Theatre is a communal craft that brings together artists of many disciplines whose work is not complete until the audience sees it. In Off-Off-Broadway productions, where time is minimal and budgets are shoestring at best, the acting process is often sacrificed to get a product in front of paying customers as quickly as possible. Further, at any given rehearsal, you are likely to find actors with every type of training in town: Meisner, Adler, Strasberg, and Mamet, to name but a few.
So how does a low-budget production implement a unified process and at the same time honor the individual's technique? New York's 3Graces Theater Co. believes the answer is an interactive dramaturgical approach we call immersion—immersing the ensemble (and, as a result, the audience) in the world of the play beyond the text.
During each production, we gather the cast for activities that engage the senses: vocal and physical exercises, listening to music, preparing and eating food, reading books, and taking advantage of the city's many resources—museums, lectures, and concerts. Each activity, planned by dramaturges to illuminate the context of the play, promotes discussion, creates a vocabulary unique to the production, and allows for a more concentrated and focused collaboration.
In 3Graces' current production, Joan Holden's Nickel and Dimed, based on the best-selling book by Barbara Ehrenreich, journalist Barbara goes undercover to see if she can get by on minimum wage. To better understand both Barbara and the workers she meets, 3Graces had the ensemble live for a week on minimum wage.
Unlike Barbara, we could not quit our lives and seek low-wage jobs. Instead, we set parameters—guidelines for living on a 40-hour work week at $6.75 an hour. Prorating income taxes, meager housing, transportation, and utilities and subtracting these necessities from monthly wages, we discovered that we had only $11.16 a day for food, health, hygiene, and entertainment.
"I won't be surprised enough!" exclaims the play's Barbara, thinking she knows the experiment's outcome. The cast members, the majority of whom work day jobs, felt the same way at the outset. Yet from the moment the immersion began, we were shocked.
Like Barbara, we hadn't comprehended how one foot solidly planted in the middle class removed us from the realities and inequities of low-wage living. Suddenly, innocuous moments in the script—a headache, a cigarette, a sweet potato—had new resonance, and dramatic moments carried a new urgency and risk.
"I work in a restaurant and get a lot of free food, but nonwork days I had to bring food from home," notes 3Graces company member Cherelle Cargill, who plays a hotel housekeeper in the play named Carlie. "She has one little line about how some hot dog buns in the cleaning caddy are hers. I realized after the immersion those buns must have been left behind in a room Carlie was cleaning. Worth less than $2, they were still worth gold."
Company member Suzanne Barbetta, who plays a hostess for a chain restaurant living out of her van, changed the intention behind one of her lines after the immersion: "Before the immersion, my monthly-car-payment-as-rent announcement was 'Aren't I clever?' But after that week and realizing I couldn't even afford decent laundry detergent, my Joan had some rougher edges, and the van revelation was a throwing of the gauntlet to Barbara: 'This is what I do to get by. What do you do?' "
Annie McGovern, co-artistic director of 3Graces, says what the company does might sound Method-based, but it's not. "It's about real-world context for people's stories and honoring these experiences through theatre," she says.
And by taking what's learned in immersion and applying it to a production's overall direction and design, it creates an atmospheric result that can enliven the play's context for the audience.
"If audiences leaving the theatre after each of our productions are having the same conversations we've had during rehearsals," says company member Dorothy Abrahams, "I can't help but think we are helping to actualize change in the world."
Kelli Lynn Harrison, a founding member and the managing director of 3Graces Theater Co., is the dramaturge for Nickel and Dimed, which runs at the Bank Street Theatre through Oct. 28.