In my first year of studying theatre, a teacher told us: “There are only two categories of theatre: boring and not boring. We try our best to be part of the second one and we can only succeed in that if we always take into account our audiences. The only two elements we really need in order to do theatre are one actor and one audience member.”Wow. Soooo… no director? No playwright? Gone were the big gods of theatre creation. The only ones left were the two “essentials of theatre making”: the often ignored spectator and the often underpaid and overly exploited actor. This teacher changed my life: I could never let go of exploring her idea. This was the start of a secret and obsessive love story, as I fell madly in love with my spectators.
The truth is, when I look back over 14 years of making theatre all over the world, the first things that I remember are not the shows or the rehearsals, but the spectators reactions. I hope none of the actors I’m working with are reading this confession: when I am present at my show, I tend to watch the audiences, not the performance. From my row in the very back, my eyes search through the dark trying to decipher from the way they hold their heads whether they are absorbed or bored and from the way they breath if they are having fun or not. If an audience member checks his phone, I try to see if he is texting (about the show), taking a picture (of what’s happening on stage), or just playing a game. So, this piece intends to be a little history of our love story or of my perpetual trials to seduce my audiences.
When I finished school, and was working on my very first production which happened to be staged in a bar, I started questioning this relationship, knowing that my spectators would most likely have a beer in their hand, and would not be exactly the type of audience my academic training had prepared me for. I decided the show should be interactive. Visniec’s poetic “Theatre Decomposed” was not exactly the type of play one would stage in a bar, and I thought that if I involve the audiences in the performance I would make them feel that they are part of a game and let the poetry flow to them discreetly beneath the fun. In one scene, a questionable illusionist would do tricks like taking fake rabbits out of ladie’s purses, before he would try his most impressive magic, making the whole world vanish, and thereby losing himself in an ocean of nothingness. The Human Trash Can would empty the spectators ashtrays in his own pockets, while wondering what makes a human like any other become the target for everyone else’s trash. For one of the most daring scenes, about the impossibility of communication, one audience member was taken from his seat, ushered on stage, handcuffed to a chair so he could not leave and then asked by the three cop like characters to say “string”. No matter if the spectator was saying “string” or not, the characters would act as if he refused to say it, and would continue the game, by bribing him or trying to intimidate him, very much like in a police interrogation. The story of this scene always horrified any American that heard it, but in Romania, we believed that theatre should not be comfortable.
The scene was quite a success. Spectators experienced both hysterical laughter and reflection about the nature of communication. People would come to the show again and again and try to bribe the producers before hand, in order to get actors to pick a certain person for this scene; someone they undoubtedly wanted to play a trick on. We never took the bribe, and the actors always chose the (un) lucky spectator right on the spot, based on their intuition. I remember they once randomly selected a black spectator and he asked the actors at the end: “Did you chose me because I am black?” This thought gave a whole different level of depth to the scene, and the fact that it was unintentional, did not take away its strength. I learned that by allowing the spectators to participate in the show I was in fact allowing the shows to become more that I initially had in mind myself or the playwright.
Years later, I found myself in New York, working on my very first show produced in New York. (I’d previously had my work presented in NYC, but they were all shows created elsewhere). I didn’t have much and I was very aware that I was facing a very tough market. I had no money, very little rehearsal space, no time, and nobody knew me. It was very likely that I would not get much of an audience. Everything that I had made or achieved in the past (multiple productions, some national and international awards) didn’t seemed to matter much here, I was back at the starting point. I decided to create an intimate show for only one audience member at a time. The initial reason was the fear that I wouldn’t be able to bring in many spectators anyways, but I was quickly fascinated by the amazing opportunities to create a unique experience that came from this limitation. I wanted to create a “once in a lifetime” experience so I indulged in the only luxury I could afford: actors. I hired (for free) 25 actors to perform for the one audience member, so she could feel totally immersed into a different world. I designed the show to function as a journey where the spectator was traveling in 5 different spaces of a building, each populated by a new story performed by different actors. As a final touch, I decided to blindfold the spectator at the beginning of the journey. The spectator was told that she was free to remove the blindfold at any moment, in any place, but once the blindfold was removed she could not travel further. She would get to see the reality of that scene, and that would be the last.
