by Kirk Woodward
[Kirk Woodward’s newest contribution to Rick On Theater, “MicroRep,” is a description of a project Kirk developed to perform plays in “alternative spaces”—simply put: not in theaters. Of course, that tradition goes back a long ways, back to the Middle Ages, when the return of theatrical performance after the fall of the Roman Empire and the classical theater—derived, as it was, from Greek theater—it’s culture generated, began in churches. It moved outside the church building and took up a mobile existence on festival wagons. This gave birth to the itinerant theater of the late Middle Ages which set up the wagon stages in the courtyards of roadside inns and then in the early Renaissance, the Italian players pulled up into town squares and performed the farcical and giddy Commedia dell’Arte, which in addition to being itinerant was also improvised. Eventually, Europeans built special buildings for their performances and the found-space presentations became the rarity and the formal theater productions the norm. In modern times, plays are still presented in parks and open lots, but for the most part, when a small troupe occupies a found or non-traditional venue as its home, the company tried very hard to turn it into some semblance of a formal theater. Even so, theater in alternative spaces hasn’t vanished from the face of the globe. As Kirk observes, there are still intrepid casts that set themselves up in odd places and clever sites—and sometimes, something wonderful ensues.
[When I was a theater teacher in the middle school of a K-12 prep school in Brooklyn in the late ’70s, it was my (unstated) policy to try to use non-theater spaces for the one-act plays I directed twice a year. I directed one major production in the winter, but I used the school’s proscenium theater for that. Not only did the students (not to mention their parents) expect that, but the audience—the rest of the fifth through eighth grades, and their families and friends, plus some elementary school and even high school students—could only be accommodated by the big auditorium. But for the fall and spring one-acts, my idea was to show the students, who were generally pretty theater-savvy even in middle school—there were several parents of my students who were theater pros—that “theater” wasn’t always this thing that happened in a big room divided by a wall with a hole in it. My very first one-act, Pyramus and Thisbe, the “Rude Mechanicals” scenes excised from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was staged in the children’s playground for the primary school kids behind the school, using the jungle gym and the teeter-totter as the set. (It was a huge success, if I do say so myself—as much with the seventh- and eighth-grade cast, who’d never experienced such a thing and were mighty skeptical, as with the audience and my boss, the head of the theater program.) I later did two shows in a small music classroom that had a small proscenium stage at one end, but I put the acting area for one play in front of the stage as a thrust--audience on three sides--and used the stage area (with the curtain drawn) as “backstage.” For the other one, I ignored the stage entirely and did the play in the round in the middle of the cleared classroom with the audience on all four sides. (The school has a former church, used for assemblies and such, attached to the classroom building and I always wanted to find a play I could produce there. I never did. Middle school’s a little too early for Murder in a Cathedral, don’t you think?)
[A decade later, I was teaching theater at a top New Jersey high school, another place where the students were very knowledgeable about theater. (This time it was several of the students themselves who were the pros, not their parents.) But they knew conventional theater, Broadway and the standards, plays from which movies had been made. So I began bringing in newspaper clippings to pin up on a bulletin board that described performances that were . . . well, different. The first one was Naked Chambers, a 1987 play produced by the site-specific company En Garde Arts set on the façade of a TriBeCa highrise: an actor-mountain climber was a cat burglar who climbed down the side of the building and as he reached the windows of various apartments, a projected scene would unfold on the window. Spectators stood around on the sidewalk below, with the regular life of the neighborhood going on around them. When I shared this with my class, all juniors and seniors, a boy with a nascent TV acting career underway (he had a recurring role on a popular sit-com) asked angrily—as if I were taking up his valuable time—“What does this have to do with theater?” “It is theater,” I replied, shocked at his lack of understanding. That’s exactly why I had done what I did at that Brooklyn middle school. And it’s what Kirk is experimenting with in “MicroRep.” ~Rick]
An active trend in today’s theater is performance in alternative spaces – plays or other theater pieces performed in spaces that aren’t theaters. The possibilities are limited only by the imaginations of the presenters. It seems likely that this approach to theatrical performance began to take on momentum as one product of the wave of experimentation that swept through the culture in the 1960s and 1970s.
I remember, in the early 1970s, hearing about a troupe that performed little plays in front of security cameras in New York City subway stations, for the “entertainment” of the security guards! Around the same time I directed a shortened version of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, with its adventures in the Forest of Arden, in a forest. In a particularly minimalist example of alternative performance spaces, Actors Theatre of Louisville has presented plays written to be listened to by a single hearer in a phone booth.
