Back in 2009, I ran away with the circus. No, not really, although it often felt like I had. But I did spend some time with Lucia Neare’s Theatrical Wonders, doing work she describes as “ephemeral, multisensory, participatory outdoor spectaculars”. Though my schedule doesn’t permit me to participate as often anymore, I’m joining her latest creation Recipe for Love this week. This kind of performance work is a very different kettle of fish from “regular” theatre (although is there such a thing?) and I doubt if actually running away with the circus could have provided more unique training than these experiences did. So what exactly does an actor learn from epic site-specific performance work?
Liberation. At some point during the on-site rehearsals, you will be rehearsing in your [yoga pants & SPF 35 / five layers of thermal wear/ rain poncho & galoshes] wearing a [large character headpiece / hoop skirt ] while lugging a [large basket / giant flatware/ miniature bed trolley carrying a truculent* child actor]. It will be broad daylight. People will stare.
During my first rehearsal (for a 2009 Lullaby Moon) I was somewhat discomfited. I spent not a little time casting covert glances at the various spectators who came and went during our four-hour rehearsal. I’m generally a little ascetic in my rehearsal preferences– empty space, neutral zone, etc. The thing about site-specific and large-scale public work is– you can’t do the work without embracing those defining aspects. I still prefer a quiet and focused rehearsal situation for much of my acting work, but site-specific rehearsals and performances went a long way toward helping me learn to own bold choices under unpredictable circumstances.
Flexibility. One of the performer-bearing boats will get stuck behind a barge. It will rain– not Seattle drizzle, but an East coast-style drenching, during the narrative climax, and the performance space will transform into a miniature floodplain. Your mostly impervious horse will shy upon encountering four thousand people and loudspeakers, and you will thank your stars for childhood pony camp and muscle memory. It makes a broken prop, missing sound cue, or fluffed line in traditional theatre feel like a breeze, comparatively speaking.
Connection. The way you receive feedback during an interactive, completely public show is wildly different from traditional theatre. The feedback is instantaneous and unfiltered. If it’s a daytime performance, the audience is fully visible and you’ll know whether you’re making a connection, or telling the story in a compelling way. In these performance instances, the audience is more of an additional scene partner who is contributing their own attention (who or what are they focusing on in this moment? How does that affect our characters?) and physical choices (hello, they’re joining in this dance/activity with us! How can we incorporate that?). We have a narrative and structure to follow, but also incredible freedom to embrace the most gung-ho audience members, or to gently include the bewildered or shy in how we’re advancing that story. The story only really unfolds with the help of whoever joins us that day. Not knowing what or whom to expect in this regard makes every single audience a joyful discovery.
Forecast for this week’s rehearsals: 100% chance of sunscreen with lots of hydration. Recipe for Love performs this Saturday, May 3 at 4pm on the Great Lawn of Redmond City Hall. Recommended for lovers of cake & whimsy.
*I feel compelled to note that Mr. Truculence was the exception rather than the rule, and the vast majority of youth performers I’ve worked with have been truly delightful persons.