11th Hour hosts preliminary shows

The 11th Hour Theatre Company has found a way to engage diverse audiences without the frills of a full production.

Imagine taking your nosebleed seat and squinting down the massive theater at the musical on stage. You might notice the grand set, the complex lighting design and the actors sweeping around in beautifully detailed, historically accurate period costumes.

Such is not the case with 11th Hour Theatre Company’s new Next Step Concert Series, a collection of four musicals this season, done completely without set, costume or even memorizing lines. The actors’ movements are limited, because they stand behind microphones with their scripts in hand. But, even without all the bells and whistles, audience members are still drawn in and excited by these visually simple works.

Why are toned-down musicals the “Next Step”? The goal for this intimate theater company was to produce big material on a small scale in the hopes of fully producing the shows in the next few years, but the organizers also wanted to be able to introduce new or unknown material to their audience.

“The response has been great,” said company co-founder Michael O’Brien, noting that the most recent showing, “Passing Strange,” sold out for all three performances.

“One of the comments we received most is that the audience really understands the story of these more than if they would see the full production,” O’Brien said.

The full production for “Passing Strange” includes a setting spread over three locations, following a man’s journey from Los Angeles to Amsterdam to West Berlin. The piece also dealt with complex, deeply human emotions.

“On the surface it seems to be about race, because…it’s about a young African-American man who is searching for the truth, for what is real in life,” O’Brien said. “But the more you dive into the show, the more you realize it’s about the human connection, and how art and music allow you to connect to people in a way that nothing else does.”

“Passing Strange” was only the second in the four-part series, following up an equally successful venture with “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” the emo-rock, satirical tribute to a rowdy president in turbulent times. Coming up in March is Andrew Lippa’s “The Wild Party,” about a bash fueled by tragic, vaudevillian revelry. April will find 11th Hour tackling Stephen Sondheim’s fairy tale twist “Into the Woods.”

But 11th Hour does not perform staged readings of musicals, because they want to throw everything together at the last minute. Under the rules of Actor’s Equity, they have to.

“Basically it gives us 29 hours over a two-week period, total, and that includes performance, so the rehearsal process for this show ends up being between 15 and 20 hours. On a normal production, we would have three weeks of rehearsal at 30 hours per week,” O’Brien said.

Because 11th Hour deals with musicals, about half of rehearsal time has to be reserved just for learning the music. As the director, O’Brien had to have the entire show mapped out in his head before he ever set foot in rehearsals. The cast had to multitask in every way possible. Each minute of rehearsal was maximized; if they weren’t singing, they were working scenes and character development in the next room.

“It’s a much, much, much faster process,” O’Brien said.

Not only faster, but much less expensive – these readings usually cost around 10 percent to 15 percent of the budget for a full production.

“It ends up saving us money, but the whole goal behind this is to introduce our audience to new work and exciting musicals and hopefully, in the future, there will be a few of these that we end up producing on a full-scale level,” said O’Brien, who also hopes these readings can be used to launch new pieces that have never seen production.

Fortunately, the money that goes into a show does not necessarily have an effect on the value.

“The whole point of this series is to tell the story of the musicals,” said O’Brien, acknowledging that it can be easy to get caught up in the spectacle of a full theater production.

“That’s something that 11th Hour tries to stay away from as much as possible,” O’Brien said. “No matter what we do, we try to make it as intimate and story-based as we can. The only time we would do things lavishly with lighting or set is if it really furthers the storyline and is necessary to the story.”

This minimalist theme seems to resonate well across the city, and 11th Hour considers itself fortunate for building a very eclectic, diverse audience base. The company attracts everyone from seasoned theatergoers to college students by offering something that no one else is doing: envelope-pushing, ground-breaking musicals in an intimate setting.

“We have gained the trust of our audience, which is exciting to us,” O’Brien said. “People that come to see a show they like are going to come back.”

Rachel McDevitt can be reached at rachel.mcdevitt@temple.edu.

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