Who’s on first? Anonymously yours

On Monday at The Armory, the company that does not know each other meets onstage for the musical "Urinetown." Expect the unexpected.

Sitting down for coffee one morning last week with Darius Pierce and Elizabeth Young, I found myself asking questions about nothing. Not nothing, actually: no one. No twenty ones, as it turned out, those twenty being the cast and chorus of the musical satire Urinetown: The Musical, which opens – and closes – on Monday at The Armory.

Pierce knows the identity of these twenty elusive entertainers, but in this he is pretty much alone in the universe. And he’s not spilling. So, a little like medieval philosophers discussing dancing angels and the load-bearing capacity of the heads of pins, we were talking about what we did not know and could not see, though we were convinced of the reality behind the mystery.

How could this be? The name of the production company, Anonymous Theatre Company, provides a clue. The quixotic mission of Anonymous is to produce one play a year, for one night only, in which nobody in the cast knows who the other actors are until they meet them, during the performance, onstage. All of the actors sit with the audience, in street clothes, until it’s time to make their first entrance. Then they rise from their seats, and are revealed. Can’t tell the players without a scorecard? At Anonymous, the scorecard doesn’t help a bit. As Kerry Ryan, one of the company’s founders, puts it, “The audience gets to see the story happening as if it is happening for the first time … because it actually is happening for the first time.”

The crowd at an Anonymous Theatre show. You can show the audience. The actors are a closely guarded secret.

In the communal world of the theater, an art form whose essence is collaboration, this approach is about as counterintuitive as driving from Chicago to San Francisco to get to New York. Even solo shows aren’t done in isolation. Designers, director, stage manager, running crew, music director and choreographer if it’s a musical, and others are involved intimately in the process.

And process is precisely what is missing, or radically curtailed, at Anonymous. The main point of a rehearsal period is for the actors to get to know one another onstage and create an ensemble that agrees, with the director’s guidance, on how to tell the story. Anonymous purposely dispenses with that little delicacy. As Young said, “You don’t rehearse together, so you don’t get the family bonding.” Anonymity also puts extreme pressure on open-call auditions, the one time before showtime in an Anonymous production when potential cast members can see who else might be in the show. There are no callbacks, for fear of tipping off performers of who their cast mates might be.

“It makes casting really challenging,” said Pierce, the show’s director. “We just have to trust our gut.”

Young, whose unenviable yet oddly bracing task is to choreograph a complex musical one dancer at a time (she used to be a drum major, she mentioned, so she can picture elements and patterns on the stage), said finding self-starters is crucial: “Can you do this by yourself? Can we rely on you?”

Anonymous has been a staple on the Portland theater calendar since 2003, when it produced The Importance of Being Earnest in a little east side space called The Electric Company. The following year it repeated Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile, which had been the very first Anonymous show, in 2002, when Pierce, Ryan, and fellow founders Rebecca Curtiss and Sam Kusnetz were seniors at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. When Pierce and Ryan moved to Portland after graduation, they brought the company with them. Since then they’ve done shows ranging from The Learned Ladies to Macbeth to Lend Me a Tenor, You Can’t Take It With You, and The Real Inspector Hound. “It was never started as a gimmick,” Pierce said. “We always had artistic aspirations.” For the past few years the company’s performed mainly on the main stage at The Armory, Portland Center Stage’s home base, in a hall that holds about 590 seats.

What is it that draws so many performers and theater fans to this perilous and unlikely undertaking? Surely the challenge of overcoming pitfalls is part of it. And oddly, trust – the most important thing that rehearsal is supposed to build among a cast of actors – is also central to the Anonymous experience. The actors must trust that on this one-night-only occasion the other actors will help them out and pass the ball around. The director and choreographer and music director must trust that everything will mesh. For everyone, blind faith kicks in: the belief that one’s training, attention, and instincts will overcome the lack of ordinary preparation, and that something vivid will be created in real time. Ideally, the challenge of getting it right creates an intensity of focus onstage that carries the proceedings deeply into the moment, creating intimacy and attentive reaction as the performance goes along.

