No stage? No problem: Drama invites audience to be flies on the wall at ‘Bart’s Birthday Bash’


Jordan Levine

STAGE: Lacking a theater this year, Drama’s will stage its spring one-acts in various rooms of this home in Beverly Hills. Student playwrights are adapting scenes to what is there, and audience members will walk from room to room. The scenes are all related and revolve around a birthday party.

By Maayan Waldman, Opinion Editor

Traditional theaters, it seems, are too mainstream for Shalhevet Drama. In lieu of renting out a theater space as it did last fall for Biloxi Blues, the department will present its annual student-written One-Acts inside a private home in Beverly Hills.

The rooms of the home will be the stage.  Scene changes will involve the audience moving from one room to another.  And every audience member will see the same show but in a different order, since scenes will go on at the same time in different rooms.

It’s known as a “site-specific production,” a subset of  “immersive theater,” which is a genre of theater that takes place anywhere that is not a theater. It’s something very new for both the Drama club and the audience, brought about by the lack of a theater space during construction of Shalhevet’s new building.

“It’s really exciting and different from what people are used to,” said Drama director Ms. Emily Chase. “It’s also a way to embrace our reality this year.”

The home belongs to Shirin and Howard Fialkov, Shalhevet board members who are lending their space for three performances — May 7, 10 and 11 — and about five practices before hand. According to Ms. Chase, audience members will be escorted in groups of about 15 to watch 10-minute scenes in six different rooms of the home,

The scenes will carry different sub-plots and conflicts, all revolving around a grandfather’s 100-year-old birthday party – giving the production its name, Bart’s Birthday Bash.

The effect is to make the audience essentially a fly on the wall of day-to-day action, and has become very popular recently.

Site-specific plays can be staged anywhere — old subway stations, malls after hours, or even in a series of cars, viewed from the backseat.

“There is no limit to what you can do,” Ms. Chase said.

In fact, Jamie Brandli, this year’s playwriting instructor, was one of the writers of The Car Plays, at the famous La Jolla Playhouse near San Diego.  Audience members experienced 10-minute plays performed in the front seat, viewed from the back rows of five different cars.

For the writers, the process of creating the annual spring One-Acts has been turned upside-down. In most types of theater, the script comes first and a set is designed later to fit.   In site-specific plays, the script is written based on the set.

The writers are freshmen Ariel Cohen, Sam Hirschhorn and Zack Hirschhorn, sophomores Tania Bohbot and Liora Rabizadeh, and junior Mati Davis. Most are writing a play for the first time.

Some of the writers are acting also, which helps them with the scripts.

“Seeing the process through an actor’s perspective helps me with my writing skills,” said Liora Rabizadeh, a sophomore and first-time drama participant.

Ms. Brandli helped the students formulate script ideas and checks in about every two weeks to help develop the stories.  Ms. Chase is always around and helps more often.

All the students have had to do major rewrites.

“The more you do it, the better it becomes,” said Ariel Cohen. “I think it will actually be very professional.”

Another challenge is having to create a scene that only lasts 10-minutes. Previous one-acts have been both longer and shorter, depending on the writer and the story.

Producers and directors are also students, and each scene has its own student or professional producer, a student writer, and two student actors. The mini-groups meet weekly for 90 minutes.

Mati Davis said the directors also receive some guidance. In an interview, he quoted Ms. Chase as often saying, “Don’t sculpt, garden.” In other words, the directors are taught not to form the play, but to let it take shape on its own, with comments from not only writers, but actors and directors as well.

In all, about 20 students are involved in Bart’s Birthday Bash. Some are involved two ways (i.e. director and actor), but there is no double casting because the scenes will all be performed at the same time. Every few weeks they meet as a full cast to get notes from Ms. Chase and Ms. Brandli.

And while there’s plenty of building going on this year at Shalhevet on Fairfax, one thing Drama won’t have to do this year is build sets. The play is being written according to what the house has to offer, and everything from lighting to furniture will stay the same.

“The logistics will be interesting,” Ms. Chase said, “but we’re smart and we have both a student and professional stage manager.”

Related: Opening night of spring drama production cancelled because of rain