Taxi cab theater drives creative funding

Sabri Ben-Achour Feb 17, 2014

Taxi cab theater drives creative funding

Sabri Ben-Achour Feb 17, 2014

“Take Me Home” is a play set in a taxicab. 


But not really. 


Yes, the audience (up to a whopping three people) remains in the back of a cab for the entirety of the performance (aside from the time spent beforehand in the waiting area, which is an ATM vestibule on a busy street in Manhattan). 


But the stage is the entire city, and everyone is an actor, whether they realize it or not.


“It’s not really a play so much as it is an experience,” says playwright Alexandra Collier*, “a waking dream.”


The performance begins as a foggy sort of narrative around the driver — both a real cab driver and an actor — as he takes you through the city. 


Music, audio recordings, video, and photos figure into a vague and at times confusing “story” inside the cab.  Outside, things mysteriously sort of fall in sync to the music and themes inside: Wait, was that a coincidence?  Did that just happen? What is happening?


From a technical standpoint, what is happening: A crew of actors a dozen strong is performing in a choreographed way, as the taxi makes its way through town.


But what is happening to the audience is an utter blurring of the lines between stage and reality, because you don’t know who is an actor — and who is not.  You find yourself staring at random people on the street, wide-eyed, waiting for some acknowledgement or cue from them that yes, they are part of the story. Sometimes they are.


And sometimes they look back at you, perturbed by your stare.  In this way, they are part of the performance too, though they are not actors.


“It’s definitely unlike any cab ride I’ve ever taken,” says Elena Cohen, who was the second third of our backseat audience.  “Something about that view out the window, it’s like being in a movie or something almost.”


Quite what playwright Collier intended.


“I want people to fall through the looking glass,” she says.  


But this is more than a vision. It’s a response to what avant-garde theater consumers have craved in recent years. Immersive and unique experiences like the recent hit “Sleep No More,” which allows audience members to wander around and mingle with actors during the performance, have obtained increasing prominence since the concept was introduced from Britain several years ago.  Other plays have been held in hospitals or Turkish baths. “Take Me Home” might be the most intimate of them all.   There are four times more cast members than audience members.


Which brings up a question: How can you possibly pay for it with three audience members at a time?


I put that question to Lauren Rayner, the play’s executive producer.


“Yes, that has been the biggest question on my mind,” she says with a chuckle, in a light-filled West Village apartment. 


Tickets have ranged from $25 to 50, and the performance is 45 minutes long.  There are three runs per night — a total of nine audience members over three hours.


“We went the non-profit route,” says Rayner. “We wrote grants, we approached individual donors.”


Everyone had to volunteer a lot of unpaid hours. On the one hand, says Rayner, it reflects the depth of commitment of the actors.  On the other hand she questions “the culture of poverty that artists sometimes have, where they feel they need to struggle,” and end up undervaluing their time. “They need to be compensated.”


By working with several sponsors, including Three Legged Dog Art and Technology Center, Rayner was able to finance the play for a budget of $11,000 for a month.  That included gas and hours. 


She believes the idea could scale up profitably.


“I would have six cabs, six unique drivers/performers. If I had that many people per night, I could keep costs likely between $50 and 100 a ticket.”


But it would require sponsors. 


“This isn’t like Broadway where you can make millions. This would require what I call a ‘romantic investment.'”


By which she means philanthropy. Rayner and Collier considered raising prices.  With a wait list of 150 people, they could have. But pricier tickets would price out a lot of people, which Collier – who herself works a day job as an executive assistant – is loathe to do. 


“I want people to be able to see it,” she says. “Theater, it may come as a surprise to you is not a huge money-making exercise, unless you’re working on Broadway.”


So she, and the actors, do what so many artists do.  They do without.


“There has to be a deep and abiding love for the theater and for art and for what you do in order to keep doing it,” she says. “Or it’s an act of insanity. That’s also possible.”



*CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, the playwright’s name, Alexandra Collier, was misspelled.  The text has been corrected.

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