×

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

  • Because of Winn Dixie review

    Regional Theater Review: 'Because of Winn Dixie,' the Musical

    Watching the musical “Because of Winn Dixie” at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Conn., it’s hard not to think of another show that premiered in the same regional theater 43 years ago. It, too, featured a scruffy stray dog, a lonely-but-enterprising young girl and a closed-off daddy who finally opens up. But “Winn Dixie,” based [...]

  • MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOWby

    Off Broadway Review: 'Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow'

    There’s something about Anton Chekhov’s whiny sisters that invites comic sendups of “Three Sisters” like the one Halley Feiffer wrote on commission for the Williamstown Theater Festival. Transferred to MCC Theater’s new Off Broadway space and playing in the round in a black box with limited seating capacity, the crafty show feels intimate and familiar. [...]

  • the way she spoke review

    Off Broadway Review: 'The Way She Spoke' With Kate del Castillo

    Since the 1990s, scores of women in Juarez, Mexico have been mutilated, raped, and murdered at such a rate that some have called it an epidemic of femicide—killing women and girls solely because they are women. Isaac Gomez’s play “the way she spoke,” produced Off Broadway by Audible and starring Kate del Castillo, confronts the [...]

  • HBO's 'SUCCESSION

    Brian Cox Playing LBJ in Broadway Run of 'The Great Society'

    Brian Cox will play President Lyndon Johnson in the Broadway run of “The Great Society,” playwright Robert Schenkkan’s follow-up to “All the Way.” The role of Johnson, a crude, but visionary politician who used the office of the presidency to pass landmark civil rights legislation and social programs, was originally played by Bryan Cranston in [...]

  • Paul McCartney Has Penned Score for

    Paul McCartney Has Been Secretly Writing an 'It's a Wonderful Life' Musical

    The pop superstar who once released a movie and album called “Give My Regards to Broad Street” really does have designs on Broadway, after all. It was revealed Wednesday that Paul McCartney has already written a song score for a stage musical adaptation of the 1946 Frank Capra film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The [...]

  • The Night of the Iguana review

    West End Review: 'The Night of the Iguana' With Clive Owen

    If Tennessee Williams is the poet laureate of lost souls, none of his characters as are off-grid as the restless travelers trying to make it through his little-seen 1961 play, “The Night of the Iguana.” Holed up in a remote Mexican homestay, its ragtag itinerants live hand-to-mouth, day by day, as they seek refuge from [...]

  • Moulin Rouge Broadway

    Listen: The Special Sauce in Broadway's 'Moulin Rouge!'

    There are songs in the new Broadway version of “Moulin Rouge!” that weren’t in Baz Luhrmann’s hit movie — but you probably know them anyway. They’re popular tunes by superstars like Beyoncé, Adele and Rihanna, released after the 2001 movie came out, and they’ll probably unleash a flood of memories and associations in every audience [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content