Selling Out With Randy Weiner

Producer/playwright Randy Weiner, photo courtesy of Randy Weiner.

Producer/playwright Randy Weiner, photo courtesy of Randy Weiner.

Randy Weiner and his partners are at the forefront of immersive theater, creating productions like Sleep No More, which takes place in 93 different rooms that audiences can wander through freely, and Queen of the Night, an interactive performance in a formerly abandoned nightclub. The playwright/producer and his team constantly strive to do something different – and it’s working. Here he explains what makes his shows so successful and also why he might be making the switch back to traditional theater.

Jim McCarthy: So you’re on a roll! Talk to us about the last few projects you’ve done and why you think they’ve been so popular.

Randy Weiner: My current projects are rolling out The Box around the world; the never ending expansion of the McKittrick Hotel, home of Sleep No More; and the opening of Queen of the Night at the Diamond Horseshoe in the Paramount Hotel in Times Square.

All of these are variations on the theme of recontextualizing theater. The Box puts theater in a nightclub; Sleep No More puts theater in a 100,000 square foot immersive art installation; and Queen of the Night casts audiences as guests at a lavish dinner party. In creating each of these projects, the key is to challenge as many rules as possible about what theater can be. In raising money to produce these, I am told many times that what I am doing is not how theater works, and my response is always: “Yes! These projects are NOT how theater works — which is exactly why these shows WILL work so well!”

Audiences are hungry for new experiences. In my shows, guests can’t just sit back in a seat with their arms crossed and render judgment. My audiences lean into the event, trying to figure out “the rules.” They are engaged and intrigued (and especially in the case of The Box, sometimes appalled!), because whether or not they “like” the show, it is a truly different experience.

On Broadway, you’re in a five-block radius competing against 40 shows that are more or less delivering the same product. Lights down on audience; lights up on stage; audience laugh and applaud in dark; lights down on stage; lights up on audience; audience gets up and leaves. The possibilities of audience and performer interaction are so vast. I’ll bet every day on the audience’s desire to experience some of these different possibilities. Not to mention, who wants to be one of 40 different businesses essentially selling the same product? That doesn’t sound like a good business proposition to me, and the financials bear this out, only one of five Broadway shows make a profit. By not following the rules, I end up with the opposite success ratio — four out of five succeed!

A scene from Sleep No More. Photo credit: sleepnomorenyc.com

A scene from Sleep No More. Photo credit: sleepnomorenyc.com

JM: You spend a lot of time creating immersive experiences, but do you think a traditional “sit in your seat and watch quietly” kind of show has a future?

RW: Absolutely. Or at least I hope so. There are so many traditional shows that I love, and there seems to be a never ending supply of intelligent, talented people who are passionate about creating this type of traditional show. So there doesn’t appear to me to be any end in sight.

JM: What have you learned about why people go out to an actual in-person, inconvenient, expensive event as opposed to either staying home or doing something less expensive or less hassle? I often say in the live entertainment biz, we have a huge convenience gap to overcome. How is this best done?

RW: At the core of every project I do are two questions: Is it different from anything else in the marketplace? Is it of the highest quality? What drives someone to come to one of my shows is word-of-mouth like this: “It’s not like anything else I’ve ever seen.” “I can’t describe it.” “You just have to go see it.”

As a creator and producer of live performances, I consider myself to be in an enviable position when it comes to understanding the “convenience gap” issue. I am a very lazy person living in a city with a mind boggling number of options for going out and spending your money. I know most people who work in entertainment and nightlife tend to have gone into this business because they love seeing shows and going out. I am not like these people. I’d rather sit at home in my underwear and watch sports on TV or surf the Internet. To get me to put on clothes and leave my house what you’re doing has to be so awesome that I have never seen anything like it. And I am talking about something “deeply different,” not just a “little different” or “better than” such as this year’s best Broadway show. Every year there is a best Broadway show, and as I described earlier, from my point of view, they are all basically the same.

“To get me to put on clothes and leave my house what you’re doing has to be so awesome that I have never seen anything like it.” — Randy Weiner

A lot of people bemoan living in a place like NYC, if you’re in the business of creating live events. There is so much going on here; the competition for audience is insane. I love it. It pushes me to create something really original and gives me confidence there is an audience that has already seen the best of everything and is ready to experience something different.

Which brings me to my second rule: once I have a different idea, I have to make sure to express that idea in the most complete manner. It’s critical that I put sufficient time, money, and talent behind producing it to make sure the idea is as developed as possible. You can have a great recipe, but unless you get great ingredients and leave enough time for baking, it’s not going to work. I prefer to overspend on my projects and overstock them with talent. They cost more to create, but I feel it is a less risky investment to go over budget and end up with a great product, then to lowball and not end up with a quality offering. If I have something great, I’ll figure out how to sell it and make back my investment. If I don’t have a good product, it’ll never work.

