The Tarot Reading experiment – a vision for the future?

Something strange happened last Halloween: The Tarot Reading took its first steps. With both inaugural performances sold out, the brainchild of Alan Katz and Quill Nebeker could have a long future ahead. 

The Tarot Reading was experimental in many ways. It featured performances ranging from yoga to playing telephone, sold every ticket as pay-what-you-will with a $30 minimum, and focused on every single audience member one at a time, to name a few. Creators and audience members looking for something fresh and daring have a lot to learn from The Tarot Reading, and a lot to look forward to.

Less of a Show, More of a Happening

“It’s called experimental theatre because it is a lab for figuring out what works.”

–Alan Katz

“One of the beauties of having an audience of 21 is that you can craft the audience.”

–Quill Nebeker

The Tarot Reading’s debut run was blink-and-you’ve-missed-it quick, lasting for only two performances, on Halloween and the following Tuesday. Additionally, the audience for each performance was limited to 21 people, giving only 42 lucky ticket holders an opportunity to see the show.

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(l-r) TwoDeep Carter, Jon Jon Johnson, and Elizabeth Hansen performing Jon Jon’s The Lovers in The Tarot Reading (Photo: Ryan Maxwell)

Even if you happened to hear about it before both performances sold out, getting a ticket was not as easy as calling the box office. My first experience with the show was being baffled by their “Patreon” – $30 per iteration “guarantees your admission.” Which raised plenty of questions: What is an iteration? Do I get charged every performance? Which night do I have a ticket to? Where is my simple online box office?

Nebeker acknowledges the confusion born from this experiment. Patreon is designed for small, monthly donations or larger donations charged per creation, he explained in an interview with co-founder Alan Katz before the show. Small, monthly donations generally go to creators who are producing content on a monthly basis or quicker. For larger donations, the typical donation goes to fund a physical piece of art to which donors are certain they will have access. Theatre, especially theatre with so few seats and performances, is far more fleeting. “Ours is not a concrete art object,” said Nebeker, “And it means that some of our patrons have gotten confused.”

Patreon was part of a careful design choice to craft the audience. Some tickets were reserved as comp tickets for the cast and crew to hand out. According to Nebeker, that was the main source of randomness in the audience. The tickets available on their Patreon were “semi-random,” available for purchase to support the show financially but limited to the few close enough with the show’s cast and crew to see the advertisement in time. Most went to people with a single degree of separation from the co-founders.

For Katz, Patreon gave their audience members a literally valuable opportunity to express their dedication. Patrons became sustaining members, set to pay the same amount for any future productions.  Some paid more than others, with the highest tier reward costing $250. In that, Katz echoes John & Hank Green from the YouTube channel vlogbrothers: It is better to make something that a few people care a lot about than something a lot of people care a little about. It is the inverse of the one-size-fits-all movie ticket price, which incentivizes broad appeal. When your show only has two performances with 21 seats per show, there is plenty of value in controlling your audiences to pick quality over the non-option of quantity. How that philosophy scales and achieves a more diverse audience are challenges left for later.

For the next iteration of The Tarot Reading, they’ve adjusted the minimum down to $1.

You Do You

“In order to see something open up in yourself, it’s a learned behavior. You need to see it in someone else and you need someone else to take that risk and lead you out onto that invisible bridge and tell you that you are not going to fall. And that vulnerability that the artists display, I will tell you, and I will tell you truthfully, that this is not necessarily a therapeutic experience for them!”  –Alan Katz

The show featured 21 plays written and primarily performed by seven mediums: 2Deep the Poetess, Jon Jon Johnson, Elizabeth Hansen, navi, Joan Cummins, Neen LeMaster, and Alan Katz. Following one of The Tarot Reading’s guiding principles, Nebeker  and Katz aimed for a wide variety in mediums, even beyond theatre artists. Neen LeMaster is a yoga teacher. navi is a hip-hop artist. 2Deep the Poetess is accurately named. And so, the night featured yoga, hip-hop, and poetry, in addition to monologues and a lot of miscellany. Nebeker isn’t joking when he says they had hoped to have a chef.

But there is another layer that keeps the show from simply being a talent show: Mediums must write something original with the show in mind. Each play is inspired by one of the major arcana from tarot (save for the Fool, which inspired the show’s framing device, performed by invoker Rebecca Speas) and designed specifically for the show’s unique format where each play revolves around a single audience member.

Another influence, at least for Katz, was the Neo-Futurists. Specifically their show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, which similarly has multiple plays as part of a single show, similarly asks its performers to provide the plays, and similarly asks the performers to be as honest and present as possible. One of The Tarot Reading’s biggest differences is that there is no clock ticking down to the end of the show, pressuring performers to get through the plays quickly. Like a real tarot reading, each play is a personal experience, allowed to expand to fill the room you give it in your heart and mind.

