[Two years ago we had what I termed “The Summer of Love” – a 12-week run of Armitage on stage in London, including daily fan updates and a nightly stage door “show”. This year, Armitage is back on stage, performing Mike Bartlett’s play “Love Love Love” in New York. An opportunity for fans to see their favourite actor live, and to catch him as himself (?) at the stage door afterwards. I was lucky enough to fly to New York myself, see the play, meet many of my fellow fans, and participate in the fun of the stage door. An “autumn of love love love”, so to speak. Interestingly, I am experiencing the same feelings as in 2014 again, including the difficulty with putting a response on
virtual paper. The first thing that has sprung from my mind, is – yet again – a distanced, ironic examination of the topic by way of a gloss commentary, which is apparently an expression of my own problems with celebrity culture, fandom and fangirling. DISCLAIMER: The following is meant tongue-in-cheek. The gloss is not meant as a criticism of a) Armitage himself or b) his fans. It is just a fun way of approaching a more intense examination of my first ever fangirling WEEK. And I may be pulling everyone’s legs here, including mine, as a willing participant in this ritual. I still love Richard Armitage (no least thanks to the latest instalment of BS *coughs*. ]
Review: “Stage Door Runner”
No Running Gag: A Work in Progress
By Guylty Pleasure
After celebrating overwhelming successes with the London run of his self-authored, -directed, -staged, -costumed and -produced one-man-show “The Stage Door”, Brit stage icon Richard Armitage puts a new spin on the dramatic critique of the cult of celebrity: In his new off-Broadway show, the well-known theatre personality addresses the (d)evolution of celebrity encounter culture in a searing, yet vivid follow-up performance. Richard Armitage is the “Stage Door Runner”.
Two years have passed since Richard Armitage last wowed the masses with two live performances of international renown. His (then) concurrently running dramas, “The Crucible” (Old Vic, London) and his self-devised experimental piece “The Stage Door” (Pavement, Borough of Lambeth), were received with five-star accolades and have firmly cemented the modest actor as a force to be reckoned with, both on stage and on the sidewalk. Concurrent with his New York stage debut, Armitage is taking the opportunity to brave new paths in his ongoing critique of present-day celebrity culture by way of a new performance art piece that is exclusively devised, directed, staged, costumed, and acted by the multi-talented Brit himself.
According to the unofficial playbill which doesn’t accompany the piece, the show is set at the interface between celebrity and fans. The simple premise of the play: I star, you fan. As Armitage picks up the theme that he already addressed in his 2014 masterpiece “The Stage Door”, comparisons with his earlier interpretation of the thematic content are inevitable. However and to jump ahead, “Stage Door Runner” is not a companion piece, the play is a continuation of Armitage’s earlier exploration of the theme.
The one-acter, swiftly played by the star of current Epix hit show Berlin Station, takes place outside a brightly illuminated foyer in an unassuming street off 6th Avenue. The location already anchors the piece unmistakably off-Broadway, a characterisation firmly underlined by the evidence of the primary lighting design: Plenty of small lightbulbs illuminating the “stage”, reminiscent of the characteristic New York theatre signboards. Here, the celebrity, played with natural modesty and unassuming grace by the wholesome, handsome Armitage, must pursue the stage door and try to fulfil the wishes of fans who travelled from all over the world and have come to New York to find their object of affection.
In the earlier iteration of this theme, Armitage had placed his audience unrestrained on the pavement of a London side street. In the interim between “The Stage Door” and “Stage Door Runner” the star has experimented with more free-form interaction at an untitled exclusive, two-nights-only show in Leeds, England, in 2015, where the show took place in the round – with the audience gathering in a disorganised fashion close-up and around the actor. Now, he draws the line: Despite the intimacy of the location, which is a small, square open space, delineated on its four sides by the stage backdrop aka foyer windows, a long set of steps, an outdoor seating area and the curb of the street, Armitage furnishes his set with a line of flexible crowd control barriers. These stanchions work as the tangible divide between the crowd and the protagonist – a visible reminder that they are them and he is he. The crowd control measures here work as a reflection of the increased popularity of the main character – has it become necessary to restrain the populace from the star?
Thus, the audience starts gathering along the stanchioned line approximately half an hour before the stage door runner makes his entrance. The play begins with intimate one-on-one interactions among the gathering audience, growing to three, four people, until the trickle of leaving theatre-goers from a little-known drama called “Love Love Love” in the neighbouring Laura Pels Theater adds to the building throng of spectators. This, in itself, is a genius idea by Armitage: The director allows audience members who are leaving after the rivalling “Love Love Love” show, to experience “the other side”: Exiting the foyer, they are faced with the solid wall of the public behind barriers. A haunting experience even for the staunchest of red carpet apologists. The added bonus for the burgeoning playwright: built-in advertisement for his side(walk) show, as the curiosity of unsuspecting theatre-goers is elicited by the assembled audience.
