So a couple or three weeks ago I get this email from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival press office, that says, in part: “I am entering media ticket orders for opening weekend and am wondering if you want traditional or promenade seating for Yeomen.”
That would be for the Gilbert & Sullivan show Yeomen of the Guard, which opened Saturday afternoon at the festival’s black box Thomas Theatre.
“Promenade”? I thought.
“Note that the promenade option means you couldn’t take notes or have anything else in-hand,” the email went on.
At that point a little research kicked in. Yeomen, it turned out, is being directed by Sean Graney, of The Hypocrites theater in Chicago. He’s made a name for himself nationally by doing unconventional stagings of Gilbert & Sullivan favorites, in which the audience becomes part of the show. In fact, some of them are seated on stage.
So “promenade” seating is code for “You’re sitting on stage, where actors can make fun of you and you might further embarrass yourself by accidentally tripping a musician or otherwise ruining a scene.” Now, I am someone who likes to sit back and watch. Every molecule in my body screamed “No!”
But, I am a journalist. I also want to see the whole thing. “Sure, let’s do promenade seating,” I emailed back. “Why not?”
A Facebook message from Eddie Wallace at the press office this morning suggested that Noah and I might want to arrive early for the afternoon show.
“The 30 minutes prior to curtain for Yeomen of the Guard are quite fun,” he wrote. “Actors and musicians mingling with the audience, playing music and games, the onstage bar is open with snacks and drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. So if you have a chance to arrive a little early, I think you’ll enjoy it!”
We wandered into the Thomas Theatre a little after 1 p.m. for the 1:30 show. The onstage party was already in full swing, with OSF actors and musicians decked out in full country-western regalia, wandering around the stage, which offered such seating as faux hay bales, a picnic table, some plain wood benches and a pair of rocking horses.
I headed for the bar – there really is one – and bought an IPA from a fellow wearing a Budweiser cowboy hat, and then found myself accosted, in the friendliest fashion imaginable, by OSF’s K.T. Vogt, who was dressed ready to square dance and strumming a ukelele (or was it a mandolin? I was still scrambling to get my bearings).
About half the conventional audience seats were full by 1:15, meaning that the other half of the regular, non-promenade audience was mingling on stage with the actors. The atmosphere was a bit forced, like a church social with way too much light, and trapped in the shoulder to shoulder crowd I couldn’t imagine how anyone would perform, even if they could find their way to the hay bales.
This is how: When the show was about to begin Vogt and several of the other actors took turns laying down the ground rules for those of us brave souls who purchased promenade tickets. Sit anywhere you like. Wander around as you like. Do, though, try to stay low on the ground near anyone who is performing, so the rest of the audience can see them. Feel free to buy drinks at the bar anytime.
And, then, the most consequential rules: Actors moving about will point to where they need to go if, say, you’re in the way. If you are, then move. If you don’t see them coming they may touch you on the shoulder to get the message across.
My stress level went up exponentially.
The show began, and the two dozen or more of us audience members still onstage were left to dodge and weave our way around the action. Ideas of taking part were overwhelmed by the desire to stay safely out of the way. Pretty soon I was sitting on a bench and someone with a guitar pointed at me. I leapt to my feet and began what seemed like a game of musical chairs. I moved to the back wall of the stage, thinking to be safe in Siberia, when suddenly two musicians sat down, one of either side of me, and opened scores on music stands. I started to get up, but one tapped my arm to indicate I was fine to stay.
This is Gilbert and Sullivan?
Well, yes, no, and maybe, but the main point I want to make in this review is that whatever it is, it works exceedingly well. After those first few ambiguous and stressful minutes, watching Yeomen from the middle of the production became something like a dance in which the actors led but the audience could also direct the flow. To my great surprise the constant motion became second nature. And it was a blast.
The show itself was, well, Gilbert and Sullivan – sharp, quick, witty and shallow. So it’s not like killing a puppy to mess around with the theatrical experience. The music is good, no doubt about it, even when forced into a container made of cowboy boots, accordions and dobros.
So, yes, the musical was fun. But they could have done anything. Les Miserables and Sound of Music would have been the same show. The experience was watching it from the inside. I loved sitting right next to actors I know from other shows – Oh my god, I’m sitting next to Tony Heald! Look, there’s Kate Hurster! – in a theatrical experience that flowed all around me.
Here are some thoughts:
* While you’re encouraged to move around and take part in the party, you’re definitely told not to take photos. Come on, folks, this is 2016. OSF need to relax this rule at this particular production. We don’t need the stage monopolized by selfies, but perhaps photos could be allowed in that 30-minute pre-show interval.
* People coming to Yeomen – especially to be on stage – might enjoy dressing the part. I hope this happens during the run. Dig out that Stetson that’s been in the attic, pull on those boots, iron that old embroidered cowboy shirt, and buy yourself a promenade ticket.
Finally, there was a bright looking young man sitting near me on stage, not performing but clearly keyed into the action, occasionally helping direct traffic as performers swirled through the audience. During the “one-minute” intermission in this 80-minute show (I believe it actually lasted one minute and 42 seconds) , I asked whether he might be part of the OSF company. “I’m the director,” Sean Graney said.
I slipped him my card and said I’ll be emailing an interview request. Stay tuned for the results….