It’s not that big a room–just under 13 feet by 16 feet–in a rather small apartment in Chapel Hill’s University Gardens. Cheery blue walls with wooden trim surround a comfy beige sofa, an upholstered chair, bookshelves and an entertainment center.
It is what it looks like: a modest living room for two people who, until recently, were graduate students at UNC.
But early this year, Adam Gori looked at the living room he shares with Amy Dye and wondered, “what would theater look like in there?”
Admittedly, it’s not an ideal venue. If you put a couple of people on the stairs leading off to the left, and one or two looking in from the adjoining kitchen, you could comfortably get 15, maybe even 20 people in the place–and still have room for somewhere between a two-to-four-person cast.
So, yes, it’s a crazy idea. So crazy, in fact, that it’s spawned one theater company so far, which the pair isn’t even affiliated with. Katja Hall’s Loveseat Theater plans to incorporate “home” and “conventional” stagings in all of its productions. After a “domestic” opening Saturday, July 26, the company goes conventional both this and next weekend at UNC’s Bingham Hall.
The idea’s also gotten others to start thinking about staging theater in their own homes.
Around sunset July 26, more than 50 of the Triangle’s movers and shakers in independent theater converged on visual artist and philanthropist Danny Cameron’s downtown Durham home for food, drink, fellowship–and a show.
After quietly moving most of the furniture out of Cameron’s living room, J. Chachula, Candace Churilla and director Hall turned two wooden chairs and maybe 20 square feet of space into an airport terminal, a debauched hotel room, and a canyon where two idiots had what only charitably could be termed “a fleeting affair.” It was Loveseat Theater’s first public performance of Ann Marie Healy’s odd comedy You’re No One’s Nothing Special. Hall freely acknowledges in her introductory remarks that it remains a work in progress.
For their part, the audience was receptive, even supportive. People stood against walls, leaned in from other rooms, and circled the actors in chairs and on the floor. The laughter as generous among this discriminating crew.
An element of live jazz almost crept into the proceedings: You could sense the crowd egging on the performers, and then rewarding them when they hit a memorable note. The more awkward the couple’s opening mating rituals became, the more responsive the audience got: Loser lines from a would-be Romeo provoked deserved groans through the room. Clearly, the guests were glad to be here.
After the one-act tribute to modern love concluded, the guests adjourned to the kitchen, dining area and other rooms in the house to discuss their findings over dessert and libations.
To be fair, the theatrical portion of the evening still had the air of a shakedown cruise to it. A nearly giddy ensemble, trying something they haven’t done or seen before, dealt with what Hall calls “a few controls and a whole lot of variables.” At points we witnessed instant blocking, and things ground briefly to an amusing halt when an actor couldn’t find a placard in the dark and poignantly called, “Uh, lights?” Similar contretemps occurred when the play’s narrator accidentally spilled a glass of red wine on one corner of the room’s immaculate off-white carpet in mid-show.
But something in the immediacy, the intimacy of the room made the point: The group was onto something. You could almost see certain directors and certain actors in the room calculating how they’d do it differently. As they mingled, a number of them returned to the room where the performance took place. Then they just stood for a while, looking at the empty space.
Not a bad party. Not by half.
It’s not the first time in recent years a theater has commandeered domestic space or some analogue thereof. Duncan Boothby, a gifted young actor who performed both at UNC and Manbites Dog Theater during the last decade, convinced a resident on Chapel Hill’s Lakeshore Drive to let him produce Athol Fugard’s South African drama, Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, in a house overlooking Eastwood Lake in the mid-1990s. Shakespeare & Originals staged their memorable Chekhov trilogy, Life, Love, Cows, on and around farm buildings at Pittsboro’s Rock Rest Amphitheater. For that matter, another Durham theater group aroused a bit too much interest in their subterranean, basement production last year: The fire marshal closed their show during its initial weekend.
And even non-theater cognoscenti might well recall the raves last year in The New York Times, The New Yorker and on NBC’s Today Show for New York playwright, actor–and chef–Ed Schmidt’s one-man show, The Last Supper. From April 2002 through May of this year, Schmidt staged his witty, modern recasting of the biblical story (from the point of view of the ones who cooked it), two nights a week, to an audience of just 12, in the kitchen and dining room of his Brooklyn apartment. During the performance, Schmidt actually prepared a meal, incorporating it into the comic and thoughtful text of his play. At its conclusion, the audience sat down to the feast he’d just prepared.
Though it may not have been “dinner theater” in any conventional sense of the term, Schmidt’s mixture of metaphysics, mischief and up-close acting made for a communal theater experience that doesn’t happen often.
Schmidt will revive the work this fall in New York. He’s also beginning to license productions of it to actors to perform in their own kitchens throughout the country. Details are on the show’s website, www.thelastsupper.info.
But none of this was on Gori and Dye’s mind last winter: They were simply looking for a better party.
“The things we’d tried as group activities in parties just somehow never satisfied everyone,” Gori recalls. “I read [Healy’s] play in the Kenyon Review and something clicked. I said, ‘Why not just do it here?’”
Gori, who worked with Hall at UNC’s Lineberger Cancer Research Center, gave her a copy of the script. Hall liked it so much, she started a company and produced it herself.
The simplicity of small-company theater in a living room appealed to her. “When you’re at that close range to an audience geared to enjoy itself,” Hall said, “you can’t take yourself too seriously, no matter how many black turtlenecks you’ve worn.” Theater up-close would be “less pious, less secretive,” she felt. It would also empower the actors in a way she’d rarely experienced as an actor herself.
But instead of taking up Gori and Dye’s offer to stage it in their apartment, Hall drew on her acquaintance with Cameron through Deep Dish Theater Company. His name was more widely known in regional theater. And he did have room for more guests. By evening’s end, Hall had an offer to stage her next work in another attendee’s home.
All of which leaves the place this caper was initially dreamed up still looking for its first theatrical performance. Gori and Dye plan to start a salon for conversation in their home this fall. Its tentative name: “Red Pill.” Both say they’re “still open” to proposals from theater groups.
It’s a small space. But places like it might ultimately make a bigger difference for regional theater traditionally short on places to perform. Such spaces could change the economics of independent theater, bolster its cult status and help artists achieve even greater intimacy with audiences.
Reasons enough to expect more companies to come knocking in the coming year.