Turn off your cellphone. Take off your cool. Have a good time.
Those are the three rules that writer and performer Archie "The Messenger" Barlow sets for the audience at the beginning of his play "No Stage," currently in a two week run at Road Less Traveled Theater. The third rule gets the most explanation. Barlow says that he wants the audience to make noise, clap or shout or stand up whenever they feel like it during the performance.
"If you ain't clappin', you hatin'," Barlow says. "And you paid to hate."
Barlow had good reason to be confident with the audience at Thursday night's opening performance. He and Lyrical the Lyricist, his friend and collaborator of 10 years, have performed "No Stage" in 15 states over the past two years. Now they have brought it back to their native Buffalo for what they say is one of the play's last runs before they start a new production. Opening night was quite a homecoming.
In an interview after the show, Barlow said he knew "maybe half the crowd" that night – they were friends and family members.
"It's easier to perform with a lot of people that know you," he said. "You don't have to be anybody else, you don't really have to act. You can just be yourself."
Such a communal setting is ideal for "No Stage." The show is a raw and free-flowing mix of topical and autobiographical sketches, poems, songs, and spoken word pieces. There are no characters, no story and no pretenses. There is, ironically, a stage, but it's small and unassuming, and the few set pieces – a mattress, a desk, some chairs and couches – are hardly put to use. What matters is that it doesn't feel like there's a stage.
Thursday's performance started with "the good days." Barlow and Lyrical reminisced about the delicate details of their Buffalo childhoods: Using fire hydrants as water parks, hearing hip-hop as "ice to our wounds."
But those good days are over, and the duo spent most of the two-and-a-half hour performance focusing on contemporary issues: The recession, college debt, gang violence, police brutality (a sketch about this was recently adapted in response to the Trayvon Martin shooting). Their performances mirrored this wild flow of ideas: It was hard to tell if Barlow and Lyrical were rapping, ranting, acting or sermonizing as they breathlessly fired off material dense with clever rhymes, wordplay, and hard-won bits of wisdom. All throughout, the audience responded to Barlow's opening wish.
During most of the performances, they shouted out running commentary. During songs, they clapped, snapped, and sang along. Their laughs weren't polite and perfectly timed; they were rambunctious signs of recognition and remembrance.
It was a fresh and impassioned performance. And it's one that, even in this short run, will not be performed the same way ever again.
Tony Shep, the show's producer, said in an interview that Barlow and Lyrical have about three-and-a-half hours of material prepared for "No Stage," and with each performance, the actors "try to condense it to whatever audience they think they have." Barlow said after the show that, for opening night here, he and Lyrical just went with "the normal game plan": Heavy on comedy and Buffalo-specific details, lighter on dramatic and romantic sketches. Nonetheless, they are already prepared for changes over the next two weeks.
If there are younger people in the crowd, they'll sub out some of the vulgar or nostalgic material. When Quadir Lateef – another local spoken word artist who contributed a piece about street violence – performs out of town next week, he'll be replaced by another guest performer.
Even the "normal game plan" was subject to great change: The first performance ended up running more than hour longer than Barlow and Lyrical planned.
"The audience was enjoying themselves," Barlow explained afterward.
Through June 21 at Road Less Traveled Theatre, 639 Main St.
Tickets, $10-$20; 629-3069 or www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org.