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Howard Sherman: Stealth performances, like Fiona Shaw in a park, have a profound effect on theatre

Fiona Shaw performs an excerpt from TS Eliot's The Waste Land in Madison Square Park, New York. Photo Howard Sherman
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The pop-up theatre performance is not, at this point, a novelty. But in the line of surprising theatrical performances in public places, it’s pretty hard to beat an event in New York that flew almost entirely under the radar last week.

For four consecutive evenings, Fiona Shaw could be found performing an excerpt from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land in and around an empty fountain in New York’s Madison Square Park. She was there under the aegis of artist Arlene Shechet, whose sculptures have dominated the park for the past year.

There was no official announcement of Shaw’s performances. The only advance word came from a few blogs and a Facebook post by Shechet’s daughter. It was the last that caught my eye and sent me running to the park.

Fiona Shaw in Madison Square Park. Photo Howard Sherman

Unlike the more formally announced precursor in which Oscar-winner Dianne Wiest performed excerpts from Beckett’s Happy Days in the same spot back in October, the word had clearly not seeped out, with no more than three dozen gathered for Shaw’s second of four nights. At the final performance, the crowd was five times that.

The initially small audience was by design. In a brief chat following her Thursday performance, Shaw said she hadn’t been too keen even on the Facebook mention, having envisioned the performances as being simply for friends and anyone who happened by.

‘Taking theatre to the audience in unexpected ways can only serve to evoke interest’

Also in contrast to Wiest’s performance, which by Beckett’s intent was wholly stationary within a Shechet piece designed for the performance, Shaw ranged around the space, using the sculptures as elements of her performance. Shifting from spot to spot, she beckoned the audience to move with her.

It’s hard not to wonder what passers-by made of the experience, since dipping into Eliot unawares is surely not easily comprehended. There didn’t seem to be any sudden crush of accidental onlookers recognising Shaw, with cropped hair and a heavy cowl-neck sweater.

Dianne Wiest performs excerpts from Beckett’s Happy Days at Madison Square Park. Photo Howard Sherman

Nonetheless, this performance by a consummate performer argues for the value of impromptu performance as a way of engaging audiences beyond the formal structure of a ticketed event or a pre-announced free one. Taking theatre to the audience in unexpected ways can only serve to evoke interest, and may capture the imagination of those not used to planting themselves in a theatre seat.

Thanks to social media, even a performance as surreptitious as Shaw’s can ripple outward, but there was no substitute for being there, and had I learned of it after the fact, I would have been sorely disappointed.

It need not always be an international, award-winning star popping up, nor the work of Eliot or Beckett. Stealth snippets of theatre materialising where we least expect them can have a profound effect, not only on those in attendance, but on the health of the form. Surprise in the theatre – and outside of it – will only serve to lure more people to the form.

This week in US theatre 

Delayed following the injury of Andrea Martin, who was forced to withdraw from the production, Taylor Mac’s Gary, A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, opens Sunday on Broadway. Nathan Lane, Kristine Nielsen and Julie White comprise the cast of the comedy, which imagines the cleanup after the carnage wrought by the Shakespeare drama, under the direction of George C. Wolfe. 

Halley Feiffer takes a leading role in her own new play The Pain of My Belligerence, receiving its world premiere Monday at Playwrights Horizons Off-Broadway. Feiffer plays a journalist who becomes enmeshed in an affair with a married man, with Trip Cullman directing. 

Following the departure of Gregory Mosher over a casting dispute with the Arthur Miller estate, All My Sons returns to Broadway at Roundabout Theatre on Monday with Jack O’Brien at the helm, in a production starring Annette Bening and Tracy Letts as the Kellers. It has been a decade since the play’s last Broadway outing, when it was staged by Simon McBurney. 

The film Tootsie has been transformed from a backstage comedy at a TV soap opera to a backstage comedy at a Broadway musical for its stage debut, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and a book by Robert Horn. Scott Ellis directs Santino Fontana as Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels, with the production opening on Tuesday. 

James Graham’s chronicle of the early years of Rupert Murdoch in England in the Broadway transfer of Ink, playing at Manhattan Theatre Club, with Bertie Carvel reprising his London role as Murdoch and Rupert Goold once again directing. Jonny Lee Miller assumes the role of Larry Lamb in the production, which opens Wednesday. 

The 2018-19 Broadway season concludes on Thursday with the opening of the musical adaptation of the Time Burton film Beetlejuice, featuring a book by Scott Brown and Anthony King and a score by Eddie Perfect. Alex Timbers directs the ghostly goings on, with Alex Brightman in the title role. 

Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman

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