The alternative space approach can be not only creative but economically viable. The scenario-based comedy Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, created by the Artificial Intelligence company in 1985, in its Greenwich Village iteration staged its first act in a church and its second in a restaurant, to great commercial success. A more recent example is Sleep No More, which premiered in New York City on March 7, 2011, and and has achieved both financial success and social cachet. Examples can be easily multiplied. Based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Sleep No More was written by the British theater company Punchdrunk and was presented here in a Chelsea warehouse converted to seem like a hotel.
This article describes a theatrical project using alternative spaces that I began in January 2017, although it could be said to have begun in 1989. That’s when I wrote adaptations of three classic but not particularly well known plays: Alcestis by Euripides, Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Lessing, and The Imaginary Cuckold by Moliere. I wrote in an introduction to the collection, which I called A Modern Evening of Classic Plays:
These adaptations represent an attempt to make accessible acting editions of three notable but seldom-performed plays. Additionally, these versions are designed for small casts (two women, three men for each) and minimal or no sets, with an eye on touring. Sets could, of course, be used as desired.
The originals of these plays are masterpieces of drama, and these versions should not be considered substitutes for them. They are introductions, and it is hoped that they may also stand on their own – as themselves, however, not as their far greater originals.
The Alcestis is well known as the “tragedy with a happy ending.” This accurate but superficial notion requires a great deal more discussion than can be attempted here. The Chorus, always a sticking point in staging Greek tragedy, has been replaced here by the Servant, eliminating set choral pieces and formal movement.
Nathan the Wise is, or was until recently, the most produced play in Europe, according to some sources, and yet is virtually never performed in the Western Hemisphere. This sly, passionate demonstration of the wisdom of tolerance features one of the greatest set pieces in all drama, the “Parable of the Rings.”
The Imaginary Betrayal (originally “The Imaginary Cuckold”) demonstrates Moliere’s ability to combine commedia characters with the shrewdest psychology. Each of the characters in this play could behave as accused; the facts are lacking but the mental world is there.
The language in all these adaptations is modern and fairly free with the original text; it is hoped that significant sense remains, and that the plays, separately or together, will provide a novel and valuable theatrical experience.
There were two inspirations for this project in addition to what I wrote in the introduction. One was an article I read about Václav Havel (1936-2011), who became the President of Czechoslovakia. The article said that during the period of Communist dictatorship in his country, Havel, a playwright whose works were banned by the regime, and two friends put together a 45 minute version of Macbeth and performed it in people’s living rooms, out of the gaze of the secret police. I liked the idea of “house theater,” just the actors and a play in a small room.
I also realized that performing three such different plays at one time would create a sort of small repertory company of actors – I thought of the project as a “MiniRep” (later “MicroRep”) that ought to challenge actors and also interest them. It has always been difficult, perhaps even impossible, to create a repertory theater in this country. Perhaps we could do it on a tiny scale!
For twenty-eight years my versions of the plays remained unperformed, because I could never come up with the right cast at the right time. Then in the fall of 2016, I directed a production of The Odd Couple by Neil Simon, and realized that two of its actors would be perfect for Modern/Classic: Frank Favala, who played Murray the Cop, is a big man with a big voice and excellent timing, and Tara Moran, whom I have also directed previously, is one of my favorite actors. Rounding out the proposed cast were Art Delo, an actor with a remarkable voice (whose father, an Episcopal priest, officiated at the wedding of my wife Pat and me), my son Craig, and Becky Schuster, both excellent performers who practically embody the concept of “young leads.”
On February 16, 2017, we had a reading of the script at my house with the five actors named above. The three plays together took a little over an hour and a half to read. The actors liked the Moliere best, and found Nathan the oddest. But they all seemed interested in continuing with the work, so MicroRep was born. A note: I feel actors should be paid for their work, and I envisioned paying each of these actors $100 for the project.
Rather than give a day to day diary of events, here are some highlights of the experience, listed by topic.
Based on the reading, I revised the script, cutting about 2,000 words out of about 16,000, or ten pages out of about seventy. I rewrote one speech so it advanced the plot better than it had. Those were the only changes I made in the script before rehearsals, although I told the actors I was open to more ideas on alterations as rehearsals proceeded. As it turned out, we made few additional changes, usually when the line as written was hard to say. For example, the speech
Please, promise you won’t let them make me take another father!
has too many ideas crammed into it and is nearly impossible to say convincingly. It was easily reduced to
Please, don’t let them make me take another father!
and even that wasn’t ideal:
Please, don’t make me take another father!
Setting up a rehearsal schedule turned out to be difficult. I envisioned a two month span for the entire project, roughly a month or so of rehearsals followed by another of performances. But when the actors emailed me their conflicts, it turned out that only about ten days were available for rehearsals over two months, mostly because of commitments to other shows. We worked with what was available. Ultimately we rehearsed 16 times over four months, from March through June, and performed the piece four times at the end of June.
