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Café Play ’s Empathetic Immersion into Everyday Life

Experiences

Elyssa Goodman | October 13, 2017
This Is Not A Theater Company provides an intimate look at humanity over sorbet and crème brûlée.

“I wanted to do a play in a café because one of my favorite things to do is sit in cafés and listen to other people’s conversations,” says Erin Mee, co-founder and co–artistic director of This Is Not A Theatre Company. “They always feel very theatrical to me.”

Founded in 2013 by Mee and Jessie Bear, This Is Not A Theatre Company (TINATC)’s plays take place in unusual, non-theatre spaces all over New York City. There have been plays in pools and on the subway, a play collaboration with chef David Bouley at his test kitchen, a play in an apartment called “Versailles,” and an ongoing podcast play that can be purchased and listened to aboard the Staten Island Ferry.

In TINATC’s latest production, Café Play, a series of vignettes tell the stories of customers, wait staff, and even teacups, which all have a life of their own in a small café in New York’s West Village. Conceived and directed by Mee, the play features scenes written by Bear as well as Jenny Lyn Bader, Colin Waitt, and Mee herself, with choreography by Jonathan Matthews.

Mee takes audience orders before the play begins, her purple and turquoise dress swirling around her while she moves from table to table. Sorbet or crème brûlée? Coffee or tea? Soon a platter of pink sorbets in tiny white dishes and custard-filled ramekins find their way to their proper owners, spoons clinking against their sides. The air smells deliciously of burnt sugar as the room goes silent and the play begins.

In a room of exposed brick and white tablecloths covered in butcher paper, the audience sits at tables alongside or waited on by the actors, totally immersed in the play as it goes on next to them, in front of them, behind them. A couple takes their seats at a table near the back of the room, a lone woman near the front. The couple is on a date after having broken up many years ago. The woman is waiting for a friend while a harried, forgetful waitress serves the two tables and accidentally causes a social media frenzy. It’s a strange reversal of polite society: the experience of openly eavesdropping is suddenly encouraged.

More vignettes unfold: waiters guessing who seated at their tables would survive a zombie apocalypse; a woman decrying a celebrity’s involvement in a clean water charity while making her way through a slim glass of water; a cockroach telling of its struggles in learning how to scurry; a waiter frustrated by the seventh anniversary of his employment in a restaurant; a rude woman who refuses to speak to her waitress.

photo by Elyssa Goodman

They’re all people we know and have seen before. Going to a café has an element of universality, and when you highlight that by setting a play in one, you get not just a whiff of the familiar, but an acute sense of the absurdity of it all. How wild that so many people experience such a mundane place in ways that are simultaneously so similar and so different.

But this is something TINATC has been drawing on since its inception. Mee, a professor of Dramatic Literature at NYU, and Bear, who has shown work at the Judson Church, Theatre for the New City, and Dixon Place, among others, founded the company in hopes of questioning the idea of what a play is, what it could be, and how it could affect people. Perhaps, they speculated, if everyone was immersed in an experience together, more direct relationships could form between not just performer and audience, but between written work and performance as well.

photo by Elyssa Goodman

If you think about it, plays like this happen all day long in any café in the world… except they’re not actually plays at all, just regular humans having a glass of wine and a brownie while musing about celebrities and zombie attacks. Just before entering this particular café, for example, there’s a man in a blue shirt sitting alone at a table telling another man in a tweed jacket sitting alone at a table about how he worked as a postman during college, easily some 40 years ago. The man in tweed provides an occasional “Oh yeah?” and “How about that,” just barely interested. Why are each of them by themselves? What does it feel like to be an older man going to lunch alone? What does one hope to accomplish by sharing his reminiscences with the other?

Humanity is everywhere waiting to be understood. Productions like Café Play help us to do just that.


For another unique experience, head to Fernet-Branca


Photos by Maria Baranova, courtesy of This Is Not A Theater Company, unless noted

Elyssa Goodman is a writer and photographer based in New York. Her work has appeared in Vogue, Vanity Fair, Vice, and many others. Find her at elyssamaxxgoodman.com.

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