Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Site-Specific Show Brings Surprises

posted by Leigh Chandler
Flynn Marketing Director

Several Flynn staff members had the opportunity to preview advance performances of Back to Back Theatre’s small metal objects at the Association for Performing Arts Presenters’ national conference in January, held in New York City. The Flynn Center will bring the Australian theater company to South Burlington’s University Mall on Saturday & Sunday, May 17 & 18, at 12 & 4 pm for four site-specific performances. The 4 pm performance on Sunday will be audio described and will have ASL interpretation.

Getting to the Whitehall Ferry Terminal in Manhattan was pretty easy. Figuring out where the Whitehall Ferry Terminal is wasn’t. Having grown up outside of Manhattan, I knew the Staten Island Ferry Terminal as The Staten Island Ferry Terminal—a not-so-clean place to buy candy for the short trip over to Staten Island. It’s now a glorious, light-infused building that must be a joy to relax in while waiting for the next ferry. My trip, though, was different than most. I was going to the Whitehall Ferry Terminal to see a performance of Back to Back Theatre’s small metal objects.

It was a typical Friday evening at the ferry terminal. There was the hustle and bustle you’d expect at 6:30 pm. I got my ticket for the performance and walked around. The huge departure hall had a few rows of seats spread out lengthwise for travelers awaiting departure; a restaurant, advertising cheesecake and mochas; and a small convenience store packed with people buying magazines, water, and snacks. In front of me, though, was a raised platform with 10 rows of seats, arranged like bleachers. Each seat had a headset. The audience would be seated soon.

I was excited for this performance—
the Flynn Center is bringing it to Burlington, and I was anxious to preview it. I didn’t know too much about it, other than that it will take place at University Mall in May, and that it’s a mysterious transaction that two friends get caught up in. How would the throngs of people coming and going play into the performance? Could I concentrate? Would I be bothered by people in my sightline?

Finally, show time. Others around me—people who I assumed were waiting for a departing ferry—rose up and handed in their tickets. “Don’t be shy of the first row,” said a ticket-taker. “They won’t come near you.” I resisted despite the reassurance. I took my place in the middle of the second row, and chatted briefly with the person next to me. After confirming that our headphones worked, the show began.

I didn’t know where to look. I heard music, but I also heard people talking. The ferry terminal was so busy, but I knew they were out there—somewhere. And then I realized that people are looking at ME. They’re looking at everyone on this bleacher-type stage. I’m listening to two people talk, through my headset; the performance has started. But people on the floor are coming up and snapping photos of us on their cellphones as they await their ferry departure. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but they don’t even really appear to be talking to any of us in particular. I decide to try to ignore them, but I’m still a little stunned—I didn’t expect to be the entertainment.

I’ve found the performers. It’s been about five or 10 minutes and I now see them walking toward us. They’re practically the only people in the terminal ignoring us. They’re having a conversation, and I want to hear it. No one else in the crowd seems to notice them, but everyone in the audience is watching them. I’m starting to get involved in their conversation when it happens: a man, seemingly homeless, but definitely drunk, comes up to the stage. He’s standing about five feet in front of me and I’m grateful I didn’t listen to the ticket-taker about sitting in the front row. He speaks loudly, but his words are slurred and jumbled. He starts to belt out Amazing Grace. As he sings he gestures widely; he’s pleased to have an audience. I try to hard to concentrate on what I hear in my headphones, although the person sitting next to me is laughing. The action of the performance is heating up—another actor has joined the two others. I try harder to concentrate. I can’t help but smile when the drunk man moves into It’s Now or Never, by Elvis. I didn’t know what—whom—to watch. My gaze goes back to the actors, but when the drunk man finishes his song, he begins a monologue. Looking at us, lifting his arm up in the air, he slurs, “Let me tell you….” I can’t make out anything else he says. I start to wonder if he’s part of the performance. But the play is continuing; the story keeps moving, and this man is oblivious. I think he just has no idea why we’re there, but because we are, and we seem to be looking at him (at this point he’s directly in my sightline), he’ll perform.

After about another 10 minutes I’m able to really refocus on the play. It’s interesting and I start to get angry at the drunk man since I really want to keep up with what was happening. I’m able to block him out and I get caught up in the story. I don’t even really notice the hordes of people in the Ferry Terminal looking at us anymore. A fourth actor has been introduced and it’s getting tense. I’m drawn in. I’m watching a stage that’s not a stage. I’m the one on stage, but I forget. I’m watching something unfold in the crowd, the way that my conversations unfold when I’m with friends.

The drunk man finally sits down. Someone in the crowd has given him some juice and a bag of potato chips. We all relax a little, but the play ends shortly after. Miraculously, the ferry terminal has cleared out, and the four actors approach the audience. They bow, and they gesture over to the drunk man to bow.

I’m charmed. I can’t wait to see it again, this time at University Mall. I wonder if they’ll bring the drunk man.

photographs by Jeff Busby for
Back to Back Theatre

1 comment:

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