There are certain givens one expects from American theatre. Call them Stations of the Stage: the respectful stillness of the audience, monologues, counterpoint duets, standing ovations (or not).
Randy Weiner hates them all.
So the playwright and producer has spent the last five years recreating the genre, partly by destroying it. He’s the man responsible for making immersive theatre — a fantastical, interactive take on the idiom — a fast-spreading New York City epidemic. At Weiner’s shows, sitting in one spot is essentially verboten. Sleep No More, his wildly popular adaptation of Macbeth (though Shakespeare wouldn’t recognize it), asks audience members to don Eyes Wide Shut-esque masks and wander a labyrinthine, 93-room hotel. Each door leads from one darkly engrossing scene to the next: a lovers’ fight, a bar brawl, a blood orgy (fictional, of course). As with Queen of the Night — his Bacchanalian dinner theatre-meets-circus show based (loosely) on Mozart’s The Magic Flute — you’re free to follow characters as they rush in and out of rooms, playing out different scenarios that make up one tangled, Lynchian tale. You might wind up missing pivotal scenes or taking a bath with a queen. Either way, you’re guaranteed to see things no one else will.
And that’s Weiner’s goal: to give each person a unique experience, instead of passively taking in the show the same way as 300 other spectators. Weiner forces you to play an active role in your own escapism. It’s this exploratory, open-ended thrill, the theatrical equivalent to, say, a Grand Theft Auto game, only with a touch less violence, that’s reignited an interest in theatre among millennials — a generation that increasingly demands control over how it consumes entertainment. This all makes Weiner — and what he’s up to next — worthy of attention, even from the stodgiest of traditionalists.
You’re famous for making way-out-of-the-ordinary productions. What inspired you to do this?
I started out doing these things, which, for simplicity, people categorized as theatre but really weren’t. They were weird performances in places I found interesting, like the street or in a nightclub. My dad was a huge theatre buff, but I found it boring to sit and look at a stage. Everyone laughs, everyone cries. You all do the same shit, then you all applaud. It’s all so predictable. Take that versus one of the things I’m working on now: a crazy murder mystery where, rather than have the play’s surprises unfold onstage, you’re going to walk around the whole building and discover clues around it. You make up your own rules. Some people, when they like something, they’ll watch it five times. Not me. I like it to be different every single time.
What are some other concepts for upcoming shows?
I have two as-yet-untitled projects coming this year. The murder mystery, which I mentioned, will be high-end, with incredible food, private rooms, and intense private experiences. I’m also working on an enormous retail project. Nowadays, people go to stores to look at things, then buy them on Amazon for cheaper. Retailers are looking for new ways to think about what they do. And for me, a mall is just another piece of immersive entertainment. So we’re getting an 85,000-square-foot space and designing a mall from the ground up. You’ll walk into what seems to be a typical store, like the Gap, and an employee will ask, “Would you like to see some interesting things?” If you say yes, they’ll take you through an “Employees Only” door and bam! You’ll be in this otherworldly night market full of secret stuff going on.
Clearly you’ve got a thirst for new forms of entertainment, but your shows all draw on the classics. Explain that contradiction.
I spend so much time reading odd things, from Shakespeare shows to obscure works of political theory. Classics are classics because there’s something true in them about humanity that’s timeless. They cut through all the noise of culture today, and you can see what’s the same between then and now. It’s remarkable and grounding. And I get so excited about it that I want to investigate it and share it. My show Queen of the Night is based on a character from The Magic Flute who most people know as an opera soprano who sings complicated arias. And that’s true, but what’s also true is that it’s about humanity; this woman is wild and represents the illogical parts of ourselves.
Critics often disparage you for breaking the rules of theatre. What’s your response to that?
I have more compassion for them than they have for me. They’ll say, “Randy creates theatre for people who don’t like theatre.” And part of me thinks, yes, that’s probably true, and in a commercial sense that’s great because there are likely many more people in the world who don’t like theatre than who do. But I use lots of very talented people with theatre backgrounds. In all these creative people lives a desire to try something different — that’s why they got into this industry. So to critics, I say, listen, I don’t think everything I do succeeds in terms of it being good. But it does succeed in terms of doing something new.
I read you nearly became a doctor.
I used to love doing experiments. I was a science teacher when I first got out of college and I was obsessed with teaching kids that science is at its best when you ask a question and you don’t know the answer. Science is going out and discovering new things. In a way, that still informs everything I do. I don’t know whether these things are good or bad, but I know the experiment is interesting.
Do you think that’s the problem with traditional theatre: the outcome is too predictable?
Yes! You know the end of every single Broadway show! Their goal is to get you to stand up and give a standing ovation. It’s built in to make the actors feel good. And that’s such a joke. Again, because I’m a biologist, I recognize part of that is psychobiology: they’re tricking our nerves to fire in a certain way by flashing lights at us and singing high notes, overstimulating our neurosystems so we go, “Oh my god!” and we stand up. I think humans are so much more interesting than that, and the possibilities of experience are so much greater. I don’t want to just watch the character. I want to enter that character’s world. I want to walk into his private room and see what he’s all about.
So does the future of theatre lie in obliterating its conventions?
I do believe Broadway will stay Broadway. It’s actually a brilliant model. But I think there are other relationships between audience and performer to explore. As the world gets more digitized, it becomes harder to get people to leave their houses. There’s a premium on figuring out how people interact, meet each other, and entertain each other.
Do audiences today require higher levels of stimulus than ever before?
Yes, but artfulness still matters. I went to a live sex show in Macau about 10 years ago. We’re in this large amphitheater, and a hot Russian girl and an inhumanly large man come out. They go at it, but what’s funny is I’m looking at all my Chinese compatriots and they’re all falling asleep. It was actually a big letdown, because in your mind, it’s so much more powerful. It’s not about raising the bar, because we’re all stuck within our own biology — there’s only so much excitation you can take before you melt down. The key, actually, is to get inside your head. At my shows, if you’re at any point bored of a performer or scene, you’re totally free to walk away.