Author Topic: Inspired by 'Sleep No More', More NY Bars Offer Interactive Theater Experiences  (Read 6122 times)

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Fashion & Style

Poking the Fourth Wall
Inspired by ‘Sleep No More,’ More New York
Bars Offer Interactive Theater Experiences

JULY 23, 2014

Tim Haber and Dara Swisher, left, in “Play/Date,” an “immersive theatrical nightclub experience,” at the
Manhattan bar Fat Baby.

“There are eight million people in New York City, and three million of them are drunk,” said Ben Maters, 24, an actor and bartender at Fat Baby, a multilevel bar on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side.

This wasn’t a wizened mixologist’s quip but a scripted line, declaimed while standing atop the bar as his character, Caleb, kicked off a two-hour marathon of 25 one-act plays called “Play/Date” set in the bar’s banquettes and on the bar stools on a recent Wednesday night.

Inspired by the continuing success of “Sleep No More,” the interactive theater experience based loosely on “Macbeth,” a growing cadre of the city’s bars and nightclubs has started hosting theatrical shows as a way of drumming up foot traffic during off-hours. For upstart theater professionals with limited resources, these bars also provide that most precious of assets: affordable New York real estate.

“It’s a huge opportunity for theater people because so often the venue is a challenge,” said Michael Counts, 34, the director of “Play/Date.”

Samantha Amaral in “Play/Date,” a theater piece at Fat Baby, on the Lower East Side. The
play occupies all of the bar’s three levels, where the audience wanders from scene to scene.

Young companies like 3-Legged Dog, which produced “Play/Date,” are also broadening the definition of theater and, in the process, obliterating the so-called fourth wall between the audience and the actors. As conceived by Blake McCarty with the work of 16 additional playwrights, including rising talents like Chad Beckim and Emily Chadick Weiss, the show occupies every corner of the bar’s three levels, with the audience wandering from scene to scene.

“It’s designed to be voyeuristic,” Mr. Counts said of his staging, in which the actors mingle freely with bar patrons, who spy on their awkward first dates and drunken breakups. “We’re trying to create the experience you’d have in a nightclub, but also give people access to these private moments. There’s not much artifice here.”

But behind the scenes, there is some serious stagecraft. At Fat Baby last month, a nervous production manager with a headset hustled around the bar, discreetly calling cues as small LED spotlights and a high-tech sound system served to direct the crowd’s attention whenever a new scene began. Television screens above a character would light up to display intimate text messages and racy selfies. The show’s 18 actors were also wired with Broadway-style mikes so they could be heard (sometimes barely) above the din of throbbing house music and the lively chatter of bar patrons.

Occasionally the tipsy crowd can get a little unruly, creating headaches for the up-in-the-club crew. “We have had audience members buy drinks for cast members within their scene,” Mr. Counts said.

The logistics are a little easier over at the Box, a burlesque-style nightclub on Chrystie Street on the Lower East Side, where the Pipeline Theater Company’s “Clown Bar” has its summer residency.

The play, a comic spin on film noir in which the tough guys and hardened dames are played by circus clowns, was written by Adam Szymkowicz (with songs by Adam Overett) and was originally presented at the Parkside Lounge, a divey neighborhood bar on East Houston Street. When it came time for larger digs, the producer Ari Schrier, 26, and the director Andrew Neisler, 28, looked at two dozen potential spaces and settled on the Box, which is generally known for its salacious late-night debaucheries.

At Quinn’s Bar and Grill in Hell’s Kitchen, Damiyr Shuford plays Macduff in “Drunk Shakespeare,”
another interactive production.

“We were looking for a place that had a cabaret feeling but also had the ability to handle a full-scale theatrical production, and this was absolutely the only place we saw that could do that,” Mr. Neisler said.

Though “Clown Bar” and “Play/Date” are set in bars and involve a lot of drinking as part of the show, the actors themselves are not allowed to consume alcohol. Instead, they get prop cocktails of club soda, sweet tea and, in “Clown Bar,” a nonalcoholic beer for a bad clown who shotguns the can in the middle of the audience.

That is not the case at Quinn’s Bar and Grill in Hell’s Kitchen, where getting the actors tipsy is actually part of the show. In “Drunk Shakespeare,” running until mid-October, five versatile players perform a severely slashed version of “Macbeth” (with “Sleep No More” jokes even). The original script, however, serves less as an actual play than as a jumping-off point for zany improvs and drunken challenges, especially for the one actor whose character pounds a series of shots during the 80-minute runtime.

While the Bard might barely recognize his own words, he would most likely be familiar with all the boozing, rowdiness and debauchery encouraged by the excitable cast. “Shakespeare used to be for the commoner, for the lower classes, with people drinking beer and hanging out at the Globe,” said a surprisingly lucid Christina Liu, 23, the actor that night who downed six shots of tequila (her liquor of choice). “His plays have gotten so highbrow lately, but we’re bringing it back to the lower class.”

The producer Scott Griffin, 34, conceived the show with the director David Hudson, 29, after seeing Mr. Hudson’s production company, Three Day Hangover, present “Romeo and Juliet” as a drinking game last year. Working together with the show’s rotating cast, they shaped “Drunk Shakespeare” in three weeks of rehearsal this spring, but it all changed when the alcohol and the audience came into play.

“The audience is the sixth character in the play,” Mr. Hudson said, describing how the makeup of the crowd can influence the course of the show, which ends up being about half-Shakespeare and half-improv comedy. It’s less of a drama and more of an interactive experience, with actors sometimes sitting on the audiences’ laps while the cast encourages the crowd to shout out suggestions for additional mayhem.

“It’s not about saying ‘no’ or shutting anything down, it’s about that great idea,” Mr. Hudson said. “We like crazy.”

“Play/Date” at Fat Baby, 112 Rivington Street; Sunday to Wednesday, 8 p.m., till Aug. 13. Tickets: $30.

“Clown Bar” at the Box, 189 Chrystie Street; Saturday at 7:30 p.m. till Aug. 23. Tickets from $30.

“Drunk Shakespeare” at Quinn’s Bar and Grill, 356 West 44th Street; Various show times through mid-October. Tickets: $33.

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