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SPACE AND SENSIBILITY

EXACTLY AS supposed, the new Andrews Theatre on Main Street is changing minds about what the experience of theater can be.

This new theater for the Irish Classical company is as good an example as you'll ever see of the importance of how space is configured for performance.

To call it theater in the round would be an injustice. That sounds too much like those generally ill-fated attempts to more fully involve audiences by dissolving the "fourth wall," that hypothetical separation between audience and actors associated with proscenium stages. Lots of time and energy, especially in radical theater, was spent in trying to erase any separation.

Prudent attempts like theater in the round or thrust stages, where the stage sticks beyond the proscenium into the audience, have their place but haven't entirely done the job. Less timid attempts, say in the 1960s, put actors in the laps of audience or invited audience members on stage. Complete erasure of the boundary between audience and players was the goal.

The ultimate all-one aim was never achieved, and won't be. For many of us it has to do with the nature of art and experience.

Despite appearances, the plays of Samuel Beckett, for instance, are closely positioned around experiences in his life. In narrow respects they aren't outcomes of the creative imagination at all, but reports. But, of course, reports, no matter how laden with factual material, can draw only so close to the real experiences themselves. And yes, of course, Beckett's genius transformed these into pieces for theater, into art.

So the distance between what is experienced and what is produced for theater, using Beckett as one example, may be far less than we might imagine, but it exists nevertheless. The two things are not identical; they are not congruent overlays.

Our experience of theater produces another gap. This represents the difference between our experience of the performance of the play and Beckett's experience of preparing the play from his originating life experiences. Neither are these the same. It would be a surprise if they were.

The greater the gap, the thinner, the more oxygen-deprived, they become. Take reviews. These are largely an additional representation of one person's experience of a play that represents an experience and so forth. Simply one more layer of many.

All talk of gaps, distance, layers and the like is metaphorical, for they aren't measurable quantities. They are, though, for those who attend a lot of theater, felt qualities. The differences are striking.

The need to redefine in simple terms the experience of theater arises from this: Truly good theater is not anything like the popular idea of theatrical entertainment. In a reversal of roles, dating from earlier in the century when theater was the standard of popular entertainment, movies and television shows now assume that role. Much huffing and puffing goes on in high-stakes theater to make it resemble movie experience.

Mega-musicals are almost all of this ilk. They constitute extreme examples of theatrical presentation, which because they take place live and on stage under the rubric of theater can be confused with a narrower, more precise idea of theater as art, which is a category of experience altogether different.

Even seriously intended plays, which is to say, plays digging for truth in experience, are vastly different, and not only because of how they are done -- better and worse performances -- but where they are done. Understandably this is an underlooked factor because most theaters are stuck with the size and shape they are no matter what kind and how varied the work they do.

How configuration of space ties into how we experience things is puzzling, but architects and designers know it as fact. In theater, the metaphorical gaps or distances separating experiences respond favorably to actual, measurable configurations of space: how and where the audience sits in relation to the performance before them, and probably the volume of the space. It's almost as if an element of Pythagorean mysticism were involved.

The Irish Classical's Andrews Theatre is a perfect example. No doubt theaters like it exist somewhere in the world, but I've seen nothing quite like it. The audience sits on all sides. It is not round, it is square. It's not a very large square, either: 25 feet to a side, like a large living room. There are but three rows of seats all around, a little elevated, but very close to stage level. The ceiling is high, yet not that high.

Several things flow from this. There can be no large set constructions, only things, basically floor things, such as furniture when necessary, in consequence of which audience imaginations are required to work. We are close to but not on top of the actors; they are not in our laps. Actors must act. This isn't as tautological as it sounds. Observation is so close and intimate that there is no room for inattentive work nor any place for display acting, no room for flagging concentration, no tolerance for tricks. It is a sort of crucible for truth.

The space is what does it. It is difficult to think otherwise than that this new theater space will change how theater is done in this town and how it is received, how it is experienced.

A say in how a theater is designed is, oddly, not usually the provenance of theater people. The Irish Classical principals had a crucial say in the design of their theater. They knew what mattered and what they wanted and they got it. What precisely makes this theatrical space so potent is hard to pin down.

Part of it is subtraction. Features extraneous to the experience of live theater are gone. It is, in its way, a purifying space. The experience of pure theater, the kind that's happening in the Andrews Theatre, is unlike anything other than itself.

Beckett's work, and most of the best theater, is immune from film treatment or some other mode. It simply won't translate. Even Shakespeare in so many films is inevitably, it seems, diluted or distorted, and this isn't a scholarly point, rather an experiential one. The Andrews isn't the only possible configuration of theatrical space, of course. But it is one, and powerful. It shrinks the distances between transpositions from real-life experience to art to its reception.

In this way it seems certain that not only will it affect standards of performance in this town for the better, it will change ideas about what it is to go to theater and experience it.

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