I really like one-on-one theater. I get a thrill out of the intense focus of one artist and one audience member in conversation.
Edward Einhorn’s Performance for One attempts to do this in our online times. Offering a two-part show over Skype, each around 10 minutes, the actor can see you and you can see her.
The short plays acknowledge a distance (noting “we cannot touch” and attempting to hold hands against the screen) and our moment (the inability to be with loved ones). They are in subject focused on the role of audience and the idea of memory–the narratives, ideas, feelings we remember and the lost details and sensations.
While two different actors are performing the role, I tuned in on a day with actor Yvonne Roen. Yvonne said something to the effect that while we were in large theaters with large audiences the role and work of the audience might be diffuse, but here we bear all the work. Our job is to listen and that might be harder or easier as an audience of one.
This made me think about the shows, in the Before times, that felt unbearable as an audience member: burdens I did not ask to carry or days I was not open to listening. You book a ticket and 3 months later on the day of the show you’re not in the right headspace for it, but you drag yourself there anyway. Sometimes you can get swept up. But there are harder days when the experience can be intrusive and agonizing. Obviously, there are shows that are meant to be uncomfortable or challenge the audience to confront things they may not want to. That’s not what I’m speaking of.
I’m talking about when you as the audience member cannot fulfill the role of audience for the show you are attending. In years past, I would go to these shows and force my mind to wander. I did not want to be in that room and I needed the escape. I felt guilt over buying a ticket and wasting money, so I physically was there. My brain was not. Over time, I’ve learned to just not attend when I cannot “show up” for the work.
I liked that this show acknowledges a theater audience is not passive. We’re not mere vessels being casually filled by the art. Our brains are whirring. Our emotions are being churned. Things are happening in the audience–sometimes positive, sometimes negative. But it is an active practice. It’s why sometimes I am wrung out from 5 nights of theater. Don’t get me wrong, I love theater. It’s why I keep going, but for me the hard days in the theater are the dark side of it. We don’t often talk about that. Theater, when it all clicks into place, can give so much, so it’s natural that when it does not the impact feels like a taking.
With Performance for One, I found my role of audience quite easy. In these short plays, the responsibility of the audience relates to two stories about parents and a desire to share memories of these parents with the audience.
Yvonne tells stories about her mother and father. But then there is a shift because, as Yvonne notes, this work has been written by someone else, so the “memories” she is talking about are not hers but the writer’s.
That tiny intrusion of fact cracks the piece open in a new way. If you had been lulled into an intimacy with the actor or a sense of connection with the person in front of you (quite easy to do in this format), this reframing reminds us of the act of performance (tears and all). We remember the box around both of us on-screen and the absent writer who has concocted this scenario. We remember our role as observer and are reminded to listen.
Of course, with all online theater it’s hard to truly lose yourself. Yet, even when the screen went glitchy, and it was a patchwork made up of smudges of color, I though to myself “memories are like this” and it fit the storytelling. Our brains can fill in the pieces sometimes or create intent where there is none. The subject of memory is a fruitful leaping off point particularly for online storytelling with minimal theatrics around it.
It’s so potent that for a brief moment when Yvonne was talking about the memory of a school bus not showing up I was thrown back to the trauma of my own elementary school years. I had a deep fear of missing the school bus. When she is telling the story, a very specific place came to mind where I would wait for my school bus. So as Yvonne describes the author’s memory (fact or fiction) the setting was one of my own creation. The writer’s memory and my own found a middle ground.
I had done the work.
Reservations can be made through Untitled Theater Co. #61 for showtimes on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays.