7 Minutes in Heaven

No Holds Barred Content for the Theater

“You might leave feeling sweaty, manhandled, or in need of a shower”—not necessarily encouraging words to hear from an MC, but certainly intriguing. 7 Minutes in Heaven is a reoccurring theater experience hosted by Space 55, a teensy 50-seat theater in downtown Phoenix. The premise is simple: ten acts, 7 minutes each. No screening, no cohesive rehearsal. The theater’s website grabs potential audiences saying, “no holds barred” but simultaneously pokes fun/offers veiled warning, “Don’t like what you’re seeing? Just wait seven minutes for the next act!”

An actor on stage in 7 Minutes in Heaven
Photo courtesy of Alice Stanley Jr. 

On June 22nd, the house was a few seats short of selling out, the atmosphere was as warm as the temperature, and the acts were wildly diverse. The first act was guitarist Tom Tuerff, who for seven minutes played 1960s television theme songs to other popular tunes or as impressions. (“What if the Green Acres theme had been sung by John Lennon?”) Cute for sure…but definitely a far cry from pushing any type of envelope. The raunchiness arrived via the MC, who would announce the next performer while moaning or poll the audience about who was getting laid that night while handing out Hawaiian leis. The actual acts mainly didn’t have questionable content in terms of “adult themes,” but they were questionable in performance quality.

I don’t mean the quality was necessarily bad, although, inherently when a theater or company doesn’t oversee any rehearsal and lets anyone in a show, some acts are going to be rough around the edges. I mean “questionable quality” as in it would be difficult to put some acts into definitional boxes. The second performer, Rick Larson, introduced himself as a ventriloquist, but soon revealed he was actually performing comedy (when his first dummy was of Elephant Man Joseph Merrick with a paper bag over it’s head, only able to yelp inaudibly). It was part stand-up, part monologue, part spectacle.

 

Ryan Avery walked on stage explaining casually he was in a marketing class recently and started describing a presentation he gave about a local restaurant. 

 

My favorite act was one most theaters would have a hard time accepting. Ryan Avery walked on stage explaining casually he was in a marketing class recently and started describing a presentation he gave about a local restaurant. He noted he didn’t have the PowerPoint, but he could describe it. I could feel the audience wondering “where is this going?” when suddenly the performer revealed that everyone in his class was instructed to write criticism on note cards during the presentation. He pulled out the cards from his back pocket and read them all. It was an honest and interesting look at academic, feedback, and community youth culture all at once. But on paper? There’s no way that performance would be able to fly anywhere.

 

It was an honest and interesting look at academic, feedback, and community youth culture all at once. But on paper? There’s no way that performance would be able to fly anywhere.

 

The acts ran the gamut from weird to dull to funny to inspiring. Definitely flavors for all. There were stories of Scouting, a well-crafted essay read about growing up chubby. A young woman calling herself “Hydroxia” took the stage in flowing costume spinning and breathily recited a poem about wind. “Chase the Wild Wind” by David Vanian and the Phantom Chords played over the sound system, and she danced in circles until her seven minutes were up. Not my cup of tea, but an honest expression of…something, and you could argue that’s worth a similar…something.

Space 55’s lack of censorship, and constant reminder of the “free-speech” aesthetic of the show promotes a spirit of liberation while simultaneously kind of providing an insurance policy for the theater company. The artistic director Shawna Franks has no veto power in acts, which means liability is on the performer, or, since the lack of censorship is loudly voiced—on the audience.

In terms of sustainable art, what does this mean? Well, the show costs $10 to attend, the performers aren’t paid, and the tech is lights-up, lights-down, and a few music cues. Set: a big “7” and Christmas lights. A pretty good little fundraiser—and with any variety-type show the audience will have a built-in cushion from the variety of supporters coming out for family and friends. Since Space 55 is a bitty venue, I imagine this type of show is a great bump for revenue. However, no matter how distant the content of some of the show’s acts is from the theater’s mission in its regular season, Space 55 is still the name on the door.

The final act of the night was the sketch comedy group Arcana Collective who performed a scene about two creepy as hell clowns babysitting three unenthused kids, their antics getting weirder and weirder until at the climax of the piece, Stephen King enters deux ex machina and the head clown ends up ripping bloody intestines out of a stuffed winged-horse’s anus. No, Space 55 is not to blame (or thank, depending on how you feel), but that sketch still happened in the space. My date said to me upon leaving, “I could see Hamlet there, but I’m still going to think about a Pegasus getting fisted.”

7 Minutes in Heaven ran smoothly, the MC telling us to pat ourselves on the back for making it through the acts as they gracefully and quickly exited and entered. And there is something oddly satisfying about watching something that isn’t quite a put-together piece because it was allowed to exist as it was. But, there’s potential for an equal and opposite discomfort with a performance—discomfort the audience member must own because she knew what she was getting herself into. That said, despite its transparent lack-of-screening, those seven minute happenings—good or bad—will now always be a part of Space 55’s history. Insert aphorism about freedom never really being free.

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I've attended my fair share of 7 Minutes shows, including 7 Minutes in Hell, 7 Minutes in Love, and 7 Minutes under the Mistletoe. I haven't always liked everything I've seen there, but for many performance artists whose work straddles difficult genre borders, the 7 Minutes series has offered a particular niche that is almost totally unfulfilled in Phoenix. Many of the works I've seen in the series have been difficult to describe, such as Ryan Avery's, and artists that want to experiment with the performance space have difficulty doing so in more "mainstream" theater shows.

The beauty of the 7 minutes series is that it is without pretension, and draws a vast crowd of performers from the surrounding downtown community, essentially providing a sampler of everything that the local culture produces. Comedians like Sharkleberry Finn and Seymour Samson don't do stand-up club/bars, and many outsider or fringe artists return to the Space 55 stage for the 7 Minutes series repeatedly. Some artists use only a few minutes of their time, some push up to the limit, but the thing I've always enjoyed is that Space 55 gives back to those that support their mission by opening the stage to anyone and everyone, and giving many young or developing artists a chance to explore material that simply won't be considered elsewhere.

Where I take issue with this review is that is seems to be overly cynical about the idea that the show isn't part of the mission statement for the theater, a fundraising trick, or that Space 55 has insulated itself against criticism by putting on such a unique and open-source show.

Agreed! Although it sounds like most of the acts used ore were required to use the full seven minutes, while in NoShame it's pretty clear you can write a 30-sec piece. Also, the 5-minute limit means you can have 15 acts, not 10, which makes a huge difference.

"What's in a name?" "Seven Minutes in Heaven" is the name of a teenager kissing game, a somewhat kissing-cousin to "spin the bottle." I'm not sure if either of those games made it past the 1970s. Did the PR for that theater experience relate at all to the kissing game?