The most recent public venue for PopUp Theatre wasn’t easy to find — getting there required climbing up a precarious staircase and winding through halls pungent with the aroma of pot. But finally the audience straggled in, finding themselves in a loft space that looked as if it was outfitted by the prop department of a movie studio, iconic Hollywood Sign included. Guests were invited to wander around the space, and told to help themselves to popcorn and vodka in the kitchen.
Eventually, the audience took their seats, and the show began. There was no curtain rising or changing of the lights — the play was about to play out right in front of the audience, in the loft’s makeshift living room, outfitted with a miscellaneous assortment of chairs.
Throughout the night, the five actors used the “set” (really just a chair, a couch and a table) however the play required. The play in question was Gina Gionfriddo’s Pulitzer-nominated Becky Shaw, which mostly takes place in living rooms and hotel rooms.
The company’s co-founder, Grafton Doyle, came up with the idea when he was rehearsing a show for the Fringe Festival, and put up the first act in his living room for his friends and family. “It was The Woolgatherer, by William Mastrosimone, which takes place in an efficiency apartment. So my apartment perfectly lent itself to the content, and what I noticed, as I was sitting behind the audience, I noticed that everyone there was on the edge of their seat because they were experiencing something so intimate and so precious, and I knew then that we had something, and that it was special, beyond just the black box typical theater of Hollywood Boulevard.”
“I think that anybody who comes to a show like this and you’re five feet away from what’s happening, in this particular case, the audience is kind of like the sixth character, and I think that transforms the play, into almost its purest form,” the show’s director, Melanie Weisner, explains. “There’s no deliberate staging for anything other than how you would really move, and there’s no projecting over how you would normally talk, it’s all just life in front of you.”
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The group migrates from venue to venue, rarely staying in one space for more than a couple shows. They mostly find places on Airbnb or through friends of friends. Of course, the downside to constantly changing performance spaces is that rehearsal is very difficult. For Becky Shaw, they rehearsed in the living room of one of the show’s actresses. “But the idea is not to always rehearse in the same space. The idea is to rehearse in different spaces all the time, so you don’t get too used [to it],” Weisner says. “Most of the blocking you saw tonight was improvisational. We never had that configuration of furniture before, and that adds this element of reality to it.” She adds, “We were in the space two hours before [the show], we were never in the space before today.” While that can be challenging, they think it adds a welcome sense of spontaneity to the shows. “We’ve even had dogs in a performance,” Doyle says. “We were at [an actress'] home, and her animal — who is the most well-behaved dog I’ve ever met in my life — was just literally lounging in our scene.”
They have a few shows in their repertoire, and perform a mix of public shows, like Becky Shaw and The Gypsy Machine (by L.A. playwright Meghan Brown), and private performances of other shows, which can take them to some strange places. They did a show at Donna MacMillan’s house in Palm Springs, which was filled with all kinds of sculptures. “It’s like an artistic junkyard,” Doyle says. “Her whole house is like an artistic exhibit, everything is designed as art, and sometimes dark surrealist art,” Weisner adds. “You’ll just walk around a corner and there will be a small thing that looks like a real child with their head against the wall.” It ended up being the perfect setting for the show they performed there, which was a surrealist, immersive piece in the style of Sleep No More.
Their favorite marriage of venue and play, though, was a performance of Three Days of Rain, a play about architecture, in a midcentury modern house in L.A. “The sun was going down, the doors were opening onto the lawn, and we performed in the living room,” Doyle says. (“Probably way more real than the set that would have been designed for the show,” Weisner adds.) Doyle continues, “That’s when I realized, we have beautiful homes, they’re their own character, in their own way, and that adds to the story in such a deep way, [more] than just going to the theater.”
PopUp Theatre will next appear at a sketch comedy and improv pop-up with UCB at Au Lac (710 W. First St., downtown) on Dec. 30. More information at popuptheatrela.com.