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Close Enough to Touch: The Rise of Hyper-Intimate Theatre

By: Joey Sims
Date: Jul 05, 2024

Why some of NYC's most thrilling and innovative productions are being performed for so few people

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Ryan Spahn's new dark comedy Inspired by True Events is set in the green room of a community theatre. So when Knud Adams signed on as director of the Out of the Box Theatrics production, he could only imagine one place to stage it: the actual green room of the theatre. If that meant reducing the audience to just 35 people a night, all the better.

"The power of performance is the magic created between an ensemble and an audience," says Adams. "That's highlighted when you're just inches away from each other."

Over the past year, a striking number of NYC shows have leaned into "hyper-intimacy." That was the descriptor used by last summer's acclaimed mounting of Uncle Vanya, staged by Jack Serio in a Manhattan loft for 40 folks a night. Audiences flocked to the production, eager to see well-known theatre performers including David Cromer, Marin Ireland and Will Brill up close, leading to two extended, sold-out runs.

Uncle Vanya may be the biggest success of this small genre, but other adventurous and resourceful theatre-makers are embracing hyper-intimacy as both a key artistic impulse and a unique selling point. Matthew Gasda made his name with Dimes Square, an underground hit that originated in a Greenpoint loft. Now the popular Gen Z chronicler mounts his plays, including the recent Zoomers, at the living room-sized Brooklyn Center for Theatre Research. The New Place Players presents Shakespeare in cozy spaces across the city, most recently a townhouse in Gramercy. And the queer-led collective The Spade staged Christian Flynn's Everyone In New York Is Beautiful at Cafe Katan, a coffee shop in Ridgewood, Queens, just last month.

Adult Film
A performance at Adult Film. Photo by Marcus Maddox.

Adult Film, a burgeoning company and artistic training center based out of a Bushwick basement, welcomes no more than 30 people per performance. Every inch of the subterranean space, including the makeshift kitchen, becomes part of the play. That blurred line between performers and audience helps the venue feel less formal, according to artistic director Ryan Czerwonko—more akin to a gathering spot than a theatre.

"It eliminates the need many artists feel for as many people as possible to see their work—actually, it's pretty amazing that 30 people crammed into a room to see it," says Czerwonko. "It's a real communal feeling."

That communal feeling was also important for director Maria Dizzia, who selected the 60-seat Connelly Theater Upstairs for Marin Ireland's new play Pre-Existing Condition, a searing, vulnerable one-act about a woman working through her trauma following an incidence of domestic violence.

Julia Chan and Greg Keller in Pre-Existing Condition, currently running at the Connelly Theater Upstairs.
Julia Chan and Greg Keller in Pre-Existing Condition, currently running at the Connelly Theater Upstairs. Photo by Emilio Madrid.

Much of Ireland's play is set in group therapy sessions. In Dizzia's staging, the therapists address their guidance to the audience as much as to the characters. Theatregoers seem closer to fellow patients than observers, a dynamic that intensifies the personal connection to the protagonist as she struggles to apply the therapeutic lessons in her daily life.

"The group is where she starts to understand a sense of community, and that her healing will happen in connecting with others, not just in herself," says Dizzia. "Since that is such a fundamental part of her journey, we wanted that to be a fundamental part of the audience's experience."

Serio also selected the Connelly's tiny upstairs space for his Vanya follow-up, the US premiere of Ruby Thomas' The Animal Kingdom. A family drama set over six intense therapy sessions, Kingdom sold out a 16-performance engagement within 24 hours of going on sale.

"The intimacy of the space heightened the claustrophobia of the play," he explains, stressing that in both productions, the nearness was a means to an artistic end. "Strip everything else away, and it gets us as close as possible to people baring their souls."

Voices in Your Head
The Voices in Your Head. Photo by HanJie Chow.

Also a swift sellout was Grier Mathiot and Billy McEntee's The Voices in Your Head, a dark comedy about an idiosyncratic support group performed for 16 people in St. Lydia's, a storefront church in Gowanus. For director Ryan Dobrin's staging, audiences were seated alongside the performers, so each viewer's perspective was unique.

"The intimate nature meant that each audience member could view their closest performer as the protagonist of the piece," said Dobrin. "They got an inside look at how that character interacted with the group. Everyone left with a radically different experience."

Beyond the artistic rewards, some of these hyper-intimate stagings are born out of limited budgets. "It is people taking advantage of what resources they have," says experimental theatre veteran Tony Torn, an actor and director. "You see a lot of people turning their home spaces into theatrical spaces because that's the only way to get work done."

Torn operates Torn Page, a 22-seat theatre established by his late parents, actors Rip Torn and Geraldine Page, who converted the second floor living room of their Chelsea townhouse into a performance space. The venue had a word-of-mouth success last season with The Whole of Time, a contemporary spin on The Glass Menagerie directed by Torn and written by Argentinian playwright Romina Paula. Torn utilized simple staging and limited props to evoke an apartment in Buenos Aires, its realness enhanced by the use of an authentic family living space.

Torn pointed to New York City's long history of avant-garde artists getting their start in small found spaces as a guiding vision for Torn Page. "If you look back at the creation of the Off-Off-Broadway movement, it was all stuff happening in tiny theatres, cafes and lofts," says Torn, citing María Irene Fornés and Richard Foreman as two trailblazers in this tradition. "That scene created some of the most valuable traditions in experimental work that still resonate today."

The Whole of Time at Torn Page. Photo by Charles McCain.
The Whole of Time at Torn Page. Photo by Charles McCain.

Inspired by True Events is a return to those roots for director Adams. While he will make his Broadway debut later this season with the Broadway transfer of Sanaz Toossi's English, which he originally helmed Off Broadway in 2022, Adams cut his teeth with site-specific work, like a steamy production of Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking staged in a men's shower room. "The spirit of squatting has been essential to the theatre for decades, if not centuries," he says.

Hyper-intimate shows also offer the benefit of scarcity marketing for artists aiming to position their production as an event. Engendering a bit of FOMO, so to speak, helps boost ticket sales and lures audiences off their couches.

Serio's Uncle Vanya initially billed itself as "40 tickets per night, 16 nights only." The marketing for Inspired by True Events uses a similar angle, describing Spahn's play as: "A true crime event where 35 people experience found footage in a theatre."

In Spahn's entertaining backstage thriller, the lead actor arrives at the theatre in an unstable state. Suspecting he has done something awful, his costars search for answers as the show goes on. By placing 35 people a night directly into the action, Adams hopes to make the audience co-investigators in the "part mystery, part escape-room experience."

Serio says theatregoers are eager for these kinds of innovative, hyper-intimate events. "It feels electric to walk into a space you've never been to before with only a few other people, knowing you're about to sit just a few feet away from the performance," he says. "Audiences understand that right now, some of the most exciting, experimental and bold work is happening in lofts, closets, roofs, basements and other spaces where the artists are in charge."

Out of the Box Theatrics' Inspired by True Events is playing at 154 from July 10 to August 4.

Pre-Existing Condition is playing at the Connelly Theater Upstairs through August 3.

Torn Page is hoping to remount The Whole of Time. Join the email list for updates.

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Joey Sims is a freelance theatre journalist who has written for The Brooklyn Rail, Vulture, American Theatre and others. Follow him on Twitter @joeycsims or subscribe to his theatre substack Transitions.