Marcel Steiner Is the British Theater's Smallest Wheel

updated 04/21/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/21/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Marcel Steiner has gotten his act together and taken it on the road. Now all he ever needs is a parking space. Steiner, a 6'1" 53-year-old British impresario-director-actor, is the genius behind the Smallest Theatre in the World, which he built on the sidecar of a Soviet motorbike and which plays at carnivals all over Britain. So it's not the Royal Albert Hall. Nonetheless, Steiner manages to put on half-hour drama-packed versions of theater classics with the same grand ego and gusto that motivate the greatest board treaders. "I'm a law unto myself, like Orson Welles," says Steiner. "I have the same spirit." In fact the imposing thespian is so impressed with the Welles resemblance that he plans to put on The Third Man this year. Last year's SRO production was The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and he also has done A Tale of Two Cities (complete with his own beheading), The Tempest and The Guns of Navarone (in which a 6'6" actor played a cannon and then a cliff)—all in a space that accommodates an audience of two (or three if two of them are children) and a cast of three to six.

"We bring culture to the curbside," he boasts, and who can say him nay?

Steiner's audience is crushed together on a two-ft. bench in the tacky, beige-wallpapered "auditorium," reachable through a door marked "stalls." The actors perform with their feet on the ground through a hole in the floor. Anyone in the neighborhood can watch too, so long as they don't mind standing outside. As well as constricting the space, which is six feet high and two feet wide including everything, Steiner has to truncate the material so that the central story is all that's recognizable. "A play's no good to me unless it's got a gimmick," he says. "I go for the visual potential first and throw the words in afterward as a garnish." As for what's lost by whacking and chopping the world's greatest books and plays into half an hour each, the actor-producer is philosophical. "That's the longest we can hold an audience's attention," he says.

Steiner became the Sir John Gielbad of British theater only after a lifetime of failed respectability. He was raised in Surbiton, the epitome of self-satisfied British suburbia, and tried his hand at marriage and a career as an engineer. The marriage produced three sons, one named Yorick, as in "Alas, poor..." Steiner's ham-bition, however, produced a divorce and a new career, as a carpenter, set builder and walk-on specialist at the Bristol Old Vic.

Steiner has been a theatrical Hell's Angel since 1971, when he took six fellow actors for a ride in his new motorbike and one of them suggested the sidecar was big enough to be a theater. This is his third bike-playhouse; one gave out after a tour of the U.S., and the second one burned up. When news of that tragedy got out, the Soviet manufacturers of the Neval bike gave him a free one. Somebody is probably in Siberia right now for that gesture of East-West amity.

Steiner is not your prototypical, driven performer. "Working with a director you have to be dedicated and disciplined," he complains, "and I'm none of those things." Nor are his notices often glowing. One critic described his Hunchback as "huge, hairy, shambling and compellingly repulsive." But while his arena is small, his pride is...well, fairly good-size. "You've got to be good to hold people's attention in the open air," Steiner notes. "They would just walk away if we gave a naff old show."

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