A few weeks ago, I met and interviewed an actor at a coffee shop near Waterfront Park. They were charismatic, stylish and radiated supreme confidence and generosity. I would have relished the chance to find the right words to capture their personality, to make readers feel as if they had been sitting at our table with us.
But I can’t do that. I can’t tell you their name. I can’t describe their clothes. I can’t say whether they are a woman, a man or non-binary. Divulging those details would spoil the surprise of their performance in the Anonymous Theatre Company’s upcoming one-night production of William Shakespeare’s hippie-before-they-were-hippies romantic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Anonymous was founded in 2002 and has since tackled myriad theatrical landmarks, from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Yet while the plays they produce are often familiar, the way they produce them is revolutionary—until the curtain rises, the cast of each production remains a secret, even to the actors involved.
That makes Anonymous a potential nightmare for an arts journalist. Yet learning about the company from the actor I met (who shall henceforth be referred to as “Lysander,” the name of their Midsummer character) turned out to be an intoxicating journey into a corner of Portland theatre that is mysterious and more than a little bonkers, yet thoroughly entrancing.
Here is what I discovered.
The secrets begin with the audition.
Anonymous is essentially a secret society sustained by rules—rules that aren’t always unbreakable. “Years ago, if I remember correctly, you had to arrive at your audition covered up so nobody could see you in a hood, glasses, that kind of thing,” says Lysander. “Now, that’s not the case. You go to the auditions like normal, you sit in the room and chat.”
That doesn’t mean auditioning to enter Anonymous Land is a simple matter. “There was a little bit of a wait—just long enough to think, ‘I probably didn’t get it,’” Lysander remembers. “Then they sent me an email. I was sitting with my partner at the coffee table and it was really hard not to do a happy dance. Actually, the email said, ‘Don’t forget, that happy dance you want to do has to be secret.’”
While Anonymous permits its actors to tell one person that they are in the show (so they have someone to run lines with), Lysander chose not to tell their partner, since they too work in theater and could conceivably be involved with Anonymous.
I asked Lysander if it was difficult keeping their role secret from people they are close to—and the answer I received was a resounding “No.” “It’s way less fun if the secret gets out and in all these years the secret hasn’t gotten out. So you don’t want to be the one to break that streak,” Lysander says. “It’s always in the front of my mind—’They can’t know, they can’t know.’”
Rehearsals and performances are a logistical nightmare.
One of the only times that Lysander came close to learning who they were acting opposite occurred at Lewis & Clark College, where Anonymous has been holding rehearsals. “We ran a little over on our part and another actor was coming,” Lysander recalls. “Liz [Young, one of the play’s directors] actually walked me to the bookstore and was like, ‘Hang out here for 10 minutes.’”
That restriction might sound excessive to people who haven’t acted in an Anonymous play. But Lysander points out that keeping actors apart enhances the mystique that surrounds the show, thereby reminding audiences that anything can happen in the midst of a live performance. “I think Anonymous regrounds all of our brains in that,” Lysander explains. “Hopefully, even after the performance night is done, the actors can go onto their next experience and have that feeling of immediacy.”
Of course, finding that immediacy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is potentially dangerous, since a scene of hand-to-hand fighting is included. “Intermission falls directly before this fight scene, so at that point, we will know who everybody is. So we will, in theory, get a chance to run it at least once,” Lysander observes. “You have to trust that Kristen [Munn, the play’s fight choreographer] is not blocking anything that is going to be hugely damaging if it doesn’t quite go off as planned.”
More daunting are the play’s romantic scenes, which require Lysander the character to pursue two different women, Hermia and Helena. To insure that no boundaries are breached improperly during the show, Lysander the actor decided to contact the performers playing Hermia and Helena (via an intermediary) and ask what kinds of physical contact that will and won’t be willing to accept.
“Kissing on the lips, kissing on the forehead, kissing on the top of the head, kissing on the neck,” Lysander says, naming the topics up for discussion. “Can I kiss their hand? Can I grab their hand? Can I grab them from behind? Because that’s a pretty intimate thing for some people. Can I ruffle their hair? Some people hate that. Can I tickle them? For Helena, can I smack her on the bottom at one point, when Lysander is being a lech-y, pervy person?”
Lysander is less concerned about whoever is playing the character’s rival in romance, Demetrius. “Having played a couple of high-rivalry sports in the past, really digging in and finding a rivalry with someone I have yet to meet is not a challenge,” Lysander says. “I don’t care who he is. I don’t care what he looks like. He’s the one I’ve got to beat.”
Opening night will show off Anonymous’ gift for artful revelations.
When I last met with Lysander, they betrayed not a shred of nervousness about the performance. “I feel like I have a good handle on the lines. We have another rehearsal tonight at 5:30,” they said. “Maybe I should be more terrified about the whole deal, but I’m just excited.”
In true Anonymous fashion, performance night will be an intricate dance of evasion. The actors will show up posing as audience members, which means no costumes (“I’m wearing jeans and boots and a shirt and there’s jacket that’s my favorite jacket—it’s my feeling good jacket,” Lysander says).
That’s not the only unusual procedure used to keep the identities of the actors hidden until during the show. “We have the directors out in the lobby, mingling with the crowd, and basically, they’re just going to be trying to spot all of their actors in the lobby,” Lysander explains. “So there’s no real pre-show check-in. Then you sit, the show starts and when you hear your first-line cue, you stand up and say your line and go up onstage and join the cast.”
No one can know exactly what will happen when Lysander says that first line (“You have her father’s love, Demetrius. Let me have Hermia’s”). But that’s the point—Anonymous is a company built on leaps of faith. Which prompts the question: Would Lysander take that leap once more and join another Anonymous production?
“In a heartbeat,” they say without hesitation. “It’s this great opportunity to truly prepare as much as you can and then just give yourself over to a moment. And everyone’s there in that moment and everyone’s rooting for you. I think anytime you can have that opportunity to just give yourself over to the tide of this art that’s happening, you should take it.”
The Anonymous Theatre Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be performed one time only, at 7 p.m. on Monday, August 13, in the Gerding Theatre at the Armory. Tickets and schedule information here: https://www.anonymoustheatre.org/tickets