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Plays and audiences

“Why this play now?” Pesha Rudnick, director of the final work at PlayFest 2023, asked in the closing talkback session last Sunday. Rudnick said she raises that question every time she encounters a new play.

PlayFest’s four new works delved into contemporary issues such as aging, depression, suicide, abortion, complex relationships and the values we claim to live by in America. Audience members appeared to relish immersion into serious, adult drama.

Rudnick participated in the lively talkback session after Sunday’s reading of “237 Virginia Avenue,” by David Myers. The two-character play came to life with clarity and intensity by actors Jack Mikesell and Glenn Morshower. Alternating scenes from American history and present time, the play focused on themes of power, masculinity, generational conflict and, most searingly, American values. The contemporary father-son antagonists, Rex and Eric, played Monopoly while arguing about class, status and the fate of family property.

PlayFest panel discussion July 2 included. from left: Brendan Burke, David Myers, Pesha Rudnick, Jack Mikesell, Glenn Morshower and Jason Lythgoe. (Courtesy of Judith Reynolds)

When asked if his play was essentially pessimistic about America, Myers said: “My experience of conversations between individuals is very American. I wanted to find a way to write about the system or systems we live in. I want to see the water I’m swimming in.”

Playgoers also asked about male competition, the play’s throughline. One audience member questioned Myers about using Monopoly as a handy metaphor for American capitalism and its discontents.

At every PlayFest talkback and performance, playgoers seemed deeply engaged. If you believe that the audience has a role of its own to play in live theater, the concept manifested itself throughout last week.

These days, so-called old-fashioned live theater competes with pop-up comedies and interactive beer fests not to mention conventional movies, television and what’s available on multivalent smartphones. Given the changing habits and manners of audiences, an attentive response to serious live theater is definitely unusual. So, what happened?

Last week, PlayFest magically became a collective body of playwrights, directors, performers and audiences that provided concentrated attention. No one applauded after every scene. No one interrupted with jokey or loud comments. No one clapped when an actor simply walked on stage. No one guffawed out of nowhere, shifting attention from the stage to the jokester. No one assumed the show was a party.

Many articles have been written about how audience behavior has changed over time. It’s a topic my professional association of theater critics discuss in conference sessions.

“We are undergoing a worldwide reconstrual of what it means to be a member of the crowd,” writes Vinson Cunningham in The New Yorker. Cunningham contrasts today’s disruptive audience behavior to the ancient Greeks where drama began and where playgoers could “feel its artifice while being convinced of its deeper reality, all at once.”

The ’60s in general loosened behavioral norms at political rallies, city council meetings and school reunions. Rock raves set the platform for Taylor Swift. The COVID-19 pandemic enhanced the idea of mistaking a theater for a living room. It’s no surprise that we’re living in an age of chaotic and rude public behavior everywhere.

But, for a moment last week, playgoers experienced what sociologist Emile Durkheim called “collective efflorescence.” The concept describes a quiet, unifying experience of communal fulfillment. It may be expressed through silence and full attention. All that was palpable at PlayFest 2023.

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.