Centuries ago it wasn't unusual for arts patrons to pass out at a performance. Packed into a sweltering theater or coliseum, long before the advent of air conditioning, deodorant, or even Altoids, audiences withstood unbearable heat and stench just to see the latest play. Now that's entertainment.
The sheer physicality, vitality, and shared air inherent in theater makes it a potentially precious and powerful cultural resource, especially in today's sanitized, isolated society. So say the members of the Saratoga International Theatre Institute (SITI), who perform Cabin Pressure, an ode to the stage and its audiences, at the Colony Theater this weekend. In her director's notes, Anne Bogart, SITI's Obie- and Bessie-Award-winning co-founder and artistic director, states: "In a time when computers, television, film, and mega malls dominate and mediate our relationship with others, perhaps the theater is a place to strengthen and heighten our direct connection with each other."
Cabin Pressure counterpoints typical scenes from a range of theater styles with (often amusing) reflections from modern audiences: "I go because it's otherworldly and it's festive, and I like the way people smell, and I like what they wear, and it's a lot better than seeing a play on television." It is punctuated with enough heady discourse from luminaries like Shakespeare and Stanislavsky to fulfill a Drama 101 curriculum. ("The audience is what happens when, performing the signs and passwords of a play, something postulates itself and unfolds in response.")
SITI's accomplished actors/collaborators -- Will Bond, Ellen Lauren, Kelly Maurer, Stephen Webber, and Barney O'Hanlon -- manage to feed their audiences a liberal dose of education about their art by flavoring the 90-minute intermissionless production with a seamless flow of entertaining and unexpected moments. The play moves from a Noel Coward sendup with impeccable comic timing, to a minuet performed by bewigged courtesans in rhythm to a speech on the false nature of acting, to an Agatha Christie-like murder-mystery sequence in which dialogue is deftly replaced by stage directions and accompanying bold gestures. ("Gathers composure, looks about defensively, regains her polish, fabricates convincing alibi while forming serpentinelike pattern across the floor. Implicates butler.")
To explore in-depth the audience's creative role, the SITI company did what some might consider the actor's equivalent of dropping one's pants in public. Not only did they bring an audience onto the stage (figuratively), they also allowed an audience (literally) to view Cabin Pressure's entire rehearsal period. "We had a really large group watching us sometimes," reveals Barney O'Hanlon, who narrates. "Sometimes you feel a little inhibited. You don't want to take risks. There were days that it wasn't going very well, and they're there and they see it all. Personally I like the idea of an audience understanding the process."
In addition the company culled part of the play's language from transcripts of Bogart's audience project at Actors Theatre of Louisville, in which 57 people kept journals and were asked to respond to questions ("Did you have a good time? Who is the actor secretly addressing? If you closed your eyes, what moments would you remember?") about a specific theatergoing experience. "We avoided reading the transcripts," O'Hanlon admits. "It made us wiggly as actors, but finally we took a look again and I recall thinking, This is it. The 'ums' and 'ohs,' just the honesty of it all, and [I] realized that was basically the piece, that it was about them, so it should be their words."