Randy Weiner is an American playwright, producer and theater/nightclub owner. Weiner co-wrote the Off-Broadway musical The Donkey Show, and, as one-third of EMURSIVE, produced the Drama Desk Award-winning New York premiere of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More. He is co-owner of NYC “theater of varieties” The Box and The Box Soho.
Elizabeth Doyle: What inspired you to bring Sleep No More to New York?
Randy Weiner: What inspired me? Well I have worked doing theatre that people in New York call “downtown theatre,” “experimental theatre,” all sorts of names. It sounds, I guess, I don’t know what it sounds like, it sounds very artistic. But really what interests me is when things that are very experimental, downtown, progressive can crossover to a bigger market. I sort of tread a line between wanting everyone to love me and wanting to do something very idiosyncratic and groundbreaking. I had my ideas about what would make an interesting show…and I’d done my own immersive experimental shows in nightclubs and on beaches actually in Wisconsin. All these strange, yeah, we’ve done all these sort of things…in like Michigan actually, we did this whole version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” So we did all of these sort of interesting relationships between audiences and the performers. That’s what gets me excited is to explore that relationship. So, I heard about Punchdrunk from my now partner on this project, Mr. Arthur Karpati, and he had a friend who mentioned this group, and Arthur knew that I was interested in this kind of theatre. “Have you ever heard of a group called Punchdrunk?” And I was like, “No, tell me about them.” And he didn’t really know much about them. He just said, “Oh, I heard they’re really cool.” So I researched them and I was like, “Oh my god. They’re really doing, sort of, what I’ve always fantasized.” ‘Cause they had all these elements the masks, the size of it, taking inspiration from some great text and other sources, but juxtaposing them together. And, you know, I could go on and on. So I happen to be going to London and I reached out to them cause their stuff was already sold out. I had no idea that they were a big deal. So I’m bummed that they’re all sold out, and I’m reaching out over and over again to these guys and I know they’re busy making their show, and then finally Felix, the director, got back. And he was like “Yes.” And I was like, “You know, I forgot we made a connection. I did The Donkey Show.” And he was like, “Yes I saw The Donkey Show. It was one of the few interesting shows that I saw in New York.” I was like, “Great.” So, he got me a ticket and I went to this crazy place. I had to take a commuter rail. But for me, you know, being a tourist in London, the whole thing was very exciting just because you were going on this journey. But to get there you had to walk up this hill. But first I walked up the wrong hill. Then I walked up this hill into the middle of this, what seemed like this suburban town, and suddenly there’s this huge line, and you get in this line, and they give you a mask, and I had no idea what I was going into. I had no idea. You know, they put you in a cape. And no one’s saying anything to you. And they just release you. And I was like, “What the…” Also, just already being, you know, when you’re a tourist you’re already discombobulated. So this was such a wonderfully…it was just a wonderful. I mean it’s what makes being a tourist so exciting is you see things new. Because, I didn’t know…I had no idea where I was in London, and I had no idea what I was supposed to do at this place.
ED: Right. So it was an experience within an experience.
RW: Yes. So you know I just loved it. I loved the freedom of it, I loved the detail of it, the aesthetic of it, and then I met Felix the next day, and I was like, “Oh my god. This is fantastic. I want to bring this to America”. So we started this relationship. And tons of people, well I say tons, there were definitely a bunch of people who had beaten me to the punch and seen this before and were trying to bring it to America. But I think I had this real advantage because I had this guy Arthur, who I mentioned. ‘Cause Arthur was a real estate guy. And the problem with all us theatre people I find—this is my little trick with everyone—is theatre people try to do everything. But, if you’re trying to do something in real estate, get a real estate partner as your producer. So, Arthur and I became partners to put this thing together, and he found this incredible place with an incredible lease in New York, with a landlord that was very interested in supporting something new and exciting. Just because, you know, you’ll meet landlords like that…are interested in stepping out of the normal landlord track, and not trying to rent their place to Oprah Winfrey, but you know, are interested in trying different things with their space. But they took a risk on us. And this was four years in the making, from the moment I saw that show to when it finally came to fruition. Then in the interim, it went to Boston ‘cause we did a version of it at ART, American Repertory Theatre, a smaller version. So, it was a long process. And it’s one of those things where, obviously, it was worth it, and it’s what it needed. Because it was so out of the mold of any kind of, quote-unquote “show.” I use quote-unquote ‘cause I’m not really sure what it is. Is it an art installation? Is it a dance piece? Who knows what it is. So that’s a very long-winded answer to your question.
