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Why I Love 'Small' Theatre

Date: Nov 15, 2017

A tribute to those "little" shows far too few see


I've always had a fascination with small things. As a child, I briefly collected foreign stamps, clear marbles, shiny pennies, tiny seashells, smooth stones, refrigerators magnets, and even miniature figurines like Laura did in The Glass Menagerie. I'm sure Freud would have a field day with this but personally, I associate these mini-obsessions with an ongoing desire to see things up close, to view an object in its entirety all at once. It's why I've always been an Off-Off devotee instead of a Broadway queen since, for me, the size of a venue is inversely related to a production's potential intensity. And while I know some may claim such a thought is un-American, I believe bigger is not better when it comes to the theatre.

My most recent example is a radical revival by Transport Group at Brooklyn's Irondale Center, where actor David Greenspan is taking on the Herculean task of performing Eugene O'Neill's epic drama Strange Interlude all by himself. A six-hour solo version of a New England soap opera doesn't exactly scream "mass appeal," but with only 50 seats to fill, this experiment is out to break convention, not box-office records. I could literally see the sweat drip off his fingers by the end of Act I. And there were eight more acts to go!

At other times, the intensity and sweat of small theatre weren't exactly what I bargained for. During a recent un-air-conditioned production of Tennessee Williams's deranged The Two-Character Play at a 74-seat theatre, I -- like the performers -- swam in and out of reality as sauna-like temperatures unintentionally encouraged my mind to pursue its own parallel hallucinations and dreams of escape. The actors -- walking puddles of perspiration -- were definitely "suffering for art," and if this production didn't exactly win me over, I must concede that I've attended few misfires that left me as giddily disoriented as this one.

Of course small theatre can make a major impact in intentional, positive ways as well. In a storage closet at P.S. 122, Tiny Ninja Theater presents Macbeth made me feel like a kid again as I used children's binoculars to watch hand-held dolls reenact Shakespeare's tragedy. In an intimate room, I felt like an embarrassed, silent houseguest witnessing Jay DiPietro's Peter and Vandy as the fraught central relationship was performed with incredible hyperrealism. And in the cramped confines of Theatre 54 at Shetler Studios, I not only experienced the claustrophobia of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory victims in Debra Whitfield's Fire, but also felt like a complicit bystander because of how director Benjamin Viertel staged a sexual assault scene inside the lighting booth. If necessity is the mother of invention, perhaps poverty is its uncle.


Oh sure, you could buy front-row tickets to the latest big show at a 1,000-seat theatre, but you'd only get a crick in the neck and an awareness that many actors really do perform to the last row. It's a rare performer who is as vital up close as from the back of the house -- Audra McDonald and Mark Rylance come to mind. But often you lose as much in rows A and B as you do in the nosebleeds of the upper balcony.

I suppose small theatre caters to my need to feel special in a city where one can easily feel like an ant. Long-running hits like The Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King certainly have their charms, but they're well-established. A wonderful show in a half-filled Off-Off Broadway black box feels like a discovery. I may not find many fellow fans of that under-attended revival of The Last Yankee at Theatre Row's Studio Theatre, or the equally overlooked but transcendent Simon Dawes Becomes a Planet at Access Theater, or that off-the-map staging of Holly Hughes's Dress Suits to Hire in the backroom of a Portland pharmacy-turned-coffee shop where seating was so limited I had to sit on a chair at the back of the stage. But each of these productions has burned its way into my very being. So please, go to the Next Big Broadway Thing without me -- I'll be heading to some hole-in-the-wall.


Drew Pisarra's theatre experiences range from ventriloquist (Singularly Grotesque) to librettist (The World Is Round), choreographer (Ladies' Voices) to master of ceremonies (White Wines). Follow him on Twitter at @mistermysterio. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: David Greenspan in Strange Interlude. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

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