News / Arts & Entertainment

Off-Broadway Plays Draw Audience Into Action

This undated theater image released by The Public Theater shows Ruthie Ann Miles, center, during a performance of
This undated theater image released by The Public Theater shows Ruthie Ann Miles, center, during a performance of "Here Lies Love," in New York.
Theater is designed to engage the heart and the mind, but it's mostly a passive experience. Now, three off-Broadway shows in New York have created interactive environments that engage the audience physically as well.  

Several years ago, when rock star David Byrne considered doing a musical on the life of Imelda Marcos, the wife of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, he made an interesting discovery.

"When I heard some years ago that Imelda Marcos really loved going to discos and that she had a mirror ball in her New York townhouse and  turned the roof of the palace in Manila into a disco, I thought well, here’s a powerful person who lives in that kind of a bubble, but also brings her own soundtrack to it,” Byrne said.

He collaborated with Fatboy Slim, the British musician, on an album a couple years ago. Now it's been turned into a musical at the Public Theater in downtown New York.

Called Here Lies Love, the story is set in a disco. Not only do audience members move around the dance floor to follow the action, they also dance along.

"Sometimes the audiences are amazing extras and, sometimes, they’re taking in a play, but they’re on their feet," said Annie-B Parson, the show's choreographer. "So the sense of who the audience is changes throughout the piece."

The audience is partying with a corrupt figure.

"You’re very aware that you shouldn’t be dancing with Imelda, but it’s too much fun to stop," Parson said. "So, I think it works."

Across Manhattan, another theater has put up its tent - literally. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 takes an episode from Tolstoy’s epic "War and Peace" and sets it in a large tent, made to look like a Russian nightclub, with red velvet curtains, and chandeliers.

This undated theater image released by The Hartman Group shows Blake DeLong, left, with an audience member in This undated theater image released by The Hartman Group shows Blake DeLong, left, with an audience member in "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812," a dinner theater performance in New York.

Dave Malloy, who wrote the pop opera, says he got the idea when he visited Moscow to do research for the show.

"I went to a club called Café Margarita, which was this Russian, you know, bar that was full of people sitting at these crowded tables eating vodka and dumplings and then, in the corner, there was this little pop/classical music trio," Malloy said. "When I saw that room, I was like, 'Oh, this is the setting for this piece.'"  

The audience gets a glass of champagne, a shot of vodka and a full Russian dinner before the show. The action takes place all around and sometimes in the middle of the audience.   

"And they have to be acting as if they’re on film, with sort of that level of realism," explained Rachel Chavkin, who directs the actors, "but the size of the physical gestures has to read across space, to the person on the opposite side of the room."

Intimate gestures in intimate spaces have kept audiences flocking to another show, Sleep No More. It's an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with references to 1930s Hitchcock. It's  probably the most interactive of these interactive theater experiences, said producer Jonathan Hochwald.

In this theater publicity image released by the O+M Co., Luke Murphy is shown in a scene from In this theater publicity image released by the O+M Co., Luke Murphy is shown in a scene from "Sleep No More," performing at The McKittrick Hotel in New York.

"As an audience member, you can get lost in the woods or in a hospital ward or in a train station and really experience something unique," he said.
 
Audiences are handed masks as they get on an elevator that takes them to one of seven floors. They’re instructed to remain quiet and to not remove their masks. 

"It creates the effect of almost being a ghost, where you can float through the halls of this hotel and witness or experience whatever you chose to do," Hochwald said.

Audiences at the shows share one thing.

"That energy of being in the middle of a piece, is a real thing," said Parson. "And so, it’s a very different experience than sitting in your chair, you know, 10, 20, 30 feet away from a play, where you’re squinting your eyes to see if the person’s laughing or crying."

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