ED: No, that’s great. Thank you. And you answered some of my other questions in the process as well or started to touch on them. In terms of the collaborative process between EMURSIVE and Punchdrunk, how did that work, in terms of the move to New York over that period of 4 years?
RW: I think, there’s a perception sometimes that artists are just demanding, and illogically so. But I think what makes Felix, in particular, extraordinarily successful, is that—even though he’s asking for something, which is completely insane and unrealistic, 100,000 square feet in a city like New York, to do a show where you walk around in a mask, you know, it’s kind of a crazy concept—he was very realistic about the building blocks to make that happen: budget things, building things. When you’re dealing with essentially a found space, it’s not like it’s just a blank canvas, so you’re constantly collaborating, especially on something that’s so real estate based or real estate-inspired. I think he was also surprised how flexible we were. I think we had this interesting collaboration that really wouldn’t be like any normal theatrical collaboration. You know, you wouldn’t say, “Well, I want to do West Side Story.” And then he’s like “Well, West Side Story doesn’t work in this theatre…let’s do Wicked” and I’d be like “Okay.” You know? There was kind of an openness because we were just doing something that, in a way, no one ever had done before in New York and on a scale that no one in the world had ever done. I think that was the exciting thing, because, I think we wanted, I wanted to say to him—‘cause I had met him so many times, and he was like, “I wish we could have done this, I wish I could have done that, but we couldn’t for this reason.” And I was like, “I want to not have those constraints as much as possible.” You know, we have a floor where there’s a street, a street as if it’s in a town with little shops on both sides and that was something that they’ve always wanted to make, but we were able to make that happen.
ED: That’s great. It’s amazing how much you can do when you’re able to find the right space for the right piece. Did you anticipate Sleep No More to be this successful in New York and what factors do you believe have led to its success and its continued success?
RW: I’ve been doing theatre in New York in this sort of marketplace and owned nightclubs. There’s a venue I own called The Box, for example. I’ve done events. I’ve done so many things in this sort of progressive, theatrical: what’s an audience, what’s a performer, how can they interact in different ways. I was extremely confident to the point that I think that was thing that I think overwhelmed them. “I guarantee you there’s an audience and once more I know exactly who they are and how to reach them.” ‘Cause that’s the group that I feel like I’ve been working with and developing them, and they’ve been developing me. The more that there are, the more you can try interesting things and you have the resources, and also you have people to come see your work, and then you start making more work. It’s like this great, virtuous circle. So, I think I was extremely confident otherwise I wouldn’t have worked on it for four years because it’s a massive project. And you know raising the money and the whole thing: I would say to these people, “listen this is going to be amazing like nothing anyone’s ever seen before, and I really think it’s going to work.” I think having done even The Donkey Show, I mean, for six years in that neighborhood, I was like listen, I know this neighborhood, I know everything about this audience. This is New York City, the biggest, hungriest theatre market in the world. A place that even, forget about the people who live here, the tourists coming through here. This show can work for people who don’t speak English, you know there were just so many obvious sorts of logical reasons, besides the fact that I just had sort of that great gut instinct. I think you’re lucky in your life, where if you get married, let’s say, and you have the gut instinct that this should be your spouse. Kind of like that. I was like, “Uhh, this is IT. This is great.”
ED: You knew.
RW: The whole time you’re just like…like you know every second I’m just so happy and confident and excited to share it with people. Confident, not that whether people will think it’s good or bad, whatever that means, but just that this is something that they should see…something different: something that will take them out of their normal routine or make them see theatre, life, a different way. I just knew that part. And even if, even if they ‘re like, “I hate it. There was no story that I could get…” You know, the negatives even are exciting because it makes people stop and think about; well what do I want when I go to theater?
ED: Right, because they’re thinking about it and that’s the point.
RW: Exactly, exactly. And that’s worth it because so many shows, they’re just either good or bad. They’re trying to tell a story, trying to make you cry, trying to make you identify with the characters, all these different things. And either they did it well or not so well. Or either you liked it or you didn’t like it, but this is just like wow, the world can be a totally different place.
ED: So most of the advertising for Sleep No More has been through word of mouth. Was this a deliberate marketing strategy on your part?
