In Defense of Small Theaters

Liz Chirico

  • Massachusetts Columnist

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing “Peter and the Starcatcher” at the Cannon Theatre in Littleon, MA. It’s a show that I knew astonishingly little about apart from the fact that I previously worked at the author’s high school alma mater. Unfortunately life and rehearsal for my own show prevented me from seeing “Peter” until its final weekend but to any OnStage fans in the greater Boston area looking for something to do tonight or tomorrow I recommend going. There’s some marvelous acting and the story itself is both funny and touching. Plus it features some incredible use of space. Which brings me back to the main point of my piece.

The Cannon Theatre is… umm… well there’s no way around this. It’s small. I think my college dorm room was bigger (not really. But you get my point.) It’s a black box theater that seats around 60. Quite comfortably too, which is a nice change from the folding chairs I’ve sat on for many a performance. There’s room for one set at a time on the stage that isn’t even large enough to fit the entire cast in a straight line for curtain call, they had to bend a bit. There’s no room for a pit, just a pianist in the rear of the theater on a mezzanine above the audience.

I love small theaters. And when I say small I don’t mean theaters on a shoe-string budget, I’m talking about theaters with a significant lack of space be it on stage or off. Because a small theater can’t rely on opulent sets, dazzling special effects and tons of props to divert your attention away from a poorly conceived/acted/directed story. 

At a small theater like Cannon, intimate is the first word that springs to mind. Seated in the 2nd row, I was close enough to see individual beads of sweat on a couple performer’s foreheads. But I’m pretty sure the folks in the last row could see it as well. Which means the acting has to be on point. All the time. By everyone. And at least with “Peter” everyone’s acting was phenomenal. These characters came to life in a way I didn’t anticipate and I found myself totally immersed in the action.

As I mentioned this stage is tiny. “Peter and the Starcatcher” features 2 boats from Her Royal Majesty Queen Victoria’s (God Save the Queen!- Inside reference to the show, really go see it ) fleet, the underbelly of said ships, an island, an ocean grotto. a mountain, a forest/jungle… I think that’s everything. With such limited space it would be impossible to create scenery and backdrops for each scene and Cannon didn’t even try which I loved. Instead they used a couple of ladder/stair things on wheels (the types you see at the big box stores), some rope riggings set up on the far wall , beautifully painted surfboards and a handful of props to set each scene. It worked for me. Did I truly think I was inside a grotto with water all around? No. But that’s theater. In theater you should be exercising your own imagination, suspending your reality for the time you’re there. Let TV and movies put everything in your face. The small theaters have to be incredibly creative and judicious with their space. Usually the results end up being more exciting and transporting than the larger companies with all their backdrops and set pieces.

Not everything is rosy for small theaters. They have to be cognizant of their limitations and pick shows that will work well in a streamlined environment. That being said I think almost any show could stand to be stripped down provided you have the right mix of actors and vision behind the scenes. If you haven’t performed with, or seen a show in a small theater find one near you and visit today.