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Chalk Repertory Theatre raises the garage door on a site-specific play

by Collin Friesen | The Frame

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Emma Zakes Green (left) and Amy Ellenberger (right) play feuding sisters in the site-specific play, "In Case of Emergency" which takes place in real garages around Los Angeles. Jim Carmody

A Los Angeles theater company is taking its latest production to the streets — actually, a driveway. "In Case of Emergency" is the newest offering from Chalk Repertory Theatre, and instead of a curtain being raised, it'll be a garage door. 

With the cluttered interior of a garage serving as the stage, the play is about the relationship between two sisters and a professional disaster preparedness expert. They find themselves dealing with what might be a real crisis when the city seems ready to explode and they’re stuck in the over-stuffed garage.

Playwright Ruth McKee says the idea came from imagining what she could do with such an unconventional space for a play. Well, that and some reality TV.

I watched "Hoarders" right when I started writing, and I watched "Doomsday Preppers." It was a big inspiration. I start with the setting and how a confined space affects characters and what kind of tension emerges. Conflicts arise when people are stuck inside a confined space.

With street traffic and wandering dogs worked into the performance, the idea is to make theater for a film-and-TV-obsessed town by offering a more unique immersive experience. This is Chalk Rep’s thing, if you will. The company also has mounted plays at the Museum of Natural History, a downtown high-rise and a realtor’s open house.

Actors Daniel Rubiano and Amy Ellenberger prepare for a disaster in a scene from Chalk Repertory Theatre's site-specific play, "In Case of Emergency."
Actors Daniel Rubiano and Amy Ellenberger prepare for a disaster in a scene from Chalk Repertory Theatre's site-specific play, "In Case of Emergency." Jim Carmody

Amy Ellenberger plays a character named Emma in the production. A Chalk Rep member, she says you can call it a gimmick if you like, so long as it works. As proof that this is what people want, she points to the popularity of escape rooms and interactive haunted houses at Halloween.

We do recognize in this play, and in many of the things we do at Chalk, we’re using site-specific [elements] to get people there. But once they’re there, we hope what they get is a really good play. 

Director Deena Selenow says, logistically, a location-based production is in some ways easier than working in a traditional black box theater. The set is already mostly dressed, the rent is cheaper, and people seem willing to accept the trade-off of fewer theatrical flourishes for the hyper-realistic feel.

Selenow says actors have to introduce an element of improv into their work, or at least what you might call situational awareness.

They need to respond. If a large plane goes overhead, they can’t pretend they don’t hear it. How many times have you had a conversation and a siren goes by, so you [both] just wait? Because the whole conceit is the audience is a voyeur looking through the garage wall, so they have to [wait].

But it’s not just the people on stage who have to be ready for anything. Joe Hauler will offer his home for the show, one of three residences being used in different neighborhoods over four weekends. And he’s already planning on how to alert the neighbors that, no matter what they hear, he and his wife are fine.

I’m going to warn them. I’m told there are a few tense moments when people are speaking very loudly, so I’ll tell them, anything they hear, Don’t call the cops, please!

But for all the pluses and minuses working in the real world can bring, for McKee, it all comes down to one word: intimacy.

Those are the experiences I really love. In a theater space, I never completely lose myself. But when the actor is three feet from me, saying, This is my garage, and it really looks like that, I find that I get emotional, wrapped up in the action that no other storytelling does.

"In Case of Emergency" runs Friday-Sunday from June 3-July 3 at homes in Montrose, Atwater Village and Pasadena. For more information, visit chalkrep.com.

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