In the back of the Urban Arts Gallery at The Gateway, there are 10 small rooms — remnants of a closed Anthropologie — that weren’t being used for much. Until one of the founders of Sackerson theater saw them and thought, "Well, this is its own show.’”
But what should that show be? The Sackerson team — four writers, three directors and 10 designers — came up with the idea of “exploring one character through a lot of different short scenes,” producer Dave Mortensen said. “So the rooms came first, then the story.”
The result is “A Brief Waltz in a Little Room: 23 Short Plays About Walter Eyer.” Instead of sitting and watching a narrative unfold on stage, audience members — limited to 10 per performance — walk alone into a sequence of small rooms for a series of three-minute scenes.
It’s acting at point-blank range.
TAKING ‘A BRIEF WALTZ IN A LITTLE ROOM’
Where • Urban Arts Gallery at The Gateway, 116 S. Rio Grande
When • Thursdays at 7 and 8:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 6, 7:30 and 9 p.m.; through Oct. 5.
Tickets • Single ticket, $35; Small groups (2-5), $30; Large groups (6-10), $28; available at sackerson.org.
Six of the scenes feature actors who interact with the viewer as if he or she is Walter Eyer, the man in the title. The actor is a few feet — or a few inches — away. Some audience members remain silent; others ad lib their own lines.
“I was very nervous because you just have no idea how people are going to react,” said Holly Fowers, who plays Walter’s mother in Act 1 and his wife in Act 2. “I have found that I really enjoy it. But it is at such close quarters.”
Last year, Sackerson produced a walking play, “Hindsight,” which invited the audience to follow a woman through downtown Salt Lake City and onto buses and TRAX trains as she fell in and out of love with two men. Before that, it was “Scarlet,” in which four actresses played one survivor of sexual assault.
Three years ago, Sackerson produced “The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done” — six short plays that took place in an elevator-sized box. Playgoers entered the box one at a time.
The similar structure for “Brief Waltz” provides “an opportunity to try and create empathy or sympathy for another individual ... [with] a number of brief moments, images and relationships,” Mortensen said.
“A Brief Waltz” opens with a scene on video that audience members watch together in the hall between the rooms, which are numbered one to 10. From there:
• Look at side A of the card you took on arrival; one number is circled, and you start in that room. You then proceed to the room with the next number on your card. You repeat the process eight more times, completing Act 1.
• After Act 1, there’s another scene on video in the hall.
• For Act 2, you turn your card over and reenter each of the 10 rooms in the order indicated.
• The play ends with a third video scene.
The play lasts about 80 minutes. And part of the experience is gradually discovering what the narrative is all about — no spoilers here, though there’s a warning that one of the scenes features a conversion therapy session, which is an indication about the content. Some scenes are soothing; others are emotionally raw.
“One person told me that it was exciting and uncomfortable, and she felt slightly violated,” Mortensen said. “But so far it seems to be connecting with people.”
The rooms include scenes with a tree and starlit sky, a dressing room, a church and some surprises — such as a room filled with phones. There are recorded audio and visual presentations, things to read and small tasks to complete.
“What’s really delightful and challenging about this production is that your scene partner is unprepared,” said Emily Nash, who plays Walter’s adult daughter in Act 1 and young, future wife in Act 2. “The audience member in this very intimate space is coming in, hearing this and responding to it for the first time.”
And those responses vary wildly. Fowers said said some people display “no reaction” and are “very closed. So I just try to stay open myself and to continue to talk to them in such a way that maybe I may affect them.”
At the other end of the spectrum, some audience members start delivering their own lines.
“It’s interesting to figure out — how much do I engage with what you are saying?” Fowers said. “How much can I use the dialogue that’s been written to respond to you? When do I have to say something that deviates from the dialogue? And how do I keep this moving forward, because in three minutes, you have to move on.”
Nash was faced with one audience member who “was actually perfect because they were asking all of the questions that then I would answer with the following line” in her Act 1 scene. But in Act 2, “they started to really try to derail. And then it becomes — how do I keep this a generous, sharing experience where I’m not abusing my audience member, but I can kind of tell them to stop talking so I can try to get through my text?”
That’s a lot to do in three minutes. And actors have to adapt to 10 different audience members, one after another, for each performance — while playing two very different characters in two different scenes.
Nothing is required of the viewer other than being present in the room. Some “refuse to make eye contact or [are] people that kind of wander around the room ignoring you,” Nash said. “I had an audience member who pulled out their phone in the middle of a monologue.”
In the scene, Nash is playing a daughter who’s having a tough talk with her dad, “and the phone became further evidence as to how disconnected we were.”
The scenes themselves are disconnected. They’re all part of the story of Walter Eyer, but they’re pulled from different parts of his life across decades — and the order in which audience members see the scenes is random.
“We’re a narrative-driven people. We think beginning, middle and end,” Mortensen said. “This is very different. Depending upon the luck of the draw, the story is going to be unique.”
Coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.