×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Feeding the Soul of Stage

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.

More Legit

  • All My Sons review

    Broadway Review: 'All My Sons' With Annette Bening

    Don’t be fooled by the placid backyard setting, neighborly small talk and father-son joviality at the start of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s blistering revival of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” starring Annette Bening and Tracy Letts. There are plenty of secrets, resentments and disillusionments ahead, poised to rip this sunny Middle Americana facade to shreds. [...]

  • A still image from The Seven

    How Magic Leap, Video Games Are Defining Future of Royal Shakespeare Company

    At the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford upon Avon, Sarah Ellis has the difficult job of figuring out where theater of the 1500s fits into the 21st century. As Director of Digital Development, a title which might seem out of place in an industry ruled by live, human performances, Ellis represents a recent seachange on [...]

  • Gary review

    Broadway Review: 'Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus' With Nathan Lane

    Nathan Lane and Kristine Nielsen, two of the funniest people on the face of the earth, play street cleaners tasked with carting away the dead after the civil wars that brought down the Roman Empire. Well, a job’s a job, and Gary (Lane) and Janice (Nielsen) go about their disgusting work without complaint. “Long story [...]

  • Laurie Metcalf, John Lithgow'Hillary and Clinton'

    Why John Lithgow Worried About Starring in Broadway's 'Hillary and Clinton'

    When Lucas Hnath first conceived of “Hillary and Clinton” in 2008, he was writing for and about a very different America. Now, a total reimagining of the show has made its way to Broadway with Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in the titular roles. At the opening on Thursday night, the cast and creatives talked [...]

  • Three Sisters review

    London Theater Review: 'Three Sisters'

    Ennui has become exhaustion in playwright Cordelia Lynn’s new version of “Three Sisters.” The word recurs and recurs. Everyone on the Prozorov estate is worn out; too “overworked” to do anything but sit around idle. Are they killing time or is time killing them? Either way, a play often framed as a study of boredom [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Took 12 Years to Get to Broadway, but It's More Relevant Than Ever

    When “Hadestown” was first staged as a tiny, DIY theater project in Vermont, those involved could never have predicted that it was the start of a 12-year journey to Broadway — or how painfully relevant it would be when it arrived. At Wednesday night’s opening at the Walter Kerr Theatre, the cast and creatives discussed [...]

  • Hillary and Clinton review

    Broadway Review: Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in 'Hillary and Clinton'

    If anyone could play Hillary Clinton, it’s Laurie Metcalf – and here she is, in Lucas Hnath’s “Hillary and Clinton,” giving a performance that feels painfully honest and true. And if anyone could capture Bill Clinton’s feckless but irresistible charm, that would be John Lithgow – and here he is, too. Who better to work [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content