JM: In five years, what do you think is going to be happening with “immersive” shows? Will there be more of them? Will it ever become the default form?

RW: I have no idea. I’m not good at predicting the future. Some people are. I’m not. I only think about what the current state of the world is, and what I think would be a cool thing to create now. I am such an ultra-short term thinker, that when I’m making whatever project I am working on, I will actually switch directions in the middle of building it out. It scares the crap out of some of my investors, but others love that I am so sensitive to market forces in the moment. I always say in the live performance business the moment is all you have. If you make something that will work 5 years from now, it’s not like you can put it in your closet and pull it out in 5 years. If it doesn’t work right now, you’re dead.

A scene from Queen of the Night. Photo credit: queenofthenightnyc.com

A scene from Queen of the Night. Photo credit: queenofthenightnyc.com

JM: If you were to give advice to other live entertainment marketers that perhaps have less control of the content than you do, what would you offer? Or in genres where the content kinda is what it is?

RW: I think innovation is happening all the time everywhere. That is the joy and horror of being in any business, you ALWAYS need to innovate. On the surface, in the 40 years I’ve been eating Honey Smacks, it’s pretty much been the same great cereal (at least I think it’s great). But when I was young it was called “Sugar Smacks.” Then sugar went out of vogue, and they became “Honey Smacks.” Then for a little while, they were just “Smacks.” Now they’re back to being “Honey Smacks.” Do they even have honey in them? Why is a frog a mascot for a “honey” cereal? I remember for a while there was a bear involved.  The bear seemed to make more sense because of the honey angle. But all the naming and mascots aside, I just enjoy the cereal which like I said hasn’t changed, but meanwhile a lot of marketers seem to have been doing a deal of work over the past 40 years responding to an ever-shifting market place.

JM: What else should we know? Obviously, you’re staying a little bit ahead of the crowd. What’s next that we should be thinking about?

RW: Frankly, as a person who makes “immersive” shows, I get a little annoyed by the whole concept of an immersive theater trend. Immersive theater is such a massively broad categorization. When the press reduces it to a monolithic trend, that doesn’t really make sense to me. The beauty of immersive theater is that nothing about the audience-performer relationship is taken for granted. So every immersive experience can be completely different and original. To me, by definition, making things that are different and original is the opposite of a trend. I consider it my job to work in the opposite direction of trends. So if immersive is now a trend, I need to start thinking about going back to proscenium shows. That sounds like a flippant joke, but I’m actually serious!

More about Randy Weiner: He is a producer and playwright, hailed as “the leading impresario of nontraditional theater in New York” by the New York Times, and “a mad genius of nightlife” by The Wall Street Journal.

With Partners Simon Hammerstein and Richard Kimmel, Weiner created the theater nightclub, The Box (first in New York, now also in London), for which he continues to serve as a Managing Partner. With Hammerstein, Weiner created The Box’s sister nightclub, The Act, in Dubai. Their new food-theater concept, Queen of the Night, recently opened at The Diamond Horseshoe at The Paramount Hotel in New York City.

With partners Jonathan Hochwald and Arthur Karpati, Weiner produced the Drama Desk Award-winning theater experience “Sleep No More” at the formerly abandoned McKittrick Hotel. Weiner and his partners have gone on to restore The McKittrick Hotel to include a jazz club, Manderley Bar; a club theater, The Heath; and a roof garden restaurant, Gallow Green.

With his wife, Tony Award Winning Director Diane Paulus, Weiner created “The Donkey Show,” a disco adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that has been produced in New York, London, Madrid, Geneva, Edinburgh, Helsinki, Seoul, and throughout the United States.

With Jeff Beacher, Weiner created the hit club theater extravaganza Beacher’s Madhouse, which has run at the Supper Club in Times Square, The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, and currently at The Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles.

Weiner is the creator and Executive Producer of OBERON, the theater­ nightclub that is the second stage at A.R.T. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Weiner has worked as a designer for Cirque du Soleil on multiple occasions, and recently served as the dramaturg for their new touring tent show “Amaluna.” Weiner has also collaborated with MIT Media Lab composer Tod Machover to create the opera Death and the Powers, a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize.

Weiner serves on the Advisory Committee on the Arts at Harvard University and has lectured on theater at Harvard, Columbia University, Barnard College, New York University, Yale University, and TEDxBroadway.

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