by Raphael Badagliacca

If Engineering, Scientific, Financial, Human Resources and other enterprises can put out white papers, why not a Theater Development Company conducting an experiment designed to observe, reflect on and improve our understanding of life’s encounters?

This is an outline to that paper which I amusingly call “white except for the black squiggles that make up the words.” I don’t have the time to give you the entire paper here (though I will shortly) because I want to quickly invite you to be part of the experiment, especially if you are in the tristate area.

ONE play
25 performances
with 25 actors
in 25 different combinations
and no actor knows
who will be encountered
on stage in any role.

See it ONCE. See it MORE than ONCE. It’s NEVER the same and neither will you be.

April 3-14. Get tickets

Here’s how it works. A script for five characters is written. Five directors are chosen and each works with a cast of five actors. Then the deck of actors is shuffled, and for each of 25 performances no actor knows who the other four actors will be.

This is the opposite of what happens in a play that is rehearsed until it is known cold, and the actors become experts not only in the words, but the ticks, flaws and expected moments of brilliance in the fellow actors with whom they will be interacting for what everyone hopes will be a generous run. Furthermore, there is only one director in the standard scenario imposing only one vision on all of the action. Even in that highly controlled arrangement, actors regularly report that each performance is different, which they often attribute to the different energy levels audiences bring into the theater. Whatever the cause, these variations are the private observations of the cast, since members of the audience usually only see one performance.

Imagine what a different experience this is — first, for the actors, and next for the audience, especially for anyone who elects to see the play more than once.

Theater tells us about life. That is its relevance. This special, experimental theater variation tells us even more about life because our real life encounters are random, unanticipated, and unrehearsed.

It collapses some of the space between the actors and the audience. However intently the audience reads the play’s liner notes while waiting for the action to begin, the appearance of each actor on the stage brings an element of surprise. In the Without-a-Net scenario, that surprise is shared by the actors themselves, which makes their interactions more genuine from the first moment and throughout the performance, if our measuring stick is encounters in real life.

When AND Theater Company announced its first Without-a-Net experiment in 2011, the project intrigued me so much that I committed to attending all 25 performances and wrote about each one. This meant hoofing it to the train station in New Jersey, then uptown to 54th Street from Penn Station. When there was more than one performance in a day filling the time in between by writing about the first performance, noting differences in feeling and approach and sometimes how the same actor behaved differently in the role with different actors. Then a curious thing began to happen. Watching the play day after day sensitized me to any group of five people I did not know in which I found myself – and there were plenty of them. Five of us waiting for the train on the New Jersey station platform. Five of us on the train into the city. Five of us on the subway going uptown or downtown after the last performance of the day. Five of us waiting for the elevator up to the 12th Floor at Shetler Theater where all of the performances took place and have taken place since the onset of the experiment. Five of us in the elevator. And the telling observations had not only to do with the others but also with myself, which is why I can promise a degree of self-reflection and discovery to audience members who participate, especially if you view more than one performance. This happens with every good piece of theater, but more so in this case.

Here is an example of what I mean. Sensitized to a new group of five on the elevator on my way up to the next performance I fell into that natural human tendency of looking at people and creating stories. The couple leaning against the back wall of the elevator seemed happy enough, she more exotic than him. He must be the dependable type, probably with a profession – lawyer or accountant. Imagine my dismay when they got off at different floors and obviously knew each other as much as I knew either of them – not at all. So, I learned again not to presume.

That first Without-a-Net play was written by Gary Garrison and Roland Tec. The four subsequent ones, running every other year, including this one – Lights Out! Library in the Dark – have been written by Kristine Niven – the inspiration and intelligence behind an ongoing, invaluable experiment that has shifted over the years and produced new findings like any good scientific experiment, always moving further in the direction of the genuine.

SUPPORT this EFFORT. Don’t miss it if you are anywhere near NYC any day between April 3 and April 14; Shetler Theater; 244 West 54th Street.

See it ONCE. See it MORE than ONCE.

Get tickets here:

Lights Out! Library in the Dark – written by Kristine Niven

directors: Molly Ballerstein, Janice Goldberg, Rani O’Brien, Gene Santarelli, Scotty Watson

Shetler Studios – Theatre 54 – /var/folders/xx/ff1q08sn6qgbypdv7r3w9pj00000gn/T/ W 54th Street (at 8thAve)  12th Floor – New York , New York 10019