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A pair of offbeat world premieres challenge audiences to experience theatre in unexpected ways
"I wasn't a very playful child," admits Jonathan Matthews, the co-writer/performer of the dance-theatre piece Play!. As a toddler, he didn't make believe with stuffed animals or action figures because he sensed they had their own feelings and he didn't want to interfere. As a schoolboy, he didn't participate in games with his friends during recess; instead "we just talked about episodes of TV shows we watched." He stopped playing basketball after grade school because "I decided I hated it."
He did, however, take dance classes from the age of two onward. Now at 26, he appreciates the importance of play, and he invites the audience to frolic with him during his interactive solo show. "There's this sense that play is for kids, and then as an adult you go to work," Matthews says. "I feel like I was spared that because I became a dancer. In college, while others were preparing to be a lawyer or a doctor, I was rolling around on the floor, having fun."
Play! is being presented in repertory with the even more unconventional Theatre in the Dark: Carpe Diem, which audiences experience through every sense save for sight. Both are produced by This Is Not A Theatre Company, which has been presenting immersive, site-specific and generally unusual shows since 2014.
Erin Mee, the troupe's artistic director and a co-creator of both works, says the productions are inspired in part by the company members' education as professional performers. "The same exercises you learn in theatre and dance are also training for life," she explains. Play! also pulls from the research of Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist who came to understand the impact of play while studying murderers, who often suffered from a lack of it during childhood. Mee recalled Brown's fascinating TED talk while putting together Play! with Matthews and their two other co-writers: her father, the pioneering avant-garde playwright Charles L. Mee, and dramaturg Ezra Brain.
"Play is central to our survival as human beings, both as individuals and as a society," the younger Mee says. "It teaches us empathy, creativity and collaboration."
Play! is part dance, part lecture, as well as a kind of physical, emotional and intellectual journey for Matthews. During the half-hour piece, he both moves and talks in some dozen scenes, many of which are reminiscent of the philosophizing hoofer in the old Jules Feiffer cartoons in The Village Voice.
"A healthy society should…" Matthews says, and then he straightens his slightly slouching body so that he looks taller. "A just society should…" -- he balances on one leg. "An open society should…" -- his chest puffs up and he sticks his arms out, presenting his heart to the world.
At one point, Matthews says: "I read that you're supposed to have at least 10 minutes of play every day, so I've put that on my to-do list, and I am turning play into a habit." Then he explores the paradox of working hard to incorporate play into your life, reciting dozens of self-help headlines ("20 Things You Should Do If You Want to Live Longer") and ranting about how "constantly working to improve oneself is nothing more than the capitalist marketing of the puritanical work ethic."
Play!'s raison d'être is its finale, when Matthews brings the audience on stage to do movement exercises, dance, slap around little beach balls, and drink wine or water together. "Everything I do up to that point is just rhetorical preamble," Matthews says. "The dancing at the end with the audience is the piece."
Theatre in the Dark: Carpe Diem, meanwhile, offers a kind of dance of the senses over 45 minutes. Theatregoers are given eye masks upon entry and are left to hear, smell, touch and taste their way through the evening. Chocolate, wine, feathers, music by Debussy and poetry by T.S. Eliot are all enlisted in a show that differs from other theatre in the dark, such as the forthcoming I Can't See, which is described as an immersive horror experience. "I'm not interested in scaring people. Our piece is restorative, gentle," Mee says. "Although it's been created for anyone, I do think it is perfect for people who are blind or have low sight."
Mee and her This Is Not A Theatre Company colleagues call each of these shows a play, but they're using the term both as a genre and a verb. "It's a funny pun that people call a tragedy a play," Matthews says. "Our Play! refers to…" and he pops up his fingers theatrically, like jazz hands. "That's why the title has an exclamation point."
Jonathan Mandell is a drama critic and journalist based in New York. Visit his blog at NewYorkTheater.me or follow him on Twitter at @NewYorkTheater. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Audience member at Theatre in the Dark: Carpe Diem. Photo by Erin Mee.
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