The stage lights glow like dozens of small stars while the countdown to curtain plays over the intercom. Milo, the inexperienced stagehand, is nowhere to be found. Basking in the diffused lights, the actors come together, separated by mere inches, so close that their knees bump and their shoulders touch, so close that they have to lean back to even look at each other.
The stage is a 4-by-4 closet, lit by a string of Christmas lights. The curtain is from Ikea. Milo is a black kitten. The audience is all online. Welcome to Tiny_Theatre.
“I think there’s a need for humans to connect, maybe more than ever,” said actor and Tiny_Theatre co-founder Rachel Burttram Powers. “Toni Morrison says that it’s the artist’s job to create in a time of crisis, you know? We created this out of necessity.”
Tiny_Theatre is the passion project of Rachel and her husband/co-founder, Brendan Powers, as a response to the shuttering of all theatres in the wake of COVID-19. The couple perform from the guest room of their Fort Myers, Fla., home three times a week—Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays—on Facebook Live. Since their first production on March 21, they have taken to their closet stage over 25 times, performing work from almost two dozen playwrights.
They each go over the scripts only twice prior performing the final live reading. The works performed are intimate pieces, ranging from selected scenes and acts from full-length plays to sketches and short works, each well-suited for a cast of two. (For one performance, Rachel tackled Eric Coble’s Stranded on Earth, a monologue she said was a beautifully dense yet challenging 26 pages.)
Having both been active members of the theatre community for over 20 years—they worked with Florida Repertory Theatre since the early 2000s and at such theatres as Maine’s Penobscot Theatre Company, Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company, and Actors Studio NY—Rachel and Brendan have established a network of playwrights to tap into for their newest project. Some writers have even reached out directly with suggestions of work. Rights for the plays have all been granted gratis to the couple.
Offstage, the two have co-led numerous acting workshops, and Rachel has served in various arts administrative roles, including as the production manager at ArtFest Fort Myers. Brendan, who has written and directed, is a development associate for Florida Rep.
In early March, Rachel and Brendan were in the final dress rehearsal for Florida Rep’s production of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2. The theatre closed its door the next day. Though the couple’s turn as Nora and Torvald was recorded and streamed online, the two found themselves suddenly faced with an abundance of time and artistic energy.
“We were sort of in that mindset as performers,” Rachel said. “We were ready to go eight shows a week. Suddenly it was like a needle pulled off the record.”
Added Brendan, “A couple days in, once we knew we were canceling the show, I could see Rachel—I can tell when she’s thinking of something.”
Rachel jumped back in, “I’m also an administrator, too, so I’ve worn a zillion theatre hats. And so I started sort of scheming.”
“I’m always intrigued with her ideas,” Brendan said, “because her ideas are always out of the park. And she hit it out of the park with this one. It came together very quickly, actually.”
Back to Rachel: “I started cleaning out a back closet because I thought, ‘What would happen if you made a theatre at home?’ We knew everyone was self-isolating. We both have a passion for new plays, and we have a lot of playwright friends who are very well established, and I just thought, ‘Let me just send an email to see if people would be game to play with us.’”
And so they went on, with a comfortable buoyancy in their back-and-forth, overlapping at the edges but never dominating each other. There is evident respect in the way they communicate, not just as a married couple but as professionals in their field.
Playwright Arlene Hutton acknowledges this interplay as creating an environment akin to a mini-repertory company in Tiny_Theatre. Hutton was already familiar with the couple, having worked with Brendan when he starred in her work, Running, and seen Rachel in Florida Rep’s production of Audrey Cefaly’s Alabaster.
“There’s an honesty and a truthfulness in what they’re doing,” said Hutton, who is herself recovering from COVID-19. “They’re not trying to make it more than it is, you know? Even the name is ‘tiny theatre.’ It is theatre in a closet, this is what it is. And I think that’s one of the things that makes it clever.” Hutton expressed an interest in writing a new work specifically for the two to perform from the confines of their closet stage.
The Tiny_Theatre stage is arguably better suited for shoes and coats than for people, especially when one of those people—Brendan—is 6’4”. The two joke about practicing yoga, but it takes real flexibility to fold oneself into a compact space like they do for each performance.
On March 21, Tiny_Theatre debuted with scenes from Cefaly’s Maytag Virgin. This inaugural performance was also the couple’s first Facebook Live experience. (Brendan did not even have a Facebook account at the time.) Their setup was a smartphone, a broken tripod, and a paint stirrer, all literally held together with duct tape. Cefaly commented during the April 3 reading that the constant fussing is endearing, taking on the quality of a running gag for the “superfans.”
The technical system has since been upgraded, which they credit to the community that has bloomed around Tiny_Theatre. Friends, family, followers, and even strangers have sent gift cards (resulting in a new iPad) as well as printer paper and toner (for printing and notating scripts). They have also designed a logo and made two theatre signs that they display for some performances and promotional shots.
This outpouring of support speaks to the value of the work created by Tiny_Theatre’s founders. There’s a goofiness and levity to these two, a palpable happiness for the work they are doing. Silliness aside, the two have dedicated years to honing their craft onstage. In such close proximity, their acting is distilled to their voices, the acuity in their facial expressions, the gentle placement of a hand, through which they transport their viewers beyond the confines of their closet.
“That’s been tricky,” Brendan said of the lack of mobility. “As we read a scene—you’re an actor, you start to feel it, and then you get put in that situation where you can’t storytell physically or only very, very minimally.”
Rachel followed: “If I can’t stand or sit or move away from you, how can I storytell to reveal, or not, whatever is happening in the moment in a very subtle way?”
It was this challenge that attracted Nathan Christopher, who found out about Tiny_Theatre through the Playwright Submission Binge online community and became enamored with the project after just one viewing. The Powerses accepted Christopher’s submission of his recent play A Man Walks Into a Bar, performing it on April 6, as well as Clairvoyant, which came from an open call they put out that asked writers to create short works inspired by a single photo they provided as a prompt.
“Playwrights write to have their work performed on a stage in front of a live audience,” Christopher said. “What Tiny_Theatre has done so well is strip away all but the characters themselves and the words they speak. When you focus on just the words—what they mean and how they’re spoken—it can be a powerful experience because your imagination does the rest.”
Their viewership has grown exponentially, with around 70 viewers for the first production, according to Rachel, to reaching more than 1,000 views for some productions. Tiny_Theatre now has viewers representing more than 35 states and multiple countries, including New Zealand, Austria, Sweden, and India.
Looking toward the uncertainty of life in a post-coronavirus world, Rachel and Brendan have begun taking stock in what they have created with Tiny_Theatre. As reopening plans and phases develop for the country, the two consider what place it may hold beyond this time, and beyond their own closet.
“We have all kinds of ideas about what the future of it may look like,” Rachel said. “What if we only do it once a week, or what happens if we have guest artists in their own tiny theatres, you know? So I think there’s a future for Tiny_Theatre, I’m just not sure exactly what it looks like. Just like everybody else in America, right?”
Sarah Tietje-Mietz is a Goldring Arts Journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.