Skipping Broadway for the Bar

From Greek comedy to Elizabethan-era Shakespeare, drinking has always played a part in the experience of theater. Furthering its role, a new, immersive crop of shows has abandoned the stage for the bar and introduced alcohol as a central character.

It’s a Thursday night in Manhattan’s theater district and I’m at Quinn’s NYC Bar and Grill, watching Shakespeare. Downstairs, dudes in suits are watching sports and eating nachos. Here on the second floor, Macbeth’s shirt is ripped and soaked with Guinness and the porter has stripped down to his skivvies. Banquo, meanwhile, is completely shit-canned, having consumed one shot each of tequila, vodka, triple sec and whiskey—in rapid succession—as well as two shots of gin, a can of Guinness (shotgunned) and a few sips of “witches’ brew,” crowd-sourced from various onlookers’ glasses.

This is the Drunk Shakespeare Society. Five nights a week, five members perform, one of them knocking back five shots before the witches enter and the drama begins. It’s equal parts Coyote Ugly, modernized Macbeth, frat party and improv show.

The idea of performing Shakespeare under the influence may make traditionalists cringe, but this play-meets-bar game is bringing the bard’s stories to an entirely new audience, one more likely found at happy hour than a Broadway show. The theater nerds have finally gotten through to the jocks, art kids and everyone else in the cafeteria. All it took was a few beers, a different kind of stage and some simulated sex. Anyway, Shakespeare didn’t write exclusively to one class—his texts included literary references and dick jokes alike.

Drunk Shakespeare is just one of a number of interactive theater performances where alcohol acts as a central character, loosening up the audience and breaking down the fourth wall, that barrier between audience and actor.

The pioneer in this field was Sleep No More, the sexy, immersive acid trip of a Macbeth performance spanning five floors of the fictional McKittrick Hotel in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Before seeing the first performer, guests are ushered into the hotel’s Manderley Bar, where red velvet walls, sultry live jazz and absinthe-happy bartenders set the stage, recalibrating and transforming the audience’s reality. After a stiff drink, guests are whisked into an elevator, handed a pointy-mouthed mask–marking their new roles as part actor, part prop—and deposited into a clusterfuck of drama and hysteria. Guests are encouraged to interact with performers, move about as desired, and create their own experiences. If at any point another drink is needed to fuel the frenzy or calm the nerves, the bar is open.

The Manderley was designed alongside Sleep No More as a strategic complement rather than an afterthought or tacked-on cash cow. Unlike the requisite cheap chardonnay served at Broadway shows, the drinks here make booze an integral part of the audience’s experience.

Historically, alcohol has always played an important role in theater. The Greeks performed comedies as part of Dionysian festivals, serious multi-day affairs dedicated as an offering to the god of wine; booing was prevalent.

Centuries later, during the Protestant Reformation, an Elizabethan ban on vagabonds forced traveling acting companies to settle down, and the first permanent (and for-profit) theaters were established. These would be Shakespeare’s stages, and they catered to the rich and the poor alike.

The lowliest spectators packed in, at the foot of the stage, often swigging mead. These “groundlings” had a tendency to get rowdy; the upper classes, seated above them, might dump a glass of wine on their heads if things got out of hand. The highest rows went to the highest classes, and afforded the clearest views of the stage. Everyone else saw them, too; it was the first time that “being seen” was of value at the theater. The queen, for instance, didn’t have the best view, but everyone had the best view of her.

This valuation of theater as a status symbol began to build up that fourth wall, which was solidified in the 1800s with the advent of theatrical realism. Around the same time, the German composer Richard Wagner learned that dimming the lights was the best way to get the audience to focus their attention towards the stage. A sense of serious order was called to the theater, and that wall became all but impermeable.

When the recession hit in the late-2000s, it created a demand for lower-budget, creatively produced shows. In the face of a desolate job market, a new crop of young actors, directors and producers bypassed traditional—and insanely competitive—job opportunities to create their own scrappy league of productions. They performed for their friends and with their friends, in all sorts of places, and began to make their own rules.

