For some New York theaters, the bigger the audience, the better. Director Christine Jones just wants to fill one seat.
The latest project for her company Theatre for One, “I’m Not the Stranger You Think I Am,” a series of one-act plays written especially for an audience of one, debuted on May 18 in Brookfield Place’s Winter Garden. Each performance, about five minutes long and presented by one actor, takes place inside a custom mobile theater that measures only about 4 feet long by 8 feet high, with just a few feet separating the actor from the lone audience member.
“In a normal setting, the audience member feels that they can sit back, pay attention if they want to, it’s easier for them to have their mind wander,” Jones said on a recent afternoon, sitting at a table next to the mobile theater in the bustling, sunny atrium. “In this setting, the value of their presence and their attention is so clear and apparent that I think they feel more compelled to be the most considerate, attentive audience member that they can be.”
Seven playwrights contributed work commissioned specifically for this production, including Thomas Bradshaw and Craig Lucas, who penned “An American in Paris,” each performed by a different actor. The performances, all free, run through June 6 at three public spaces in Manhattan, and are a far cry from Jones’ other current production, the extravagant “Queen of the Night,” an immersive dinner theater circus at a nightclub in midtown’s posh Paramount Hotel, with tickets starting at $140 each and topping off at $450 for the most exclusive access.
Theatre for One, as intimate as “Queen of the Night” is lavish, does share some production elements with the over-the-top experience, Jones said. “Queen of the Night” performers are encouraged to make eye contact and interact with audience members one-on-one, crafting individual experiences in the midst of a grand spectacle.
“Both projects seek to achieve that connection between the audience member and the performer,” said Jones, who also works as a set designer and won a Tony Award for her work on Broadway’s “American Idiot.” “We were always experimenting with ways to dissolve the typical boundaries that a proscenium theater necessitates.”
For the audience, this means solo entry into the closet-sized theater, custom built by architecture firm LOT-EK to resemble a black travel case for musical instruments, the interior lined with plush, red velvet. Once inside and the door shut by a jumpsuit-clad staffer, the swarm of the office building atrium quiets. A wall no more than a few feet from the audience’s seat pulls away, revealing an actor seated on a stool, almost within arm’s length. The performers’ physical features, from eye color to forearm tattoos and red nail polish, seem like set pieces in the mostly bare space.
“The first time we sat down to rehearse it, it was like, ‘this is so foreign,’” Carmen Zilles said during a brief break from her rapid-fire performance of a piece by playwright Emily Schwend. “I’ve never looked an audience member in the face like this. Usually you’re with another actor so they’re in on the game that you’re playing together.”
Zilles, a recent graduate of the Yale School of Drama, said the proximity to the audience can make her worry about food stuck in her teeth, or if her makeup is in place. Sometimes, the audience member is the first person she’s spoken to that day. But it also means every performance is unique, a happy occasion for an actor who’s reciting the same lines several times a day. Zilles imagines different connections between her character, a young woman ruminating on a lost relationship, and the audience. Sometimes she sees the character’s sister in the chair across from her. Sometimes the audience member cries. Once, a man came in with his 11-year-old daughter, who sat on his lap. Zilles pictured the girl was her own child, whom she’d never met.
“I was a mess,” Zilles said. “I felt really bad for those poor people because I think they were like, ‘this girl’s crazy.’ But your mind just goes to these places.”