Anonymous Theatre: Hello, Are you an actor in this play?

Two years ago, Anonymous Theatre assembled “Lend Me a Tenor”
on the fly.

By Emily Stevens

The first rule of Anonymous Theatre is, you don’t talk about Anonymous Theatre.

Should you choose to audition, you tell no one. You wear a disguise. Your audition is padded with time at either end so you don’t run into other actors as you are coming and going, and you are asked to keep even the fact that you auditioned secret. Rehearsals are held in secret locations throughout the city, and you learn the entire play on your own with help only from your director.

On opening night you arrive at the theater in street clothes, sit down with the rest of the audience, chat with your neighbor and then quietly wait until it is time for your first line. You will probably be nearly paralyzed by fear.

“I have never been more nervous in a theater. It was almost unbearable,” says Anonymous Theatre founding member Darius Pierce. “Usually the most unnerving part of the process is sitting watching the show before your entrance. It’s kind of nice to see the show establish itself a bit and get the feel for how it’s going, see some of the other actors. But man, I found sitting nearly impossible. Terrifying.”

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The Anonymous concept was born in 2002 at Brown University where Pierce, Sam Kusnetz, Kerry Ryan, and Rebecca Lowe were trying to push the boundaries of the fourth wall, the  barrier between the actors onstage and the audience.

“The idea [for Anonymous] first came up in conversation during a 24-hour process—we did a Mamet show where the cast met at 8 pm Friday night and spent 24 hours rehearsing and memorizing before performing the show at 8 pm, on Saturday night,” Pierce says. “At some point in that day we thought, ‘What if we take this to a ridiculous extreme?’”

Their first production was one big experiment with Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Martin’s imaginary encounter between  Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein, both on the brink of the greatest achievements in their career. “We were thoroughly prepared for the possibility that this would be a huge failure” Pierce admits, “but then it was exactly the opposite. It was thrilling beyond our imaginations! Some of those actors still talk about that as one of their favorite nights, now, 10 years later.”

According to Pierce there has not been a single breach of anonymity, not even in a production in which a couple—living together—were both cast in a show together. And each production has been more ambitious than the last: they’ve successfully produced a tragedy, Macbeth, and a musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  Their latest project, premieres (and closes)  this Sunday, a production of Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor, a cheeky mishmash of Anton Chekhov stories.

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Jane Fellows, who directs The Good Doctor, first became involved in Anonymous when she was cast as the first witch in Macbeth.

“It was an amazing evening,” she says, “and it also said to me that Anonymous can be excellent theater”

As an Anonymous director, Fellows admits that the rehearsal process is significantly more work than a normal production. She meets individually with each actor and usually logs 11 hour days. She also uses a different approach while directing.

“It’s really important to not overdo it, not over block it, keep it simple, because they’ve only got one chance,” she says. “Keep it bold brush strokes.” But that doesn’t mean the actors are doing a lot of improvising.  “In this show we get to work on such complicated things, small things that we can really do with their character.”

She talks enthusiastically about how well this show, with its endless parade of characters and action, translates to the Anonymous  treatment. “There is a great deal of play in this, a great deal of delight…. I was just saying to an actress today, ‘you don’t need to be funny, Neil Simon is funny. Take your character there and the audience will go with you.’”

On Sunday, she’ll have two hours with her stage managers (neither of whom know who will be giving them cues). The lighting board operator will also be coming in fresh, and Fellows herself will sit by him and feed each cue. “You have never listened so well as you listen in Anonymous,” Fellows laughs.

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Fellows and Pierce both stress that Anonymous Theatre is not   gimmick. They speak of it as a new school, a new genre.

“It takes advantage of what makes theater unique…that it is ephemeral,” Pierce says. “For this one night, these particular people came together as a community to experience an event and a story and an evening together, an evening that was only possible with those particular people in that place at that time.”

Fellows emphasizes the important role Anonymous has played in building community among theater lovers in Portland.  “It’s a different kind of energy, and everybody is just on everybody’s side. It’s a real affirmation of the theater community in this town,  a celebration of every person who goes up there. It’s a great energy. It’s a great energy that night. It just buzzes.”

“I really do believe that if we could find a way to bring that spirit into the performances of more traditionally produced shows, that would be just magical,” Pierce suggests. “We’ll get on figuring that out next…”

The curtain rises on The Good Doctor at 7 pm in the Gerding Theatre at The Armory. Tickets are $25. To purchase, visit Theatre Vertigo’s website.

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