Right from the beginning, I valued the limitations of the space. Emotionally, using this size of venue required courage, conviction, and imagination, which are three distinctive characteristics of a worthwhile experiment. Artistically, this space demanded innovation. For instance, the small size of the location could be used as a tool to communicate a variety of relationships between the actor and spectator. Action could be explored both inside and outside the trailer. In this sense, ‘Cowboy Show’ was not an abstract representation that you could only look at, but it was an experience that an audience could be a part of. The division of space was taken to the extreme when the eight inside the trailer literally became a part of the show for a secondary audience outside. Three live video cameras hidden on the interior the trailer captured the images and sound, and displayed them on television sets for people who didn’t get into the show. These outside spectators only received a live performance of the actor when he emerged from the trailer. The rest of the performance could only be seen through video projection, heard, or simply imagined. Combined, the inside and outside perspectives come together as the complete experience and depend on an exchange between audiences. Suddenly, TSA was the spectacle. But spectacle not only served as a staging device, it was the central theme in the story. From the start, the audiences entered the small seating areas and were presented with a prologue about an authentic American hero, William F. Cody. After that, they sat witness to a show that depicted moments of Cody’s life and the rise and fall of his outdoor spectacle ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West’. During the performance, the actor alternated between historical re-enactments outside the trailer, and a more normal- albeit very intimate- theatrical setting inside. The theme of Cody’s life was intensely contrasted to the TSA staging. For someone watching, the combination of these two elements were analogous to the emotional destination of the character. The final image resonated of loneliness as Cody’s spectacle was revealed and he was left sharing the story to a handful of people sitting in a trailer. One of the most fascinating discoveries from that second event was how the act of dividing an audience affected their experience of the event. It is my underlying belief that the size heightened the theatrical experience, and increased the audience’s ability to appreciate the smallest details. The amount of humility it took for everyone involved to complete the production provided the audience with a beauty rarely created in the popular theatre. Are you worth the space you occupy? Theatre for Small Audiences is not a revolutionary use of space, but it does respond to some of the contemporary problems facing independent theatre companies as they struggle to make work. When TSA is functioning, it changes the conditions of the space into a language, which communicates metaphorically, socially, economically, and philosophically. Like any language, the specifics change from project to project, as they do city to city, and region to region; although, the method of getting there remains the same. Every theatre production begins with a choice that will affect the condition of space. Site- specific theatre may become the choice of some smaller companies because it is within their means. But it should never be considered a set back. ‘Winding Up Godot’ and ‘Cowboy Show’ shrank the part of the world audience sat in, but not the imagined world they created. The economy has dominated the possibilities of social life, but the small theatre can imagine a space where the possibilities of being are limitless. This model for creation is one I have come to believe in because it makes so much sense to me.
Acknowledgements: Rae Brown, Donald Wood, Elling Lien, Louisa Adamson, Andrew Cull, Greg Van Slyke, Mark G, Christian Barry, Howard Beye. Notes 1 Sprang from “Society of the Spectacle,” as defined by Guy Debord. Works Cited Debord, Guy. “Society of the Spectacle.” Translated by Ken Knabb . 2-42.
I was really interested to read your article on Theatre for Small Audiences. Do you know of other articles on this topic? There seems to be some kind of zeitgeist going on at the moment. I’d be really grateful for any suggestions. I’m currently doing a thesis looking at small audineces based around a project I did for audiences of 12 people at a time.
all the best
Rosemary (Melbourne, Australia)