This summer, I worked with Professor Sweeney and Colgate graduate Ben Mandell ’14 to bring the site-specific productions of LONEtheater to New York City. In this project, Argentinean director Matías Umpierrez wrote five plays, each intended to be performed in one of five different locations in New York City. As the production team, we all helped to make this intention a reality.
LONEtheater as a project aims to immerse spectators in a theater piece of their choice, placing them in a unique theater experience in which each spectator is alone with the actor(s). Each spectator is asked to respond to the piece, and even to become an active member of the performance he chooses to see. In the New York City-based project, spectators could choose from five productions: Pact, Witness, Far, Exodus, and Amnesia. Each piece asked something different of its spectators. Some spectators commented that they felt nervous in this position, as though they had a role to fill and they were not sure what this role should be, but they also seemed excited by this challenge.
Professor April Sweeney in Witness (Gustavo Mirabile/Courtesy LONEtheater)
In addition to being placed in the production itself, each spectator was thrust into a jarring environment. Some environments were familiar, like a subway train and Central Park, and others were entirely new to the audience member, like Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center. Each environment was entirely natural, though: no proscenium separated the audience member form the actor(s), and the sets consisted of whatever the environment had to offer. The poetic text conflicted with this natural environment, and actor(s) relayed stories to audience members in environments that would seem to call for conversations, rather than the monologues that made up most of the productions. This forced the audience member into the position of active listener for most of the performances. Occasionally, audience members were also called upon to answer questions about themselves or perform small tasks. In one instance, they had to choose whether or not to set a hostage free, and were asked to go as far as to untie him themselves. Audience members often backed away from such active participation, but a surprising number of spectators were willing to actively participate when asked, and most spectators were excited to listen.
In New York City, many stories are overlooked, as people pass others without a second glance. Matías Umpierrez’s five pieces called attention to such overlooked stories. Spectators were called into an apartment to watch the decline of a family in Exodus, and pulled onto the subway to hear the story of an average college graduate, told through the eyes of the speaker in Witness. Spectators left the productions with a greater sensitivity to the lives of the strangers that surround them in the city.
Each different location, as well, was placed in a new light during the productions. The subway became a place to enter others’ lives; the old school building housing Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center became a place to hold a man hostage; Central Park became the center of a story of migration and familial love. Suffice it to say, spectators left with a new take on the setting of the productions they had seen.
Each piece was written in Spanish, Matías Umpierrez’s native language, and later translated into English. Rehearsals took place in a mix of Spanish and English, leading to a necessary cooperation between actors who did not speak any Spanish, those who did, as well as myself, a Spanish student striving to increase my fluency. It was also a constant reminder of the fact that this piece has already taken place in multiple countries, in multiple languages, and will go on to be translated into more languages, changing slightly with each interpretation. The project has so far taken place in Argentina, Spain, and New York City, and rehearsals are now in progress in Brazil.
As the production stage manager, I worked on scheduling, rehearsal notes, acquiring props, and any other tasks that needed to be completed. Because the production had no budget, we had a much more cooperative experience, which was only augmented by the language barrier.
The project altered the way we think of theater, stripping theater down to story-telling and rebuilding it from there, just as it altered spectators’ perception of New York City. With each translation and each country in which the project takes place, it is edited to fit the current socioeconomic climate and issues faced in that particular location. The project is currently occurring in Brazil, where it will continue to demonstrate to spectators the importance of the stories that surround them.