American Repertory Ensemble

Let's get small

Rosalyn Nasky in Fray from Passion at Play
Rosalyn Nasky in "Fray" from Passion at Play

Most performing-arts companies are all about bringing in more people. In something of a shift, American Repertory Ensemble is bringing in fewer people to its next show. Deliberately. The program, In a Sense, is limited to just 100 audience members, who will be sitting onstage with the artists.

According to ARE Artistic Director David Justin, that wasn't always the plan. Initially, the company was just looking for an alternative to its home space, the University of Texas' McCullough Theatre, which was unavailable due to this month's grand reopening of Bass Concert Hall next door. As ARE was exploring other venues, the economy took a header, and, in Justin's words: "We thought, 'How do we look at the circumstances we have and make the most of this experience for an audience?' And one of the things that's always been mentioned by audience members of our performances is the intimacy, having that much talent in such a close proximity. We thought, 'Why don't we take that to the next level and put the audience onstage, inside the magic?' So we were able to utilize the Payne Theatre in the Department of Theatre & Dance. And the nature of putting people onstage and how we could configure the stage space started limiting us to 100 seats."

Justin has some experience working with the audience in such close confines, and "it's got its pluses and minuses," he allows. "The minuses are that there are only a hundred seats, that you can't share it with three, five, or seven hundred people. The other side of that, in terms of artistic integrity, making connections with the audience, really sharing art forms, and building community, those things are home runs. It's so special for both the artists and the audience. That's the thing that makes me think, 'Well, I'm sorry that it's only 100 people, but it's really worth it.'"

That's especially true when you consider the caliber of talent that will be performing at your elbow: Atlanta Ballet principals Christine Winkler and John Welker, who will dance to Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 13 as performed by pianist Carla McElhaney, whose performance with trumpeter John Carroll on Hindemith's Sonata for Trumpet and Piano was a highlight of ARE's Passion at Play program last summer; Texas Guitar Quartet founding member Jonathan Dotson; New York City Ballet alumna Michele Gifford; local musician Graeme Francis; and Conspirare founder and Artistic Director Craig Hella Johnson. Even Justin finds himself floored by the creative energy he's surrounded himself with. "I'm just always so humbled by the talent in the room. I'm like, 'Why am I the only one in here?' I feel very fortunate to be doing what I'm doing."

Not surprisingly, given that lineup, ARE has already sold out the lone 7pm performance of In a Sense this Saturday. "And we sold it out eight days before the performance," says Justin. "You know, in this climate, that's a big deal. It's really encouraging to know that there's that much support. I'm excited by the implications of that for the future." Future, yeah, but what about the present? "We have started selling tickets to the 2pm dress rehearsal," he adds. "We're running it like a show, but the caveat is: If something goes wrong, the audience gets the privilege of seeing the gloves come off."

The dress rehearsal for In a Sense will take place Saturday, Jan. 17, 2pm, at the B. Iden Payne Theatre, 300 E. 23rd, on the UT campus, For more information, call 762-4125 or visit

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American Repertory Ensemble, David Justin, Christine Winkler, John Welker, Carla McElhaney, Craig Hella Johnson, Jonathan Dotson, Michele Gifford, Graeme Francis

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