How intimate is Intimate theater?

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“I think I just had an affair.”

A man, who I’d only met moments before, confesses to me. He looks a little surprised and there’s just the hint of a devilish smile on his lips. His partner takes a sip of her drink. We all uncomfortably smile.

In truth, he’d only been gone a few minutes and after a couple of moments, he demurs that it was only a peck on the cheek “but still, it felt really intimate.”

We’re standing in the speakeasy bar at “The Day Shall Declare It” and waiting for the show to begin. Well, for some of us, it had already begun. Before my new friend had been escorted back for his dalliance with the show’s actress, a man dressed straight out of the 1920s looked me square in the eye and said,”You’re the one I’m looking for.” He gently guides me through some wooden blinds and motions to an old, reclining office chair in the center of the room. I sit. He leans in, inches from my face, tilts me back as if he’s dipping me in a ballroom and scoots the chair into a corner. He tells me to have a drink, shoves a lowball of bourbon into my hand and murmurs, “Daddy’s never going to leave.”

It’s intense. It’s a performance with an audience of one.

Or maybe better said, a dialogue for two because, while I don’t have any lines, this scene definitely includes me. It’s thrilling and uncomfortable, and like my pseudo-adulterer friend from the bar said, “it felt really intimate.”

These are two of  the special individual performances that serve as a prologue to the rest of “The Day Shall Declare It.” While the rest of the show is not this private, there are striking moments where the actors address the audience. (I know, you’re thinking, ‘yeah, it’s called an aside, buddy,’ but what these actors are up to is something different.) The actors are doing more than simply speaking to an audience member. There are moments when they’ll touch a cheek or lean in close and whisper like a confidant or lover. It goes beyond including us, we’re actually, for that brief moment, a part of the scene. They’ve cast us into our own personal play.

This isn’t just happening at “The Day Shall Declare It.” Immersive shows are engaging the audiences in ways that don’t just break the fourth wall, they make a mockery of it.

The question, for me, is where is all this going and should we be excited? Or concerned?

As part of last year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival, I stumbled upon Anne Katherine Lesser’s “Getting to Know You” (she’s got a new show in this year’s fringe called “A(Partment 8)“). The basic conceit was the 8 person audience was half of a speed dating event. We each sat in white folding chair in a large circle facing out. Across from each of us an empty chair. When the play began an actor (or actress) sat across from us and began our relationship: 8 audience members, 8 actors. Each of us was in a separate 10 minute scene with our partner. Then over a tiny speaker, Julie Andrews starts singing “Getting to Know You” and, like an adult version of musical chairs,  the actors would get up and move one chair to the left. Rinse, repeat. Each of these little scenes took a step deeper into the relationship, breeching a new level of intimacy. If scene one was a first date, by scene three or four we’d definitely had sex. To be clear, there was no actual physical contact beyond a hand on an arm or a pat on the knee but the words were far from chaste.

My ‘post-coital’ scene four had a male actor sitting across from me. He told me: how amazing last night was. How I had a great ass and he couldn’t believe some of what we’d done. Would I like an omelette?  And just as quickly as it’d begun he was off to the next audience member to play out the next level of a budding relationship. As the ‘play’ progressed it wasn’t just the good parts: there was a 10 minute fight. She accused me or I’d accused her (as happens all too often in these sorts of things, I can’t remember). A scene or two after I was blushing about my ‘great buns,’ here I was role playing an argument with no consequences. Strangely, the fight felt even more disarming than the fake flirting.

But was it fake flirting? It was just the two of us, sort of, and I could, I guess, say whatever I wanted. I know I really blushed. It was all part of the ‘improv,’ we’d both agreed to participate in. Where exactly are the lines between performance and, well, what do we call it?

Stepping back for a moment, what’s fascinating watching the audience in “The Day Shall Declare It” is seeing someone light up when they are really spoken to. You can see them lean in ever so slightly. You can see the thrill in their eyes. After all, who doesn’t crave connection?

So what’s going on here?

In Los Angeles, where half the audience was likely either an actor at some point or, at the least, flirted with one. Is this just a mini-scene class, an opportunity to flex those hidden acting chops, relive a moment of lost glory? Or is this something else?

Is the era of ever-connected and distracting iPhones, virtual, distant friends, and bowling alone finally catching up with us? Are theater artists simply responding to the profound need for actual human connection? Is that what this is? Or is it a placebo?

Is this something new in the theater? Are new lines being drawn or new boundaries being crossed? Or is this just the same delicate, intimate dance that’s been going on since those festivals of Dionysus and Shakespeare’s groundlings and the Group Theater and on and on? We should remember that from ancient bacchanals to historic neighborhoods that housed both the theaters and the brothels, theater has a complicated past.

I wonder if this is part of theater’s future?