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Audience Safety: How Hot Is Too Hot?

I recently read an article from the New York Times about a revival of Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman.  This play is from the 60s and is about race and sexuality and passion, yet this recent production brings more to the performance.  The latest performance of this piece of theatre is taking place in The Russian and Turkish Baths on 10th Street in the East Village in New York City. It stars Kevyn States and Tori Ersnt.  It is directed by Rashid Johnson, who “has never staged a piece of traditional theater.”  I would have to agree with this idea, because staging a theatrical performance in a bathhouse is far from traditional, in fact it’s a little crazy.

When I first heard about this it was through Twitter.  I didn’t have the whole story and all I could think was “nope, not for me!” I don’t know if I would have the willpower to sit through that and actually pay attention.  There’s a reason I’ve never tried Bikram Yoga.  It’s uncomfortable and you share other people’s sweat and I’m quite certain I’d pass out.  The same thoughts echoed through my head when thinking of this.  I couldn’t imagine actually going there and sitting through a piece of theatre when all I would be thinking of is the never-ending heat.  But I kept thinking about it.  It’s a really different concept and I am interested in site-specific theatre and where it succeeds and where it doesn’t.

So, after thinking more about this bathhouse extravaganza, I decided to read the full article and see why this director chose a bathhouse.  To start, the play traditionally calls for the setting to be a subway with no air conditioning and this bathhouse seems to be the next best thing.  It also brings the audience together in a completely different way.  In this Dramaturgy class we’ve been learning all about the ways in which the people of the theatre communicate with and bring together the outside world, so this inclusion interested me the most.

To view this piece, everyone must shed his or her street clothes and “walk around in the same thin brownish-purple tunics that many bathgoers wear.”  Everyone is created equal.  There is no distraction from the audience members, as they all look the same.  Everyone can focus on the performance.

Another way this includes its audience is the fact that viewers are having the same experience as the actors.  It’s the same as Bikram Yoga! It’s uncomfortable and you share other people’s sweat, except here that also means you’re sharing in their emotions and sharing their journey through the play in an up-close and personal way.

As wonderful as this all sounds I keep bringing myself back to this idea of the safety of the audience.  As theatre makers there is a certain level of comfort and safety that we should cultivate so that our audience wants to come see us play.  So even though I am more on board with this all now, I still wonder how audience members feel about this.  Obviously people can choose not to see it because of its heated viewing space, but I still wonder about the brave theatergoers who stuck it out.  Does the heat and discomfort draw from the experience? Did you feel ill?  It sounds like a popular piece though, so I assume the audience is alive and well and felt safe, too.

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