Monday, September 10, 2012

Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant

Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant
creates a unique theatrical experience for each audience member. 

We asked founding member Conni Hall about how this eccentric troupe developed this adventurous and entertaining theatrical experience.

What are the origins of Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant?

The group of actors who founded Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant came together in the summer of 2006, while in residence for a production of As You Like It at The Stonington Opera House in coastal Maine. Our physical emblem, the “Conni’s Restaurant” sign, came from an abandoned diner that was known for serving legendary French toast to the town’s fishermen. We fantasized about moving into the place, asking, “What would happen if a group of experimental theatre artists took over a roadside restaurant?” Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant — the running joke — was born. Once we got back to New York, we decided to try the idea as the concept for a show. Since then we have brought in a resident production manager, director, and designers.

Conni's is more than theatre and more than just a meal. How do you create this communal experience for your audience? 

Peter Lettre in Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant
In a way, the meal actually does the work of creating community for us. We seat people at banquet tables of 10 each and they share a meal, family style. This is a novelty for many people. The theatrical experience begins when the audience meets eccentric characters at the box office and in the bar, and they choose an identity for the evening with a “hello my name is” nametag. They agree to playful rules of etiquette that are sung to them by devotees of the legendary Conni Convergence. This warms up the party atmosphere and invites them into the room with individual attention. Only after this pre-show initiation into our strange world, do we reveal an elaborate pre-set dining room. We make it clear to the audience as soon as they walk in the door that we will take care of them as our welcome guests and that they need to respect our home. We make the food and the theater ourselves from scratch. A New York audience can smell authenticity and they appreciate it. I think they can feel that the show doesn’t exist without them. 

Some of the performance is improvised and dependent on audience reactions. Can you share a few of the more interesting audience interactions?
There are some I won’t share. “What happens in the restaurant stays in the restaurant.” But on more than one occasion I have had to physically put my hands on an audience member to keep them from charging the stage. During the Bus-That-Table game in the middle of the performance, we routinely have people taking off articles of clothing, leaping into the air and doing flips, and running around the room pursued by other audience members while holding a bus bin. They never cease to amaze me. More intimately, we have a section of banter in the middle of the show where audience members get to ask questions of one of our self-declared celebrity avant garde performers, and their participation re-shaped that section. Each of us has moments when the audience ‘stopped’ us. As Sue James, I had an audience member grab my arm in Cleveland to tell me all about the way that food is saving that city. Rachel Murdy, who plays Muffin, has gathered a wealth of advice for new mothers from her survey of mothers in the audience, who ask to feel her bump.  

Conni's is nominated for Outstanding Ensemble and many of the performers have commented about what a gratifying experience it is. Why do you think the project is so rewarding for the performers?
As a performer, I can only answer for myself.  It feels like this show was given to us, even though we made it. Partly it’s the authorship of it. We made it together, and we keep re-making it together. Partly it’s the audience. It is gratifying to make people feel good but to feel like we are still pushing the boundaries of our own creativity. In other words, I feel like we made something populist by working in a way that’s deeply personal and artistically demanding, as actors working through character.

What is Conni's working on now?
We are creating three new shows this year, with smaller groups of company members working with outside actors and collaborators. While continuing our ongoing fascination with food service, we are branching into new ways of exploiting theatricality–namely walking tours and social clubs. We recently premiered Little West 12th Night, a historical walking tour of the meatpacking district based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which ran as part of the undergroundzero festival throughout the month of July. We are hopeful that we will be able to re-mount that production in the near future. Four of the company members are currently in Cleveland devising a new piece with local actors called The Secret Social, which will run in December at Cleveland Public Theatre. Soon after we return to New York, we will create some new material for the Conni’s Restaurant characters at NACL’s Deep Space Residency.  This will be a more intimate setup, with some of the Restaurant characters taking on roles from classic texts. That piece will show on October 13 in Highland Lake, NY.

Congratulations to the Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant!

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