The Future of American Theatre can be Found in Mrs. Lovett’s Pies at Barrow Street Theatre
The current Tooting Arts Club production of Sweeney Todd at New York City’s Barrow Street Theatre is earning well-deserved praise for its recreation of a real London pie shop. But what’s more important than the awesome set, and more important than the smart choice to invite the audience into the pie shop to eat before the show, is how the actors interact with the audience from pre-show through curtain call.
The utilitarian tables where the audience eats, for example, become part of the stage where the actors bang, stomp, crawl and dance — often with very little warning. Having the actors move behind you, above you — or into your seat — gives a whole new viscerality to this tale of a murderous barber and his cannibalistic landlady. Not only is Pirelli (played by Stacie Bono) murdered before our eyes, but his death becomes real in part because our body fears that we might be next.
Sweeney (played by Norm Lewis) sings:
Who, sir, you, sir?
No one’s in the chair, come on! Come on!
I want you, bleeders!
You sir? Anybody!
Gentlemen, now don’t be shy!This scene produces a very different experience when the audience’s neck is inches from the barber’s razor!
American theatre in general may be facing declining audiences, but immersive theatre is the future of American theatre precisely because it provides an experience that activates all five senses in a way that Netflix never can.
But how can we show audiences what immersive theatre has to offer?
If immersive theatre has a downside, it’s that the marketing is not as well developed. The genre is relatively new, so there aren’t established norms about how to document it and sell it to audiences.
Even writing this article is frustrating because I’m trying to use words to describe the live physical experience I had in Harrington’s Pie Shop, and I can’t even use photography to illustrate the incredible energy between the performers and the audience.
I couldn’t find any photography of Sweeney Todd that showed the audience, and their press representative told me they didn’t have any photographs of audience interaction or of the actors on the tables.
Now I don’t know if they just don’t have photos of interaction or if using more standard fourth-wall photography was a deliberate decision to leave that part of the experience a surprise. But either way it does this innovative immersive play a disserve to document it like it’s a standard musical.
Documenting live theatre is always hard. The printed review or the photograph is always a poor substitute for actually being there; but with immersive theatre, it is even harder to capture the sensory experience for people who weren’t there.
Bated Breath Theatre Company tackles this problem in the earliest stages of our design process, by developing a detailed documentation plan. Most theatres leave photography to a special, audience-less, photo call. I’ve found that documenting immersive theatre requires both having an audience and finding a way to have the photographers and videographers do their work without disturbing the paying customers. Balancing the competing priorities has been a learning process.
Telling our photographer to focus on shooting audience interaction was a big step forward; but the bigger step was when a member of our company suggested that we ask our photographers to “shoot it like a wedding”. This was just the direction that we needed.
Of course, we’re not looking for cliche wedding photography: the happy couple holding hands, or kissing, or putting on the rings. What we want is photographs that capture the interactions — and the love — between the guests and the happy couple. Those are the photos that the wedding attendees want.
“Shoot it like a wedding” has proven to be a valuable short hand for other reasons. It says that we don’t want the director’s standard view of the play, but instead we want to record the effect of the play on the audience. It also makes it clear to our photography team that the relationships are what matter and that the photographers can never upstage the “bride”.
Most theatre companies make a distinction between the artistic staff on stage and the technical staff backstage. I think this distinction undervalues the artistic contributions of the technical staff. A stage manager, for example, must have an actor’s sense of timing or the technical elements that are an integral part of the theatrical experience just won’t work. I look at immersive theatre photography the same way. Theatre photographers should be considered to be producing art, not just mechanically documenting it. Their creativity, their sense of the composition, and their post-mortem analyses are invaluable. For example, after Beneath the Gavel, our photographer Will Gangi had ideas about placing cameras in the grid as a way to better capture the audience reaching for flying money, or embedding a camera in a prop to gain a new vantage point on the action. That’s something I never would have thought of on my own.
For those of us who believe that immersive theatre can reverse the decline in American theatre audiences, it is really important that together we figure out how to document the unique experience we offer. Finally solving this marketing problem may allow us all to reach the goal all theatre companies struggle with: reaching new audiences and getting them into the seats.