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Micro Master Class - Directing for a Venue with No Stage

Well, Master Class may be wishful thinking, but I am dreaming big. If you are new to Micro Theatre, please have a quick look at our video before you read on.

Over the past couple of months I have been chatting to some of our Micro Theatre Directors about what works well in our small spaces, some of the challenges they face and gleaning inspiration for how we can perfect the art of Micro Theatre. And I think I may have drunk a little too much tea in the process!

One of the themes that tied all these conversations together was audience; the diverse audience that we attract to Micro Theatre and the ways we can better use the proximity of the audience to the actors to create our own individual style of theatre.

The Play 'Incoming' with audience at close quarters at Curve Gallery

When I came up with the cunning plan for Micro Theatre, one of the goals was to promote small and independent business in Newcastle and to introduce patrons of galleries and café’s to each other, and to live performance. Kind of like a business cross-pollination.

The success of this idea is demonstrated in our so very diverse audience. From the bearded to the bald, our audience is far more than the usual theatre crowd. They are more open to new and innovative ways of seeing theatre and, in visiting a different style of venue, they expect to experience theatre that is also a little different. Or, for those audience members who are new to theatre, they have no preconceived idea of what they will see.

One of the key areas we need to build upon is how we play with the proximity of the audience, how we include them in the plays and make them part of the set. Another facet is how we turn this inclusion around to consider how we make the actors part of the audience. Building upon these ideas is part of the way forward in the creation of our own Micro Theatre style.

The other opportunity specific to Micro Theatre is that Directors work together in each of the venues. How they direct their plays for the benefit of their individual plays as well enhance each others'. But more about these ideas later - I am getting ahead of myself.

So, if you are new to Micro Theatre you will have worked out by now that The Venue is the Stage – from beginning to the end of the performance we don’t change the venue lay out. And, to the best of our ability, if a play uses a chair or a prop, it will be in place when the audience arrives at the venue - unless an actor brings it on with them. We do not use microphones and in the past have only used the venue’s lighting, but we will be experimenting with one of the venues this year with some alternate – micro lighting ideas.

David Gray surveys the audience prior to the performance at Vinue Cafe

The Audience is Up Close and Personal and it is much easier to make the audience feel part of the production when they are often in it. Like the audience members’ who found themselves being Speed Dated by Emily at Vinyl Café in 2016. Simply put, there is little divide between audience and play. This is something that many audience members have commented on, how they feel so much more connected to the plays.

This, up close and personal, means that the actors have a more relaxed style - every word, action and nuance is picked up with the audience in close proximity. And the audience rarely feel that an actor may just lean over, touch their shoulder, and speak to them.

Micro Theatre becomes quite believable with the quieter voices, relaxed body postures and the audience sitting within the production rather than separate to it. Subtle movement and noise, as well as silence can be extremely effective with the short works..

The audience response is immediate, although it does mean that slip-ups can be amplified. And your performance area can change every night, as chairs move, bags are dropped in awkward spots and - where the hell did that table come from? And if an actor is in character as a waiter, well they may just be asked why a meal is late.

Director John Wood stresses the need to rehearse small so that the performance can grow into the space. It's easier to grow into the venue than try to bring a rehearsed production back from a larger space.

Pearl Nunn spoke about how the audience proximity, that the ever changing set leads to greater creativity and is conducive to improvisation.

And in a similar theme, John also recommended the need to direct specifically for character. If an actor knows their script they know their character – and if they truly know their character they can adapt to anything.

Productions have few, if any, props. Actors need to be flexible and sometimes improvise. As Pearl said, it means that the actors have to rely on themselves. Seeing Micro Theatre actors in action reminds us why they are called props. The actors have nothing to lean on, or prop them up. This draws the audience’s attention to them and can be very powerful.

Another key element of Micro Theatre is the power of surprise and the different ways we can grab and hold the audience’s attention. Our challenge is to find a variety of ways to bring the audience into the world of our plays very quickly.

'Zac' from the play Digested was on the door as the audience arrived.

The opening line in Peter King’s play Secrets is, ‘I didn’t mean to kill him’ – and it certainly got my attention.

The old fashioned tinkle of a bell as the front door of The Press opened was a lovely accompaniment to Digested’s two 1940’s characters entry.

Emily launching though the front door at Vinyl Café with a stool and plonking it down in front of a surprised audience member who didn’t know they were about to be Speed Dated. Although this may be been more shock than surprise or scene setting.

This element of surprise builds upon a strong base of how we prepare the venues. How we set the scene - how we dress and prepare the venue prior for the performance - with the audience and the actors as part of this scene – this is a very important contributor to surprise.

Put Actors on the door in character or as part of the audience, have actors moving around the venue in character as people are eating and getting comfortable. Last year at Vinyl the lead character in the play Happiness distributed pamphlets promoting their ‘Happiness Book’ as the audience arrived. Build the scene from the moment the audience enters the venue, make them comfortable and then surprise them.

So what are the Challenges of Directing for Micro Theatre?

As I mentioned earlier, the audience is tighter than they look. Like a gas, they seem to expand to fill available space and sightlines can be an issue as we have no raised seating. We need to be mindful of layout to ensure patrons don't miss any of the action. We are still learning how to best manage non-theatre spaces for live performance.

Helping Directors work together is a goal that will hopefully become one of our strengths. It is very important for us to get a good flow between the plays. Clunky change-overs between one play and the next very quickly break the flow and create that barrier between audience and actors we have been working to remove.

The Directors need to have read the other play scripts being performed in their venue and talk to other directors about their plans. If there is a waiter in two of the plays, then try and use the same actor – if it works. Discuss what minor props you may need and how they will be placed so they are ready but not impacting on other plays. Think about how your play fits with the others, and how all of the plays, when performed together, will be experienced by the audience. In previous years these ideas have been discussed at the tech run, but I would like them addressed earlier.

Claudia King spoke of the merging of the art forms in Curve Gallery, of using the works of art as part of the play, or the play as part of the art. This is also an area we want to explore more.

The final piece of advise from John was for Directors to trust their play and to remember that it has been selected for a reason. But I would also say that in the Key Information for Participants document we state:-

Sometimes a script may require some revision to suit the space or format. This is both the fun and challenge of Micro Theatre. Please embrace this and work with the Director to create the best possible production.

Yes trust the script but also, trust your instinct – if we can make small changes to have the plays work better in the venues and with the other plays – it will make your play look better in the long run.

I am so looking forward to seeing another Micro Theatre Festival of plays. On our website we say that - ‘Micro Theatre aims to create entertaining and innovative theatre in alternative places.’ Hopefully these ideas and thoughts will turn on a light of inspiration for a great idea and help us continue to build Micro Theatre as innovative, entertaining and, most importantly, great fun to be involved with.

Thank you to, Pearl Nunn, John Wood, Claudia King, Peter King and Murrie Harris.

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