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If all the world’s a stage — as Shakespeare once wrote — why are most plays confined to traditional theaters? There are practical reasons, of course. The seating, lighting and sound systems are already in place. Still, some actors yearn to perform in more evocative spaces. Todd Melby has the story.
When you go see a play at the Guthrie Theater, recorded trumpets remind you that it’s time to down that drink and hustle to your seat.
Once inside, the lights go down and the curtain comes up. Onstage, actors pretend to be someplace they’re not. While many productions transcend the stage and pop to life, some theater professionals believe site-specific adaptations add an extra dimension.
Their argument: If the play takes place in a church or ratty motel room, why not stage it there?
Such was Gremlin Theater’s approach to “After Miss Julie,” which is the story of a rich woman who has an affair with a male servant. Instead of building a set that resembles a servant’s kitchen, Gremlin staged its production in an actual servant’s kitchen. In this case, the servant’s kitchen of the James J. Hill House in St. Paul.
Actress Anna Sundberg starred in the title role. She loved that the audience had to traipse through an ornate mansion before finding a humble kitchen.
ANNA SUNDBERG: “When they enter the James J. Hill house, coming into this beautiful mansion that is clearly the residence of someone who is extremely wealthy. And then descending and descending down into this area that is not as nice as where you came in. And then this kitchen that is old and worn.”
With its beat up wood floors, plaster walls, dirty, hooded stove and huge, butcher-block table, the servant’s kitchen served was the perfect setting for a drama centered on class distinctions.
ANNA SUNDBERG: “We’re meeting the servants now as soon as the play opens. We’re not going up to the ballroom. We’re not in the room that has the organ. There’s this huge organ in the James J. Hill House. But we’re here and she’s cooking kidneys.”
An unconventional setting can pose challenges. Lighting the space was tricky. Only a few dozen people could squeeze into the kitchen for a performance. Still, Sundberg says Peter Christian Hansen — he’s the Gremlin’s artistic director and an actor — couldn’t get enough of the surroundings.
ANNA SUNDBERG: “I just remember the first day in the kitchen. You were like so giddy, Pete. You said, ‘Why should we do theater ever in a theater again! This is so awesome!’ Yeah basically, we had the best set we could ever have. We had the exact room we needed.”
Gremlin is far from the only company to experiment with site-specific settings. Sundberg says she’s seen plays in an empty swimming pool, an art gallery, on a city street and inside a dilapidated building.
Last summer, actors Luverne Seifert, Sara Agnew and several others placed Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” at a historic house in New Ulm, Minnesota.
Sarah Myers is a theater professor at Augsburg College. She’s also a playwright who adapted “The Cherry Orchard” for last summer’s effort.
SARAH MYERS: “There’s no reason why good theater, good performance, solid acting can’t happen in many of these other forms. I’ve seen some of the best acting outside traditional theater spaces.”
That might be due to the close proximity of actors and audience. Myers played a maid in “The Cherry Orchard.”
SARAH MYERS: “We were a foot and a half sometimes from audience members. In other cases, actually physically touching audience members. There’s a point where I fall on the ground and I remember the first time I did that with audience members there and someone’s foot was two inches away from my face. So your relationship as an actor with the people around you actually changes when you’re that close.”
At about this moment during the interview, I realized that Myers and I shared an intimate moment during “The Cherry Orchard.”
SARAH MYERS: “I dance with audience members. A number of the actors dance with audience members.”
TODD MELBY: “You and I danced together.”
SARAH MYERS: “We did dance together. I’m remembering that now. It’s true. Right. Some audience members are not as willing to dance as others. People can negotiate their own relationships to the performers in this kind of work, which I think is really exciting, as long as they don’t feel too on the spot.”
If you missed “The Cherry Orchard” in New Ulm last summer, don’t fret. The Minnesota State Arts Board awarded Luverne Seifert a grant to stage it again this summer at historic houses in Taylor’s Falls, Worthington, Little Falls, Blue Earth and Kenyon.
Maybe, you too, will be able to dance with a comely maid.