Slowly, though, in the second half of the 20th century, experimental and immersive theater emerged. There was Hair in the ‘60s, where actors would walk through the audience—at times—naked, and the Theater of the Oppressed, an interactive theater movement out of Brazil that gunned for social change. Improv exploded in the ‘80s, and introduced a new sort of audience engagement.

And then came RENT in the late ’90s, which turned an antiquated opera (La Bohème) into a story that captivated a young audience. Its producers began offering student rush tickets, and many other theaters followed suit. Broadway finally began catering to a younger generation.

When the recession hit in the late-2000s, it created a demand for lower-budget, creatively produced shows. In the face of a desolate job market, a new crop of young actors, directors and producers bypassed traditional—and insanely competitive—job opportunities to create their own scrappy league of productions. They performed for their friends and with their friends, in all sorts of places, and began to make their own rules.

This trend towards theater in non-traditional spaces, such as bars, has a cost benefit too. Especially on an off night, a bar is a cheap venue; for the viewer, it’s a welcome alternative to segmenting the evening into the traditional restaurant-show-bar routine. “It’s really exciting to see an increasing number of productions turn that expectation on its head,” says Sleep No More’s Scott Braun, “while still introducing new layers and context to a ‘night at the theater.’”

Sleep No More is as mass-market as these things get, with over 100 employees staffing a warehouse in one of Manhattan’s most expensive neighborhoods—all supported by $100 tickets and $15 mood-setting cocktails that, two hours later, also aid recovery. (You may have heard rumors of a strobe-lit witch orgy that takes place deep within the McKittrick. Yes it exists, and yes you’ll want another Manhattan afterwards.)

But around the city, there are other, scaled-down cocktail-fueled performances. Bryce Norbitz, Executive Director of Tiny Rhino, “The world’s first theatrical drinking game,” explains the problem that these productions have solved. “I used to go to all these black box shows in Midtown: You sit down, and watch the show, then the lights go up and you clap and you’re like okay, where’s dinner?” So she and some friends set out to produce a show that felt like a party.

Tiny Rhino commissions six 10-minute plays monthly, and gives each playwright a list of six “elements” that will serve as drinking cues for the audience. Each time an element is acted out on stage, the audience must drink. Norbitz tells me the record number of elements in one 10-minute play was upwards of 90. (When I attended, I made it through a modest three beers, the perfect number of ice-cold $3 Miller High Lifes for a summer evening.)

Tiny Rhino’s shows are packed, mostly by 20-somethings eager for a Tuesday night activity that feels a bit more culturally elevated than heading to happy hour, and won’t leave them unacceptably hungover the next morning. There’s enough levity to laugh until your face hurts, but enough substance to respect and appreciate the show.

“Theater can be intimidating to people,” says Rhino’s producer, Danny Sharron. “Maybe it feels like high art, or it feels pretentious—so we’re trying get rid of that stigma.” Theater should feel inclusive.

And, in fact, there are productions that turn bars into all-inclusive stages—like Potion, a spoken-word opera performed by immersive theater company Stolen Chair at People Lounge, a bar in the Lower East Side. Each of the three acts begins with a “potion” developed by bartender Marlo Gamora. The actors roll out a bar cart, hand audience members a cocktail with an Alice in Wonderland-style vial and instruct guests to tip them into their cocktail glasses. Everyone toasts, and the show goes on.

Director Jon Stancato explains that turning a bar into a stage and including the audience was an exciting proposition. “We’re treating liquor as a theatrical element—like light or costume—and investing it with power,” he says. This is not theater dumbed down for a bar, but rather alcohol treated as an artistic tool. Above all, the audience is given the experience of a beautiful night out.

“We’re so used to this idea of being entertained in a hundred ways at one time,” explains Rhino’s Norbitz. As she puts it, a drink “helps engage you on multiple levels,” so even if the play hasn’t caught your attention, you’ve still been entertained. Unlike any other theatrical element, it taps into all five senses—not just sight and sound—while simultaneously lowering inhibitions. In a way, drinking draws theater back to its social roots—bringing audiences and actors closer to tearing down the fourth wall.