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Theater for one opens its doors in New York City

NEW YORK – Many theater owners like to say they offer an intimate show but only one really means it.

That would be Theatre for One – a 4-foot-by-8-foot portable theater that allows one audience member at a time to see one short play performed by a single actor.

“There’s definitely an immediacy that happens within this,” said Tony-winning scenic designer Christine Jones, who conceived and leads the project. “The theater acts as a kind of portal into a human being.”

The theater will be parked in three Manhattan locations for the next two months, offering shows free. Which play the audience sees is largely the luck of the draw, adding to this unique theatrical event.

Each lucky audience member slips into a section of the theater and waits until a partition rises, revealing a performer who then begins his or her short piece.

This year, new plays were commissioned from Craig Lucas, Will Eno, Lynn Nottage, Jose Rivera, Thomas Bradshaw, Zayd Dohrn and Emily Schwend.

They were asked to write 3-minute pieces that used this phrase as a jumping-off point: “I’m not the stranger you think I am.” The works range in theme from a serial killer preying on black men to the death of a mother.

The actors will be Andrew Garman, Erin Gann, Carmen Zilles, Keith Randolph Smith, Marisol Miranda and Kevin Mambo, an actor and musician who starred in “Fela” on Broadway.

Mambo, who will be performing Dohrn’s play “Love Song,” added his own music and will play an electric guitar in the booth. He’s played audiences of 5,000 so the stripped-down nature of the new show is a challenge.

“There’s no need for theatrical accouterment. There’s no need for projection. There’s no need for any of those things,” he said. “I need to just engage with someone and tell them a story.”

The theater’s inside is very comfortable, with red-padded walls and soft lighting.

It’s a lot like being in a confession booth, peep show or even an elevator. A stage manager is in charge of sound levels and lighting cues.

Zilles, who has acted in the off-Broadway plays “Chimichangas and Zoloft” and “Scenes From a Marriage,” said slipping into the booth offers a rare respite from our hectic, digital lives.

“I talk to a lot of people in a day and sometimes I’m like, ‘But I wasn’t really with anyone,”’ she said. “I’m really trying to not do that and just really be with the person who I’m with and let it be whatever it is.”

Jones, who won a Tony for designing the set for “American Idiot,” has been working on the Theatre for One project for years, ever since a magician left her spellbound at a wedding reception by pulling a card she’d selected out of his mouth.

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