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I was looking for Theater of the Awkward founder Max Alper at the Evanston Barnes & Noble coffee shop one day last week when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a pleasant young woman with wavy red hair smiling at me. I flashed a cordial smile back, continuing to cast about for Alper until it hit me: this friendly stranger was my man. “Max?” Sure enough, it was him–a sweet-faced, copper-eyed kid in clown-plaid pants, extending a hand tipped in chipped cherry polish. Ah, to be 18, talented, and just androgynous enough to be fashionable. We took a table and he began to tell me about his all-teen home theater, where the shows are free, the actors play themselves, and the audience is part of the action.

(If this were a Theater of the Awkward bit, Alper’s little sister would come in right now with a title card. She would hold it up so everyone could read it. The card would say something like “The Giant Vacuum Cleaner.” Then she would leave and Alper would start talking directly to the audience, confiding how he lived in Israel for five years as a kid and never quite fit in when he came back to the States; how he was raised on Monty Python by a set of incredibly benign parents; how he accidentally discovered a passion for theater. Then he would be “sucked up.”)

“I was never interested in theater at all,” Alper said. “I always thought it was irrelevant, kind of stupid. But in late ’96 I saw a performance by Anita Loomis at the Neo-Futurarium called Female Deviations. It just totally shocked me, blew me away as to what was possible. She wasn’t fake about anything. She was standing up there telling you exactly what she felt. I was so amazed I wanted to do my own show. I wrote one in 12 minutes: Control, Beauty, Ego. The show was at my house–where else was a 17-year-old with no theater experience gonna perform? A woman did some folk stuff before me and there was a band that played after. About 30 people showed up, and it just totally amazed me that they liked it. Soon I had a group of people who wanted to do stuff with me. None of us had any theater experience or knew what we were doing, so we called ourselves Theater of the Awkward.

“Our first show was Eat Me: A Million Plays About Food. We had it at my house. This was April of ’97. We kept having shows about every five weeks at people’s houses. Plenty of times people have offered us a theater, but we think we’d lose something. When you’re in a house, squashed in a room with 70 other people, you really feel like something’s going on–there’s a magic. The plays have a loose structure, but anything could happen. It’s extremely honest theater. The people we are onstage are the people we are offstage. And the audience–people tell me that they can let down their inhibitions, really take in what’s going on and be a part of it. All our shows are one-offs, something that’s only happening once. It’s like the energy at a concert; the only people who will ever see that show are the ones who are sitting right next to you.”

A year after it began, Theater of the Awkward performed at an alternative theater festival at the University of Pennsylvania. Last August the Awkward staged its own festival in an Evanston backyard. Nine local groups participated, including Alper’s inspiration, the Neo-Futurists. Alper, who graduated from high school this past spring, took this year off, but he’ll leave for college with his girlfriend, Katy, next fall. That could bring the curtain down on the Awkward, at least in its present form. Right now, however, he’s rolling up the carpets, marking the “performance area” with duct tape (let’s not call it a stage–too distancing), and having something resembling a rehearsal for his current production, Gimmie Lots o’ Presents: A Million Plays About Holidays. The program will include music by Micki Croisant and Slava, Will & Devon. It’s scheduled for 7:30 Saturday at Alper’s Evanston home. No charge, but donations are accepted. Call 847-677-6372 for reservations. –Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Max Alper photo by J.B. Spector.