Made for Each Other


A young couple is getting married in the Inner Harbor tonight. They also got married yesterday. In fact, they'll get married eight times a week for the foreseeable future. And you're invited to the ceremonies.

Meanwhile, down in Washington's Foggy Bottom, there's a murder eight times a week. And you're expected to help identify the murderer.

Welcome to the world of interactive theater, where the public mingles with performers at Renaissance festivals; where comedy troupes enlist the aid of the audience; and where John Q. Theatergoer determines the outcome of a play.

"Interactive theater is any type of theater in which the audience becomes an active co-creator of the show with the performers," explains Jeff Wirth, author of a handbook on the subject. "It's very much like jazz. There is a definite structure to jazz music, but within that structure there is the freedom to create spontaneously in the moment."

Baltimoreans will get a hardy dose of it when "Tony n' Tina's Wedding" opens at Scarlett Place on Thursday. (The show is now in previews.) Washingtonians are already old hands at the genre, having celebrated the 12th anniversary of the comedy whodunit "Shear Madness" at Kennedy Center last month.

In "Shear Madness," the actor playing the detective stops the show in mid-play to seek the help of the theatergoers, who will eventually choose the murderer. Although the show has a cast of six, Bob Lohrmann, associate director of the Washington production, likes to think of it as a play for seven actors -- the seventh being the audience.

In "Tony n' Tina's Wedding," theatergoers become guests at the nuptials of the fictitious blue-collar Italian-American couple, Tony Nunzio and Tina Vitale. An environmental piece, "Tony n' Tina" takes place at a catering hall -- and in some cities, also a church -- and features a pasta dinner. That's why, even though the show is part of the Mechanic Theatre subscription series, it is not being presented at the theater. Scarlett Place was selected in part because it has a hall, which had been used for real weddings in the past.

Meeting the family

"Tony n' Tina" gives audience members a chance to dance with the bride and groom, eat dinner at a table with a member of the family and chitchat with the parish priest who performs the ceremony. A different production, which ran for five months in Fells Point in 1990, could get pretty wild. Being pelted with bread or having champagne spilled on your dress was a frequent hazard.

Sandy Hey, founder, producer and artistic director of Hey City Theater, the Minneapolis company that is producing Baltimore's current version of "Tony n' Tina," says the new rendition is "a kinder, friendlier, more patron-friendly experience."

Baltimore is the third city in which Hey has produced the show. Her Minneapolis production, now in its fifth year, has grossed more than $11 million. A Portland, Ore., company ran almost two years. The Baltimore cast members have six-month contracts.

Once described by the New York Times as "the oddest, goofiest, unlikeliest hit in New York," "Tony n' Tina" began as a dormitory sketch performed by college students Nancy Cassaro and Mark Nassar in the late 1970s. The original production is in its 12th year off-Broadway. And it has spawned a seemingly endless array of imitators, from "Grandma Sylvia's Funeral" to "Bernie's Bar Mitzvah," which originated in Baltimore and played a short run in New York in 1992.

"Shear Madness" is also a venerable hit. Currently in its 20th year in Boston, it is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest-running nonmusical play in American theater history. Worldwide, the show has grossed $105 million and been seen by 5.5 million people. It seems well on its way to fulfilling the prophecy of a Boston cast member who once told the Wall Street Journal: " 'Shear Madness' could end up as the McDonald's of American theater. Call it McTheater."

Although interactive theater might seem like a recent phenomenon, it's not new. The form has roots in 16th century Italian commedia dell'arte, in which traveling troupes improvised plays about stock characters. In fact, besides improvisation, larger-than-life stereotypes are a holdover in many modern-day interactive shows. "Tony n' Tina's" Hey traces the roots back further than that. "You can dig back as far as you want -- to Greek theater with the chorus, and the audience drawn in," she says.

As this precedent suggests, interactive doesn't only mean light-hearted. In the 1960s, the Living Theatre -- Julian Beck and Judith Malina's experimental, off-off-Broadway company -- was a radical force seeking social change. Brazilian playwright and activist Augusto Boal has taken it further still, explains Wirth, a former Ringling Bros. clown who has made interactive theater his life work. "[Boal] has created a form called 'Legislative Theatre,' " Wirth says. "He takes issues to the street in theatrical form." As a member of the Rio de Janeiro city council from 1992 to 1996, Boal used the people's responses to decide how to vote on various issues.

Even Broadway has embraced interactive theater. Two Tony Award-winning examples are the 1985 musical "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," and the Bill Irwin-David Shiner show, "Fool Moon," which received a Tony this year.

