One of the major design elements for our production of The Laramie Project was stadium seating, the audience sat on two sides of the playing space and, never fully in darkness, watched each other as they watched the show. I believe the concept came from an AIDS play that Jeff saw in the 1980’s in New York City in which watching the audience members care for their loved ones was as much a part of the action as the actors were.
The design sounded amazing when presented and explained at our first class. But as I left the rehearsal room and attempted to describe the setup and purpose to my friends I began to develop skepticism with the design. Playing in the round is an incredibly difficult staging (and acting) challenge and I didn’t fully believe that it would be worth it just so that the audience could watch each other as they watched the show. From the beginning it was important to Jeff and Torry that the audience be included in the witnessing of the story, assigning them the role of active listeners and not merely letting them hide behind the comfort of a fourth wall. While I wanted to believe that the audience would accept this active and visible role, I wasn’t confident that that would be the case. I was worried that the vulnerability inherent in feeling light on your face in a theater would distract the audience rather than drawing them in and that seeing others across the way would only make them further self conscious.
It is with great joy that I can now say that I was wrong for doubting the ability and willingness of our audiences to step up to the task our design team laid out for them. While hesitant at first, cautiously tip-toeing over Torry’s masterpiece of a canvas to get to their seats, the audience members were quickly drawn into the story we were telling, putting their personal (and Duke) insecurities aside for the two hours and forty minutes (our code for “three hours but it’s worth it, we hope”) that they spent with us. People came alone and in large groups, with their partner (one of my new favorite words to use to describe those in all types of relationships, thanks to Summer) or their best friend. Audience members laughed and cried, held hands and put their arms around each other. They shook their heads at Eileen Engen and Sherry Johnson, nodded along with Doc O’Connor and Romaine Patterson, and cried with Rulon Stacey and Dennis Shepard. The audience participated.
One specific performance had a particularly active and commendable audience. The Saturday performance our second weekend of shows started a tad behind schedule as the house manager worked tirelessly, filling each of the remaining seats with people eager to get off the waitlist. With each and every seat filled in our quaint little theater, the door closed and we began.
And then something truly beautiful happened in Sheafer Theater. Community happened. A couple held hands in the front row and a group of friends supported each other in the second, their energy fueling the various lines I delivered from the “X2” spot, halfway up the downstage center aisle. I heard the groans and sighs as Afftene delivered her Baptist Minister lines and allowed those reactions to sink in, adding true pain to my line “Thank you reverend, for speaking with me,” that in rehearsal I had delivered nonchalantly as a polite close to the conversation.
As I sat back in my chair on the periphery, finished with my parts for Act 2, I saw one of the most beautiful exhibits of friendship I have seen in my life. Two friends held each other, breathing in sync, completely in tune with each other’s emotions, experiencing the show both individually and as an incredible unit. Watching them, I started to cry, overwhelmed by the effortless support they provided each other.
This play, this experience brought out the best in Duke. It made me believe in the concept of a “Duke community.” The cast – crew and student – staff dynamics taught me the beauty of the collaborative process. But it was the audience participation on that very special night that changed Duke for me, that made the Duke community something I am proud to be a part of.