Donkey Show

Immersive theater mixes food, drink and environmental staging to lure auds that eschew Broadwway

Call it experiential; call it immersive; call it event theater. It’s usually a snarl of logistical challenges. There’s no set financial model for making it viable. The work itself is often impossible to describe.

And a growing number of legiters think it’s the next big thing.

Often staged in unorthodox locations and already commonplace overseas, the shows typically feature long runs, lower margins, purpose-built venues and added revenue streams — such as food and drink.

“It’s really on the cutting edge of what people want theater to become,” says producer Howard Kagan of his upcoming commercial transfer of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” a rock opera that improbably mixes Tolstoy, contempo musical idioms and an environmental staging in a Russian supper-club setting that serves pierogis and vodka. “It becomes relevant and desirable and fun for a huge array of demographics that don’t necessarily think they’ll turn out for a Broadway show.”

Adds La Jolla Playhouse a.d. Christopher Ashley, “I think this kind of work is the next huge wave of growth in the American theater.”

(Cross Section: 100% San Diego, which plays as part of California’s Without Walls Festival, is performed by 100 actors that represent the city’s exact demographic makeup.)

The La Jolla exec recently programmed the multishow Without Walls festival for later this year, following notable success for the org’s prior forays into site-specific, immersive theater. And Without Walls is far from the only indicator that such work is all the rage (see sidebar).

Among its highest-profile Stateside evangelists are Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner. Paulus (“Hair“; “Porgy and Bess”) is a.d. of Cambridge, Mass., nonprofit ART, which has had luck drawing younger crowds and promoting institutional sales with club-theater Oberon; she’s also the helmer of the current cirque-inflected Broadway revival of “Pippin” and the director of “The Donkey Show,” the discotheque “Midsummer Night’s Dream” that was an early event-theater success story. Her husband, Weiner, a co-creator of “Donkey Show” and one of the principals of entertainment event company Variety Worldwide, is a partner in “Great Comet” as well as in Gotham’s buzzy dance-theater-installation hybrid “Sleep No More.”

Still, it’s one thing for a nonprofit like ART or La Jolla to rally the funding for nontraditional work (sometimes by teaming with other nonprofits, as La Jolla did for Without Walls with the Museum of Contemporary Art and the U. of California, San Diego). It’s another thing to try to make these shows work commercially

“As you get farther and farther from a traditional theater, that’s when you have get more creative with the business model,” says Jujamcyn Theaters prexy Jordan Roth, who launched his producing career in 1999 with the six-year Gotham run of “The Donkey Show.”

Because intimacy plays a vital role in so many of these shows’ creative concepts, ticket inventory is greatly reduced compared with, say, a Broadway production. “Sleep No More,” for instance, is capped at 300 patrons a night; the new incarnation of “Comet” has a capacity of 199, up from around 80 at Ars Nova, the Off Broadway nonprofit that developed and initially produced the show in fall 2012. (Ars Nova leadership estimates the total cost for their staging, from commission through to production, was around $300,000.)

Nontraditional venues such as nightclubs can lead to real estate savings, but they come with their own set of problems. “To rent a theater is a lot of money, so in theory, alternate spaces should cost you less,” says David Binder, the Broadway producer (“33 Variations”; “A Raisin in the Sun”) whose event-theater resume includes the acrobatics-all-around show “De La Guarda” and the New Island Festival, a 2009 Gotham summer fest of hybrid arts events. “The problem is that landlords at alternate venues don’t understand what you need to make a show happen there, like a box office that’s open on a regular basis.”

One solution is to purchase or construct your own space, as producers of “Great Comet” are doing. The commercial incarnation of the show is set to play May 1-Sept. 1 in a custom-built, temporary space called Kazino in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more