Size Doesn't Matter

FROM THE DESK OF Gary Garrison

I know, I know. Not too often you can say that. But within an issue that celebrates the gorgeous tapestry of theatres throughout the country – large and small – that produce new, original work, size doesn’t matter. What matters is that they have produced dramatists in the past and they continue to produce dramatists well into the future. I’m sure you realize that in an unsteady economic climate, that’s a tall order for anybody.

Very few of us – a handful it would seem – write our first play and watch it premier in a prestigious regional theatre. Most of us grow up as dramatists in something that’s often a converted furniture or carpet store that has a make-shift lobby (the store front) with a floor that has nine colors of paint dripped on them (because the lobby doubles as the scene shop), a make-shift box office (i.e., folding card table with folding chair), two bathrooms you wouldn’t send your worst enemy in to, yards of black cotton fabric that hide a multitude of unsightly objects (usually old sets, water pipes and air conditioning ducts) and a theatre space immediately recognizable by its non-regulation risers populated with a scattering of theatre seats mixed with sofas, dinette chairs scattered among long, splintery pews from an old church, a couple of easy chairs from the Artistic Director’s first apartment and a handful of those beige, heavy 1960’s metal folding chairs
that clatter if you so much as look at them the wrong way.

These “birthing houses” are where real dramatists are made; these off-off- off-off- off Broadway theatres are as responsible for the next great American play as any big named producing theatre you can shake a stick at because they fly in the face of wild adversity to bring engaging, compelling theatre from the page to their postage-stamp stage. And they do it with great love, commitment, energy, vision and tireless unpaid hours of labor. With an annual operating budget of less than ten thousand dollars to produce five or six shows, these theatres struggle monthly to keep their electricity literally plugged in to the city grid (as a lot of you know, heat or air conditioning is often not an option in these spaces). But somehow, some way, the artistic staffs keep their primary focus: get the show up, get an audience in, celebrate the story being told by the dramatist. They close one show, barely break even (if that), and start the process all over for the next show (which undoubtedly involves someone on staff locating, borrowing and returning a working refrigerator that has to be hoisted up and lowered down a flight of stairs).

I know this world intimately because a lot of my work has been produced at these kinds of theatre. It was in these laundrymats-as- theatres that I learned the true art and wonder of design. When you’re hanging clip-lights from a twelve-foot ceiling, what can you really create in terms of mood, atmosphere, climate or environment? Plenty, if you’ve got a designer who understands their craft and sees the limitation of space or resources as a reason to be more creative, not less. When you’re pulling furniture from every friend’s home you’ve got to create the interior of a “well-appointed Connecticut suburban home,” how does the set designer know the difference between something that looks like a tag-sale on stage and something that makes it begin to say, “Connecticut.”

How does your director tone down the actor who’s too large for the space, and heighten the actor who’s too withdrawn in the space. How does your costume designer understand that a red dress on a ten square-foot stage is the only thing anybody can see? I learned early on just how special it was for the writer to sit bundled up with an audience of fifteen and watch them closely respond to a scene I’d spent hours or days to craft.

When you’re in that small of a theatre audience, you notice they breathe, laugh, nod-off or lean forward as one. If you’re a smart writer, you’re watching that audience as closely as you’re watching your play, and you’re incredibly grateful when a moment/beat/scene/act tanks that it was only in front of fifteen people instead of the fifteen-hundred in the presenting house down the road.

One of my greatest lessons-learned as a dramatist was in store-front theatre in Manhattan (any more off-off and you’d be in the Hudson River) that produced a play of mine in the early 90’s. When in the mix you add a performance space that is literally a large hallway with the audience seated all around the parameter of the space (thirty people in total), and you put in the performance space a play that is a rollercoaster ride of violence and emotional intimacy, you see – very close up – the undeniable power of words and images; you understand the necessity of emotional modulation and scale in both your writing and performance of your writing. And maybe more importantly, you understand that not all plays belong in all spaces; some plays need space or distance for the audience to breathe.

There are theatres across the country that we pass every day without much notice on our way to work, tucked in to strip malls, imposed on top of old movie theatres or insinuated on junior high school cafeterias (where the sixth grade debate class has their heated debates on the causes of global warming). But they need our notice, our patronage, our support and our investment. They need our spare change, our discarded furniture or our abandoned computer we’ve dropped down in the basement. They need us as volunteers, audience, dramatists and patrons; they want so little in order to give back so much. Do what you can, not what matter the size effort, because for these small theatres size doesn’t matter.