Randy Weiner created a whole new genre of theater in 1999 when his interactive, disco-styled adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Donkey Show, opened. Though Weiner himself isn’t exactly sure what defines an “immersive” performance, he’s been a leader in the field ever since, producing the site-specific Sleep No More in the fictional McKittrick Hotel, then revamping an old vaudeville supper club called the Diamond Horseshoe in the Paramount Hotel to host his highly hands-on pageant, Queen of the Night. He also co-owns The Box, a “theatre of varieties” where the burlesque acts don’t begin until 1 a.m. Soon, he’ll debut another grand-scale space and theatrical experience, rumored to be a magic-themed show in collaboration with Neil Patrick Harris. We will keep you updated on that, but in the meantime, Weiner chatted about New York history, his childhood inspirations, and the power of eye contact.
You’re opening a new project soon on West 57th Street. What can you tell us about it? I can’t even discuss it other than to say it’s a space we discovered that has historical significance. So what happens with us is we rent venues… you know I own this place, The Box, down on Chrystie Street? When we rented that space, we decided we were going to build a basement because we’d heard that they originally had one. But in the 1920s there was some terrible fire and in those days real estate in New York wasn’t worth that much, so they never rebuilt [the bottom level]. So we start digging out the basement and we started to find these strange artifacts… we actually found some human remains. We were total innocents and we were like, “Oh, my god! This is so cool.” We called the New-York Historical Society and they immediately said, “Stop the excavation.” The Box is next to a place called Freeman’s Alley, which was a burial ground for freed slaves. We were digging up incredibly significant historical artifacts. They took most of the stuff away, but left us with a few artifacts. We actually keep them in a glass case in the back of the venue. So anyway, there’s been another sort of twist like that at our new space on 57th. We discovered something that we did not know was part of our arrangement. But I can’t even talk about it yet.
More human remains? No, no, no. Thank goodness. But we’ve made a very interesting historical discovery that we’re going to work into what we’re creating that will be cool. Like astonishingly cool. I like for the places we build to have history. It’s a great way to engage with the soul of the city. I’m from New York and when you grow up in the NYC public school system, you study so much New York history. The Native Americans, wampum, the settlers. Why the New York flag has a Dutch dude on it. I love all that stuff.
You saw a lot of theater growing up, too. Yes. My dad was a psychotic theater fan. We saw everything. And I’m old, so this was in the ’70s when New York City was a complete mess—you know what I mean? Everything was really gritty. We’d go down to warehouses in the Village full of these crazy artists, and now they’re multi-gazillion-dollar lofts. But I’ll never forget going down to see a version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. Oh my god! I just had a realization about my whole life. That show was kind of a crazy immersive show. It was in a loft and it’s about this guy who is a former slave—and this is a gross simplification—but he becomes the leader of this group of natives and the natives turn on him. And they’re going to kill him. Throughout the whole show Eugene O’Neill does this very clever thing where you hear drum beats of the natives and the drum beats are getting faster and louder as the show progresses. It builds tension in the most obvious, simplistic but powerful way. And this guy’s freaking out because he knows he’s going to get found and, you know, killed.
How was it immersive? So it was in this loft and they put tree stumps all over the loft and you sat on the tree stumps as you watched the show. The space was probably built for like 50 people, but there were exactly two people in the audience, me and my father. And this one dude is running around sweating, acting the whole show for us. It was an unbelievable experience. I swear to you, I haven’t thought of that show in years and I’ve never talked about it in an interview, but I realize now that that show had every hallmark of what I hold so dearly. It had surprise, you know? People use the word “immersive” and I don’t really know what it means. It just means nontraditional. Immersive can mean anything, which is what makes it so fun. You could do immersive by doing a show in a taxi cab. You could do immersive by making people swim across a lake, you know?
But that Emperor Jones show was immersive in that it really surprised me. And it felt so private. See, I really loved that, the feeling that it was just for us. I was like 12 years old or something.
Wow. Did your dad like it? And is he so proud of your career? Oh, my dad. Well, he liked that I liked it so much. But in general my dad prefers more traditional theater. He loves my wife’s [Diane Paulus, Tony Award-winning director of Broadway productionsWaitress, Finding Neverland, Pippin, Porgy and Bess, and more] work. She’s unbelievably successful. Everything I do pales in comparison to what she does. My wife also grew up in New York and she was my girlfriend in high school, so my dad has known her forever. So when you ask if my dad is proud of me, I think he’s like sort of happy for me but he doesn’t really understand what I’m doing.
How do you describe what you do? I try to create novel, one-of-a-kind experiences. If someone says [about my work], “I can’t describe it, but you have to go,” that’s my favorite thing. One of the first things I did was The Donkey Show. The characters were running in and out of the audience and it was always surprising how the audience would respond and how the actors would respond to the audience. So it was always a little different and I never got tired of it. It wasn’t a fixed thing.
There seems to be a sexual element to all of your shows, with the interaction between the performers and the audience and the sense of mystery. Is that something you try to cultivate? To me, there’s nothing more transgressive than a stranger taking you by the hand and looking you in the eye. I actually don’t think of my work as sexual, but I do think it’s such an intense relationship you have with a stranger. The only thing people can liken it to is sex because it’s so naked and intimate. In some cases, it’s actually more sexual than sex! You know, because the people really look at you and really take you in and you really matter. If that makes sense. You know what I mean?
Well, they say two people can fall in love after four minutes or so of direct eye contact. Yeah! Did you see that New York Times article? After I read it, I was like, “Oh great, they just gave away everything I’ve been trying to figure out for years!” Eye contact is so mesmerizing and hypnotic and creates connections so quickly. It’s such a taboo thing to look in someone’s eyes because it is so powerful. I want to create spaces where people feel it’s okay to do that. There’s nothing more alive than that.
Sleep No More
The McKittrick Hotel
530 W. 27th St between 10th and 11th aves
189 Chrystie St between Rivington and Stanton sts