Bruce Kauffman 10:30 a.m., Aug. 31
Out & About in Portland, Oregon. An experimental theater's doing something different, and is drawing national attention.
Anonymous Theatre began in 2002. To make a performance feel fresh and un-rehearsed, students at Brown University gave themselves 24 hours from the time the cast met to the time they opened. That led to an even more "ridiculous extreme."
Actors perform together for the first time on opening night.
You audition but tell no one. You rehearse with the director alone and study your role in minute detail. You don't even know who else has been cast.
You learn the whole play but very little movement. "It's really important not to overdo it, not to over-block it," says director Jane Fellows. "Keep it simple, because they've only got one chance."
By that she means that the evening's a one-time only event: opening night is also last call. Actors arrive, no costumes, and sit in the audience. On cue they join the others. Even the lighting operator's a stranger.
If you've never done any acting, you're probably asking, "so?" People who've performed before an audience, however, are probably getting the shakes, or arching their backs like a surprised cat, a hiss not far from their lips.
That's WAY too many unknowns for a live performance!!
The words are only a map. Actors know where the play will go, but getting there will be brand new. They are going in blind.
They haven't rehearsed with the group, so they haven't studied each other's timing, accounted for individual quirks, or the amount of life in their eyes on-stage. As in the play itself, they'll be meeting each other for the first time.
And can't relax for a second. Someone said Anonymous Theatre combines all actor's nightmares: "fear of improv, of forgetting lines, of being under-rehearsed" (one compared it to boot camp: "you know the destination, but the journey's one hairy #@!*!...").
"I have never been more nervous in a theater," says co-founder Darius Pierce. "Usually the most unnerving part of the process is watching the show before your entrance." Some actors claim that the work helped overcome their fears.
The exercise does more than that. It forces actors do what they can never do enough: to listen. To survive the evening, they must pay real attention to what others are saying and act accordingly. "You have never listened so well as you listen in Anonymous," says Fellows.
And that, many agree, makes performances far more spontaneous and kinetic than standard fare: "one of the rawest, funniest, most honest nights of theater the audience had ever seen."
Over the years Anonymous Theatre has staged one play annually. They've done Neil Simon's The Good Doctor, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Shakespeare's Scottish play.
No night was anything near mistake free (actors could shout "line" when they went up). Maybe the biggest surprise, audiences have relished the event. They understand what's at stake and, says Fellows, the performance "takes advantage of what makes theater unique...that it is ephemeral."
There's an irony here. Recent studies claim that from Shakespeare's time down to the early 19th century, all actors rehearsed in private. They too met for the first time on opening night. A prompter pointed out their blocking.
In recent years Anonymous Theatre Company's done co-productions in the United States and Australia - and could be coming to an actor near you.