I arrive about ten minutes late to ERA’s recent rehearsal of The Offended Audience, one of the six plays that comprise their upcoming production R + J: A Telephone Play. The cast is already in the middle of their rehearsal in The Chapel, an arts venue in a converted gothic building with stone walls and stained glass windows. The room is drafty and somewhat dimly lit. I am quickly introduced to the cast and warned not to trip over the cord connecting the MacBook to the sound system. I settle into a chair on the corner near the production assistant and costume designer where I start taking notes.
The actors are wearing street clothes: sweat pants, jeans, and t-shirts. They perform in the middle of the floor rather than on the obvious stage around which the room is arranged. Most are off-script but some occasionally glance down at their folders. The artistic director Lucy sits centered across from the action, her sleeves rolled up as she sips tea from a to-go cup. The players scatter to the corners of the room, walk along the edge of the actual stage, and skinny between rows of chairs. At one moment, they digress from the script entirely to hammer down the choreography of a dance sequence. They have trouble saying their lines and dancing simultaneously, as if attempting to rub their stomach and pat their head at the same time. No one is frustrated however, and they laugh as they learn the sequence of moves.
I remember being on stage during long high school theater rehearsals, blinded by the hot stage lights and perpetually terrified that my director would snap at me for stumbling through a half-remembered line. Our director’s word was law. We copied her inflection to learn how to say our lines and scribbled in our scripts as she dictated precise blocking.
ERA’s style is just the opposite. Actors regularly chime in with suggestions on staging and opinions on how the audience should feel in a particular moment. At one point the entire company discusses the pros and cons of including a crude joke in the script, fearing it might make the audience uncomfortable.
At the end of the play, Lucy encourages the cast to make physical contact and hold hands, explaining that she wants the audience to be jealous of the actors on stage. Though this one scene is supposed to feel exclusionary for the audience, the whole evening is exclusionary for me. I am an outsider looking into the world of experimental theater. Strangely enough, I kind of like it.