Plays Performed in Elevators Take Drama to a New Level

by ekramer on January 25, 2008

In the 16th century, Shakespeare wrote “all the world’s a stage.” The statement takes on new meaning for a present-day troupe of local thespians who are making its stage in unusual parts of Louisville, as WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.

“Jay, Boxes, IMAM, Holiday, Bear, Glass, Balloon, Vote. Everybody Got that,” says Randy Pease. “For those of you who are in those plays…”

Pease is talking to a group of people in the Stark’s Building downtown and he has their complete attention. He is a stage manager with the Specific Gravity Ensemble. Tonight, he is leading them in a rehearsal for this troupe’s latest performance — “Elevator Plays: Beyond the Norm.”

The collection of plays takes place in the Stark’s Building’s elevators. The duration of each is about 90 seconds. One play is performed during the 90-second ride up to the 15th floor, and another is presented during the return to the ground floor.

Specific Gravity actually broke onto the Louisville theater scene last year with its first group of elevator plays, which was the idea of company cofounder Rand Harmon. At Centre Collage in the early ‘80s, some friends had mounted an art exhibit in an elevator. It gave him the idea of using the same space for theater, but he didn’t act on it until Specific Gravity formed in 2006. Rand Harmon.
¼br> “We were sitting around my dining room table,” he says. “And I looked at Randy and said, ‘Well, why don’t we do these elevator plays we’ve been talking about doing?”

“And ‘boom’,” Pease chimes in. “It was an instant ‘Let’s do this.'”

Harmon searched for elevator space at six buildings before visiting Mendel Hertz of The Hertz Group, which owns the Starks Building. Hertz remembers his reaction.

“‘You want to do what? You want to have two minute plays in my elevators?'” Hertz recalls asking.

“But he’s very clever,” he says of Harmon. “He started complimenting the Starks Building elevators.

Hertz says he saw an opportunity to showcase the building and make creative people aware of it.

By February, the production had brought attention to the theater company — which sold-out almost every performance and extended the production’s run.

Back in rehearsal in one of the elevators, Pease is giving directions. “You’re turning it off, right? No. Here’s our stop,” he tells a stagehand. “You point at Erin and she turns it off.”

This scene shouldn’t lead you to think that Specific Gravity is limiting itself to performing in elevators. The company’s mission is to produce primarily new plays in non-traditional spaces. Last year, it produced “Macbeth” in a warehouse and a new play in a gallery.

This type of theater is often referred to as site-specific theater. Actors Theatre has produced such work in a Butchertown warehouse and in a downtown nightclub.

But the recognized pioneer of this kind of drama is Anne Hamburger. She ran En Garde Arts in New York City for 13 years. During the 1990s, it staged plays on the streets of the Meatpacking District and on a pier on the Hudson River.

Today, Hamburger is an executive at Walt Disney where she develops its major shows for its parks. She saw how site-specific theater helped revitalize New York when crime was high and moral was low.

“I think it made a statement that New York City was safe, that it was a wonderful place to go,” she says. “I think En Garde’s work highlighted some beautiful historic landmarks.”

Most of all, she values those who stage this kind of drama for growing new audiences.

“I think people who do site-specific work can expose if not tens of millions, it’s tens of hundreds — and in elevators its tens of tens — it’s wonderful, you know, to be able to expose people to theater who ordinarily don’t go and to get them to see their environment in a new way,” she says.

At the Stark’s Building, property-owner Mendel Hertz agrees and hopes more people in Louisville will showcase all kinds of art around town.

“Art belongs everywhere,” he says. “I mean, it belongs in the parks. It belongs outside. It belongs in your home. It belongs — Why not? Why not? — in the building.”

The elevator plays start tonight and run through Feb. 17.

Listen to the story.

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