New Plays Turn Passive Audience Members Into Participants

Several productions in New York's smaller theaters aren't content with providing passive experiences — the audience is asked to participate. Here Lies Love, a new David Byrne musical about Imelda Marcos at the Public Theater, is set in a disco and the audience moves around, from scene to scene, dancing all the while. Natasha, Pierre and the Comet of 1812, is an electronic pop opera based on a portion of Tolstoy's War and Peace, and is set in a Russian restaurant where audiences are served a meal and vodka as part of the performance. And the audience explores a run-down hotel in Sleep No More, a dance/theater experience based loosely on Macbeth, following actors up and down floors and into different rooms.

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And finally this hour to the theater. By and large, plays and musicals are passive experiences: you sit and watch others perform. Jeff Lunden has this story about three off-Broadway shows that encourage the audience to move.

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

DAVID BYRNE: Imelda Marcos really loved going to discos, and that she had a mirrorball 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 bubble but also brings her own soundtrack to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL "HERE LIES LOVE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) Just say here lies love.

LUNDEN: Byrne collaborated with Fatboy Slim on a two-CD concept album, which came out a couple years ago, but it's now been turned into a full-fledged musical at the Public Theater in downtown New York. Called "Here Lies Love" and directed by Alex Timbers, it's set in a disco. Not only does the audience move around the dance floor to follow the action, they are prompted to dance along. Choreographer Annie-B Parson says it makes for a kinetic theatergoing experience.

ANNIE-B PARSON: The audience is trying to understand the piece, and they're watching, and dancing is a really different experience than watching. So sometimes the audience are amazing extras, and sometimes they are taking in a play, but they're on their feet. So the sense of who the audience is changes throughout the piece.

LUNDEN: Parson says the audience interactivity is a double-edged sword. You're partying with a corrupt public figure.

PARSON: When you're dancing with Imelda, you know, it's casting two shadows, in a sense. You're very aware that you shouldn't be dancing with Imelda, but it's too much fun to stop. So I think it works. That was the idea - complicated.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL "NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) There's a war going on out there somewhere, and Andrey isn't here...

LUNDEN: Across Manhattan, in the trendy meatpacking district, another interactive theater experience has put up its tent - literally. "Natasha, Pierre & 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, complete with red velvet curtains, leather banquettes and chandeliers. Dave Malloy, who wrote the pop opera and plays Pierre, says he got the idea when he visited Moscow doing research for the show.

DAVE MALLOY: I went to a club called Cafe Margarita, which was this, like, Russian 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. Everyone had shakers on their tables, and they were shaking along to the music. And so when I saw that room, I was like, oh, this is the setting for this piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL "NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Natasha.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing) Natasha is young. She loves Andrey with...

LUNDEN: The audience gets a glass of champagne, a shot of vodka and a full Russian dinner before the show. Then the action takes place all around and sometimes in the middle of the audience. Director Rachel Chavkin says the actors had to adapt their approach to play in this intimate, yet sprawling environment.

RACHEL CHAVKIN: The acting style for this is both cinematic and operatic, and they have to be acting as if they're on film with sort of that level of realism, but the size of the physical gestures has to read across space to the person on the opposite side of the room.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL "SLEEP NO MORE")

LUNDEN: Intimate gestures in intimate spaces are what have kept audiences flocking to another show, "Sleep No More." Performed in a former warehouse, it's a nonlinear adaptation of Shakespeare's "Macbeth," mashed together with references to 1930s Hitchcock, and it's probably the most interactive of these interactive theatergoing experiences, says producer Jonathan Hochwald.

JONATHAN HOCHWALD: It allows the audience to roam, to discover, to have that sense of adventure. We often say it's a combination of theater, dance, art installation, nightlife across 100,000 square feet of the McKittrick Hotel, where, 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.

LUNDEN: Audiences are handed Venetian masks as they get on an elevator, which takes them to one of seven floors, with multiple rooms. They're instructed by the elevator operator to never take their masks off or to speak. And told, finally, fortune favors the bold.

HOCHWALD: The masks are an ingenious device because what they do is they allow the individual audience members to immediately become anonymous, to feel more adventurous, potentially more daring. 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 choose to do.

LUNDEN: These shows all share one thing. Unlike a regular play or musical, every audience member takes in the action from a different vantage point. Choreographer Annie-B Parson.

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

(LAUGHTER)

PARSON: You know, it's very, very different.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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