When Theater and Nightlife Merge, Everyone Wins
“Sleep No More” is an insane, interactive theater experience. Situated inside the (fictitious) McKittrick hotel, producers are putting Manhattan’s Club Row (West 27th Street between 10th and 11th avenues) back on the relevancy map with their over-the-top creation. Approximately 100,000 square feet of space — much of which was repurposed from closed clubs such as Home and Guest House — was converted into a stunning 1930s replica of a hotel; a live, dark, sexually charged version of Macbeth plays out within. The audience stares from the corners of various rooms, clad in “Eyes Wide Shut” style masks, which must remain on at all times. Even during the orgy scene.
"Sleep No More" photo courtesy of Yaniv Schulman.
The superb acting aside, the ability to interact with the actors noted and the level of fear that steadily rises as guests wordlessly (one of the only mandates of the show) wind their way through this dimly lit fantasy world acknowledged, one of the more interesting aspects of the show is its partial foundation and development in nightclubs. That’s because of Randy Weiner, who had a large hand in the development and execution of “Sleep No More.” The fascinating entertainment veteran is no stranger to bringing theatre into clubs. A partner in The Box on Manhattan's Lower East Side and co-owner of Oberon in Boston, Weiner shares why theater performances within nightclubs are smart options for operators to try.
Nightclub Confidential (NCC): When you started in nightlife, did you know you always wanted to have a performance element to your shows?
Randy Weiner: I came to nightlife from a strong theater background. That’s why The Box is my favorite. [My partner] Simon Hammerstein, he is Broadway. Given his family, his breadth of theater is astounding. Richard Kimmel, our other partner, his pedigree is from Wooster Group, an experimental theater group. What we discovered at The Box was a great clientele comes to your space and they’re very regular. The genius from a nightclub standpoint when you create a show, that’s not only your promotion but it’s also promotion people will pay for. You can easily get $40 a ticket. And they’ll pay for drinks and everything else.
NCC: If you’re in that nightclub setting doing performances, do they inherently have to be sex-driven to be able to keep the interest of the club-goer?
Weiner: The sex element, as anyone in nightlife knows, is what makes people drink like crazy. It’s what sends bar tabs through the roof. Many shows I’ve done haven’t had that sex element. If I do a Greek tragedy, we notice a $10 per-person spend vs. $25 when we do a sexual show. But there are two levels at play here: There’s what you put on the stage and what the excitement level of the audience is. You can do simply physically outrageous things, things which may make you squeamish; but for us it’s all part of getting you viscerally excited. So it doesn’t have to be "all sex, all the time."
NCC: What are the challenges associated with doing acts in a booming nightclub?
Weiner: It’s hard to do verbal stuff. Whatever you’re doing has to be so captivating that — in a situation where all the seats aren’t locked in and you don’t have the rule of quietness — people will pay attention to it. Despite everything working against you: drinks are coming down, people walking up and down the aisles, your friend is talking, your phone is going off, et cetra. The act has to be so interesting that you have to stop and pay attention to it.
"Sleep No More" photo courtesy of Alick Crossley.
NCC: Which may explain why nudity and sexual acts help. It’s hard to ignore a naked woman writhing around on stage.
Weiner: Yes and no. I’ve toured shows with Heineken in 20 cities for the last three years. We’ll play Austin, [Texas], Dallas, [Texas], Phoenix and the like, and I bring a show that’s not as outrageous as The Box’s because a major liquor sponsor cares about things like no showing the curve of the butt and no underboob should be visible. But people still love it. And it does well, financially.
NCC: So there’s something for every level of the operator’s level of comfort?
Weiner: Jeff Beacher and I started the “Madhouse” in NYC’s Supperclub and now it’s at the Roosevelt Hotel in LA. We did it big out in Vegas at the Hard Rock right before LA, so take Cirque du Soleil out there. Beacher’s Madhouse, The Box and Cirque du Soleil are all at the same caliber of performance. The difference is at Cirque, they’re wearing a unitard; at Beacher’s, they’re in a cheerleader outfit; and at The Box, we take off their top. In a way, they’re all related. It’s all circus. It’s captivating and works without language.
NCC: If an operator does choose to start a show like one of yours, how often does it need to change and evolve?
Weiner: It doesn’t. You’re sitting in different spots each time so you’re having a new experience, even though what you’re seeing may be the same. Besides, if you start doing this, what you’ll find is people are desperate to come there and do weird shows and nightclub acts, so you’ll start having options to do different things quickly. Plus you can stack shows by having one at 8 p.m. and one at 11, which doubles your take for the night.
NCC: Do you ever think, "What’s the weirdest thing I can possibly conceive?" and then try to pull it off?
Weiner: I say this with great pride, but I think everything I do is just that. Take "Sleep No More." Who in their right mind would do a multimillion-dollar production in a 100,000 square foot space for only 400 people at a time?