“There’s so much possibility in having real connections between audience and actors. When you don’t perform in a theatre, it breaks down the expectations that people have… [the] passive expectation to sit and watch and be entertained,” says Bree Luck, Artistic Director of Charlottesville’s Offstage Theatre. Indeed, this ethos is the motivating force behind the organization’s upcoming Barhoppers series of site-specific theatrical performances in local bars and restaurants.
Barhoppers’ booze-infused productions have been an intermittent project of Offstage Theatre since the inaugural series in 1990. Through much of the ‘90s, the annual event generated a frenzy of loyal followers who participated as actors, writers, directors, and audience members. As the Charlottesville theater community evolved, however, the series eventually went dormant in the early 2000s, returning only intermittently, the most recent attempt being in 2013. Now, Luck is spearheading the effort to revive the popular series after a few fallow years. The reason behind this continual return? Luck answered bluntly, ”Because people love it.”
The idea is simple: get a group of volunteers together to write, direct, and perform in site-specific, short plays set in local restaurants and bars. “It brings a nimbleness to the theatrical community,” said Luck, reflecting on the difficulties of sustaining a tradition venue over the long term. “In general, theaters are expensive to run, and this is as pared down as you can get. All of that comes with its challenges, but it means that we can be flexible and we can say, ‘What does the community need now?’”
With Barhoppers, this is just fun. We’re gathering together at a watering hole and telling stories and laughing and enjoying ourselves.
For the new Barhoppers series, scripts were accepted through December 2015. Cheekily, the submission guidelines advised that, “Not every play should be about sex or being drunk. Unless it’s a really good play about sex or being drunk.” Over the holidays, a committee read through the record-setting 165 submissions, ultimately selecting seven through a blind review process. According to Luck, the number of submissions for past Barhoppers events has never topped 30, so it’s clear there is a strong interest in a reboot. Though many submissions came from local writers, others were from further afield, including four of the selected scripts. The remaining three are by Charlottesville’s own Larry Goldstein, Luke Greenberg, and Joel Jones.
Auditions were held in January for the small casts—typically just two or three people. From there, rehearsals commenced, but not where you might expect: the living rooms of cast and directors, rather than a black box theatre, or say, anyplace with a stage. When it comes to the performances, they too will be stripped down, low tech, and simplified. The playwrights, directors, and actors involved with Barhoppers are all volunteers, which means that the performances can remain free to attend. “There is nothing fancy, high-tech, or pretentious about this,” saids Luck, “You can just show up.”
Each of the six nights in the series will feature seven short plays performed in situ at two downtown area restaurants, Firefly and Rapture. Luck said, “Our time is so precious. We don’t all have time to go do a twelve-week show but it’s great to have something for people who don’t have that time.” The audience will be a combination of theater fans, drinking buddies, and innocent bystanders who get caught up in the antics while dining. Since there’s no stage, the perceived division between audience and performers will begin to blur even before that second (or third) drink. “I like to be up and moving and to have audiences really engage with the work,” Luck said, hoping that the performers, “break down the barriers as much as possible.”
This strategy also enables unique collaborations, including a few that Luck hopes to make happen in the coming months through other Offstage Theatre ventures. These ideas include potential site-specific productions in venues ranging from a yoga studio to the old Albemarle County Jail. She saids, “If people have a place that they want something to happen, I think it’s great. There are so many playwrights who want to make something happen like that.”
In fact, these interests reflect Luck’s original involvement with Offstage Theatre, which began in 2003 when she moved to Charlottesville. Volunteering as an actor initially, she got more involved when she began running the Voice Project, the organization’s program for incarcerated women and adolescents. These days, she’s still involved with that project as well as other community theater work that puts her master’s degree in drama therapy to good use. “I feel like the work I do is so extreme. With Barhoppers, this is just fun. We’re gathering together at a watering hole and telling stories and laughing and enjoying ourselves,” she said.
And, if all goes as planned, Barhoppers will return to its roots as a yearly tradition. “I think there is enough excitement about it to make it annual,” saids Luck. “It’s much better for bars and audiences to have something in the dead time [of winter].”
Barhoppers will be performing at Firefly on February 28, 29, and March 1; and at Rapture on March 6, 7, and 8. For more details and tickets, visit offstagetheatre.org.