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How Does an Audience Change a Play?

Date: Oct 26, 2011


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A play's identity changes based on where you see it and whom you see it with. The same production seems different in a large, empty theatre than it does in a crowded basement, and that's half the beauty of live performance. One way or another, everything and everyone makes an impact.

For proof, just look to PigPen Theatre Company's production of The Nightmare Story. A dark fable about dreams that spring to life in the woods, the show premiered in a tiny downtown venue as part of 2010's FringeNYC Festival. Until the end of the week, however, it's playing at The Irondale Center, a massive converted church in Brooklyn.

The audience has been just as variable. Often, PigPen plays to adults who see theatre all the time, but on four Thursday afternoons, TDF has sponsored special matinees through its Stage Doors program. Those performances are for local students who almost never see shows.

The company says both the space and the Stage Doors audience have changed The Nightmare Story.

"This space is a character," says PigPen member Arya Shahi. "You can't ignore the church that we're in." Irondale's atmosphere certainly suits the production, which uses shadow play, puppets, and original music to tell macabre fairy tales. When a little boy is chased by a creature with glowing teeth, it's creepy to see the beast emerge from the cavernous space at the back of an old church.

Moments like that, which rely on space and distance and darkness, weren't possible when the company performed The Nightmare Story at FringeNYC. Consider a scene where two performers manipulate a large deer puppet. Shahi says, "The deer scene in [Irondale] reads completely differently. In [the Fringe] it's all of a sudden this giant two-man puppet coming through the audience, whereas in this space, the puppet still feels small. It still feels like a deer in the forest, coming out of the darkness."

The show also feels different when PigPen performs for students. (The final Stage Doors matinee is tomorrow.) "They bring a rambunctiousness, because many of them don't see much theatre," says PigPen member Alex Falberg. "That's kind of great because they don't know the rules and they don't have to be 'polite.' They're much more willing to give responses and make noise. Sometimes, traditional theatregoers aren't as willing to talk or respond or interact."

The students at last week's matinee didn't hold anything back. They screeched when creatures slithered around the stage, and they hooted during the comic relief.

Kelly Chester, a language arts teacher at George Jackson Academy in Manhattan, says it's important for her students to be audience members. "I feel since we're in the greatest city in the world, the kids should be able to take advantage of the arts, and most of them can't afford to," she explains. "So this is a great way to bring about that opportunity for them. It's important because it furthers their education in a different way."


Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor