Young people don't go to the theater. Broadway League data reveals that in 2011 the average age of a non-musical theater-goer was 53. More convincing than hard numbers, if you are younger than 30, ask your friends if they want to see a play. They will act like wild horses that think they are being tricked into a barn. "How long is it?" they whinny skittishly. "How much will it cost?" as they take little steps backward.
I did not want to go the first time someone suggested I see Chicago's Back Room Shakespeare. Founded in 2011, this collective of actors rehearses a play once, without a director, and performs it at a bar for free. I had visions of being trapped, bored, talked at. I caved in February of this year, and underwent the inaugural weirdness of seeing two hundred people, mostly under 30, electric with anticipation for Chekhov's Three Sisters (it was an experimental departure from Shakespeare.) To be clear: this wasn't abridged musical Three Sisters or improvised Three Sisters or drinking-game, diaper-wearing trivia night Three Sisters. The whole play, memorized and spouted by real actors.
I wasn't bored. I stood for about three hours, sometimes inches away from the would-be Muscovites who loudly hurled their lines over the rain pelting the skylight. Sometimes I was embarrassed not to have the anonymity of a seat in a darkened theater. In this sense Back Room can recall experiences of performance art where comfy spectating becomes suddenly uncomfortable—strolling through a museum until the object encountered is not a painting but Tilda Swinton catching Z's in a terrarium. Then you feel like a creep. In Three Sisters, two actors who didn't know each other and had only rehearsed once kissed about thirteen inches from my face. He lifted her in the air. I stood behind them as they made out, aware I was part of the spectacle, like the unkissed friend at the dance, sucking on a Diet Coke and being all "No big deal."
At the meeting held a few weeks after Three Sisters to discuss how the performance went (they call it a "debrief"—it's announced on Facebook and open to the public) people rhapsodized about immediacy and participation: "I felt I was helping to build the momentum of the Chekhov," said a viewer. For me, participation was potentially awkward, but this kept me riveted. When will someone erupt and will it capsize this family drama? At Three Sisters, someone began clapping suddenly in agreement with one of the characters. Two solitary claps in, he realized no one was going to join him, and squeaked "sorry," which got a laugh. I saw Back Room perform Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona a few weeks after Chekhov and realized in contrast how porous Shakespeare is to audience participation. Proteus's betrayal in that play is built to cue Springer-esque booing: "I love Julia," he says, waits a beat, and then, the betrayal measured in a perfect grammatical ticking of the second hand in the wrong direction: "I did love Julia." It was an invitation to voice our anger.
Co-founder, actor, and youngish person (30!) Samuel Taylor doesn't care if you feel awkward, or if someone gets kissed too close for comfort; it's all a step up from the disconnect of contemporary theater, where "The actors are blinded by the stage lights, barely able to see the audience sitting quietly in the darkness, turning their tickets into fifty-dollar naps." (There's more manifesto where that came from.) The problem with theater for younger generations might have to do with cost ($20 for a student ticket?) and content (Ibsen say what now?). But Taylor and co-founder Kelley Ristow, also a young actor (28) had it in for the very structure of the actor-audience relationship. "We live our whole lives with an audience," said Taylor. "The idea of denying an audience is more loony now than to any other generation."