Florida Studio Theatre's Stage III series for audiences who welcome challenge.
Why do go people go to the theater? The simple answer: to be entertained.
OK, but what does that mean, “to be entertained”? For most people most of the time, it means leaving reality behind, having their emotions gently tugged for a few hours, then finding themselves repeating laugh lines or humming a tune for the next few days.
But not everyone sees theater that way. There is a segment of the theatergoing public who seek plays that will intellectually, emotionally and philosophically shove them with both hands out of their comfort zones. Rather than escaping reality, they want plays that delve into aspects of our society that we either don’t think enough about or that many people try not to think about.
What some would call offensive material, they call stimulating.
And if the storytelling style is unorthodox, too, all the better. That’s art, that’s theater. That’s entertainment.
At Florida Studio Theater, that’s what they call Stage III. On Saturday, January 17, FST opens the fifth season of its Stage III series with the sci-fi crime drama, “The Nether.” It’s been described as a “serpentine” detective story that leads its sleuth into deeply disturbing territory. That alone makes it sound like it could be an engrossing script. But it is also a play that typifies what the Stage III series was created for, FST Producing Artistic Director Richard Hopkins says.
“This series tends to attract the adventurous theatergoer,” Hopkins says. “Sometimes people say it’s the more ‘experienced’ theatergoer, but I don't think that's necessarily true. Because there are a lot of people who have been going to the theater for 30 or 40 years who [couldn't] care less about the Stage III.”
A tradition of nontradition
In a way, Stage III is something of a return to FST’s roots, he says. When it was founded in 1973, FST identified as the “alternative theater” in town.
“This was a time of great change in the American theater,” Hopkins says. “There was a big movement away from all the glitz and glamour and big sets.” The push was toward what is known as “poor theater” — “poor” in the financial sense — no big-budget productions, with minimal sets and costuming. It was experimental, edgy stuff, Hopkins says.
But eventually being edgy loses its edge, Hopkins says, when you realize you’re intentionally playing to a niche audience. At some point a theater has to decide whether to stay on the fringe or to aim for a wider audience. FST chose the latter, which now has afforded them the ability to offer a variety of theatrical options.
While the theater’s mainstream and cabaret series’ have about 14,000 subscribers each, Stage III has about 2,000, Hopkins says. This is small-batch theater, “It’s an outlet for us artistically; It’s a place where we can do the things that we wouldn’t normally do.”
Jason Cannon, director of “The Nether,” describes Stage III as being for “the thirstier theatergoer,” and says it delivers on FST’s mission statement to “produce theatre that challenges with as much gusto as it entertains.”
Cannon says the important distinction to make, Cannon says, is the challenge. Shock for shock’s sake is lazy theater, he says. By all means, some of what Stage III plays delve into is shocking, but it’s always with the purpose of being a catalyst for the audience to consider complex, often controversial topics. The audience may not reach at any conclusions, and it isn’t the theater’s aim to preach any.
When people leave a Stage III play, Cannon says, “they should be arguing about what they saw in the car on the way home.” Then he laughs at himself. “Well, let’s say ‘discuss,’” It’s for people who like frank, intelligent discussion even when the subject matter is inherently uncomfortable.
“The Nether” sure fits that bill, Cannon says. The play revolves around a super-advanced virtual reality system where anyone can do or be anything they imagine. Sounds like a manmade key to paradise, right?
Now, Cannon says, “Think of the most vile, horrible thought or fantasy that’s ever passed through your mind. Here, your told, you can do it, no consequences.”
No? The play touches on issues that we’ve been increasingly dealing with in real life, with movies, TV shows, video games, online role-playing games. Cannon says. Some argue it’s OK to live out fantasies in a virtual world that you wouldn’t dare in the real world, that’s it’s a harmless alternative outlet. Some go so far as to suggest it’s a beneficial deterrent. But is it?
If you do something in a fantasy world, didn’t you in any sense really do it? And if you choose to live out these fantasies, what does that say about you? What does it say about you to have had those thoughts in the first place? And what are the real-world repercussions of living a fantasy double life? How many ways can your real life suffer because of the fantasy?
Now throw some gasoline on those questions: In “The Nether,” the fantasies involve pedophilia. We don’t actually see it taking place on stage, but we know that’s what’s happening.
On another level, astute audience members might also consider the fact that the play they’re watching about total-immersion virtual reality is being presented in the poor theater style, with much of the alternate world created in theor own minds.
As with all Stage III plays, “The Nether” will be performed in the Bowne’s Lab Theatre. With only about 100 seats, and a balcony that brings all of those seats close to the stage, it is the smallest and tightest of FST’s five spaces.
Cannon, a frequent Stage III director, says the space provides an advantage to these kinds of shows. The audience can feel connected to the actors. The energy, the intensity in that small house is something that is impossible to achieve in a large theater, he says.The level of engagement it creates — now that’s total immersion.
“The budget that people's brains work with is way bigger than what Hollywood can do,” Cannon says. “We can't do ‘Lord of the Rings’ in here but we can tap into your imagination and ask you to come along for the ride.”
It’s a ride that changes with every show, Cannon says.
After “The Nether” closes Feb. 7, Stage III will continue with “Kunstler,” opening Feb. 19. Cannon, who is also directing that show, says they couldn’t be much more different. While “The Nether” goes for the gut with its questions of morality, “Kunstler” is much more of an intellectual debate, literally. The play imagines the late civil rights attorney, who was one of the first big celebrity lawyers of the cable TV era, in a confrontation with a law student while at a speaking engagement at a college. Cannon says this play deals with questions about our legal system, the media-driven culture we live in and perhaps most significantly, the refusal by people today consider or listen to any point of view that conflicts with their own.
The Stage III series then concludes with the world premier of “Paralyzed,” in which the discovery of a suicide note in a hotel bathroom brings two strangers together briefly then sends their lives into separate trajectories, played out alternately in counterpoint onstage and addressing issues such as guilt and personal responsibility.
Three plays, wildly different from one another in every aspect except one: None would be described as “relaxing.”
But hey, Canon says, when you go to Universal Studios, “Not everyone likes crazy roller coasters.” FST has four other theaters, with something for most every speed.