Weaving an audience’s soul

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It's a sold out opening night of "the theater is a blank page" and even though there are only 80 of us in the audience - we're in the very last rows of the balcony at Royce Hall.

Now if you've never been to Royce Hall at UCLA, it seats close to 2,000 people. So what are we doing way back here?

Even stranger, it looks like we've come to the end of a tech rehearsal. All the rest of the seats are covered with white muslin. The stage, befitting the title, is mostly empty.

A couple of techies are sweeping up and then vacuuming some scraps of something with an old Hoover. Then they start to fly-in and out some of the curtains and soft goods. If you're a theater person, it's a familiar exercise. If you're not, you're learning a form, a vocabulary of how a stage works.. It's a bit like the difference between reading a poem and studying the parts of speech that build it. The grammar isn't quite as flashy but it's fundamental.

The only hint that there's something more than this tidying up about to happen, is the hole created by the giant trap down stage right - a sort of delicious absence that suggests something hidden. Sure enough, after the audience has acquainted itself with the different, slower time signature of the piece - that trap is filled by a rising platform. On it: a simple desk, a gooseneck lamp, and a seated woman who begins reading to us in a gentle accent. The words are from Virginia Woolf's "To The Lighthouse" but they're not read from a book. Rather the woman is passing a long ribbon from hand to hand - decoding the words as if from an old ticker tape (if that metaphor isn't enough for you, this giant spooled ribbon of text is being fed off an old movie reel mounted to the floor).

The words fill the space simply. We can follow along if we want, we've been given copies of the text with a convenient strap so each audience member looks a bit like a child on their way to school with their favorite book slung over their shoulder.

We don't stay at the back of the theater long - just long enough to realize what we're about to participate in will be as much about form as it is content. Given that the collaborators are the artist Ann Hamilton, the theater director Anne Bogart and SITI Company, and given the text - the writing of Virginia Woolf - the forms we explore are art, theater, and the weight of words.

That exploration carries us on stage and through a series of stunning compositions that weave together the human voice, fabric, impressionistic film and the language of the stage. As beautiful and poetic as the work we experience onstage - the profound experience is what happens in the audience. Through small gestures, the passing of a ribbon of text from your neighbor, the speaking of a circled word, the moving together - it feels as if the audience is being woven and cared for through the piece - and it feels like we need it - desperately.

Go on this journey - you won't regret it.

Given the size of the audience, “the theater is a blank page” is going to be a tough ticket - grab one now.

"the theater is a blank page" plays at Royce Hall as part of UCLA's Center for the Art of Performance through May 12th.

Photos credit: Reed Hutchinson/CAP UCLA.