Takeout theater

AVIGNON, France — It’s a bit more elaborate than ordering a pizza or Chinese takeout and popping in a DVD, but those intent on convenience might take advantage of a new trend in France: booking a live theater production to be performed in your living room.

It gives a whole new meaning to "home entertainment."

At a recent performance, a group of 20 people sitting side by side in a darkened study seemed unsure of what to expect next. After the murmurs died down, the first sounds they heard (thanks to two small microphones) were the chatter of unseen women’s voices, friends perhaps, returning from a theater festival — one raving about the experience, the other disparaging it.

Judith and Aurore entered the apartment and continued debating the merits of theater, whether it was too high brow, required too much hassle, was too uncomfortable to sit through, too hot, too boring, a good place for a snooze.

As Judith used the restroom, whose toilet was tricky to flush, Aurore scoured the refrigerator for a snack and the two continued their conversation. Judith then moved toward the living room where she fumbled for and finally found a light switch. Nonplussed by the immediate gaze of 20 pairs of eyes staring at her, she sought an explanation. She summoned Aurore, who told her that it was normal since “you’re the actress.”

Emerging with a tray of snacks and beverages, Aurore greeted the spectators and proceeded to eat her snack. Aghast, Judith asked how she could eat in front of them. Aurore assured her that it was all right. “We live and they watch us live.” Judith’s facial expressions and questions revealed her reluctance and discomfort with the idea. “What are these people waiting for?” she asked. “Nothing,” said Aurore. “They watch and they listen.” Apartment Theater is not a new concept in France but it is gaining popularity with dozens of companies, like the three-year-old l’Effet du Logis, establishing themselves all over the country. Usually, the company’s actors are hired to come into homes and perform for birthday parties or other special and surprise occasions. Fees can range from 400 to 1,000 euros depending on the piece and the number of actors, said Elise Dubroca, who played Aurore. A 55-minute show tailored to an apartment can include personalized details, such as the quirky habits of the honored guest. Audiences usually range from about 15 to 50, depending on the space.

The play performed by Judith and Aurore, “Sans Entracte” (Without Intermission), was running during the 10-day Avignon Festival, the country’s oldest performing arts festival, which celebrated its 63rd anniversary in July.

“It really creates a link between the spectators during an evening,” said Dubroca, 43, one of the three founders of l'Effet du Logis.

Another Paris-area company, Thalia Theater, takes another approach altogether. One of its founders and principal actresses said she would never “sell herself” to the highest bidder.

“People with money can buy everything,” said Anne Barlind, 53, a Paris-based actress from Sweden who said she preferred performing for audiences who otherwise might not have the opportunity to see a live theater performance, such as those living in the suburbs or in more rural areas. Since co-creating the company in 1991, she has performed in several apartment theater productions, but always for the benefit of an underserved public.

Healthy French subsidies for the arts facilitate “the democratization of culture” and have been the lifeblood of this kind of work, Barlind said. The Ministry of Culture’s 2009 budget totals some 2.8 billion euros and promotes a wide variety of cultural resources, from the performing arts, such as the Avignon Festival, to French heritage, which it supports by restoring the country’s monuments. Barlind also said that actors who perform apartment theater need to be keen on mingling with the crowd afterward, and be comfortable with sensing every movement, cough or yawn from an audience. The actors are neither protected by the cover of darkness nor the imaginary “fourth wall, the protective boundary established between performer and audience, Barlind said. One actor she worked with was so uncomfortable with the idea of the after-performance mingle that he would lock himself in the bathroom, sometimes vomiting.

Dubroca and Delphine Robert, 39, who played Judith, said they feel that the energy between the actors and audience enhances the ambiance of the performance.

In their performance, the women sometimes addressed and engaged the crowd. Aurore thought a man looked at her with a particular spark in his eyes. She became as jittery as a schoolgirl under his gaze, telling him she’d hurry up and finish so they might speak after the show. One man’s ringing cell phone and a cat walking across the stage became part of the show. The effect on the viewing public could be slightly disconcerting — it was at times difficult to tell where the acting ended and reality started.

And that’s the point. “We’re not surprised enough at the theater,” said Robert. “We like to shake things up.”