RW: Listen, I have all my great theories that I could talk ad nauseam about; about the best kind of marketing. And the best to me, absolutely the best kind of marketing is the show. It drives me crazy when I look at a Broadway budget and they’re spending all this money on the marketing, and I have this sad feeling like, why didn’t they spend this money on the show, ‘cause marketing is only going to take you so far. Because at the end of the day, if people go and they want to talk about and tell their friends that’s what makes it work and, I mean, in the mid-term and the long-term. In the short-term, sure, you can get people excited with a marketing campaign, let’s say there’s a star in it or whatever, but if you’re not doing something that makes people want to tell their friends to see it, I personally don’t want to be doing it. If you are doing something that is so differentiated, so extraordinary, then you don’t need to buy an ad, and frankly how do you buy an ad for something that’s indescribable? ‘Cause my favorite thing is when people think “I can’t describe it, you have to go.” That is literally my dream audience interaction. In that, like I’m saying, is the death of any marketing campaign you try because what am I going to do, say “It’s the greatest play?” Well, it’s not a play. It’s the greatest walk-around masked entertainment? It’s not just that. You know what I mean? So I think that’s one of the things I love about it is that you can’t do an advertising campaign for it, and we’ve never spent a penny on an ad for the show. So we put all that money into the show.
ED: Which is probably one of the reasons that it’s been so successful because you haven’t had marketing. Everything’s been word of mouth. You haven’t tried to put it in a box and say this is what it is. Because you can’t.
RW: That’s important also. Because I always say the marketing is part of the story. And that’s the big problem: you can have a great marketing campaign and then have a show that’s not great and that’s the worst feeling. ‘Cause you’re all excited to see the show and then the show gets here and it’s like wow. I’ve seen some picture or an ad that’s so exciting, and then the show is not that at all, and that’s a horrible thing to do to a person. So you’re right. I agree with you. Like I said, this is a humongous discussion because there is a whole level of it that does make it have more legs because people can really be proud of their association with the show ‘cause I’m not trying to force it down your throat. I’m asking you if you saw the show do you want to tell other people about it? Do you want to be the salesperson? You know what I mean? It switches that relationship from being like, “Hey, I’m selling this at you…See it! See it!,” screaming at you, “See it! See it!” that now can be utilized: you’re the one that gets to say to your friends “See it! See it!”
ED: Right. So instead of being desensitized by marketing campaigns, it’s the exact opposite.
RW: It’s interesting because I meet a lot of marketing people and they often send Broadway people: they come say to me, “How did you do it? How did you create a show that needed no advertising? How did you come up with a campaign of that?” I’m like: it’s the show, it’s the product, it’s the product, it’s the product.
ED: Right. And it’s you having confidence in the product.
RW: Exactly. Exactly. Well trust me. It was the funniest thing ‘cause when we were about to open, we had some of our investors—well more traditional theatre investors—they started freaking out ‘cause ticket sales were obviously very low. And they’d be like, “We have to advertise.” and I was like, “We can’t advertise because we’re going to mess up the whole thing.” What are we going to tell them? It’s all the stuff I said to you. We’re going to tell them the wrong thing. We’re going to, you know, be screaming at them. I don’t want to do that. And they were like, “But we don’t have any tickets sold.” I was like, “Well, of course we don’t have any tickets sold…no one knows about it.” That’s the crazy thing. You know when you’re selling tickets before, no one knows about it. So what are you selling? You’re selling a fantasy anyway. When a fantasy collides with a reality and it’s not a match, there’s nothing worse than that. Especially, the worst thing when you do something new. But what was amazing was when I brought in all these marketing people, their first question would be “What’s my marketing budget?” I’d be like “Zero.” We don’t market like that. We do events. We build community. We have all these things that we do: once a month, we do a community event. Like, we’ll have a Halloween party or a New Year’s Eve party or a birthday party. So that’s the kind of stuff we do and that’s how we get the word out. We get more people. You know, we remind people we’re here. We give people a chance to connect with other people who love the show to remind them to talk about it: things like that. It’s developing a community. It’s not just throwing out a message. You know, scatter shot. So it’s a very different way to market. And it’s funny ‘cause this guy—there’s a bunch of marketers who are doing it—obviously on the Broadway scene, but he’s always like—whenever he sees something––: “You zag while everyone else zigs,” and I think that’s part of it too. Just being different. If everyone is ziging, then zag. So much of the Broadway marketing is you know not-for-profit, big not-for-profits. Everyone does the same thing. So how are you ever going to stand out? Hi, this is Lincoln Center, Hi, this is Manhattan Theatre Club. Hi, this is Public Theater. Okay you’re all the same.
ED: In your opinion, do you think you could ever do or would you ever have interest in doing a production like this on Broadway?
RW: Well, it’s interesting, because we’re going to open this coming fall, a place on Broadway. And it’s in the basement of the Paramount Theatre, so it’s on 46th and Broadway. And it’s going to be this very progressive experience. Again I’m interested in experiences because that’s what people talk about, because we don’t have experiences. Mixed with food and art and circus: it’s going to be really cool. So, I think I’m going to try it. So, I think I’m going to hold onto all the things and people are like you can’t do that you’re on Broadway, but I think we can. And I think if we did it the other way, we wouldn’t stand out. Because, again, the product stands out so much, so let the marketing stand out, so people know that they’re really experiencing something different.