With audience participation now firmly established, director Armitage again uses the element of surprise and uncertainty to build suspense: Not knowing if and when the performance is going to start, the audience is waiting with bated breath while breathlessly chatting amongst themselves. Armitage then unleashes hysteria as he steps out as the main protagonist himself, only after the last member of the public, cast and crew have trickled out of the foyer. In unspoken communion with the assembled, a beautiful interactive experience now takes place: As the protagonist approaches the lined-up audience, smartphones are raised in salutation and gifts and playbills for autographs are held at the ready.
The confident routine of seasoned thespian Armitage clearly comes to the fore in his new production: Displaying singular concentration, the actor remains unfazed by camera flashes and the occasional audible giggle of audience members, and works his way along the crowd control barrier. Gliding along invisible tracks – a reference to the “runner” of the title – Armitage slides into a line movement that rhythmically intersperses autograph signing with selfie taking and polite exchanges of pleasantries. With a remarkable skill for improvisation, the performance even incorporates and leaves room for extemporaneous negotiation of potentially embarrassing social situations, for instance when mistaking objects to be autographed as personal gifts, or when having difficulties communicating with participating audience members who speak with an American accent. These interactions put the humanity back into the automatism of the action, and act as multiple, individual climaxes and catarthes of the play. Bravo to Armitage for highlighting this deplorable juxtaposition.
Ably aided by a supporting cast of two security guards and a mysterious, unnamed assistant in a beige anorak in the background, Armitage effortlessly communes with the crowd in a linear fashion. This is a departure from his earlier experimental dramas, and one that works extraordinarily well for the artist: The performance is a strongly directional move in which Armitage heads smoothly from the top of the line all the way down to the curbside where a blacked-out car is waiting to whisk the actor off-stage. Economically timing and stringently executing his appearance, he becomes the eponymous stage door runner, a swift, efficient performer at the stage door. This one-way procedure provides a clear terminus to the plot, eliminates the need to run the gauntlet back to the starting point, and even acts as an instant play-time indicator: Theatre directors who would like to put a stop to audience members checking their watches for remaining playtime, take a leaf out of Armitage’s book – the further Armitage is along the line, the sooner the performance will end.
It is evident that Armitage pays homage to Greek drama for his latest hit performance: He has carefully coincided the run of the show with the run-up to and aftermath of the New York Marathon, for instance. (In an ironic, telling and deliberately contrary twist, the director cancelled the show on the day of the marathon event.) Secondly, Armitage incorporates an innovative, impromptu Greek chorus which comments on the pivotal moments of the plot with the appropriate, collective voice: The entrance of the protagonist is acknowledged with a resounding “ahhhh”, the accepting of gifts elicits a moving “ohhh” and the eventual stage exit receives an agitated “awww”. However, it is the aforementioned foyer lighting that adds the truly symbolic dimension to the play. Not only does it add a warm atmosphere but also a layer of meaning to the piece, as the backlighting creates a halo around the stage door runner – a clearly intentional lighting choice that is also reflected on the poster design of the play.
Armitage picks up his earlier pop culture critique and adds new, searing commentary: With commercial interests ever stronger evading public open spaces, stage door lines are forcefully curtailed by the curb space. The evolution of the stage door experience is in fact a devolution, as the interaction of public and celebrity is curbed. Kudos to the brave actor who ingeniously makes up for lack of curb space by pacing up his performance, fitting in more members of the public, and regardlessly plowing on with his own stage door show. Thus, “Stage Door Runner” delves into the implications of celebrity culture on the environment and on society by reaching into the past, using pop culture, religious symbolism, and classical (Greek) drama. This tension between past, present and future is mirrored in the retrofitted look of “Stage Door Runner”, which is high-tech and gleaming in shoes, but an old baseball hat elsewhere.
“Stage Door Runner” is a true work in progress – a relentless progression of improvisation work, which is continually devised, adjusted and executed. With average running time of 42 minutes, of which the protagonist only has to spend 2 minutes interacting with the crowd, “Stage Door Runner” not only exerts the energy of his lead actor extremely economically and efficiently, but has also put the onus back on the audience to make the most of their theatre experience. A stroke of genius, if you ask this reviewer – this is popular theatre at its best, yet bravely experimental as it allows the audience to participate and shape the performance themselves. Judging by the reaction of his adoring public, Armitage is definitely on to something: The barrier seats have continually been taken at all performances of “Stage Door Runner”, and fans are travelling from all over the world for coveted attendance of the show. Let’s hope the new star of British performance art will never run out of steam.
“Stage Door Runner” continues until December 18th, 2016, outside the Laura Pels Theater, New York. This is an unticketed, free event. The performance is rated PG 13 (Parents strongly cautioned – some material may be inappropriate for children under 13). Audience participation welcome. Fans are advised to bring writing material and/or camera as only autograph and photo requests will elicit reactive involvement in the performance of Mr Armitage.