Theatre productions can be broadly divided into 2 categories depending on the theatre artists' purposes as they relate to an audience's perspective on reality. In representational theatre the artists strive to create a visual and performance reality on stage that tricks the audience into accepting the idea that what they are seeing is real. For the amount of time that you are are in the theatre watching the play you accept that what you are seeing is real and is happening in front of you. The audience becomes a passive viewer of the experience that is happening to the characters in the drama. From time to time the audience may respond to what is happening (laughter, applause), but, for the most part, the audience is there to watch and, hopefully, be entertained, educated, enlightened, or moved by the performance.
The artists in presentational theatre try to challenge the natural passivity of the audience by creating a moment to moment reality, forcing the viewers to actively participate in the creation of the reality. For example, in representational theatre there are normally realistic settings on stage with actors assigned only one role throughout the production. In presentational theatre the settings may not be realistic, at all, and actors may be assigned a number of roles, often shifting from role to role with only the most minimal of physical changes. The audience is challenged to keep up with what is developing on stage as the story is told. The Laramie Project, by Moises Kaufman, is an example of presentational theatre. In this play a company of 8 actors play over 100 roles, often playing 2 roles in the same scene. The actors shift roles by changing vocal characteristics, costumes, or props. For example, an actor may begin the scene as a member of the Tectonic Theatre Project, but then as the narrative developes, shift into a different character, one of the townspeople of Laramie. The change is done in full view of the audience; the actor slowly switches from an accentless voice to a "western" accent, he puts on a hat or a badge to signify the character's status in the town, he alters the way he moves about the stage to suggest changes in age. In presentational theatre these changes are done throughout a play to challenge the audience to remember that they are active participants in the production of a play. As "viewers" of the play they must use their imagination to assist the actors in creating the full scene. So, a doorway represents a house, a chair represents a living room.
In presentational theatre, epic stories can be told with a minimum number of actors and a few costumes and props. In the LaGuardia production of The Laramie Project the residents of Laramie and the members of the Tectonic Theatre Project will be portrayed by a company of only 8 actors. Each actor plays a minimum of 6 roles, often switching ages and genders within a scene. The audience will see only a bare stage, a section of fence, and a projection screen. Actors will use only what they can carry to alter the location, time, and players in a scene. Visual projections will be used to develop mood, act as narrator, and to suggest locale. The audience will use this basic structure to follow the actors as they tell the story of The Laramie Project.