The conventions of live theatre are clear. We enter a theatre and then sit quietly in the dark, as actors illuminated by stage lights create a story for us. There’s usually an intermission where we partake of a cookie or perhaps a glass of wine. This is what we know, what is familiar. But sometimes theatre is different. Perhaps you bring your own chair to a grassy field where a stage has been built and watch a show as the sun sets behind the actors. Or maybe you’re outdoors but this time, you move from one location to another on a farm, each new place bringing a new scene of a classic play. Or perhaps you’re invited to a party and you’re sitting at one of the many round tables scattered throughout the room, a hors d’oeuvre in one hand a glass of wine in the other, when suddenly a musical theatre experience begins, and you’re very much a part of the show.
This has been my summer. First I experienced an excellent production of Our Town at the outdoor stage at Brucemore. A couple of weeks later, I enjoyed Combined Efforts’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream, adapted by Janet Schlapkohl, which was promenade theatre at its best. And just last week, I enjoyed Company at the North Ridge Pavlion, staged by Chris Okiishi and Patrick Dulaney for their friends, and featuring an incredible cast of talented actors. All three shows were unique theatre experiences, and demonstrate that risk taking is alive and well in our little theatre community.
I wrote about Our Town here, so I won’t say much more other than to emphasize how the outdoor venue allows for a greater feeling of camaraderie among the audience members. There was a sense of playfulness among us, as we set up chairs and blankets and prepared to watch the show. It was such a contrast to traditional brick and mortar theaters, with their rows of seats, all perfectly in line, raked just so. And no slouching – sit straight, you ruffian, you are in the THE-A-TRE! What a different feeling Our Town‘s audience had as they lounged on blankets, perhaps resting a head on a companion’s shoulder as George and Emily slowly discovered their feelings for each other.
Combined Efforts’ show was a joy. The audience visited three separate locations on the farm in this clever adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic comedy. The actors were excellent, hitting the comedic beats without ever being obnoxious, creating a fun theatre experience for the audience and participants alike. Unconventional casting choices also elevated the show. For example, the character of Puck is usually played by a young man, but for this show the much older Scott Strode created a world weary and very knowing Puck, breathing new life into a familiar character.
Something wonderfully simple happens during promenade theatre that is intrinsic to moving to different locations during a performance – conversation. As we moved to the wooded area for the second group of scenes, audience members chatted about what they’d seen and what they expected would come next. Again, a sense of camaraderie permeated the audience, as one made space for another on a log and another chuckled at a witty comment. Rather than sitting in silence in a darkened theatre, this audience was engaged – with the show, with the environment, and with each other. Promenade theatre emphasizes the ‘community’ in the term community theatre.
Schalkohl’s clever adaptation keeps all of the story we’re familiar with – Titania and Oberon fighting over the changeling boy, the mechanicals creating a play, and the love quadrangle – but slices it down to a comfortable hour and a half. The second setting we travel to is the best – the actors act among trees, green all around them. They climb over and around the living set. As these scenes take place in a forest, there’s a verisimilitude to the show that wouldn’t be possible on a traditional stage. Combined Efforts does a summer show every year at the farm. If you missed Midsummer, be sure to get on their email list so you don’t miss next year’s show!
Most recently, I had the privilege of being part of the show Company staged at the North Ridge Pavilion in Coralville. It was staged traverse style, with the audience sitting at tables on two sides of the action facing each another. The show takes places at the 35th birthday party of the main character, Bobby. As we sat at our tables, we felt very much a part of that party. The actors never went backstage, instead joining the audience at whatever table had an empty seat, until it was time to return to the stage. And they often included us in the action, making us feel we were truly part of the story. Perhaps the best example of this was the group selfie we took in the middle of the show.
The show was the brainchild of Okiishi and Dulaney, who had two goals for the summer: 1) throw a party and 2) put on a show with some of their favorite theatre people that they don’t often get to work with. The two ideas merged into one and voila, a unique night of theatre was born. Okiishi’s one regret is that the North Ridge Pavilion couldn’t hold more people. There were so many more people they wanted to invite, but couldn’t because of the size of the space.
As you might imagine, the hand picked cast was excellent, easily navigating Stephen Sondheim’s challenging score. I’d seen Company before, but the music resonated more with me this time, probably because I’ve been married a whole lot longer than last time. At the heart of it, the show is about finding someone, a partner, and all the joys and heartbreaks that can come with it. While filled with laugh out loud moments, it can also be an incredibly moving show. This cast handled both sides of that coin wonderfully well.
All three of these shows had something in common – a unique location. What’s more, they used that location to their advantage and created richer theatre experiences as a result. As a theatre community, we need to continue to take risks and expand our ideas of what theatre should be. These three shows used the location to create something different, but there are plenty of other ways to take risks. Let’s hope all of our corridor theatres are thinking about that as they create the 2015-16 season.
And as a final note, if you’re looking for another show with a unique location, look no further than Fourth Room’s production of Private Lives by Noel Coward, which has only two more performances, August 20 and 22. The free show is performed outdoors at 901 Melrose Ave, Iowa City. No reservations necessary. Go here for more information. Here’s the cast:
Matthew James as Elyot
Jessica Link as Amanda
Matthew Brewbaker as Victor
Erin Mills as Sybil
Kelly Garrett as Louise