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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
There’s a wise old adage in the theatre that you can’t know a play until you’ve seen it in front of an audience. By noticing when a crowd is leaning forward, staring at the ceiling, or holding its breath, an artist gets a concrete lesson about how a show works.
And the lesson can be surprising. Take what happened to Troy Diana and James Valletti, the writer-directors of Tales from the Tunnel a new comedy (co-starring Rent Tony-winner Wilson Jermaine Heredia) that’s currently playing at the Bleecker Street Theatre.
On the surface, their show’s appeal seems obvious. Beginning in 2006, when they were teamed for an assignment in the Lincoln Center Directors Lab, the pair spent months interviewing locals about their experiences on the New York City subway system, and they adapted the most memorable stories into a fast-paced show that covers everything from sex on the platform to the unparalleled horror of squeezing into a rush-hour train.
When the show premiered last year at the New York International Fringe Festival, Diana and Valletti expected their audience to respond most to the tales that every subway rider recognizes.
And in a sense, they were right: Patrons enjoyed seeing their own battle scars reflected on stage. They laughed at familiar stories about weird smells, rude behavior, and endless, endless delays.
But something else happened, too. “We noticed that people were latching onto different things than we were expecting them to latch onto,” says Valletti.
For instance, audiences embraced emotional moments in the show, like when a spiritual intervention breaks up a fight, and their response directly affected the script. “[Since then,] we’ve been able to find more layers,” says Diana. “We’ve been trying to give more dimensions to the recurring characters.”
However, Diana and Valletti don’t want to overdose on tender revelations. First and foremost, they want their show to be funny, and their recent revisions have focused on balancing poignancy with zippy good times.
Once again, audiences have helped them on their way, and the early crowds at Bleecker Street---where the show began performances in early July---have been especially instructive. “We’ve realized you don’t have to put a moral in it,” says Diana. “Before, [the script could be] very heavy-handed because as a writer you want to say, ‘I want to make sure you get it.’ But then you see audiences and you learn they do get it. You realize you have to trust the material instead of the moral.”
Valletti and Diana both agree that it’s not only audience feedback that has helped them refine their work, but also ample amounts of time. “Most shows have twenty-four previews, three weeks back to back to back,” says Valletti. “We’ve been lucky enough to have performances spread out over the course of a year. We can really go away and think about these things we want to change and incorporate the audience’s experience into what we’re doing.”
That’s something for all writers and producers to consider: Audiences plus time can equal a better show.
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor