By GWEN OREL
For Montclair Local
Some things will always work better live: Fireworks. Orchestral music. Campfires. Theater.
During the pandemic we’ve all had the chance to experience many cultural events through our screens, and while some good things have come from it — keeping permanent records of them, allowing people to attend from far away — there is also a palpable hunger for getting together in person.
The leave no trace theatre company (the company uses all lowercase letters for its name), run by Montclairian Melissa Toomey and Arizonan Katie King, aims to embrace the “you have to be there” liveness of theater.
Its readings and plays are site-specific, meaning they are staged in nontraditional theater spaces and designed to, as Toomey puts it, have a “conversation with the place” that the audience is in.
The new company’s first reading will take place in the beer garden at Montclair Brewery, 101 Walnut St., at 6 p.m., on Sept. 19. Tickets are free, but registration is required by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Toomey, who is originally from Montclair and moved back this past summer from Arizona, began discussing the new company with King in 2019.
Toomey teaches humanities and dramatic writing at Fusion Academy and is also a teaching artist at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton; King is pursuing her MFA in creative writing and is a freelance writer and editor.
Toomey spent the past six years working in national parks and seeing the country, even living in the Grand Canyon for a year, before being, as she puts it, “sucked back into theater.”
The company’s title partly reflects the national park guidelines of connecting to the environment, on a philosophical level.
“Our relationship to our environment as humans is not a great one,” she said. “We’re trying to find what that means to us, how we relate to our environment, and the principles of being better.”
The title also reflects the special, live quality of theater, she said.
“What is it about liveness that we love so much? It’s that ephemeral thing: It’s there and then it’s gone,” she said. “It can leave no trace. We have production photos and recordings, but we don’t capture the moment the same way we do in film. Visual art is all about capturing the moment. But theater is about having the moment and then it’s gone.”
The reading series is called the “fire pit series.” Toomey said the idea came from the image of people sitting around a fire telling stories.
“Whether we have a fire or not, that’s the feel,” she said. “This year has been kind of apocalyptic in some ways, especially for theater artists. We’re going back to basics. Telling stories and coming together was the feeling I wanted to have as the core of this series.”
Having the works be site-specific, and environmental and immersive, heightens the “here today, then gone” quality of the productions, she said.
While there are some famous examples of immersive and participatory theater — Off-Broadway’s long-running “Sleep No More” or “Tony and Tina’s Wedding” — many people have never seen theater outside of a high school musical, Toomey said. Those people might not think that theater is for them.
“People who might gravitate towards other forms of entertainment and recreation don’t consider themselves theater people,” she said.
But she wonders: What if a play were to take place on a hiking trail, for instance, moving from one place to another?
“What inspires me has been experiences with things that are participatory, even being at a Renaissance fair, or a theme park. There is a sense of the audience being a participant,” Toomey said. ”That’s something that interested me, as almost a theatrical idea: You are a part of the event that you’ve shown up for.”
This first reading, of a play to be named later, will likely be a bit more traditional in its staging than others that will follow. The audience will be seated in physical chairs. Subsequent readings might actually take place around a campfire, or have the audience hike to a destination.
The company’s goal is to have two readings this fall, two in the spring and a full production in 2022.
The work will be presented here and out west.
And though the words that the actors speak will be the same, the productions will be different.
Not only would there be two different casts, but, Toomey said, the completely different geography and climate would make “something that would happen in New Jersey very different in Arizona.”
The reading series is not only a “fire pit” for the audience to come together, it is also a chance for theater artists to come together and for playwrights to hear their work out loud, performed by actors.
“As strange as it seems, there are so few opportunities to develop work in the same physical space,” Toomey said. “A lot has been done on Zoom for the past year and a half.” She looks forward to having authors and audience come together, and join a process of questions, feedback and development.
For full productions, leave no trace theatre company may also devise its own work, starting with a theme or using material drawn from fairy tales or folk tales, that “speak to us in a particular location.”
Those stories may vary differently when done in New Jersey vs. Arizona. Toomey said what feels right in the “vastly different” areas could vary.
“We can’t ignore the space that we’re in,” she said.
leave no trace theatre company
Beer garden, Montclair Brewery
101 Walnut St.
Sept. 19, 6 p.m.
To RSVP: email email@example.com