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New 'Intellectual Nightlife' Venue to Bring Talks, Performances to the LES

By Allegra Hobbs | August 30, 2016 3:29pm
 The Idea Distillery launched a series of
The Idea Distillery launched a series of "parlor chats" on topics such as medicine and global politics ahead of its venue opening in January 2017.
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Idea Distillery

LOWER EAST SIDE — An “intellectual nightlife” space opening at 21 Clinton St. this winter will provide food, drinks, and an extensive program of mind-expanding talks and performances all under one roof, said the company’s founder.

A TED Talks alumnus is combining the concept of the educational lecture series with that of an evening hangout in the Idea Distillery, slated to open January 2017, where curious visitors will be able to grab a beer and enjoy an ever-rotating roster of expert speakers and artists covering a wide array of topics.

“I wanted a space where we could host events in what I’m calling intellectual nightlife — a place where people can go have drinks with their friends, have food, and hear talks on history or conversations about literature,” said founder Ben Lillie.

Lillie, a physicist with an interest in storytelling, has made a career out of combining his two passions — he worked for years at the TED organization, known for its widely shared videos of short, educational talks, and in 2010 founded The Story Collider, which produces a weekly podcast sharing personal stories about science.

But Lillie wanted a brick-and-mortar space solely dedicated to such programming, and set out to open an establishment where intellectually engaging events could be found seven days a week — he founded the Idea Distillery in January 2016, and in August signed a lease for the Clinton Street property, previously the home of the Celebration of Whimsy Theatre (C.O.W.), which shuttered in May.

And while the Idea Distillery will host traditional lectures, similar to TED Talks, the space is also dedicated to exploring new ways of sharing information, said Lillie — for example, pairing a theater director with a scientist to turn what would be a lecture into performance art. 

“TED figured out a way to make these talks interesting and accessible and wide-reaching — I think that’s great,” said Lillie. “What I think is, there are other ways of doing that and I don’t know what they are, and we need a way to experiment.”

The space will also host stand-up comedians, poets, theater companies, and experts on a variety of topics, such as history and literature, said Lillie. Some talks may feature an open question-and-answer format, where the audience will be free to question the expert of the evening.

But while the programming has an educational bent, said Lillie, the primary focus of the Idea Distillery will be creating an environment where people feel free to engage with each other and toss around their own ideas.

“I am interested in education, but I’m more interested in conversation and the intellectual life,” said Lillie. “The hope here is this turns into a space where people come to talk about ideas. Learning is part of that, but I want to turn it into a community of people who come to these talks but stay around and talk afterwards, and maybe produce new ideas.”

While maintaining much of the venue’s current theater format, Lillie will also create a space for drinking and dining — the distillery will offer wine and craft beers on tap, plus a menu that is still in the works but tentatively featuring panini and hummus plates.

The venue’s application for a beer and wine license will be reviewed on Sept. 12 by Community Board 3’s State Liquor Authority Subcommittee before going to the SLA.

In the meantime, the company has been hosting events at other locations — most recently, comedians and scientists teamed up to produce a panel and sketch show about the human brain. It has also launched a Parlor Chat conversation series, where experts discuss issues of medicine, global politics, and more.

Sign up on the Idea Distillery's website to receive updates and notices of upcoming events.