A performing space lit and furnished with household items. Audience seating that consists of comfy couches. The smell of real toast being made onstage in front of you. This production of “True West” by Sam Shepard, a directorial debut for Peregrine Heard ’12, tests the boundaries between performance and reality. As the production’s theater is a regular-sized apartment in the Dinmore building on Park Street, audience members are seated within spitting distance of the actors. This reporter admits to feeling guilty for not offering his own pen when, within mere feet, the characters were ransacking their dining room to find one.
The main characters are siblings, aspiring screenwriter Austin (Jessica Miller ’15) and itinerant thief Lee (Molly Houlahan ’14). Lee crashes at the residence of their mother (Alexandra Addison ’12) while Austin is housesitting, and the pair proceed to squabble over house, car keys and a shot at success in life. When Lee steals the attention of Austin’s producer, Saul (Connor Lounsbury ’14) with a “true-to-life” pitch for a Western, sibling rivalry escalates to outright violence against both people and typewriters.
Austin and Lee are brothers in Shepard’s script, but the gender-swapped casting is handled without fuss, as are many of the bold production decisions. This is a performance very much attuned to its unusual locale. Assistant stage manager Tom Stanley-Becker ’13 likens the production to environmental theatre, a category of performance that sets a pre-existing show in a theater environment that resembles the play’s fictional setting.
The four cast members said they appreciated that the performance space felt like a real place and a real time.
Lounsbury says the location “allowed us to have a much more intimate relationship with the space.” Houlahan said she enjoyed the sense of ownership that emerged from working in an apartment. She says, “You don’t really feel like you own the [University Theatre].”
The actual owner of the apartment is Gabe Zucker ’12. Heard says she approached Zucker about putting up a play in his dining room and kitchen after consultation with Rorie Fitzsimons, senior technical director of the Yale Office of Undergraduate Productions.
“The show has a lot of elements we couldn’t do in a college theater,” says Heard. “Rorie suggested we go to a non-college space, so that’s why we’re doing it without Sudler funding,” she continues, referring to the Creative and Performing Arts awards that provide financial support for many on-campus productions. Heard is pleased with the way the apartment stage closes the distance between audience members and actors, saying, “I like intimate spaces, and I don’t like filling 70-seat Yale theaters.”
The small audience size has been a hurdle, though, says producer Cole Florey ’14. There is such high demand for the limited seating that, even with five performances on Thursday through Sunday, “the waitlists for every show are all still quite large.”
The lack of Yale funding was another hurdle, according to Florey, but, fortunately, “through a generous donation and some money of our own, we have been able to produce the show successfully.”
Florey does not regret taking the production outside the bounds of a conventional campus theater, as “keeping the play raw in its natural element of a dining room and kitchen is a much better representation of the material.” Florey also applauds the freedom gained by going off-campus. While he understands and supports Yale’s rules of theater practice, he loves the visceral moments outside those regulations, such as “the sound of opening a real beer can onstage.” This effect could be achieved by fancy prop and sound design, or, as Lee demonstrates on multiple occasions, by actually opening an honest-to-goodness can of beer.
Andrew Freeburg ’13, the technical director, confirms that the practical aspects of the production were far from elaborate. He says, “The most tech we did was running extension cords to power switches.” Like the other members of the cast and crew, however, Freeburg finds using an unconventional space rewarding.
“Throwing off the administrative constraints is worth the technical challenges,” he says. “There’s a lot of things you can’t do in a Yale theater space: make toast, drink alcohol, strangle someone with a phone cord.” Most importantly, he says, the no-frills production brings out what is most crucial in “True West.”
“We’re trying to make it as much about the actors as possible,” Freeburg says. “This is a play about two rival storytellers — you don’t need 30 lights, a $500 set and a brand-new sound board to tell a story.”