Achieving both intimacy and honesty in theater

by Benjamin D. Kabialis / Theater Columnist • March 1, 2012

Artist Adrian Howells leads a sole audience member into a private room. The spectator removes his or her shoes and socks, and Howells gives them a thirty-minute foot wash. 

Footwashing for the Sole is a rather tame example of what can go on during a one-on-one theater piece.  This growing section of the theatrical avant-garde places a single spectator in the room with a performer.  

On the British Counsel for the Arts website, Howell claims that his aim is “to promote intimacy and genuine exchange with an audience,” but it seems that many one-on-one theater experiences alienate the spectator rather than create the circumstances for a sincere connection. 

In an age of digital isolation, theater practitioners need to focus their efforts on the relationship between spectator and performer, but a successfully intimate experience falls somewhere in between a Broadway musical and a foot scrubbing.

Here in Boston, the intimate theater trend has not hit with the same force as New York or London, and the city is still dominated by massive, ornate theaters like the Cutler Majestic and Huntington.  The Huntington may work well for big-budget musicals like last fall’s Candide, which featured vibrant design elements that occupied every inch of the stage. However, God of Carnage, essentially a 90-minute conversation between four people, had its energy completely muffled by the ornate surroundings and stadium seating. The physical restrictions, such as immobile seats and distant stage, alienate any spectator looking for an intimate experience.  Even in more modest spaces like the Lyric Stage, there can be an overtone of classical drama that can seem inauthentic and distant.

By addressing a spectator individually in a smaller, more personal location, one-on-one artists address the concerns over large spaces. However, the pieces tend to continue too far in the opposite direction. Artist Franko B made a piece where he required the participant to get naked before entering the room, while the performer remained clothed. Intimacy to these artists seems to be synonymous with complete exposure and simple proximity.

The intimacy needed in today’s theater is a spiritual connection, and that can only be earned by a performer engaging in a truthful narrative journey that the viewer can connect with. It has nothing to do wth getting as close as possible or shocking the audience.  

Take Boston’s recently closed site-specific Green Eyes, staged in an Ames Hotel suite. The marketing draw may have been the thrill of entering a space embedded in reality, but the connection between performer and spectator relied on the spectator remaining partially within and partially out of the performance.

There is great potential in the one-on-one theater movement, and it would do well to grow here in Boston as it has in London and New York. But the goal should always be an honest and equal exchange.