In the Baltimore-Washington area alone, there are diverse permutations -- everything from the Maryland Renaissance Festival, currently in Crownsville; to Second City, the improvisational Chicago comedy troupe coming to the Gordon Center next month; to the Flying Karamazov Brothers, who will be accepting audience challenges at Center Stage in November; to comedian/magicians Penn & Teller, who arrive at the Lyric Opera House in February.

There are numerous theories for the popularity of interactive theater. For starters, it counteracts an increasingly technological society where entertainment often occurs in isolation; even interactive video games have a screen distancing the player. "Most of our entertainment is impersonal, and this is very personal," says Ross Young, who directed the Baltimore production of "Tony n' Tina's Wedding" and stars as Tony in the Minneapolis company. "By the time the wedding is over, if we've succeeded, we don't seem like strangers."

Making it personal

In interactive theater, personal refers to the audience, not just the actors. "I think so much of theater and so much of acting today has to do with me, me, me, me, me. This is a play that serves you, you, you, you, you. We play it your way," says Bruce Jordan, co-creator -- with Marilyn Abrams -- of "Shear Madness."

Former teachers, Jordan and Abrams fashioned "Shear Madness" from a serious play, "Scherenschnitt," written in 1965 by Swiss psychologist and playwright Paul Portner. "The interaction in our play is not gratuitous," says Jordan. "The interaction has to take place in order for the crime to be solved."

For "Tony n' Tina" producer Hey, part of the appeal is that the shows provide "a safety zone for people to play." She also feels audiences respond to a voyeuristic element. Nine years ago, when she first attended the New York production, she says, "I was taken in by the sense that I was in someone else's life."

Like many interactive shows, both "Tony n' Tina" and "Shear Madness" take place in real time and in the town where the show is staged. "Shear Madness" routinely adds topical references to the script -- such as President Clinton's line, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," or references to the day's weather. Director Lohrmann has played all four of the show's male roles at one time or another, and there were times, he says, when "I've been waiting backstage to make an entrance, still working out the exact wording as to what I want to say and how I want to say it."

In "Tony n' Tina's Wedding," four-fifths of the cast members are from the Baltimore-Washington area, and all of the actors have created local bios for their characters. Tina's family hails from Little Italy, Tony's is from Hunt Valley, and almost all of the references to "sweetheart" in the dialogue have been changed to "hon," says Terry Long, stage manager of the Baltimore production.

Because of the universality of wedding rituals, the show is almost guaranteed to elicit an emotional response. "Everybody loves the hopefulness of a wedding," Hey says. "You put a bride anywhere, and she will stop traffic and people will look and people will smile. No matter what their own situations are, they want to believe this couple is going to be the happiest couple ever."

Of course, audience participation creates unpredictability. Hey recalls one patron breaking into tears because she was upset that the pregnant maid of honor was drinking. Another time, a livid theatergoer came up to her insisting that the character of the photographer was the same photographer who ruined her wedding in Iowa.

Interactive is unpredictable

Unlike "Tony n' Tina," "Shear Madness" takes place in a traditional theater space, but apparently that doesn't inhibit theatergoers. A patron once confessed to the murder, and Jordan, the show's co-creator, remembers a night when a chef in the audience nearly climbed on stage, heading to a nonexistent upstairs kitchen, to demonstrate how to cook a meal.

This unpredictability undoubtedly helps keep audiences coming back. "I can remember, when I was performing the show in Chicago, that on Thanksgiving the same mother, father and three boys came to see it every Thanksgiving vacation. We saw the boys grow," says Jordan.

Despite its popularity, says Wirth, interactive theater carries a stigma. "It's still where jazz was when it was playing honky tonks. Jazz music wasn't considered music. How can that be music? They don't have all the notes written down."

The proof of the form's artistic merit, he believes, will ultimately come from a combination of new aesthetic criteria and popular sentiment. "A good analogy would be judging a realistic landscape and an abstract piece of art by the same criteria, and if the same criteria is: Does it look real? Then, the abstract is no good at all," he explains.

"But eventually, if enough people like it, it becomes considered art. There may be folks who consider that interactive theater isn't really theater, but if there are enough people who like it, it will become considered theater."

Based on the numbers so far, that time may not be far off.

Interactive shows

What: "Tony n' Tina's Wedding"

Where: Scarlett Place, third floor, 250 S. President St.

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $43.50-$58.50 (previews Tuesday, Sept. 28, and Wednesday, Sept. 29, $35-$45)

Call: 410-752-1200

What: "Shear Madness"

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 9 p.m. Fridays, 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $25-$29

Call: 800-444-1324

Pub Date: 09/26/99

On the cover of Sunday's Arts & Society section, the man dancing in the "Tony N' Tina's Wedding" photograph is incorrectly identified. His name is Randolph W. Hadaway, and he portrays a cousin of the bridegroom in the play. The Sun regrets the error.
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