An Audience of One

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

The Fringe is upon us.

For the sixth year, the Hollywood Fringe Festival has taken over Hollywood with over 250 scrappy, boot-strap shows across three weeks. Like most Fringe Festivals, ours has a come-one-come-all philosophy, so there's no selection process, no jury picking plays. The result is more flea market treasure hunt than curated museum.

In past years, this quantity over quality approach has left me wanting. I've questioned where exactly the fringe fit in our theatrical ecosystem. Given the abundance of 99-seat theaters, the Fringe seemed more like a distraction than a way of either developing work or audience. But, what with the Actors’ Equity shenanigans, this annual outlet may become more important than any of us thought.

And to be fair, by most accounts, the quality of the shows in the Fringe is improving. There's a palpable buzz in Fringe lobbies with audience members comparing their show tallies and favorites.

What I've found most compelling about this year's Fringe are the shows that wouldn't exist outside of the Fringe context and take LA's intimate theater to its logical extreme: essentially one-person audiences.

The first, Hamlet-Mobile, is performed in and around an old, beat up utility van. The night I crawled into the back, it was parked a couple blocks south of Santa Monica Boulevard. It was just me, an audience of one, for the fifteen minute show that included both "to be or not to be" and a fresh "Cup O' Noodles."

The conceit for the shows is built around Hamlet and the recent, imagined death of an acting company's founding guru. From there, we piece together that the van has been the company's home: both artistically and practically. The resulting scenes, or vignettes, range from street theater to these one and two person audiences combining Shakespeare's text with direct, pedestrian language and concerns. Conceptually, it's fun and leaves you wanting more in both good and challenging ways.

Right after Hamlet-Mobile, I found myself with a little extra time and, with the help of the Fringe's iPhone app, found another show nearby -- how often do you get to say that in LA theater?

I was lucky to get the last seat to Getting to Know You by Anne Katherine Lesser. The show is an inspired combination of speed dating and relationship time travel. There are eight audience members and eight actors. We're welcomed into a room and told to pick one of the eight white chairs in a circle. We can choose any one of them. Then, Julie Andrews is piped over the speakers singing "Getting to Know You." One of the actors sits down in front of each of us and launches into . . . essentially a first date. It's not physically intimate but it's emotionally direct. You are part of the conversation. Then, speed dating style, the music comes on and the actors pivot one chair. Now, you're at the next level of a relationship with a totally different person. It goes on like this -- progressing both through the cast and deepening stages of intimacy.

It's theater for one.

Who knows? Maybe shrinking audiences isn't a curse for the theater, maybe it's an opportunity?

The Hollywood Fringe Festival continues through the end of this week.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Running time: 35 minutes without an intermission.

Photo courtesy of Hamlet-Mobile