Ave Lawyer has become something of a location scout. Since the debut of her theater group On the Verge in 2008, Lawyer has directed site-specific plays in locations ranging from historic homes to funeral homes to clothing boutiques. Unconfined by a traditional space or even a conventional season format, On the Verge selectively produces shows when the time, location, and material are just right.
For the past year or so, she searched for the perfect location for a new show, but wasn't having any luck.
Then one day she went to a friend's church.
Actress Janet Scott, a frequent On the Verge collaborator, invited Lawyer to Central Christian Church downtown, where Scott was teaching acting classes.
"I walked around and thought 'Much Ado would be fabulous here because of this enormous and beautiful sanctuary,'" says Lawyer. "I just said that idly and Janet said 'You know what? We should do it.'"
The pair talked with the church secretary who immediately put the performance on the church's calendar.
"It was all in the course of maybe 30 minutes," Lawyer says. "Sometimes doors open and you don't know why but you just walk through."
Beginning on Tuesday, audiences can enjoy the fruition of that 30-minute conversation by attending the group's production of William Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing at Central Christian Church.
The production, like previous On the Verge productions, will involve the audience in unique ways.
Each show is open to an audience of about 25, who move from room to room as the play unfolds throughout the church.
"We're playing in the kitchen, the library, the chapel, the garden — we're everywhere" says Lawyer, who explains that one of the main artistic advantages of site-specific theater is that scenic transitions become a boon for the players to convey even more character nuances than in a traditional theater setting, when characters are either on or off stage.
"You get to explore the moments between the scenes, the interludes, the connective tissue," Lawyer says. "If the audience sees people who aren't really in the scene, that's great — that's the life of the house revolving around just as it does in real life."
Lawyer has updated the show to make it work for a smaller cast, streamlining some characters, as well as modernizing the set and time.
In On the Verge's version of Much Ado, the war campaign is swapped for a modern political campaign. And audience members are spending a weekend retreat as guests of the play's characters.
"I changed sort of the framing principle," Lawyer says. "The war victor, Don Pedro, becomes Don Peter, a victorious politician, and Leo his supporter. It would be like Bill Clinton going to Bill Gates' house for the weekend.
"We all found that concept more accessible than the idea of war, and that puts you in a whole different place," Lawyer says.
In addition to a modern setting and continuous movement along with the cast throughout the show, the audience's participation is unique in yet another way: there is a dress code.
It's not a fancy one or a difficult one, but audiences are asked to wear black and white, which will further integrate them into the design of the show.
"In the way we're presenting the show, the audience is very much part of the action," Lawyer says. "They're guests at a party and we thought, 'we want the audience to look as if they are part of us.'"
The dress code is meant to be a fun suggestion rather than a strict requirement, yet it's another way the audience can enjoy a lively and unique experience as more than passive voyeurs.
"The idea of a theater in a church is very much out there in the big world," says Lawyer, who adds that there are several equity theater companies who are based in churches.
"This is not a new idea," Lawyer says. "If this really works out we could maybe make this our home. It's an interesting way to reach out to the community."