Theater staged in private homes creates an intimate experience

About 50 friends and neighbors gather in Greg and Pola Changnon’s home one evening in May for what appears to be a summer cocktail party. Everyone flocks to the kitchen, which is ground zero for colorful sandwich platters, a dessert tray and a selection of red and white wines. Then a woman beckons guests to move to the formal dining room, its long table and high-back chairs replaced with several rows of white folding chairs.

The show is about to start.

For two nights in their home off North Decatur Road, the Changnons hosted Atlanta-based playwright Lee Nowell’s play, “How To Survive Being Human,” a kind of mash-up of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” Aristophanes’ comedies and a self-help book. The play revolves around a woman named Anna (Blaire Hillman) who wakes up with the power to cause storms and cut off electricity with her emotions. In one of her storms, she turns a frog into a human (Jeffrey Zwartjes) whose roommate commits suicide. The only one who can make sense of it all is God (Barrett Doyle), a 19-year-old piña colada-sipping surfer dude.

The audience, a mix of friends and strangers, move from room-to-room in the couple’s home for each scene until it concludes in the backyard. Afterwards, Nowell leads a talk-back session with the audience.

The play is dedicated to author David Foster Wallace, who took his life in 2008 at the age of 46. With this play, Nowell strives to “change the narrative in a person’s mind at the moment when they reach for the knife or rope,” she said.

“Something hideous happens to everyone, and when people fall through the cracks it’s too late, and it’s because they have an interior monologue that makes them suffer alone,” said Nowell. “When I wrote the play I asked myself what would make me feel better in times when I’m feeling low?”

Nowell has had plays produced at Actor’s Express, Horizon Theatre and 7 Stages in Atlanta. Her play “Beyond Reasonable Doubt: The Troy Davis Project” premiered at Synchronicity Theatre in April, where she is managing director.

There has been an uptick in home performances in recent years, but it’s nothing new. Many Greek tragedies and Shakespearean classics received their first readings in the homes of wealthy patrons in a style of performance called salon theater. For Nowell it is a way to generate support from well-connected arts enthusiasts in order to create nontraditional work that is meaningful to her – and hopefully others.

The collaboration between the Changnons and Nowell started last fall when the playwright and producer Julia Burke visited the couple’s home to assess its suitability for the production.

“I felt as if I was auditioning my house,” Changnon said.

Six months later, the actors arrived for three days of rehearsals.

In addition to providing the venue and refreshments, the Changnons were responsible for inviting the guests, who paid $35 per person for the intimate, 90-minute theater experience.

The Changnons first met Nowell when they saw the play staged last fall at a friend’s home. They were so captivated by the experience, they opted to host two performances in their home.

“The actors exist in the same space as the audience, so it makes the work more emotional and more intense,” said Changnon, who teaches literature at Paideia School. “As the homeowner, I got to see the show take shape over the course of those three nights [of rehearsal]. It’s such a unique experience, and I’m interested in doing it again.”

The original production of “How to Survive Being Human” premiered two years ago at an event space on Ponce de Leon Avenue, and a member of the audience approached Nowell about staging it at their house for their friends. The play is set in a house, so the transition was natural.

During the process, Nowell and the cast make the home theirs for a few days, but they do not change any of the décor, so the homeowner’s style informs the show. The Changnon’s wedding cake toppers collection took on symbolic meaning when Anna talked about her accountant husband in the opening scene.

“The show has an odd intimate power, which is different than a theater setting where there’s a lot of negative space between you and the performer,” said Nowell. “It’s hard not to be engaged with someone who is right in front of you and pouring their heart out to you.”