Theater to feed your TV jones

"Nesting" enters its second season at the Shoebox, one-upping TV tropes like binge-watching by adding theatrical urgency to the action

The rise of streaming services and TV series released in a single chunk has more or less done away with Hollywood’s traditional pilot season. But until recently, you could find one in Portland: Action/Adventure Theater’s annual Pilot Season showcase was an evening of “pilot episodes” of short, serialized plays, one of which would be selected for a full run the following season.

Joel Patrick Durham’s pilot wasn’t chosen. And in hindsight, he thinks that’s for the best.

Energized by the audience response to his runner-up pilot, Durham (who I met when we worked together with the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival) decided to self-produce Nesting at the Shoebox Theater in 2016, along with co-producer Natalie Heikkenen. The response to that was sufficiently enthusiastic that Durham and Heikkenen were inspired to pull another leaf from the television playbook, and come back with something not many plays get: a second season.

Isabella Buckner, Tyharra Cozier an Jacob Camp in rehearsal for “Nesting: Vacancy.” Kathleen Kelly/ KKellyphotography

Like the first season, Nesting: Vacancy — which opens in October on Friday the 13th — will run in four forty-five-minute, sequential “episodes,” two per night. Though the two parts share a setting– an abandoned Portland house– they don’t share a story. In the vein of popular anthology television shows American Horror Story or True Detective, season two will start fresh, with a completely new set of characters. Specifically, a pair of siblings who find themselves squatting in the mysterious house while on the run from a murky past.

Film and television comparisons abounded at the play’s first read-through in early September. Durham and designers compared the show’s ideal aesthetic to, among other things, Twin Peaks and ‘70s horror movies. Horror itself is a genre that has lived more comfortably in film than in theater, and it’s difficult to think of famous examples of live horror that aren’t, like The Rocky Horror Show or Little Shop of Horrors, offered with a heavy helping of camp. Nesting: Vacancy tackles the genre with a straight face.

So far, so cinematic. But even as it draws on distinctly filmic tropes and language, Nesting: Vacancy does not feel like a play that could just as easily be a web series. During the first read-through, several sections of the script were set aside for future improvisation: “Ryan brings up that one time where they ___. Cameron and Sylvia add details.” These would be solidified into text during the rehearsal process for Nesting— but in season one, Durham estimates, 90 percent of the episodes were improvised according to a detailed outline. Nesting: Vacancy will also feature live sound design, created in the moment by Andrew Bray.

So the two seasons of Nesting are simultaneously TV-inspired and essentially theatrical, borrowing style and language from film and yet devoted to their own liveness.

Nesting isn’t alone in this crossover. Reviewers of the New York City immersive theater hit Sleep No More consistently compared it to a video game because of the way audience members could wander freely and discover rooms, objects, and storylines for themselves. But it was also inescapably a live experience, one where the physical proximity of actors and audience — and sometimes physical interaction between them — was an essential feature. It wouldn’t really work as a video game. And Nesting wouldn’t really work as a TV show.

With a TV series, Durham says, “in the back of our heads we know it’s just a TV we are watching. But in Nesting, we lean into what live theatre gives us: a shared space, a give and take with the audience, and the knowledge that things could go horribly wrong at any moment.”

So if the liveness of theater is not only essential, but also an improvement on pre-recorded media in this case, why borrow the language and structure of television at all?

For one thing, Durham says, “It is the language [of our] current entertainment. The audience we hope will come see this show are the people who watch television shows that reward investing from the start to finish, and paying close attention. Shows like Twin Peaks, Stranger Things, Arrested Development, and Community.”

This commitment to providing the audience with the full experience of a show, crafted from beginning to end, separates Nesting from other major examples of TV-influenced drama like Action/Adventure’s Pilot Season or New York City theater The Flea’s Serials series, neither of which guarantee that the audience will ever see the ending of a given story, as the promise of continuation is dependent on audience votes. This can make the use of episodes (especially when paired, in the Flea’s case, with free beer) feel more like a get-’em-back gimmick than a careful exploration of serialized theatrical storytelling.

Nesting wants to make episodic playgoing more than just a marketing trick. At the moment, Durham notes, theater is trending short: ninety minutes, no intermission is de rigueur. It’s not hard to guess that our waning attention spans are partly the culprit for the rising appeal of quick plays.

Durham experiences that inattentiveness himself: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down to watch something on Netflix and said to myself, ‘a movie is too long, I’ll watch a TV show.’ And then I proceed to watch four or five episodes that were longer than any movie.”

That’s the paradox, of course. On the one hand, we insist that social media and constant screen time have scrambled our ability to sit and focus … but on the other hand, we’ve all sat rapt, mechanically clicking “next episode” for about two hours longer than we ever meant to. Durham realized that there was an essential lesson in this: “It’s not that we don’t want larger, grander stories, we just want it in smaller pieces. We want the freedom to decide if this commitment is worth our time.”

Durham and Heikkenen took the gamble that audience members, given two episodes of Nesting, would come back to see episodes three and four. And most of them did. Some more than once. They’re betting that those same fans will return for season two. The state of their fundraising campaign, which almost doubled its goal, suggests that Durham and Heikkenen guessed right.

Many theater practitioners recognize that we need to find ways to meet audiences where they’re at, rather than forcing young people in particular to conoirm to the demands of an art form that can come off as stodgy and elitist (I noticed this interest at this year’s Theatre Communications Group conference in Portland, for example). The question is exactly how to do it.

Durham thinks the industry isn’t trying hard enough to figure that out. Trimming everything to 90 minutes to soothe short attention spans isn’t the answer. He’s quick to note that he doesn’t claim Nesting is the conclusive solution. But it– and plays like it– could be a step.

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Nesting: Vacancy opens Friday, Oct. 13, and continues through Nov. 4 at the Shobox Theatre, 2110 S.E. 10th Ave., Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.

 

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