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Are Those People Acting or Fighting?

Date: May 23, 2013

For Alec Duffy, artistic director of the Obie-winning theatre group Hoi Polloi, watching a DVD of John Cassavetes' Shadows provided a light bulb moment. "About halfway through watching I was like, 'Damn. This would be so great with live actors in a theatrical environment.'"

The 1959 film, which takes on interracial relationships and is performed in an improvisatory style, seemed like the perfect piece of art to stage in an immersive manner. "The movie is a perfect marriage of radical content and radical form," Duffy says. "There are fights and people grappling with each other. It's about the deep difficulties of sexual relationships, and the film has a high naturalism to it." He adds that he'd never seen a movie so messy that managed to feel so true to life. "I like pieces that reflect the complexities of our living. That excited me about the movie. I thought by staging it with actors sitting next to audience members on couches, it would capture the intimacy of the film---whereas putting it on a stage 20 feet away would lose something."

At first Duffy imagined using a friend's apartment in Bushwick. "I thought it would be cool to have 15 to 20 people in the audience with actors coming in from different rooms," he recalls.

When that fell through, he pursued a performance space, and with the permission of the Cassavetes estate, Duffy premiered Shadows, which uses the full text of the film, in 2011 for a limited run at the Collapsable Hole in Williamsburg. (He did keep the audience on couches, though.) The production is currently being remounted through June 1 at JACK, a performance space in Clinton Hill that he founded last year.

Duffy is no stranger to adventurous theatrical experiences. The Less We Talk, which he directed in 2009, featured a cast of 25 choral members, and last year's All Hands, a show about a mysterious cult, put the audience on risers facing each other, implicating viewers in various performed rituals.

The current iteration of Shadows features a few changes in cast but maintains that same audacious energy. It also sports a live jazz combo led by Rick Burkhardt. "Rick has written melodies that get spliced up throughout the night, so the arrangements are almost unrecognizable," Duffy says. "They go from slow and haunting to fast bebop. Rick and the musicians also slip in and out of playing characters."

A particularly thrilling moment in the Collapsable Hole production of Shadows came when the performance space's garage door lifted to reveal two actors fighting on the street. Passersby gawked and peered into the theatre before realizing they were witnessing not a fistfight, but a performance. "At JACK we don't have a big garage door, but we do have the street level glass fa├žade doors, so we will be playing with some scenes on the street," Duffy says.

Unlike the Collapsable Hole, JACK is wider than it is long, but Duffy and his team have assembled couches (again!) and risers in order to plant the audience in the middle of the action. "I think people are looking for adventures," Duffy explains. "Whenever material feels like it would gain from an immersive style, we should follow our instincts. You behave differently in a situation like this. That was one of the reasons I was attracted to our space at JACK. I could see the possibilities of a lot of immersive productions."


Eliza Bent is a journalist, playwright, and performer living in Brooklyn.

Photo by Ryan Jensen