Dinner theater with a twist

Share this:
October 4, 2004 // UPDATED 4:14 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Anna Pratt
Anna Pratt

Joe's Garage stages Thirst Theater micro-dramas

When they pulled out a toy gun and shrieked from the first-floor dining room, customers on the brink got the attention of second-level patrons at Joe's Garage in Loring Park -- diners who hadn't paid to see the drama.

"Don't look down. That costs $9," bar-owner Joe Kaplan jokingly warned the inquisitive patrons as they peaked over the upper-floor railing, and then pretended to add the meandering glimpses to their tabs.

This was the first in-restaurant performance in a series of micro dramas from newly-formed troupe Thirst Theater, running Mondays through Nov. 8 at 7:30 p.m. at the 1610 Harmon Pl. bar and eatery.

Kaplan said he agreed to the Thirst performances because they aren't intrusive (at least not physically) -- actors take a table amongst first-floor customers, and little is needed beyond the occasional prop as each playlet is set in a restaurant -- and the shows fill up otherwise quiet Mondays, which happens to be the night most local dramatists are free (including the professional actors in the Thirst troupe) since most theaters have "dark" Mondays.

At the first Thirst performance, Sept. 13, curious passersby peered into the windows, and the 40 people cramped into the first floor of the restaurant listened intently to/eavesdropped on the people at the designated-drama table.

It was cramped, noisy and hot, but these circumstances seemed to contribute to, not detract from, the "au natural" spirit of the production itself.

The five brief acts played with the blurred lines between audience and actors, stage and restaurant. They featured a rotating promenade of customers, wait staff and orders. The smell of burgers, fries and beers became part of the scene. Coasters, topped off with "Where curtain call meets last call," served as programs.

"In this case, instead of ignoring the people around them, people are paying attention to the actors who're the only ones in the bar trying to live their 'own' lives," said Thirst Theater actor/organizer Chris Carlson who frequently appears in Downtown shows and is also an immigration attorney in South Minneapolis.

Of course, there is a downside to defying customary theater conventions. Not only did the actors have to adjust their volume and work especially hard to focus amidst countless distractions (versus an auditorium that quiets when the action begins), the stage-less space was limited; there was no sound system, curtain or special effects and props were minimal (table, chairs, drinks and a toy gun).

Today's specials

A man wearing a Hawaiian shirt was frantic when he pulled out a toy gun in the fourth play, "The Big Cold Tit of Civilization," by Alan Berks, leaving behind the woman he'd been dining with, actress Tracey Maloney (who's currently performing at the Guthrie Theater, 725 Vineland Pl.). The two main characters Berks' play centered on tried desperately to have a conversation but an interfering waiter repeatedly disrupted their talk. In the end of what Berks described as "a paranoid comic vision of the slightly near future," Maloney stared vacantly at her slime-colored drink "Sex on the Spaceship."

The first evening's program also included fast-paced vignettes authored by Bill Corbett, Cory Hinkle, Trista Baldwin and Dominic Orlando who've had plays produced nationally, internationally and locally in venues like the Illusion and Guthrie theaters.

Their character-driven skits don't skirt serious issues. They ponder love, freedom and life/death. "A lot of these voices are so timely and topical about fear. We're in the midst of fear," said actor Brian Goranson, who's also currently acting at the Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Ave. S., in "Northern Lights -- The Nine/Eleven Plays."

Staged like outbursts, the 11 original new plays (with four or five plays "staged" per Monday evening) collectively contemplate the relationship between drama and community in bars and restaurants in sketches that range from seven to 25 minutes. The only criteria that organizers gave playwrights was that the scenes be set literally in a bar and be kept under or around 15 minutes.

Each of the scripts was written in a record six hours. However, this lack of polish wasn't due to a time crunch. Carlson said writing time was intentionally slashed to produce more "raw" and accessible, rather than "snooty," scripts.

"The idea was to come up with something that was as riveting and captivating as possible without the usual bag of tricks. At the same time it had to be graspable and worthy of an audience," said playwright Melanie Marnich whose plays have been produced at the Guthrie Lab, 700 N. 1st St. "It was stripped down to barebones drama."

True to the team's dramatic sportsmanship, actors rehearsed just once before going on. "I won't even know if my play works until I see it here [at the restaurant]. It has to adjust to potential glitches," Marnich said.

Goranson said it was fun to roll with such glitches, primarily competing for audience attention. "We had to make the audience forget about the plates rattling in the next room. It's kind of like street theater."

"I thought it was going to be easy, but it took unbelievable focus," said actor Steven B. Young, who's currently performing in "Go Dog Go," at the Children's Theatre, 2400 3rd Ave. S. "We were lucky because we got to go last."

Fringe food

The bar-playhouse idea sprung from eight months of discussion among fellow thespians about the few opportunities available to professional actors to socialize and perform in atypical productions, let alone mingle with play authors.

Local playwrights also talked about their frustration with the production system itself, which they said is normally a two-year-long conveyor belt of artistic decisions involving directors, designers and others.

As an attorney and actor, Carlson was able to work out an arrangement with the local theater union (most of the actors belong to the professional theater world's guardians of time, the Equity Union). And without so much behind-the-scenes processing, shows were free to be "raw, accessible and professional," giving viewers/restaurant patrons a window into a less developed phase of production, Carlson said.

Leah Cooper was in Thirst's audience at Joe's Garage on the shows first night. Cooper is the executive director of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, an immensely popular 10-day series of performances, which-cosponsored the Thirst Theater series.

As a "regular" audience member Cooper said she enjoyed watching the actors adapt themselves to the space as the night wore on: "It was fun to see how they got the hang of what was unique about this environment. By the end they realized it was better to acknowledge our presence, to look at the audience. I got a kick out feeling like I was practically in it," said Cooper.

"I also had fun feeling like we were being stalked by bystanders," said Cooper. During the final act Cooper went outside to smoke and spectators who didn't know that there was a performance going on in the restaurant were perplexed by the commotion inside.

Cooper said the 2005 Minnesota Fringe Festival splits into several, separate festivals including a "Site-Specific Fringe."

"We [should] do more theater for people who don't necessarily want to sit thru two hours of a performance. Shows that don't leave people out, but meets them halfway, where they can talk and dine at the same time," Cooper said.

After the shows ended and the crowd abandoned their tables and chairs, Thirst Theater left the restaurant pretty much as they found it.

The Thirst Theater series will run at Joe's Garage Mondays, 7:30 p.m. through Nov. 8. A $9 cover charge is collected at the door.