In 2002, four students at Brown University cooked up the idea of Theater Anonymous. It goes like this: The organizers pick a script, director, and cast, but don't let anybody know who's in the cast—including the cast. Each actor rehearses individually with the director and is sworn to secrecy about the project. On the night of the performance, the cast members sit in the audience until they hear their cue, deliver their first line from their seat, and walk down onto the stage to join the action. The point is to generate a feeling of energy, suspense, and discovery—to bring the fun and dynamism of the rehearsal process onto the stage.
The first Seattle iteration of Theater Anonymous, produced by the same people who make 14/48 (another exercise in ditching over-rehearsal and preciousness, in which theater-makers write, rehearse, and perform 14 short plays in 48 hours), was a total success. The cast of nearly 30 actors performed It's a Wonderful Life so smoothly, you'd never know they were doing it for the first time. And the format gives actors the safety valve to leverage screwups for entertainment value—even the few flubs and awkward pauses worked as comedy. Actor Ryan Higgins nailed the George Bailey character in his own way—only allowing himself a few key moments of Jimmy Stewart impersonation—as a sweet, wide-eyed, contemporary character, reminiscent of Fry on Matt Groening's post-Simpsons cartoon Futurama. (There was a Groening feeling in the air at Theater Anonymous: Mark Fullerton's version of Old Man Potter was strongly redolent of Mr. Burns.)
American actors sometimes lament that they don't have more time for rehearsal and talk wistfully about European and Russian productions that rehearse for months or even years. But the scenes in this Wonderful Life had a freshness and liveliness that theater audiences don't see often enough. Bailey's courtship with Mary Hatch (played with perfect, ever-hopeful poise by Tracy Hyland) on her front-porch swing was surprisingly touching—more so than it is in the film, perhaps because the gentle awkwardness of negotiating the scene felt like the gentle awkwardness of negotiating actual courtship.
Maybe all love scenes should be rehearsed a little less.
And because everyone was experiencing the show for the first time, the feeling in the audience was unusually engaged—even complicit, clapping as well-known Seattle actors popped out of their chairs and onto the stage. Every entrance was An Event, and the standing ovation at the end of the show was entirely deserved.
After the performance, coproducer Jodi-Paul Wooster stood by the keg backstage, explaining that they'd asked for advice from people who'd used the Theater Anonymous concept before. "They said, 'Don't do a play with too many characters, don't have a main character who's onstage the whole time,'" he said, laughing. "And of course we had to do the opposite of that."
The next Theater Anonymous experiment is scheduled for the spring.