CAMBRIDGE — There are lots of conversations in performing arts circles these days about finding ways to expand audiences, both in terms of their demographic makeup and their sheer size. Another concern is tweaking the audience experience — finding ways to break down the traditional dynamic of performers onstage and ticket holders politely observing until they applaud at the end.
A series of shows produced by American Repertory Theater is putting highly inventive twists on those concepts. The series is presented under the umbrella of Oberon, the ART’s club-theater space, but none of the four pieces will actually be performed there. Instead, they are staged (as it were) at four temporary spaces in and around Harvard Square, for audiences ranging from 25 to one.
The first two productions of “The Mini Series: Performance for Small Audiences” opened last week. “The Garden” is a participatory dance performance by Nichole Canuso Dance Company that leads four attendees through Harvard University’s stately Adolphus Busch Hall; it lasts a little under a half-hour and is performed up to nine times a day through Oct. 30. “U R ★ ” is designed for five attendees at a time, who are led by an ART representative to an apartment that is presented as the home of multi-disciplinary theater-maker Finkle. That one takes a full 90 minutes or so, and is performed through Nov. 6.
With so much effort and expense poured into shows with such low capacities, these shows are not big money-makers.
“It is indeed a difficult financial model to crack, but the work is worth it,” says Ari Barbanell, the ART’s director of special projects. “The experience we’re giving our audience is worth it. The opportunity for these artists to present this work — and while we’re not the only ones doing it, there’s only a few in the regional theater model who are really exploring this concept — is worth it.”
Finkle is the alter-ego of playwright Kenny Finkle, who saw success (including an off-Broadway run of his play “Indoor/Outdoor”) writing more traditional work, but grew disenchanted with the standard forms of theatrical storytelling.
He took a break from playwriting a few years ago, and almost whimsically returned to a form of performance he had made a habit of as a child: recording songs, drawing pictures to go along with them, and inviting people into his room to listen and look. This time the ritual grew more formalized, with visitors arriving at his apartment at appointed times and receiving the presentation that grew into “U R ★ .” Finkle struggled with figuring out how to transplant the multimedia performance to a theater environment before realizing that the idea of small groups making apartment visits was part and parcel of the work.
“I started to get a lot of feedback that people really enjoyed coming over and seeing the work, and part of the presentation was hanging around and talking about the piece afterwards or talking about art. People left feeling like they had to go make something themselves,” Finkle says.
Audience members have a role to play in Finkle’s show, seated on couches in an apartment. Attendees of “The Garden” are advised, however, to wear sensible shoes. Each ticket holder is given a set of headphones to wear, with its own combination of soundscape and spoken instructions. A voice leads audience members through an intricate choreography that takes them through the building and into hands-on interactions with the dancers and each other.
Last Friday morning, a cool breeze blew into the space as I sat alone on a bench indoors and caught glimpses, through a doorway, of two dancers’ graceful movements in the nearby garden. Another attendee entered the room and we were both led, via our headphones, through a simple but intense dance, of sorts. It was incredibly refreshing to start on such friendly terms with a stranger, though I spent some of the time wondering whether it was appropriate to make eye contact.
“I was really curious about the individualized experience and the ways we really are very alone in our own experience. No one else can really know what exactly what we think or feel or want,” says Canuso, who performs in the piece. “I was also taken by the fact that that connects us — the fact that we all are going through these solo experiences together.”
After the performance on Friday, there was an awed hush as one foursome exited the space and another waited to enter. My dance partner got my attention.
“I’m sorry my forehead was so sweaty,” she said politely. It was definitely the first time a fellow theatergoer ever felt cause to make that apology to me.
“The Mini Series” picks up again in March with “temping,” a piece by the New York collective Wolf 359 in which a sole attendee sits in an office environment and interacts with a computer, phone, and fax machine; no live performer is present. Following in April will be an adaptation of the Broadway musical “Violet,” about a transformative bus trip, staged for 25 people by director Sammi Cannold on a Harvard shuttle bus.
Tickets for the series are not sold online, so box office personnel can explain the requirements of each show. A worthy piece of advice they may not offer, though, is this: Don’t be afraid to break a sweat.
THE Mini Series: Performance for Small Audiences
Presented by American Repertory Theater’s Oberon, at various locations. Tickets: 617-547-8300 or in-person only