From the outside, the “theater” looks like a shipping crate, the kind roadies roll around, except that it’s customized with various lights and bump-outs and a door that says AUDIENCE. Ushered inside by a guide in bright coveralls, you find yourself in a very red, very small space, perhaps four feet square; your seat is a sort of PVC throne, donated by a guy who usually makes them for peep shows. Another door, two feet in front of your face, is shut, but you know that the “stage” must be behind it because it’s surrounded by lights. Before you can really get your bearings, though, that door suddenly slides open, and a play begins. A short play, certainly; depending on which one you get (there are seven, presented in semi-random rotation) it may be anywhere from four to eight minutes. But even so — and even with just a black chair for a set — it’s a real play nonetheless, with a real character, a real theme, and a real actor. Perhaps two.
I say two because under these circumstances, you cannot help but be an actor as well. Though the project is called Theater for One — T41 — the experience of having someone talk directly to you in a small space is so intimate and so immediate that only the most steadfastly reluctant audience participant would refuse to engage. I am usually that most steadfastly reluctant audience participant, and yet, when Carmen Zilles, in Emily Schwend’s The Way Back, asked if I “really want to talk about this” I reflexively nodded. This was not a one-way street. My nod, which Zilles acknowledged with a look, seemed to change her performance even though it did not alter her text. Other times, I spoke because she seemed to be asking me a direct question, and, after all, she was only as far away from me as she would be if we were having lunch in a café. Eventually, as she told me about getting lost on a familiar street, tears pooled in her eyes, and soon, quite unbidden, in mine.
Christine Jones, the Broadway set designer (Spring Awakening, American Idiot) who masterminded T41 — an earlier incarnation appeared in Times Square in 2011 — later told me that most people do respond out loud to the actor, in some cases at length. (An older woman watching Thomas Bradshaw’s play, in which the actor Andrew Garman wonders whether he has enough sex with his wife, shared a complete intimate history of her marriage.) But the value of the experience is not really dependent on that sort of participation. At the simplest level, it is an opportunity to watch fine acting close up; all the actors I saw — Zilles, Garman, Marisol Miranda in a play by Josè Rivera, Erin Gann in a play by Will Eno, and Keith Randolph Smith in a play by Lynn Nottage — were remarkable. It’s also a chance to experience storytelling at the fullest possible intensity. Compare the cast-to-audience ratio of 1:1 to that of a typical Broadway show, which might exceed 1:250 in a currently modish four-actor comedy.
But more than that, T41 is a radical deconstruction of fourth-wall dramaturgy. Though Jones is also known for her immersive theatrical experiences (like the spectacularly enveloping Queen of the Night), “immersive” doesn’t begin to describe this. It’s as if you and the actor were not only alone, but alone in a space capsule, or a bathysphere. (When at one point Gann’s character — an actor who has supposedly misunderstood the nature of the gig — leaned forward, out of the frame of the playing area and into “mine,” I thought I might have to abandon ship.) And yet by embedding such meta-theatrics, which after all are not unfamiliar to followers of performance artists like Marina Abramovic, within the solid frame of dramatic narrative, Jones short-circuits the intellectual-hipster response. She reminds us that true theatricality is work for both the performer and the audience; it’s a good thing the plays are so short. Their impact is so highly concentrated you may feel too wrung out after five minutes to get back in line for another helping.
Partly, no doubt, that’s because Jones gave the playwrights, who also include Craig Lucas and Zayd Dohrn, a theme and collective title — I’m Not the Stranger You Think I Am — that seems to point in a dark or sad direction. Of the five responses I saw, only two had any comic element; Eno’s, of course, and Bradshaw’s. (His was the only one that toyed with the expectations of the form by offering a somewhat unlikable character.) But as with great theater of any length and in any venue, darkness and sadness are not necessarily depressing. I actually found the experience elating, a bit like getting good news from a doctor (you’re human!) and a bit like visiting a carnival. I couldn’t help wishing, though, that people who already enjoy theater, and seek it out, would not be the only ones to benefit from T41. Arts Brookfield, the cultural arm of the real-estate developer that owns the venues where T41 is performing, has done a great thing in financing the project, but how much greater would it be if they took it on the road, to malls and churches and diners across America? Hey, the stage is already packed.
I’m Not the Stranger You Think I Am is at the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place through May 24, at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan May 27 through 31, and at the Grace Building in Midtown June 2 through 6. Performances at all three venues begin each day at noon and continue through 7 p.m. See artsbrookfield.com/T41 for details.