One reason we had to scramble for rehearsal time is that good actors are likely to be in demand, and that was the case here, with three of our five actors already involved in other productions as well, or soon to be. I have become somewhat accustomed to the fact of theatrical life that good actors frequently have tight schedules. When I say I’ve become accustomed, I mean I don’t always completely panic. Not completely.
Because the piece was designed to be performed in small spaces, I figured that we could rehearse at almost any location, so we first met in my living room, which to my embarrassment wasn’t really good to work in – too crowded, furniture in unhelpful places. Fortunately my friends Neal and Martha Day made their house available for us. It had several suitable rehearsal areas; we used two, and ultimately settled in to one, the living room, which also became the site of our final performance.
STAGING THE PLAYS
My original idea was that there wouldn’t be any “blocking” for the plays at all – that the movements of the actors wouldn’t be predetermined, but that they would go wherever seemed appropriate to them, based on the arrangement of the playing space and on how they felt inspiration strike.
I’d never worked that way before, and I still haven’t, because at the first rehearsal it became clear that if my original idea was going to work, it would take a lot more commitment on everyone’s part, including mine, than was available. I don’t know if the approach would work for anyone; probably there are groups that work that way, but I don’t know who they’d be.
For my own reference, fortunately, I’d written ideas for simple movements in my script, and we worked off those to stage the play. We established entrances on the right and left of the audience, and rehearsed as though the audience was directly in front of us – in other words, we staged the plays as though on a typical proscenium stage, but with no proscenium.
As it turned out, for our first performance we had audience on three sides of the playing area, so the cast had to adjust so the people at the sides could regularly see faces.
PROPERTIES, COSTUMES, LIGHTING
From the beginning my idea was that we would have no set – that’s obvious, since we were to perform in living rooms – and no costumes. The actors wore whatever clothes they happened to wear that evening. The alternative would have been to make some sort of costume change for each play.
My friend Colleen Brambilla, an extremely talented choreographer and director, told me she felt that’s exactly what we should have done – not with full costumes, but at least with some sort of identifying costume or property pieces in each play, to help the audience members keep the plays separate in their minds.
She may be right, but I clung to the “living room” concept of the play, and the actors wore whatever they wanted. I believe the actors found that fascinating – plays are always costumed somehow! I enjoyed the novelty, though, whether or not the audience did. I like to think that, on the positive side, wearing street clothes set our work apart to some extent.
As far as properties, the objects used in the three plays, we could have mimed all of them, but found it more practical to use the bare minimum: a drinking mug, a tiny magnetized chess set, a soldier’s helmet, a billy club (inflatable), a locket, and an “old document” on yellow paper. The plays didn’t require any others.
Obviously there was no specific stage lighting either. At the only performance we gave in a theater (see below), we were offered the lighting setup they had, and we declined to use it, as not in the spirit of our adventure.
VALUES IN THE PLAYS / DEVELOPMENTS IN CHARACTERIZATION
One of the most interesting facets of the MicroRep experience was the way the three plays deepened in meaning for us as we worked on them. That may be why plays are “classic” – because they reach places in our spirits that aren’t often reached.
It’s hard to give examples, because many such experiences were momentary, when we suddenly would realize that there was a depth of characterization that we had not noticed. I observed this happen, for example, in Frank Favala’s characterization of Nathan . . . .
NATHAN THE WISE
Nathan was the most difficult of the three pieces we performed. Alcestis and The Imaginary Betrayal are both, in similar and different ways, relatively straightforward pieces. They are both short; they both have strongly humorous aspects; they both demand sincerity on the part of the characters, even if the audience can see that the characters are acting foolishly. Betrayal, because it is a farce, also requires dynamic pacing. But both plays are well within the wheelhouses of good actors.
Nathan is different. It’s by far the longest piece of the three, more than three times the length of the others. It’s also unique in structure, because it contains an intricate mystery plot involving family relationships. We spent a good deal of rehearsal time trying to figure out just exactly what those family relationships were.
I didn’t make things any easier by my adaptation, either. In reducing a complex five-act melodrama to one forty-minute act, I had to take some pretty drastic shortcuts with the plot, and these made the last part of the play in particular somewhat hard to follow. Basically, the audience had to imagine a scene that the they had no prior reason to visualize (involving some information two characters are given about Nathan).
We gave Nathan the largest share of rehearsal time, identified the problems, and confronted them openly. The cast was determined to make in particular the last section of the play “work,” and ultimately the play succeeded in traditional theatrical fashion: the acting made clear what was happening in the scenes, through the actors’ conviction and focus, what the writing didn’t.
“How do you remember all those lines?” is a question that people often ask (people asked it of our actors), and that theater people often smile at, thinking, “That’s not the main issue in acting.” But really, how do they learn all those lines? What is the internal process that makes it possible for an actor to repeat word for word the dialogue in a script of perhaps over a hundred pages? What’s going on in the brain to make that possible?
