Immersive Theater Adds Food and Drink to New York Entertainment
CHELSEA — Is drinking booze ever boring? Doubtful.
But in a city of constant reinvention it’s no surprise that even this conventional leisure activity is being taken in a new direction by artists looking to provide audiences with a complete sensory experience.
The result? Food and drink are frequently becoming a central part of the entertainment — and being entertained often includes eating and drinking.
With the success of the immersive-theater production “Sleep No More,” the idea of a traditional proscenium-arch production suddenly seems antiquated.
The show, now in its third year, helped open the floodgates for other theatrical experiences like it to expand on the concept of immersive entertainment.
And the trend's not limited to live theater.
London’s Secret Cinema — an organization that adds sets, costumes and themed food and drink to the screening of a classic film — has long been rumored to show up in New York. Whispers says it's coming this summer.
Stacie Fields, food and drink producer for the immersive-theater production of "Then She Fell," credits New Yorkers' need to have everything, all at once, as the inspiration for this “all-in-one” experience.
“Especially in New York City, we have access to such amazing food and drink, it’s such a cultural center for that experience,” Fields said. “It’s combining all the things that New Yorkers love into one experience — food, drink, art, dance."
"Then She Fell"
“Then She Fell,” playing through Sept. 29 in Greenpoint, makes an intimate connection with its audience via taste and smell.
It's based on Lewis Carroll’s novel “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,” and the play’s material naturally lent itself to having participants sip and nibble throughout the show. The audience is guided through what they are told is a hospital ward and are handed drinks and foods that have a significance to the theatrical action.
Only 15 guests are admitted at a time to the venue.
“Alice always is eating and drinking,” Fields said. “But we also wanted it to be a full, sensory experience — really immersive theater like taste, smell, see, hear all of it. All of the food is informed by what the audience is seeing and experiencing.”
During a scene featuring the White Queen, viewers sample "one really specific flavor profile — we call it a white sangria," Fields said.
“It’s a playful, fun but sort of seductive scene with the White Queen and one of the Alices," she explained, adding that the "fruity and aromatic" cocktail complements the on-stage mood.
"There’s some mint so it has a playful, poppy thing — and they drink it in a little vial,” Fields said.
“Natasha, Pierre and The Comet of 1812”
This Chelsea production brings the action directly to diners' laps.
Based on a section of Leo Tolstoy's “War and Peace,” “Natasha, Pierre and The Comet of 1812” evokes the tradition of dinner theater. The cabaret-style Chelsea venue accommodates 30 tables, which are set for dinner an hour before the play begins. Audience members dine on Russian dishes such as borscht, pickled vegetables and pierogi while sipping vodka or champagne (which had just been introduced to Russia during the period in which the play is set). They are invited to continue eating and drinking throughout the show.
“They’re encouraged to do that, there’s no inhibitions around that,” said producer Howard Kagan. “The characters themselves in the show are frequently in a place where they would be drinking. They might be in a bar or at a party, so they pick up shot glasses filled with water and drink the shot. It feels very communal. It feels like they’re at a big party and the cast and the patrons are mixed together.”
"Be the Death of Me"
It tells macabre tales of New Yorkers’ experiences with death, and guests will be invited to drink throughout the production.
"Sleep No More"
New York's immersive-theater scene owes its heritage at least in part to "Sleep No More."
As an update on Shakespeare's “Macbeth,” it takes place in a multi-level Chelsea building — named the McKittrick Hotel — in which actors and actresses wordlessly dance through intricately designed sets that audience members are invited to poke through. Before entering the production, guests are ushered into the Manderley Bar, where they may purchase cocktails that are reminiscent of the play’s Jazz age setting.
Patrons are also invited to head up to the roof deck of the McKittrick Hotel, Gallow Green, where the staff serves drinks while remaining in character. Those enjoying the bar who seem willing may end up getting pulled back into the production for a five or 10-minute experience with a cast member.
This kind of immersion through the senses is the natural next step for theater, in the estimation of “1812” producer Kagan.
“There are people who don’t like traditional theater. They don’t like the idea that going to theater is like going to church,” Kagan said.
“They have to sit in their chair, they have to be quiet. There’s a certain formality associated with it. You’re all seated in rows and so forth. We find that there a lot of people coming to the show who are not traditional theater-goers.
"I think with ‘Sleep No More,’ it’s the same thing. People who want to see theater, but for whatever reason, they define themselves as being a little hipper or cooler than that.”