The original run’s plays had a huge range, even between those written by the same medium. For example, 2Deep the Poetess’s three plays only had one poem among them; the other two were delightfully rigged games exploring social justice with a sly grin. Instead of just demonstrating her art, she demonstrated herself. LeMaster, too, had a purely yoga play, a haunting tour of her past struggles, and a mix of both.

Even the poetry and yoga-based plays worked with the audience in unique ways. This kept the show wholly unexpected, in contrast to many shows with a line-up of performers within the same genre doing pre-made routines. By varying the type of performer, then pushing the performer to do something unique to the show and unique to themselves, the plays were almost universally a thrilling surprise, 21 times in a row.

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Navid Azeez performing The Wheel of Fortune in The Tarot Reading (Photo: Ryan Maxwell)

Theatre for One

“I value the people courageous enough to take a chance on us, because their presence is very, very important. Tom Prewitt says this, ‘You never know how a show is going to go until you get the last actor, and that’s the audience.’ And in this case, it’s a very literal thing!”

–Quill Nebeker

“What you get as an audience member of The Tarot Reading is you are guaranteed a moment, if you attend our show, that someone will give you [their full] attention. And it’s attention that some people never get.”

–Alan Katz

Equal to the tarot as a foundation for the show is the idea of theatre for an audience of one. When audience members arrived for the show, invoker Rebecca Speas drew them one-by-one into the antechamber. There they randomly selected a tarot card and were given any related content warnings in secret, before joining the others in the space proper. Throughout the show, Speas shepherded audience members, again one-by-one, to a chair on stage, where they alone got to be the primary audience of the play inspired by the card they pulled.

The experience of being in the chair varies based on the play and the person. At the least interactive end of the spectrum, the seat puts every front-row-center in DC to shame: It’s not enough to be mere inches from the performer; everyone else needs to be 20 feet back, heads craned in jealous curiosity. At the highly participatory end, being in that chair bestowed upon audience members the opportunity to eat a cupcake as fast as possible in one of 2Deep’s games, whisper their secrets into Katz’s ear, and actually leave the chair and the theater behind on a private journey with Hansen.

What all that means for the rest of the audience varies. They are merely onlookers, and some plays offer up more to see than others. A play by LeMaster gave the entire audience the opportunity to follow along in a yoga breathing exercise. On the other hand, a play by navi left the audience watching him and the primary audience member trading a shared doodle back-and-forth, without any meaningful commentary, insight, or even regular sight into the process. At least when Hansen led the primary audience member out of the theater and left everyone else to their own devices, it fell perfectly in line with its inspiring tarot card, the Hermit. However, it’s hard to fault the show for letting the secondary audience be secondary, when every audience member will invariably get a whole play to themselves and the rest of the audience need only wait a couple minutes for something completely different which may incorporate them more.

(Re)iteration

“For The Tarot Reading, you will have a radically different experience every time you walk through those doors. And the virtue of it for us is that you can be radically changed as a person every time you come here.”

–Alan Katz

“If we’re lucky. If we’re lucky, and the audience is open, and we’ve done our jobs right.”

– Quill Nebeker

The Tarot Reading doesn’t have to spawn disciples to make a lasting impact on theatre in DC; it will be around to do the job itself. The Tarot Reading was designed not as a single event, but as a format to be reiterated. Nebeker insists, it’s not a matter of if, but when. Already, the searching is on for new mediums. It is another opportunity to find artists from many media and backgrounds to share themselves to a lucky audience member, hopefully from an audience that can say it’s just as diverse.

It will be fascinating to see how the audience-of-one concept evolves across iterations. Both of the original performances and a dress rehearsal included talkbacks, giving Katz and Nebeker a look into how the audience felt about such a unique experience. Just thinking about the opportunity to see a whole new class of mediums engaging with that form, their art, and themselves while building upon an already amazing first run, it begins to make sense why the Patreon offers guaranteed admission per iteration: I never want to miss one!

Stay in touch with The Tarot Reading. 

 

Marshall Bradshaw About Marshall Bradshaw

Marshall Bradshaw is a DC-based critic, actor, and game designer. He spent his halcyon days performing Shakespeare and improv with the American University Rude Mechanicals and Elite Ballerina Corps, respectively. Since then, he has written for DC Theatre Scene and Washington City Paper, performed with St. Mark's Players and Fat & Greasy Citizens Brigade, and mounted an original American freeform LARP at MAGfest (Audience participation dialed up until the knob falls off!). You can find more of him on Twitter @dMarshallb

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