All I can say is, thank heaven it happens, or theater would be nothing but a series of staged readings. Each of the MicroRep actors had a plateful of lines from three different plays to learn, and when I went back to the publishable script after the production was over, to include in it the changes we had made during rehearsals, I was impressed to see that all of the actors were virtually word-perfect in their lines.
Once we had begun the rehearsal process, we started to look for places to perform our pieces, asking friends and people in the theater that we know. We ended up giving four performances for about ninety people altogether, in two living rooms, one “black box” theater (at the Action Theater Conservatory Studios in Clifton, New Jersey), and around one outdoor swimming pool.
The swimming pool performance was the most unusual. The hosts, leaders of the Theater League of Clifton, invited a large number of people, most of whom, apparently, came to the show – over 35 people. We had set up a performance area, but as the crowd filtered in it became apparent that we had not made enough room for both the audience and the actors.
I identified a second area and started to set it up, but the actors came to me and said that their preference was to do the play on one side of the swimming pool, with the audience on the other. I was worried about whether or not the audience would be able to hear the dialogue, some of which is subtle. Still, I thought, it’s their performance, and if they want to do it that way, they should.
So that’s how the play was performed, with the actors and audience on opposite sides of a swimming pool. I was terrified even to look at the audience for a long while; when I finally did, I saw that they were raptly attentive to the show.
The cast later reported that it began the first play concentrating on being heard, but came to realize that all they had to do was act. They gave a superlative performance, the audience cheered warmly, and the evening was convivial. Hooray for actors. They are wonderful people.
A few years ago I was in the audience for a panel discussion of leading directors, and at one point the choreographer and director Kathleen Marshall looked down the row of panelists and asked, “How many of you are putting together your own projects, in addition to any work you’re hired for?” Every hand went up.
In a theatrical world where so many decisions are made by business rather than artistic people (agents, producers, and so on), it makes sense that playwrights, directors, and actors create as many projects of their own as they can.
For example, I know a remarkable number of performers who have created their own one-person shows. Beyond my own friends, one famous example I’ve seen is the wonderful Mark Twain Tonight created by Hal Holbrook (b. 1925).
MicroRep is another example of a self-created project. Our costs for the production were something like $15 for a few props. (The actors would have done the play for free.) The rewards can hardly be counted.
I would gladly do similar projects again; I have been trying to think what else I’ve written that might be suitable, and of course I shouldn’t limit myself to my own writing.
I seldom feel nostalgic when a show I’m involved with is over, but I admit I miss this one. It felt like “pure theater” – a script, actors, an audience, and not much else, presenting important plays in an unconventional way. It even felt like a rediscovery of some of the potential of theater. As I said at the beginning of this article, many such rediscoveries are being made – a sign of health for theater at this moment.
[In my introduction, I mentioned an outfit called En Garde Arts which did site-specific productions in odd places all over the city. The first one I read about was Dick Beebe’s Naked Chambers, the play on the side of the building. In 1990, they did Mac Wellman’s Crowbar, a play inside the Victory Theatre on West 42nd Street that was about to undergo demolition. The audience sat on or near the stage and the actors worked all over the rest of the theater as they told, with the help of projections, the story of the historic house, opened in 1900. Kirk describes staging one of MicroRep’s plays around a swimming pool. In 1996, I saw Charles L. Mee’s Trojan Women: A Love Story, another En Garde Arts production, at the abandoned amphitheater in East River Park on the Lower East Side; the first act, set in Troy, took place beneath the seats of the amphitheater, but the second act, at a spa in Carthage, was staged around (and in, I think) a pool (actually the flooded amphitheater)! I also saw a production of A Doll’s House by the Other Theater, performed back in ’95 in the parlor and a few other spaces of the Merchant’s House Museum, originally a town house built in 1832 in the East Village; and Tamara in several rooms of the Park Avenue Armory—we had to follow one character from space to space—in ’87. It was supposed to be Gabriele D’Annunzio’s villa outside Rome in 1927 and the program was a “passport”!
[Among actors and performers who’ve created their own performance material: Spaulding Gray (1941-2004) and his like—all those monologists who recount tales from their own lives—and an American Academy of Dramatic Arts grad named Cavada Humphrey (1919-2007)—she came around to talk about her work, I think—who developed a monodrama about Elizabeth I in the 1970’s called Henry’s Daughter that she shopped around.
[One of Kirk’s last comments, about the actors having been willing to perform for free, reminds me of a line an actor friend of mine used to like to say: ”Actors are the only people who’ll work for nothing if you let them.” I suggested we get T-shirts printed up!]