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  • Shreya Khullar

Playing with Fire

Pale Fire Theater plays with audience-actor intimacy.

By Shreya Khullar

Illustration by Jorja Garcia

Sixty streets down from Columbia’s campus, a new world of student theater is blooming. On an April evening, a friend and I took the 1 train to Midtown to see a production of This is Our Youth by Kenneth Lonergan from Pale Fire Theater, an independent theater company run by Columbia and NYU students and alumni. The evening was warm and muggy as winter finally gave way to spring, and, as art enthusiasts, we were itching to see a show before getting bogged down by final exams. When we entered the American Theatre for Actors, we were met with a small, studio-style room with reclining chairs for audience members, a single bed as the central set-piece, and multicolored Christmas lights illuminating the stage. It was grimy. It was glorious.

Pale Fire Theatre was founded in 2019 by Henry Alper, NYU ’25, and Shayan Hooshmand, CC ’23. Debuting in fall 2022 with a production of Waiting for Godot at the West End Theatre, the company seeks to provide a vehicle through which students can perform free from the constraints of university policy. The group is unaffiliated with Columbia, a unique position that comes with both freedoms and restrictions: on one hand, directors and performers can go beyond the conventional bounds of university-regulated theater; on the other, the group is cut off from most sources of school funding.

This is Our Youth, running from April 16-23, is a key example of the creative freedoms afforded outside of Columbia. The play is set in New York during March 1982 and required extensive research. “I knew early on that we wanted to have the sound collages to use clippings from commercials that aired during that time,” director Sophie Craig, CC ’23, recalled. She even spent a week reading Ronald Reagan’s diary for preparation. Craig’s commitment to historical accuracy set the groundwork for the challenging themes of the play. Characters struggle with death, addiction, and abuse, as well as issues examined in many classic bildungsromans like growing up, finding love, and figuring out what it means to feel as though your childhood is unfinished.

Despite its unassuming setting, the production had audience members (including myself) dissolving into laughter, and, at a few points, verging on tears. People were seated just a few inches from performers, creating a profound sense of intimacy between the actors and the audience. I felt not as though I was a voyeur of some distant aesthetic experience, but like I was holding the hand of Warren, the protagonist, through his struggles in this coming of age story.

“My dream was that it would feel like we were all crammed into this horrible studio apartment together,” Craig explained. She wanted the performance to be “an immersive, almost dreamlike experience.” Among the myriad of notes I took, I distinctly remember writing “audience across is making faces” and “audience is in it.” My friend pointed out a man whose jaw hung open throughout the two minute make-out scene between Warren and his love interest, Jessica. When asked what Craig wants the audience to take away from the play, she answered, “The fragility of relationships, especially when you're young.”

To Hooshmand, the Artistic Director for Pale Fire Theater and the lead actor for This is Our Youth, this was exactly the kind of environment he imagined performing for. Elaborating on his vision for the audience-actor dynamic, he passionately described how he wanted audience members to writhe in their seats if they felt inclined to do so. Watching a play and only being allowed to politely clap at socially appropriate times was, in his opinion, boring, and nowhere close to his ambition of hyper-saturated experimentation.

With a small cast and crew, the production was a labor of love. Hooshmand’s hope is that the connection between the cast can transcend the boundaries of the stage, creating a reflexivity between audience and actor. Pale Fire Theater doesn’t act in isolation: We must feel the highs and lows with them.


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