It was in the lobby before show when my son and I were first approached by a woman with red lips and a vintage dress. She asked us if we were here to see the Up Close Festival, and when we assented, she led us out into the hall and around to the backstage door. On the way we were stopped by Steve (Peter Musante), the superintendent/maintenanceguy/handy man. He wanted our assurance that were not going to be staying. She smiled and told him we were not. She glanced at us, to include us in this deception. The kids in the group got the idea and stayed silent, a little confused, but realizing they were in on a secret, and liking it.
This opening secrecy made the show feel like a rarity, something special, barely accessible, a hole in the ground that leads to a wonderland. The audience was brought in only a few at a time, and when they got inside, they roamed a living museum of exhibits set up on thestage.
The area normally reserved for audience was empty of chairs. There was no audience designated space from which a dissenter could sit back and casually observe. From the top, actors were in character for their element of the story, enticing us to participate in helping them set up. The kids were glad to offer their services. They had been let into a secret world, and now they were just glad to be on the team. It feels good tobe part of a good secret, and the kids felt like the essential part of this project that they were.
No happy clowns or dinosaur costumed overly cheerful performers welcomed and invited the kids to come be part of it, instead the kids found a hidden world, and wanted to explore it and perpetuate its existence. This is a totally different way of creating an interactive theatrical experience. It has the feeling more of a Woodshed project for kids. It was environmental interactive theatre, and those who were entranced by it were more than just the junior members of the audience. They weren’t there to be entertained, they were there to experience a place.
Being in the New Ohio already gives the feeling of being a small but powerful beacon of light at the far edges ofthe Greenwich Village in the Borough of Manhattan in the City of New York. The Up Close Festival, produced by the New Ohio Theatre’s Theatre for Young Minds, capitalized on that fully. The show proper opens with an origin story of the land beneath and around the New Ohio. From there it moves into a beautiful love letter to New York City and the people who call it home, in a piece called Juan Rodriguez and the City of Immigrants. The joy and exuberance of performer Jono Waldman was delightful for even this hater of audience participation, and when he asked us to sing, I sang.
Part of what brought the adults along on the journey was what always does it, their want to encourage the children in their charge to participate. While that usually results in some half hearted kid participation, and adults who check out their phones on the sly while pretending to join in, that was not the result at the Up Close Festival. Grown ups were, for the most part, just as enthralled by the feeling of being in on a big sweet secret. The history of the land and the City bounced from 1613 up to the 1965 blackout, and we were encouraged to gather around with illuminating flameless candles and get cozy. A folk singer drew us into the time period, the blackout, and our own memories. It reminded us of times when we were all in it together, despite being strangers.
At this point I realized my child had wandered off. The audience was on the stage, in the set, interacting, legit part of it, and there was plenty of room for a child to roam. I scanned the room, which felt like an underground cavern of secret art enterprise. Just as I spotted him, hiding behind one of The New Ohio’s large black pillars, and started toward him to pull him back into the audience, he was approached by an actress in a 1960’s folk costume. He became an audience of one, and I left it alone. The actress engaged with him in a serious way, not trying to get him to do or behave differently, but she participated with him in the thing he was doing. It made me remember why I love theatre artists.
When I asked my son later about what he was up to, he said he was hiding from Steve, who was periodically coming into the space and asking us to leave. My son was engaging in a meta performance aspect of the piece. He treated it like a video game, where there are sub stories and aide adventures that are small aspects of the main plot, but can run as deep and wide as his imagination. He wasn’t the only kid who stepped into this as a virtual reality space, and a few of them teamed up and snuck around the space in the darkness, looking out for Steve, who threatened to ruin our fun. The kids were so thoroughly immersed in the world of the show that they felt a responsibility to secure it against threats.
There’s this thing about New York. If you ever moved here from someplace else and stuck around you know what it is, you know the draw, the thing that fills your head with stars. It’s the feeling of being all in, teamed up with strangers, in it for good and for always. It’s that thing that this show imparts. Only it imparts it to kids who are growing up here. The kids really seemed to love it, because the show addressed them as full participants, fully fledged New Yorkers, and acknowledged and respected their burgeoning wings.
If You Go:
The Inaugural (and first-ever-of-its-kind) UP CLOSE FESTIVAL has two programs. Program A (which we saw) runs through December 24, while Program B, which promises to be equally engaging, runs from December 27-31. If you’re in town, especially if your kid is growing up as a New Yorker, I fully recommend experiencing this show together. More info and tickets here.