The woman is speaking directly to me, an arm’s length away, as if we know each other: “I’m not blaming you for missing anything, I know it’s not your fault,” she says, looking right into my eyes, and she starts talking about her mother dying in the hospital, in intimate detail. “Aren’t you glad you asked?” she said, sardonically. (But I didn’t ask!) “Sorry I just ruined lunch.”
We are in downtown Manhattan, inside a small booth, whose walls are covered in a quilt-patterned red material, with a red seat, stage lights, a raised curtain; the performer (Marisol Miranda) is seated on one side of the curtain; I’m on the other. This is the interior of what is surely the smallest working theater in the world.
I’ve just seen “Lizzy,” written by Jose Rivera, one of seven short scripted plays by established playwrights in “I’m Not The Stranger You Think I Am,” all performed in a booth in the corner of the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place, the latest production of Theatre for One.
Theatre for One is the brainchild of Christine Jones, the award-winning set designer (American Idiot, Spring Awakening) and director (Queen of the Night), who’s been carting her custom-designed booth around to public spaces for years, overseeing free performances for the public, one by one. For each performance, there is one member of the cast, and one member of the audience.
I first attended Theatre for One in 2011 when Jones parked her booth on Father Duffy Square in the theater district, attracting long lines and repeat customers. You never knew what show you were waiting to see, but none lasted longer than a few minutes. While some of the performances were just songs or magic tricks, there were also emotional monologues by characters on the edge. It was the most unsettling experience I’d ever had as a theatergoer. And I am not alone.
“I found it to be an intense, a little frightening and absolutely amazing experience,” says Lynn Nottage, the Pulitzer-winning playwright. “It felt more like an intimate conversation with a stranger on the bus than a performance. At first I struggled and resisted the experience, but once I committed to making eye contact and exchanging energy with the actor, I found that the piece really came alive and touched me in unexpected ways.”
Nottage has gone from patron of Theatre for One to one of its playwrights in the current production, which (unlike the past) is all monologues. In “#Five,” a man (portrayed by Keith Randolph Smith) is talking to a job interviewer (i.e. the audience member), explaining the ten-year gap in his resume. His circumstances are “not for the reasons you probably imagine.” He was the victim of a horrendous shooting.
“I decided that I wanted to create a piece that toyed with the audiences expectations,” Nottage says.
The other playwrights in the current production also do some toying with the disconcerting set-up. In “Late Days in the Era of Good Feelings,” a play by Will Eno that doesn’t last much longer than the title, the performer (Erin Gann) says: “Awkward, awkward, awkward… I’m not supposed to ask questions. …I guess the organizers don’t want people feeling, like, stressed out, or like they’re part of the show or something…Nerve-wracking, right? “
If it’s true that the performers are not supposed to ask questions, Thomas Bradshaw violates that rule in his untitled play. “What’s your name?” performer Andrew Garman asks, and waits for you to answer. “I’ve been in a lot of movies. Do you recognize me?” he asks later. But those questions are nowhere near as uncomfortable as when he starts talking about sex (“I came across this article that said that the average American has sex 118 times a year! And I was like, holy shit! That’s a lot of sex. Do you think that’s a lot or does that sound right to you?”)
Not all the plays press buttons. Zayd Zohm’s “Love Song” is a sweet and funny recollection of the character (Kevin Mambo) writing a song for a girl when he was 16.
“The Theatre for One really demands that the audience be an active participant, which at first can be jarring: By in large, audiences are used to passively sitting in darkness and watching the action from afar,” Nottage observes. “I like the tension of an intimate space set in an open public space. I love that people enter the booth with no idea of what they were going to encounter, and leave having had a visceral experience.”
Theatre for One: I’m Not The Stranger You Think I am, runs for free from noon to 7 p.m. at
Winter Garden at Brookfield Place (230 Vesey Street) until May 24
Zuccotti Park (Broadway and Liberty Street) May 27-31
Grace Building Plaza (1114 Avenue of the Americas), June 2-6.