A magic box currently resides in the middle of the Pershing Square Signature Center on 42nd Street through November 21, and those who dare to step inside may walk out with a newfound conception of this art form known as theatre.
Most contemporary theatregoers view their relationship to the shows being performed in front of them in conventionally distant terms; everyone and everything involved in the work of art are located on stage, and their role as an audience member is completely detached from them. Their job, as they see it, is to be a faceless, anonymous, mostly silent participant in the theatrical proceedings: watch, support, and then leave from the removed vantage point of their seat. They undoubtedly derive a certain level of comfort from this arrangement; it allows them to sit back, relax, and just enjoy their escapism without being forced to ponder how they’re involved in a variety of possible ways in what’s unfolding in front of their eyes.
Luckily, Theatre for One has come to challenge their complicity. As the name would suggest, Theatre for One specializes in producing theatre performed for one person at a time…literally.
That’s exactly how they want you to respond! Before delving into the why, I think it’s important to clarify how this whole ordeal operates on a purely corporeal level.
Inside of the Pershing Square Signature Center – off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre’s home that houses three theatres – sits an inconspicuous yet life-sized box-type-structure that looks like the sort of backstage container often used by tech crews. Outside stand two people dressed in jumpsuit costumes like those usually reserved for factory workers handling heavy machinery. They lead you into one side of the box, where you sit in a solitary chair surrounded by carnival-esque accoutrements. Once you’re seated, they close the door, leaving you totally alone in this box…until the wall in front of you slides open revealing a performer and a bare minimum set on the other side of the box. After their 5-10-minute performance of which you are the only observer, the wall slides back, the door re-opens, and you’re escorted out, to be replaced by the next audience member waiting outside.
Sound unsettling? Good, because that’s the point.
When people walk into a normal theatre and ‘settle’ into their usual seats for a conventional show, they often leave their brains at the door, preferring instead to be transported away from the thoughts that rack their daily lives. Theatre for One is designed to prevent that from happening; the unavoidable direct connection between the audience member and the random performer – which causes such unease for many by simply considering the idea – does not allow them to lose, well, themselves in the proceedings.
Instead, all of this almost forces each audience member to contemplate their role inside the box. Was this play written for me? What is my relationship to the performer? Am I supposed to interact with him or her? When they ask me a question, am I supposed to respond, or just stay silent like normal? Is this play literally talking to me, figuratively talking to me, or does it still have nothing to do with me even though I’m the only one watching? Is it weird if I laugh? Will I disrupt their performance? No, Steven, you CANNOT yawn right now – suppress that shit like your life depended on it! Which makes me wonder: how does knowing I can be seen right now change how I act as an audience member? Do I always feel so differently when I know I’m being watched? Why is that? Which is closer to the ‘true’ me – how I act when no one notices me, or how I behave in public? How does that relate to art’s relationship with the truth? And why the hell am I cognitively asking myself so many questions right now instead of paying attention to the performer literally two feet away from me?! WHAT IS HAPPENING?!?!?!
That may sound like the brink of a mental breakdown, but this is exactly what challenging art should strive to inspire their audiences to do: break down their thoughts regarding a specific matter in hopes of reassembling them afterwards in a more enlightened way. Many of these are the type of existential questions that everyone who participates in theatre – either behind the stage, on stage, or in the audience in front of the stage – should always be asking themselves for every show. Each work of art relates to their audiences in different ways, and as such it’s always worth exploring the exact nature of that relationship every time, starting with the playwright and ending with each audience member.
Speaking of playwrights, instead of just performing previously written short plays, Theatre for One – in conjunction with the Signature Theatre – smartly commissioned eight of Signature’s better-known resident artists to write new plays specifically for this purpose. As such, each of them explores many of the questions above, indirectly touching upon additional questions like, “how much does an artist’s intended audience affect what they create, both consciously and subconsciously?” All of the writers were supposed to respond in their work to the phrase “in this moment.”
That’s actually a perfect prompt for Theatre for One, whose format should inherently lead its audiences to think about everything – and I mean EVERYTHING – involved ‘in the moment’ when a performance and a person share a space. When you’re sitting in a theatre watching a show, what else is happening in this moment besides the obvious?
And that’s another reason the lobby of Pershing Square Signature Center is a prime location for this iteration of Theatre for One. More than just being able to tap into their exceedingly talented resident artist pool, the proximity of the ‘magic theatre box’ to the Center’s other theatres reinforces the similarities and differences between most theatrical experiences and what T41 (as they like to refer to themselves) offers, specifically how the latter can inform the former. The sounds of excited theatregoers waiting to enter their bigger theatre boxes are always audible from inside T41’s box, a reminder that we never truly leave the outside world outside when we step into a theatre, which is as it should be. Plus, even though bigger, more conventional theatres like the ones around the box are beloved, we should never forget that the foundational root of this dramatic form is the relationship between the audience – no matter how small – and the performance, and that’s all that’s needed to put on a profound show.
This total democratization of theatre is at the core of Theatre for One’s mission, which is probably the reason there’s no admission charge. That’s right – seeing these plays will cost you absolutely nothing except the bravery it takes to step into their lair. Even though theatre in recent years has become prohibitively expensive, it has and will always be a communal art form. As such, every member of a community should be able to experience it, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Yes, these plays were written and are performed for one person at a time, but that does not mean they were intended only for a few. Like all art, they’re enjoyed at first on an individual basis with each audience member, but their effects can be as wide-reaching as the entire world. It often just requires a little thought to see past the confines of your seat, the type of thoughts that Theatre for One will hopefully inspire in all who step inside the smallest theatre in the world.
 With that being said, I’d love for every major off-Broadway theatre to invite Theatre for One to their lobbies and commission their specific resident artists to participate. The Public would be the obvious next best option…
 Which is why I believe the two ‘ushers’ are costumed as if they’re handling heavy machinery; even though they’re physically only escorting you to your seat, they’re metaphorically contributing to a process that involves way more than just the sum of its parts.