When in the audience, I like it when plays put demands on me. Questions left unanswered, sudden blackouts, genre switches, the feeling that breaking eye contact with a soliloquizing actor would somehow let them down. When the play’s purpose is worthwhile and its production has responsibly unleashed it upon the world, I would nine times out of ten prefer to feel like my work has just begun when a show is over than feel content and easy.
It’s probably for the best, then, that I’m writing for Stage Left now.
If you are reading this blog post, you are likely quite aware that a play produced by Stage Left is going to give you something to think about. You might even leave our spaces a different person somehow than when you arrived. But LeapFest, now in its final week of its 14th year, is the one opportunity in Stage Left’s season in which you have the power—the responsibility, really—to enable the play you have seen to leave the theater a different play.
I have been staggered by the urgency of this demand. For a playwright to see a live performance of their work and then hear how an audience has experienced it (and later read their comments on the response sheet) is an invaluable step for a playwright in the development of new works. Instead of the work being meant for the audience as in a full production, in this situation the audience is present for the benefit of the play. The role that we play in witnessing the artistic process laid bare, as we sign up for when we buy a ticket to LeapFest, is more challenging than the one we are used to.
It is also a rare privilege. With minimal props and costumes, actors with scripts in their hands, and settings left to our imagination, these plays present their audiences with theatre in its rawest form, and, as an audience member, it’s that much more exciting to see these important, thrilling stories spring forth with promise. There is something extra haunting about the bare-bones evocations in Jo Cattell’s staging of Isaac Gomez’s The Displaced, so much so that, days later, I still find myself thinking back to the show, asking myself what hidden clues I missed. An acquaintance in the audience of Sam Chanse’s The Other Instinct—who tends to prefer the spectacle of musicals to staged dramas—was so affected by the struggles of the characters that he added hours of researching India’s surrogate clinics to an already late weeknight out at Chicago Dramatists. If these are the effects these plays have when still in development, imagine the impact they’ll have once they’re finished!
This is probably why there has been so much silence in the beginnings of the post-show talkbacks that are a part of every performance in LeapFest. The combination of the transporting qualities already present in these plays and the muting nature of the audience seat can make it paralyzingly humbling to be asked to comment on these feelings and impressions so newly left with us. But then the desire to be as helpful as possible kicks in and my worries that I don’t know how to be helpful are buried (mostly) by the desire to engage in the debate that, this time, Stage Left is guiding us through; the opportunity to be a part of the creation of something, even if the playwright’s silent nodding isn’t explicitly telling me how.
This closing week will be the last chance to help mold these plays so they can stir and change the minds of the audiences to come even more effectively before they graduate to whatever theatrical nirvana awaits them. I, for one, will be sitting in the audience nearly every night, intimidated and invigorated by the awesome responsibility and possibilities to come. I hope to see you there.
Margo Chervony is an actor and writer born and bred in the Chicago area. She previously served as a writer and editor for the Metacritic-affiliated PC gaming website OPnoobs and received the Charles E. Clemens Prize for talent and accomplishment in writing from Case Western Reserve University (B.A. theatre arts and English, summa cum laude) in 2009. As an actor, she has worked with Theater Wit, Collaboraction, Hell in a Handbag Productions, Riverside Theatre in the Park, and Cleveland Public Theatre, among many others. www.margochervony.com