Anonymous unmasked: Janelle Manske, Paige Jones, and Joel Patrick Durham in 2010’s “Lend Me a Tenor.” Photo: Mario Calcagno

Certainly part of the appeal for performers and audience alike is the possibility of witnessing a train wreck or a wobbly high-wire act – or, contrarily, of embarking on a perilous but successful sail past the Sirens, intent on hearing the enchanting song without smashing the ship on the rocks. When things go wrong, they can go wrong with a bang. When things go right, they can be almost deliriously exciting. And although the entire enterprise might seem like something of a lark, Pierce insists that’s not its intention: “What we want to do is perform the best Urinetown we can do. The goal is not to give in to the anonymous part of it.”

Musical theater is in certain ways the most complex form of theater to produce, and under Anonymous’s rules, that amplifies the potential for the unanticipated. The company has attempted only one musical previously: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, in 2007. “We learned a lot,” Pierce said. “It was very successful, and we learned a lot about how to do a musical.” (I see, looking at my notes, that I wrote down “miracle” rather than “musical.” This was a trick of the pen. And yet, it fits.)

Urinetown, the hit 2001 musical about a dark future in which a twenty-year drought has led to an extreme water shortage, the outlawing of private toilets, and the locking up of the pay toilet market by a rapacious multinational corporation, is a broad-stroke comedy with serious implications about environmental disaster, the rising disparity in wealth, and the loss of individual rights. Plus, it has some slam-bang songs. “The music is so, so good,” Pierce said. “And it’s topical.”

The five-piece band is led by the talented Mont Chris Hubbard, and so is also, one assumes, so, so, good. Then again … well, same rules. Except for Hubbard, the players don’t know who the other players are, and will get together for the first time, with their charts, during the performance. As music director, Hubbard also works, individually, with each of the singers, as do Young with the dancers and Pierce with the actors. Among Pierce, Young, and Hubbard, performers end up with five to ten hours of individual rehearsal altogether, plus whatever they do on their own. Things that might get extra work during an ordinary rehearsal process are left, if not to chance, to individual effort. “Everybody’s a triple threat in this show,” Young said. “But some of those threats are more like warnings.”

And of course, plotting and planning are crucial. Anonymous began looking for a musical last fall, got the rights to Urinetown in December, and held auditions in mid-May, giving everyone about ten weeks to rehearse with the director/choreographer/musical director and on their own. This year’s process was complicated by Pierce’s own rehearsals for Third Rail Rep’s production of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs with director Rebecca Lingafelter and fellow actor Cristi Miles, which opens Friday night – three days before Urinetown hits the stage – at CoHo Theatre. It’s a show he’s wanted to do for years.

Young has been involved in several Anonymous productions, as performer, director (of Macbeth), and choreographer, and understands both the pleasure and the pain. How, for instance, does one create collaboration in isolation? Her choreography for Urinetown includes a circle dance, where all the dancers have their hands on another dancer’s shoulders … which are not there. In one show as an actor, she recalled, she didn’t have an entrance until after intermission. Sitting anonymously with the audience through the first act wasn’t bad, but spending intermission in the lobby, where everyone around her was talking about the show, was unnerving. She went into the restroom, locked herself in a stall, and went over her lines on her cell phone. One finds focus where one finds focus.

On Monday evening it begins, and ends, again. The heroic Bobby Strong and Hope Cladwell will be there. So will Officer Lockstock, Officer Barrel, Penelope Pennywise, Little Sally, Hot Blades Harry, Caldwell B. Cladwell, Senator Fipp, Little Becky Two Shoes, Soupy Sue, and the rest of the Urinetown crew. In the script, all of these characters know one another. Onstage Monday, they’ll be strangers in the night. Hail, fellow. Well met.


Anonymous Theatre Company’s Urinetown: The Musical plays at 7 p.m. Monday in the Gerding Theatre at The Armory. Ticket information here.


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