In his 1968 book about theater, The Empty Space, British actor Peter Brook says, “A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”
Rob Gander, associate professor of theater at the University of Nevada, Reno’s School of the Arts, was feeling burned out on Zoom readings. He became inspired to put the “live” back into his students’ performances and take Brook’s suggestion literally.
“I’ve admired everybody who has moved into the digital realm in the last year, but for me, because I’m sort of an old-fashioned guy, I really think it isn’t theater unless there’s a live quality to it,” Gander said. “We had scheduled a traditional show in the theater, and enough time had gone by that lockdown was over and a few people could be in a room together … So we took our biggest theater, the proscenium stage, and did theater for one.”
The result was The Power of One: Theatre Festival, a collection of 17 original short plays, each written and performed by one student who selects one audience member for whom to perform it. Gander set only a couple boundaries on content: The stories should be uplifting and short. (The average length is five minutes).
“I don’t know about you, but what I’ve been streaming lately are super-friendly reality TV shows or stories that make me feel good,” Gander said with a chuckle. “I consider myself a deep, dark artist with a lot of roots in dysfunctional family, but I just don’t want to see those stories now. So I said to students, ‘This must be uplifting because that’s really what we all want and need now.’”
Because the students each selected an audience member—a great many of them being parents or best friends—most of the stories feel a bit like love letters or odes to their audiences. For example, one relays his childhood obsession with flushing golf balls down the toilet, which winds up being a story of his bond with his father. Another writes to a member of her Dungeons & Dragons community to express her gratitude for being included. The majority are monologues or personal essays about their audience members.
“I think there are some universal themes,” Gander said. “Mostly what you see is a group of 17 college students writing about what it’s like to live for a year in lockdown, and to try to be an artist and suffer through the challenges of a pandemic. So the motifs carrying throughout are perseverance, a renewed investment in people, and an eagerness for human contact.”
Though each actor performs for only one audience member (while masked), three cameras and their operators were present to record the performances, which have been edited together and will be made available through Vimeo for the public to download after 7:30 p.m. on April 23, inviting in a second, unseen audience.
Because of the intimacy created by the one-on-one performance, Gander explained, the actors were deeply honest, real, and vulnerable, which in a live setting could create a whole gamut of emotions between self-consciousness and pride, for both performers and audience members. It occasionally was overwhelming and emotional for them, which, for viewers watching the video, may lend a dash of voyeurism to the experience.
“I think it was really good learning in terms of personal performance,” Gander said, adding that the one-on-one nature of the show broke down the barrier that usually separates audience from actors, forcing students to examine what they were willing to share personally. Plus, “we also had a lot of excitement about being in a theater space again.”
The Power of One: Theatre Festival will be available to the public on Vimeo on April 23.