1.The intimacy: Because the spectator was alone, the temptation to look around and “share impressions” with a fellow spectator was removed. In a world where internet and it’s “sharing” experience forces everybody to be in a perpetual virtual state of socializing (oh, what a gorgeous sunset, let me instagram it) and in a world where many are so busy sharing their experiences that they don’t have time to actually enjoy them, “The Blind Trip” was forcing it’s only spectator to really live his experience, without the pressure of being watched or judged. The audience was forced to share a moment only with himself, in a world of fantasy.
2.Removing one sense. Again, we live in a world where everybody is used to receiving everything at once, in multiple windows open on a screen with ads at the bottom. With all this abundance of information, people tend to lose their focus. They need to learn to observe again. By taking out one’s assumed right, I was hoping to open a door into their imagination, and make them more aware of the world they were stepping in.
3. The game component. You are free to chose: you can either see something but loose everything else, or have the whole experience but not see a thing. By this I was hoping to make the audience more responsible in crafting their own show and their own experience. A man with a decision to make is a man with a mission, a man actively involved in the experience that he is living. The result blew my mind. People lined up hours before the show in the theatre hallway, some of them waiting for hours to get in for a 5 minute experience (yes, the show was only 5 minutes long). Nobody took his blindfold off. People stayed for hours after the show to discuss the experience among them. We received emails from spectators weeks after, some of them describing in detail the extravagant set they saw in their minds when experiencing the show. The show that they saw in their minds was far better and more spectacular than any show I could have created with my budget. The show that they witnessed was not my creation anymore, it was theirs. I was only a facilitator. Most of the 50 spectators that came to The Blind Trip remained to the date my most loyal spectators, coming to see any production I make in the city.
I continued to draft experiences for spectators to have, rather than create shows for them to witness. I partnered with the amazing director Tamilla Woodard in creating our own little company PopUP Theatrics and we dedicated ourselves to exploring new ways of creating a “one of a kind” experiences for our spectators. During the years we developed many projects that started from the question “what if” : what if we have one actor performing live from the other part of the world via skype for one audience only (Long Distance Affair)? What if we have two audience members who think that they are watching the same show, but actually they each get a completely different perspective (INSIDE)? What if we use the streets of the city as a set for an intimate performance (Broken City)? We have performed our shows in many cities across the world Edinburgh, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Madrid, to name only a few, and we have discovered that while cultural background creates very different audiences, they all have in common the appetite for surprise, for uniqueness and the joy of being involved. Our relationship with those spectators went far beyond the moment of applause (which in many of our shows is completely skipped). Long Distance Affair gathered hundreds of postcards written by spectators to the characters they encountered on their Long Distance Affair “trip”. Hotel Project and INSIDE filled up “Guest Books” with love letters, critiques, poems and drawings. Some spectators become actively involved in bringing a show to their country contacting us on our website and connecting with a site or venue that could be our next performance location. Something perhaps that an aunt of them owned, or with an actor they wished was featured in our productions, a link to a festival they thought we should be a part of, or simply a note of the joy of being a part of the experience that we have facilitated, but really that they created themselves.
Ana Margineanu is a Romanian theatre director based in NYC, co-founder of PopUP Theatrics. Her newest production, “Wild Child In the City”, an interactive one woman show featuring Tjasa Ferme, will open at The Secret Theatre on April 2nd this year. Other credits include: Long Distance Affair (Edinburgh, New York, Mexico, Buenos Aires) , Inside (Madrid, Bucharest), The Blind Trip (New York City), The Sunshine Play (Dublin /Bucharest). Her work has been presented internationally in New York, Edinburgh, Madrid, Mexico, Basel, Dublin, Düsseldorf, Graz, Prague, Saint Petersburg, Stuttgart and Vienna as well as the major cities of Romania and won numerous international awards. Read More about Ana at www.anamargineanu.com and www.popuptheatrics.com
Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.