Flying Solo in a Cage

Reflecting on Hyena

“The show can’t start until you let me out of this cage.” This is the first line of a one-page monologue designed to convince the audience to come up on stage, pick up a key, and unlock a dog cage. Hyena starts with me inside that locked cage. A locked cage neither I, nor anyone else on my team, have a spare key to. Only one key exists, and I have to convince the audience to come up and use it.

As we did run after run of the play, I felt unprepared and unfinished. I hadn’t gone as far as I wanted to. Not even during one of the three dress rehearsals did I feel like I even got close to the show’s necessary honesty.

The first time my crew locked me in the cage was in a rehearsal two weeks before we opened. I shimmed into this extra-large dog kennel/end table—the product’s original purpose was to create a fashionable multi-purpose furniture piece that could really tie the room together. Then my stage manager and director stared at me as I did the one-page monologue, begging them to let me out. I finished my opening monologue and panic settled in. I felt abandoned and worried that my audiences would walk in and stare at me just as blankly as my stage manager and director did in that moment. I broke character and begged them to let me out to avoid a full-blown panic attack. This fear permeated throughout the rehearsal process.

As we did run after run of the play, I felt unprepared and unfinished. I hadn’t gone as far as I wanted to. Not even during one of the three dress rehearsals did I feel like I even got close to the show’s necessary honesty. In Hyena, which is a solo performance, the audience is my partner. And in the four-week rehearsal process my partner never showed up.

Almost every interactive play I’ve been to has the same routine. The actors are playing, then almost suddenly and intrusively, the light rises up on the audience and that sinking feeling settles over us. “Oh god, please don’t pick me.” The charismatic actor starts talking in a singsong voice; the spotlight follows them as they walk through the aisles looking for the right person. They point at their prey and pull them up out into the glairing stage lights. In interactive theatre, this moment is the actor’s respite. They’ve been vulnerable over the course of the show, and by bringing up this unwilling individual, the actor gets a moment to embody cinema verité, standing next to the audience as they take the wheel for a little bit. Interactive theatre, as it stands now, uses the interaction to make the audience feel vulnerable by taking away all of their power. The interaction in Hyena is quite the opposite.

an actress on stage
Romana Soutus in Hyena at LaMaMa. Photo by Theo Cote.

I wrote Hyena after I challenged myself to write all the things I would be most terrified to say in a room full of people. As I wrote I realized that I am not just terrified of the dark things I feel and want to do, I am terrified of how others perceive me once I let those things out. In order to explore that fear, the audience interaction takes on a whole new value. As an actor, I cannot let those moments become breaks.

Rachel Kerry from the New York Theatre Review said it best: “[a]lthough Hyena is described as an interactive piece, this is a bit of a misnomer. Not interactive in a traditional sense, Soutus mostly interacts with the audience by placing her vulnerability in their hands.” In Hyena, the audience has all the power. Their opinions, their facial expressions, their responses to my questions shift and alter the tone and action of the play. I need them in order for the plot to move forward at all.

It all starts with that key. Hyena cannot start without its audience. In turn, my process as an actor doing Hyena couldn’t come full circle until opening night. My lovely stage manager bought me a lavender scented stress ball to calm my nerves while I sat inside the cage for ten or fifteen minutes at a time at the top of every show, waiting for the audience to trickle.

an actress on stage
Romana Soutus in Hyena at LaMaMa. Photo by Theo Cote.

On March 18 in the Club at La MaMa, my partner finally showed up. Wild things happened over the course of Hyena. In engaging with the audience, I did everything from ask people to yell out things they want to touch, but aren’t allowed to, to smell my armpits, and I even feed them strawberries I licked and sucked on. Much to my surprise, audiences were more than game to play with me. I never got past the first two lines of the opening monologue because someone I didn’t know would jump out of his or her seat to let me out.

When I asked them to raise their hands, they did so with enthusiasm. Audience members told me they wanted to touch my breasts, eyeballs, etc. A man burrowed his face so deeply into my armpit to smell me that I felt his inhale. A woman described my smells as “ripe.” Five out of the six people I offered salivated-on-strawberries ate it with gusto. One man even went so far as to eat it after it fell on the floor. People held my hand as I cried. This was more than just audience interaction. I was connecting with my scene partner and the audience chose to go into that vulnerable place with me.

As the performer and writer of Hyena, I credit the audience’s openness to my opening line: “The show can’t start until you let me out of this cage.” The audience is the lifeblood of the theatre, and not only can I not perform Hyena without them unlocking me, but I also cannot perform at all without an audience there to connect with.

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