Theatergoers are used to being anonymous, hidden in the darkness, part of a crowd. They're free to fidget, yawn, even tune out; the actors won't know. But in an innovative kind of theater popping up at fringe festivals and independent venues the spotlight shines on the audience.
Intimate theater relies on tight spaces and unconventional stages to collapse the distance between performer and viewer.
Take a Melbourne performance that takes place in a taxi. In this tiny theater, the audience (all two of them) sit in the back. In the front are the actors: a driver and his various passengers
Actress Anna Marais plays a particularly disagreeable passenger. She says that since the action occurs in such a small space, there is no escape. None for the audience, and none for the actor.
"There's an intensity to this, feeling someone so close behind you. It actually heightens the stakes for the actor."
Intimate theater can be experienced in Melbourne and Sydney, Edinburgh and London, New York and Montreal. Small dramas unfold in offices, elevators, hotel rooms and theaters built just for two.
In Times Square recently, a short play was staged in a red plush booth about the size of an office cubicle. The project is called Theatre for One, and its creator Christine Jones, a Tony award wining set designer, drew inspiration for the booth's design from other small spaces — peep shows, confessionals, even Maxwell Smart's cone of silence — studying what kinds of spaces were conducive to intimacy.
New Yorker Rick Kaye attended Theatre for One, even though he normally hates audience participation. But when actor Dallas Roberts reached over to take his hands, Kaye went with it.
"It felt very, very real. I sort of forgot this was an actor doing a monologue. It felt like someone was just telling me something, like being in a therapist position."
Kaye says he communicated with the actor only through body language and eye contact. But sometimes in these intimate spaces, audience members feel compelled to speak up.
Performance artist Sarah Jane Norman describes how one woman responded to her one-on-one show, "Rest Stop," in which she leads an audience member into a dark space, lit with fairy lights, lies down with them and spoons them silently.
"In the first performance," Norman says, "A woman came and lay down next to me and said, 'Oh, you are so smart to come up with this. I haven't done this in such a long time.'"
At first the staged performance — snuggling so closely with strangers, "giving and receiving" — may sound more like foreplay than theater. But Norman says nobody has ever tried to make the encounter sexual. What does happen, she says, is that thank her — profusely. And corny as it sounds, some laugh. Some cry.
"There's a very pronounced sense of melancholy in a piece like "Rest Area," Norman says. "It's about a deeper sense of loneliness that all of us experience."
And when her work is criticized for being too touchy-feely, for being therapy in the guise of theater, she responds, "Theater is therapy," and profoundly healing whether for a huge crowd, or an intimate audience, of one.