"The show starts when you're in line."
Randy Weiner [Senior Faculty '87] brings his unique take on performance to Cambridge's American Repertory Theater this fall
It's only fitting that Randy Weiner has a play called Best of Both Worlds.
Duality is central to Weiner's philosophy on life and on art. It's also his explanation of why his shows are such a hit.
"I think everyone has two sides," says Weiner. As a former neuroscience major, a playwright, a father, and the co-owner of a dinner theater club in New York City, Weiner, it should be said, has more than just two sides: he is as multi-faceted as they come. "I have friends, lawyers and Wall Street types, and on the weekends, they go to clubs; they want to go crazy. I own a club [Lower East Side's The Box], and on the weekends, I'm just the opposite. I just want to be with my kids. You can be the world's biggest freak and, you know, still love your mother."
Weiner's plays capitalize on these yin-and-yang contradictions that we all inhabit. Best of Both Worlds retells Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale as a black gospel performance while The Donkey Show recasts A Midsummer Night's Dream at a 1970s disco club. After successful Off-Broadway runs in New York City and touring performances across the world, Weiner is bringing his plays to Cambridge's American Repertory Theater (ART) this fall as part of its Shakespeare Exploded! festival.
Weiner's shows are fully-enveloping experiences. More importantly, they're experiences outside the routine of our regular, everyday lives -- offering us, if only for a night, a glimpse into our dual-nature.
"For me, as a white, Jewish guy, I love gospel music," Weiner says. "I don't know how to get into gospel music, but a gospel experience, I want to experience that. That's what The Best of Both Worlds gives you. It's the same with The Donkey Show. What I'm delivering with The Donkey Show is a dream night at the club. You're going to see people [actors] doing drugs, couples fighting, just crazy, crazy stuff. All the work I do, I'm trying to deliver these very real experiences."
This is how Weiner's shows differ from what you might normally see at the theater. There is no single spotlight. No sign that says, "Quiet Please." No stage that separates the crowd from the actors.
For Weiner, the experience begins while you're standing in line, continues as you wait for the show to "start", and extends until after the play's action ends. In the case of The Donkey Show, for instance, the audience intermingles with actors after the show in a "post-show" dance party.
"My shows are all about the totality of the experience," Weiner says. "It's how you walked in the door. How were you greeted? How did you feel? Were you nervous? Were you excited? Did you think you were going to meet somebody? All those things. It's more like going to a club. When you go to a club, anything can happen, you're open to possibilities. What I like to do are shows that don't live behind the fourth wall."
Though his plays are unlike typical theater, Weiner is far from disavowing the genre's origins. In fact, he sees his shows as descendent of a more authentic theatrical experience. He compares the settings for his shows to that of the Globe, Shakespeare's theater, where people ate, talked, fought, and did any number of other things during the staging of a play. All of which puts even more of an imperative on the show to be entertaining.
"In a club there's a very, very low bar where people can give up and not pay attention," Weiner says. "And I look at that as -- it's a very real crucible of entertainment. That's something I love. And that's something people love when they come to our show, because our shows really have to be entertaining."
And that is the final contradiction about Weiner and his plays. While Weiner searches for both sides to every story and every audience member he attracts, his shows, conversely, operate in a nether territory of neither-nor. They are neither the typical theatrical play, nor are they part of the club scene. As far as Weiner's concerned, that's what makes them a success.
"I'm in this space between theater and club," he says. "The theater people, their goal is to win a Tony. All these other club owners are after celebrities. But I'm not about that -- I'm trying to give you entertainment. I'm doing a show. And that's why what we're doing is so hot."