Harvard students waiting outside Berryline for their favorite frozen dessert are in for an entirely different kind of treat these days—the sight of seventies-clad revelers waiting in line to see “The Donkey Show,” the premiere of Diane M. Paulus’ ’87 inaugural season as artistic director of the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.). Recently extended to January 2, 2010, “The Donkey Show” is the first production in the newly-renovated theatrical club space OBERON.
Previously known as the Zero Arrow Theater, the venue was rebranded as a complement to Paulus’ notoriously non-traditional approach to theater. “I’m interested in bashing apart any limitations of what theater should be,” Paulus said in a previous interview with The Crimson. With its disco lights, fully stocked bars and liberal cell phone policy, OBERON’s transformation from the black box Zero Arrow to its current state as a nightclub-theater fusion has stimulated the largely dormant theater scene at Harvard. With time, the A.R.T. hopes that the experiments conducted at OBERON will have a greater influence on cultural production, changing the course of theater and re-casting the A.R.T. as a lead actor on the national stage.
BREAK (A LEG)!
The A.R.T. opened the Zero Arrow Theater with goals similar to those motivating the creation of OBERON, albeit without the disco lights and Studio 54 vibe. As the A.R.T.’s satellite theatrical space, Zero Arrow produced experimental fare in an adaptable and intimate space. “Zero Arrow was originally developed to be an incubator for new work, with different theatrical offerings on any given night,” OBERON program associate Daniel R. Pecci ’09 says. “It was a flexible space and the seating was supposed to change. You would see one show and then the next night, see another.”
As recently as 2004, then-artistic director Robert Woodruff assured the theatrical community of Zero Arrow’s renewed commitment to experimentation. Uncannily citing an experimental production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as inspiration, Woodruff envisioned a space that would be “friendly and hospitable” during the day and theatrical at night. To that end, it remained a performance venue, but humanitarian groups were invited to use Zero Arrow during work hours.
“This new space is going to become a landmark space in the American theater where new forms get born,” said Gideon Lester, the A.R.T.’s then-associate artistic director.
Yet such optimistic hopes proved futile. In recent years, Zero Arrow lost sight of its roots, falling into a pattern where a show would run for a set period of time and then close, leaving the space empty until the next show loaded in, and the social activists have since re-located. “It froze and basically became a traditional regional theater, but smaller,” Pecci says.
While remaining devoted to Zero Arrow’s initial intentions of innovation, OBERON is taking a different approach—engaging directly with audiences, starting with students.
PLAYING WITH POSSIBILITIES
OBERON’s transformation into a pseudo-club is one way of enticing the Harvard crowd, offering a novel, interactive theatrical experience superior to any dorm-room party. “People are expecting to sit down in seats and follow the story of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ like you would anywhere else,” Pecci says, referring to “The Donkey Show.” “And they pregame and think they need drinks, and I’m like, ‘No, no, you can drink in here.’”
To effectively redefine the notion of “seeing a play,” the A.R.T. not only needs innovative productions, but also a new kind of performance space. For “The Donkey Show”—the groundbreaking hybrid of disco and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”—this meant a place where people could dance.
Randy Weiner ’87-’88, Paulus’ husband and collaborator, was initially hesitant when she approached him about bringing “The Donkey Show,” with its particular environmental requirements, to Cambridge. “My show needed a club level sound system, club level lights, and a fully stocked bar,” he says. “The place needed to really have a nightclub’s energy and edge.” Weiner—now the creator and producer of OBERON—used his experience developing his own New York City club theater, The Box, to transform Zero Arrow into a full nightclub environment.
Working with set designer Scott Pask and lighting designer Evan Morris, Weiner revamped Zero Arrow into a hotspot of non-traditional theater. Starting with the Zero Arrow’s frame of a black box, the team installed the set of a nightclub. New set pieces for the space include cocktail tables, a mirrored wall, fully-stocked bars, a DJ booth, a lit “OBERON” sign, and a dance floor. In the spirit of audience engagement, the A.R.T. held a public vote to name the club in late July, finally settling upon OBERON. Adding to the appeal of this alternative theater for the younger crowd, OBERON encourages the use of cell phones and cameras during the performance. The bars stay open throughout the show, and the venue turns into a full-blown nightclub after the final bow.
“It’s always exciting to play with the possibilities of what theater is,” Weiner says. “There’s a whole world of theater that can happen as what people consider to be a nightclub. Clubs are theater, but they’re theater that’s 360 degrees around you and goes in time from the moment you wait in line outside to the moment you leave. It’s complete freedom, with a rock and roll kind of energy. It allows the audience to engage with each other.”
“The Donkey Show” at OBERON was opened in the hope of ushering in a new era of theater—and nightlife—in Cambridge. “OBERON is fascinating because there are so many people in Boston who want to go to a disco,” James B. Danner ’12 says. “And it’s a piece of real estate where there’s a damn good DJ and a really entertaining and sexy show, and you feel utterly transported. In an environment where people think way too much, OBERON gets them to go to a disco and have fun, and hopefully understand that that is a show. That’s the magic of it. I’ve seen ‘The Donkey Show’ four times already.”