Bear, Dog and Otter — collectively known as Living Room Theater — are systematically occupying Central Florida homes for evening gatherings of captivating engagement and heart-stirring pathos.
The Orlando-based immersive theater troup — Tisse Mallon (Bear), Jack Graham (Dog) and Banks Helfrich (Otter) — act out performance pieces, personal reflections and conversations that are profoundly human and ring with truth.
The performances are remarkable as much in what they do as what they don’t do. The three players don’t recite practiced lines of dialog or monologue, they don’t involve their audiences in interactive exercises and they don’t leave viewers with pat answers or easy lessons learned.
“Paths of absurdity, raw truth and love intersect as Bear, Otter and Dog invite you into a living room to share vignettes reflecting upon our humanity,” LRT’s promotional text says. “Through pensive to comical conversations, experimental performance pieces and live instrumentals, a story emerges. No two shows alike.”
Living Room Theater seeks out hosts who invite friends to an evening of food, drinks and the comfortable camaraderie of couches and chairs. Preparing a carefully curated half-dozen vignettes, LRT players rehearse loosely and privately before each show. After that, spontaneity rules in their live pieces: They search for words, self-edit, backtrack, clarify thoughts and amplify nuanced meanings. They argue, in the way close friends do, in trying both to explain themselves and to understand each other’s ideas and expression as they interact. The result has the unmistakable ring of believability.
Now Living Room Theater is coming to the 2016 Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, which starts on Wednesday, May 18. The Fringe — held each May — is more than two weeks of theater, music, dance, and fine arts. Orlando’s was the first American Fringe Festival and has become one of the largest. (See http://orlandofringe.org for locations and lineups.)
In following up with LRT, we asked founder Tisse Mallon a few probing questions:
JT: How did this start, and how long have you three been doing LRT?
TM: My main work is I’m a life coach. I call myself a holistic lifestyle teacher, and one of the things I’m constantly telling my clients is, could a short term loan benefit your finances? if you have an idea, if you have something that makes you happy, don’t wait. Just go do it. All of a sudden a few months ago, I realized, “Oh my gosh, I’ve been sitting on this idea for five or six years, I’m just going to go do it.”
Especially when Jack and Banks came into my life, I just felt like it was the right time for this. Now, in retrospect, I know that it couldn’t have happened without them. I told Banks about the idea and Jack about the idea, and they were both into it right away. When we started, I told them, “I don’t want to take forever to rehearse before we put something out there. I want to jump right into it, I just want to go do it and we’re going to fail our way forward. That’s how we’re going to learn, and that’s how we’re just going to dive into it.”
We just fell in love with it right away, and these last few months that we’ve been doing it, we’ve done more thank 50 performances and we have developed more thank 350 vignettes. We’re loving it.
JT: Why do you hold the performances in random living rooms? Why is the show always on the road instead of at a fixed location?
TM: This is how it happens. We go from living room to living room to living room. We are not intending to end up on a stage. That’s because we feel there is something really special that happens in an intimate environment where there is no delineation between audience and stage and the audience is a group of familiar people who have a shared experience. That’s the general concept of the show. We try to honor three things in each and every one of our pieces: fun, connection and authenticity.
JT: How do you find venues? How do you find homes to do it in?
TM: Right now it’s been mostly word of mouth, a little bit of Facebook, and when we invite people to shows, we at the end of the show, we invite that audience then to have one in their homes, and so then they can book with us. It’s easy to book online, we just have a simple form that they fill out with dates that are available, or when they see me, I pull out my calendar, throw them on, and it’s a done deal.
JT: How large and audience and how small an audience have you gotten? What’s the biggest and what’s the smallest?
TM: The smallest we have gotten is about five people. The smallest we really want to be doing is about eight people. The largest we’ve done so far has been 30, 33. That’s been great. We’re willing to take it up to 50. At 50, that’s where we’re doubtful as to how much of the intimacy will be lost. We’re willing to try out 50, but we haven’t gotten there yet.
JT: Before we saw LRT at Randa’s house, I had assumed there would be more audience participation, sort of like Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding. I said, “Don’t sit in front — I’ll get called on.”
TM: As to why we are immersive but not participatory — We want the experience to be pressure-free for the audience. Not having to worry about being picked on, singled out, asked to do anything or potentially embarrassed in any way allows them to comfortably enjoy the show and be more in the moment with us.
JT: What’s it like to work so closely with such a small troupe?
TM: We’re all writers, so for all of our little vignettes we keep creating new ideas and coming up with different things. We’ve found that we have quite a passion for it, and we’ve created a database where we’re constantly plugging stuff in. When we have a show coming up we sit down and we look at the list and we’re like, “What do we want to play with tonight?” This show was made just for you. It will never be repeated again
That’s one of the things that I find really beautiful about what we’re playing with here: The more honest each one of us is willing to be about what we’re dealing with, what we’re thinking about, what we’re feeling, the more we’ll connect. Because we’re all so much alike, and it’s sometimes difficult to remember that as we go about our lives. The moment that somebody’s willing to speak it, you see a sea of people that go, “Me too.” That’s really nice. It’s, I think, a fringe benefit of doing this type of work that you see how not alone you are.
JT: Why identify as the animal characters? Why don’t you use your real names?
TM: The reason that we do that is, with personal names, it’s so easy for any of us to have an association with a name. Like “Jack.” Maybe you have a brother or a friend or a neighbor named Jack, so as soon as we call his character, “Jack,” now all of a sudden you’re thinking about that relationship with your Jack. It pulls you out of the moment. We wanted something that would be neutral but still would honor who were are. Banks, when we first started this, asked us all what animal are you? That was really easy for all of us right away. I’m like, “I’m a bear.” Jack’s like, “I’m a dog.” Banks said, “I’m an otter.” People know kind of the spirit of the animal, but they don’t have strong, strong associations with it.