ED: How do you see the future of immersive theatre as a form?
RW: Like I said, I’m interested in people having experiences, and I think you can have an experience watching a Broadway show, you know; if somehow your soul crosses over to what’s going on stage. But with immersive theatre, it’s much easier for you to be touched, you know emotionally on some level, just because physically the performers can touch you. When we did “Danke Schoen” years ago, I’d be like, you know, because we had the fairies, and I’d be like you are so important to this because the fairies were really attracted to the audience. You’re touching the audience: everyone comes to theatre to be touched, you know that same word. And I think that immersive theatre is very powerful because of its ability to really touch people. I think its endless the possibilities for immersive theatre. I see immersive theatre everywhere I go. I think The Box is immersive theatre. I think a nightclub is immersive theatre. And If you can emphasize the theatrical parts of it, you can really create a touching, unique experience. Like, when you wait for a nightclub, you wait in line, and a guy at the door does something to decide whether you’re going to come in, enter. And when you enter, you feel a certain way because you’ve been waiting in line and wondered whether or not you were going to get in. And then we’re giving you drinks, which all sounds like immersive theatre, doesn’t it? So I think, that’s the way I really view everything. So, it’s funny, ‘cause this place came to me originally, this Times Square thing, as a restaurant, so I was like let’s blow up all the theatrical aspects. These waiters are serving you. Well can they be more stylized how they serve you? ‘Cause they’re already stylized. But can they be more stylized so people really start to see this as theatrical and start to see a frame around it. And start to notice details that you point out to them, that they discover, just because you’ve taken it a step away from the norm. So we’re all about immersive theatre. What’s interesting is when you do Sleep No More so many people come to you, “I’ve always wanted to do something more theatrical because it is so open-ended.” It makes you think you think about whatever you’re doing in a different way—can you throw out a lot of assumptions? Immersive theatre is the future and the more we are interested in screens, the more people really want to be immersed and that’s true, but I think it’s even deeper than that. I think we’re involved in immersive theatre all the time. Sometimes, I have very strange moments. We just opened a nightclub in Las Vegas, and Las Vegas, again, it’s another thing to be a tourist in, and I’m like older now, so I go see these young kids at a nightclub. And, you see this sort of strange mating ritual of youth now. You know what I mean? So if you just abstract it a little bit, it would look like the wildest theatrical experience. ‘Cause all the girls are kind of dressed the same, you know what I mean? We’re all in a ritual. It’s what we’re able to see when we look at a different society: “Oh that’s so obvious in Africa, like they all do this, and they do this in a different way.” So, all I’m trying to do is just to heighten things that are already going on: ritualized, immersive theatre.
ED: Do you think that the increase in use of technology has pulled people towards immersive theatre?
RW: I think that is what technology’s done. I think it’s also opened up people’s brains. ‘Cause when I was little…my kids are watching Netflix, they watch whatever show they want, whenever they want, pause it, get up: their brains are wired differently. So, it’s not like when people say, “technology is making people want to have immersive theatre.” I think technology is a new medium.: it makes people think of other new mediums. And I think…what I often say is theatre is a very generic term: where you could say a term like sports. And you could say there’s baseball, there’s golf, there’s basketball, there’s football. But I could say, “I like football, I hate golf.” So people think theatre, like: “Oh I like theatre.” Well what does that mean? There’s Broadway, there’s downtown, there’s immersive, there’s going to, you know, Disneyworld. “I hate Disneyworld, but I love Broadway”. You know what I mean? People connect them all, but we’re in a totally new media. And to me I think immersive theatre is a new medium, actually. You know, it’s been around, but now it really has a name and a style. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding? You ever heard of that?
ED: Yes, I have.
RW: You’ve never seen it I’m sure?
ED: I have never seen it, no.
RW: When that came out, oh my god, when that came out in the 80s, it was funny ‘cause now it’s synonymous with being cheesy. But when that came out in the 80s that was the most radical, crazy idea ever. You would walk into this world and be treated by these characters as if you were part of a wedding. So you know, it’s a very new medium that is getting hot now: you start to see it popping up everywhere.
Elizabeth Doyle is a Master of Fine Arts candidate in Performing Arts Management at Brooklyn College. She is currently the Marketing Resident at The Public Theater and previously held the position of Marketing Associate at Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts.