Dallas — “If you get bored, or hungry, or thirsty, or cold, just get up and go inside, grab a drink or a turkey leg or some stew and come back when you want to.”
On Monday, Dec. 14, I met Shakespeare in the Bar. I caught their latest offering, Richard III, at Small Brewpub in Oak Cliff, and while I knew the basic premise of what I was walking into (especially as it was inspired by Back Room Shakespeare Project in Chicago), I wasn’t prepared to have the kind of experience that would bring so many of my questions about the space we’re creating for our work and our audience into focus. I wasn’t expecting to fall head over heels either, but I have to tell you: I have the biggest crush on this whole operation.
So—quick primer for anyone who doesn’t know these folks, fearlessly led by Katherine Bourne Taylor and Dylan Key. A Shakespearean play is chosen, cut (often by local treasure Brigham Mosley), cast with some fine-ass talent, minimally rehearsed, and then performed in a bar. When the actors lose their words and call for line, the audience drinks. When you need another beer, you just go get one—if you can pull yourself away from the action. Which I couldn’t. Because this was some of the most compelling Shakespeare I’ve ever seen. The story was crisply, skillfully embodied. The choices were bold and specific. The staging was simple but evocative. Am I gushing? Maybe a little. I had a really, really great time. And it was clear that I wasn’t alone.
Before the play even started, I was struck by how different it felt to be in this audience: the relaxation, the chatter, the fun that everyone was already having, and the way that engagement carried through the whole show. This was going to be something different and important.
In our saturated new world, brimming with a bajillion choices and just as many ways to immediately personalize our experiences, retaining control over our time and attention is important to us. Letting the audience retain their attentive autonomy during the show seemed to allow them to be more engaged. Rather than the heavy haze of obligatory half-focus, which often rolls over an audience bravely taking their cultural vitamins, the attention being paid here was authentic and alive. It’s true—I saw several people check in with their phones or their friends next to them, or take photos to post on social media—but then I saw them either decide to head inside or check right back into the show. That quick second of disengagement didn’t ruin the experience for the people around them—it didn’t seem to ruin their experience, either. The container the production built was big enough to hold the story, the actors, and the authenticity of the audience.
Even to the end of the show, we were with it, hanging on Richard’s (the superfly Brandon Potter) every dangerous ploy, hateful twist, and sadistic punch line. The actors were confident, relaxed, and able to be present with the audience, even as folks crossed the playing space to get more beer and stew. These pros were responsive to us and connected to each other. There was a sense that we were all on this journey together. When Richard was finally killed at the end of the play, the audience cheered. Like real cheers, not obligatory “I’m supposed to participate now” cheers. It was exhilarating. The show lived on the audience’s heartbeat, breath, and attention. And isn’t that the whole point? Aren’t we as makers of theater after the authentic attention of our audience, folks we know are choosing the unique, living experience they can only get by being together in this place at this time? And, as audience members, don’t we want to know that it matters we showed up to see the play?
The energy at Shakespeare at the Bar was contagiously intoxicating. It got me excited about what could happen if going to the theater was always this kind of energizing communal opportunity. There’s a growing culture of performance in unconventional spaces in Dallas: Shakespeare in the Bar, Bar Politics, House Party Theater and The Tribe (these last two I have yet to personally experience, but you better believe y’all are at the top of my list for 2016). This impulse isn’t necessarily new: young, driven theater-makers have been using whatever spaces they can find to get their work made since time immemorial. What feels important for us to listen to right now, especially as traditional subscription and single-ticket sales continue to dive, is the explosive popularity of these kinds of offerings. What does this tell us about the relationship our audiences want to have to the work, each other, the space, the act of attending a live event? How are these events in Dallas reflective of larger national and international trends, and how might we look to them to help us address and solve core issues endangering our work as an industry?
Part of the formula for Shakespeare in the Bar is that it’s only lightly rehearsed. That works for the rough and tumble nature of what they’re after. But it’s not the only way. The National Theatre of Scotland, with pieces like The Strange Undoing of Prudentia Hart and Long Gone Lonesome are intensively prepared, but still full of spontaneity. While other of their shows are made in traditional spaces, these two plays are designed to tour to pubs. In Chicago, live music stalwart The Hideout was the perfect site for Long Gone Lonesome, which ended with a full audience dance party. When a satisfactory bar couldn’t be found in Austin for Prudentia Hart, Texas Performing Arts closed the main drape of the Bass Concert Hall and recreated a Scottish pub on the stage, complete with complimentary shots of scotch to get you started. The bar stayed open during the show, and while few people moved because they were so rapt, you could come and go as you needed. Grounded in a folkloric aesthetic, these two pieces are not well-known stories like Richard III—they’re new, complex tales that take energy to follow. But, like Shakespeare in the Bar, the performers earn our engagement with their own.
Then there’s Sleep No More, the runaway hit from UK-based PunchDrunk that exploded into New York City a few years back (see video preview below). A night at the McKittrick Hotel is a multi-floor, choose-your-own-adventure, totally immersive, mask-wearing experience that riffs on the combined stories of Macbeth and Hitchcock’s adaptation of Rebecca. The storytelling is environmentally driven: you can open doors, touch the set and props, rummage around in drawers—everything has been meticulously designed to be part of the experience. There is almost no spoken dialogue—except for the private sessions some audience members get with actors known as one-on-ones (like when MacB grabs your head and whispers in your ear so that later while you’re on the subway you find a huge patch of stage blood in your hair, for example), and truly bloodcurdling screams that ring through the space when the king is found murdered. That makes it easy for audience members to create their own paths, following their individual curiosity without fear of missing a key piece of story. If you get overwhelmed during the show, you can always go back to the second floor bar for a breather and a drink. And because of the show’s meteoric success, they’ve sprouted a whole institution around it with a bar folks can attend even if they’re not seeing the show, a fancy restaurant for dinner before or after; they’ve even started offering weekend brunch.
So far, the examples I’ve cited have all happened in either non-theatrical or repurposed theatrical spaces. But more traditional theater can upend its relationship to the audience, too. In Chicago, The Hypocrites have forged an international reputation with their “standy walky” promenade shows like Oedipus and Miss Julie, and their joyful reimagined and immersive Gilbert and Sullivan adaptations, which have started to successfully tour around the country.
New Leaf Theatre, my company in Chicago, was always working site-specifically in our oak-paneled, former-courthouse home in Lincoln Park. We had to think specifically about each production’s relationship to the audience as our scenic options were limited by the building’s historic character. We moved and rearranged the audience during the performance with The Man Who Was Thursday, and set up shop in a nearby pizza parlor to create Redeemers. We closed our company with an immersive production of Arcadia where audience members were invited to rummage around in the desks and books, looking for clues to the history of Sidley Park before the show and at intermission. We were curious about the intersection of immersive, audience-driven storytelling and complex traditional narrative. I think part of what made us successful was our small scale; with only space for around 50 - 70 audience members at each performance, it’s easier to personalize the experience.
But now look at what’s happening in Boston as the ART redesigns their space—even covering over some of their seats—to present an immersive experience with Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. Now there’s buzz that this show will transfer to a commercial run in a traditional space in New York, with the big question being how one of the old warhorses of the Great White Way could be reimagined to contain this new kind of audience experience. This feels like new territory, different even from the Donmar reimagining of Cabaret at Studio 54 in the late 1990’s. Producers are taking something that’s been happening on a small scale for many years and expanding it onto a larger canvas. This is a potential sea change that could redefine how theater-makers engage with our audiences and—perhaps more importantly—how our audiences expect to be engaged with, prioritizing close investment and meaningful connection to the work and the artists.
Thinking about unconventional performance spaces and the reimagining of established ones, I can’t help but think about the way our industry is fixated on, challenged, and in many ways defined by these very spaces we inhabit. Of course it’s on my mind in my work with Kitchen Dog Theater, in a temporary space this year after our 20-year Uptown home was repurposed. With the promise of homes for more local companies in the downtown arts district not quite panning out as planned, traditional space in Dallas seems hard to come by. There’s a real crisis of space in Austin right now, too, with both the Rude Mechs’ Off Center and Salvage Vanguard about to be destroyed in the face of the ever-quickening (and frankly pretty thoughtless, ruthless, and short-sighted) gentrification that is threatening to suck the life out of the culture that’s kept that city weird and livable for decades.
It’s not just Texas. It’s Chicago for sure, and New York most definitely. In every major city I can think of that enjoys a budding or thriving theater scene—Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco, Washington, D.C.—space is one of the primary challenges folks making the work encounter. I was just in Miami, talking with colleagues from across the country at the National New Play Network showcase, and at least a quarter of the 31 core member theaters are struggling with space: they’ve either lost or are about to lose their homes, or are struggling with the myriad programming and marketing challenges that come with being an itinerant company.
Simultaneously, according to TDF and Theater Bay Area’s Triple Play study, audiences are expressing a desire for greater access to artists and their processes. What if we looked at our perpetual space challenges, this feedback from our audiences, and the success of new offerings like Shakespeare in the Bar together? Perhaps there’s an opportunity to address our space and access challenges at the same time by examining the architecture in which we’re presenting our work. Would there be more public support (and consequently more money) for multi-use spaces that seek to redefine the relationship between the art and the audience? Would spaces like that provide theaters with the secure foundation that would empower them to take bigger, bolder risks in their programming?
What if we could build more spaces that would purposefully create the flexibility, spontaneity, and community that Shakespeare in the Bar is intrinsically creating? Could we make going to the theater a more comfortable, less coded experience that would welcome a more diverse population? How is what we choose to program driving the space we need and how welcome our audiences feel? What if we thought holistically about creating an event, not just a play? What if food and drink were always present? What if we stopped demanding people's attention with reminders to turn off their cell phones, unwrap their candies, sit down, and shut up? What if it was less taboo to discreetly check your messages—and what if the action onstage was compelling enough to keep your phone in your pocket? What if you could get up anytime, get another drink if you wanted? Is it possible that we don’t give audiences this freedom because we’re afraid the work we’re making just isn’t that engaging? What if we continue to break down the notion of artist and audience space as clearly demarcated areas? What if we open the door to the theatrical community so that more people can come inside and feel welcomed as part of it, even if they aren’t practitioners? What if, when we’re looking for a new space to commandeer or to create we throw out everything we think we know about the way a theater is supposed to look and ask what we want that space to be able to do?
If we want to matter to our audiences, if we want them to spend their money and their time with us, we have to look at the way we’re creating space for them. We have to remember that they matter to us and treat them accordingly. We have to welcome them. We have to make it feel less like going to an exclusive club where people fear they’ll do something wrong and be embarrassed. We need to stop perpetuating the social codes and economic barriers that make going to theater difficult, scary, or even impossible. We have to reverse the trend of theater becoming the elitist contemporary coliseum that it’s often accused of being. Perhaps we fight so hard against that accusation because we can see the places where it’s already true.
I’m not advocating a soft-pedaling or pandering to the lowest common denominator. In fact, I think audiences are done with not being challenged. I believe that they want good, solid, thoughtful and thought-provoking work. Look, again, at Hamilton. At Fun Home. Sure, there are exceptions that prove the rule of this trend, and maybe there always will be, and maybe those “fluffier” shows are as vital a part of our theatrical ecology as hard-driving drama. But if what we’re after is authentic engagement, we have to give our audiences something to engage, even if that something is pure, beautifully rendered spectacle. And in order to have an audience at all, we have to make it less intimidating to walk through the door.
With construction booming and a history of both wealth and philanthropy, Dallas is primed to become a space revolutionary, investigating, experimenting, and leading the field in new discoveries about what a theatrical space can be. Wouldn’t that be a fine contribution?
In many ways, it’s already happening. In addition to the pioneers I’ve already mentioned, look at what else we’ve got: The wildly flexible Wyly Theatre was built as part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center in part to serve the biggest theater game in town, the Dallas Theater Center. That space was literally made for this kind of experimentation. I saw Colossal there last spring and recently took in A Christmas Carol and couldn’t believe I was in the same space. Could DTC lead us deeper into this investigation? What about that production of Medea in the basement of the Kalita Humphreys? That building has historical significance; it’s a landmark in its own right, and it takes guts to do something non-traditional inside it. What about Upstart Productions and the Elevator Project (which we’re hoping makes it past the first season)? Dead White Zombies and their punk rock icehouse seem infinitely flexible, and are built for non-traditional, immersive audience experiences like DP92. The promise of Trinity Groves and the warehouses slated to become performance spaces—can those spaces lead the next charge?
There’s energy here—something portending an essential shift. It’s creating momentum in Dallas and around the country, and I think we owe it to ourselves, and to our audiences present and future to see where this energy can lead. It’s been more than 50 years since we had a revolution in the American theater. As many of the regional theaters that were born in that moment (started in part by a visionary lady in Dallas, by the way) have become increasingly homogenized and hermetically sealed against their patrons, some audiences have been lulled into complacency, but many others have become increasingly hungry for authentic connection. I don’t believe everyone wants to be a creator; but I do think we have a hunger as the audience to know that we matter.
Shakespeare in the Bar made me feel like I mattered—to the show, the story, and these art makers. It’s the kind of personal connection that lives at the heart of what we do, and is the impulse that I believe will help us re-emerge as an essential social force for good. If we can harness the momentum of this moment, and make a risky, experimental, and wholly necessary change, imagine what the next phase of our industry might inspire.
» Jess Hutchinson is a director, dramaturg, and producer dedicated to new plays and getting to know Dallas/Fort Worth for the first time. She recently earned her MFA from UT-Austin, is currently the NNPN Producer-in-Residence at Kitchen Dog Theater, and a founding member of Austin-based groundswell. She'll be writing about her exploration of the DFW theater and arts ecology in this monthly column on TheaterJones. Learn more about her and her work at www.jesshutchinson.com.
- November 2015: Episode 1: Introduction