I met Alex Gruhin at a Nightcap Riot theater performance in Brooklyn, during which he was a terrific and friendly host.
Nightcap Riot bills itself as “the future of live entertainment” and treats its audience to a mix of theater, mixology, and live music.
After the 15-show run was over, and he’d had a little time to catch up on his sleep, I asked Alex if he would be interested in being interviewed about what he’s been doing and what’s up next for Nightcap Riot.
We were hoping that Ariel Reid, the other half of Nightcap Riot, would be able to join us as well, but alas, she had another commitment, so we met for a drink at Middle Branch without her. (It’s a swanky, speakeasy-type spot in midtown, although it doesn’t seem like it quite belongs in the neighborhood. The drinks were good, the lighting was dim, and the doorman insisted on inspecting my ID—perhaps because I look extremely youthful. Or maybe because it was just too dark to see.) Here’s what we talked about…
Date of interview: February 25, 2016
Hometown: Potomac, Maryland
Current town: Hell’s Kitchen, NYC
Occupation: Co-Founder, Executive Director, and Producer of Nightcap Riot
First of all, I had a great time at one of the Nightcap Riot performances…the night I saw the show it had a magician, the play (an adaption of a Shaw play by Jim Knable), Mombucha tasting, and a musical act. Was each night a different program?
We did 15 shows (it was supposed to be 16, but one was cancelled due to snow), and each was different. Definitely a learning experience! I learned that the content is extremely important, but the energy was also extremely important, even more so. It was an intimate experience…only fifty or so audience members in a tight space, and the audience drives the show.
That’s somewhat true with live theater generally, isn’t it? It’s kind of the beauty of seeing an artistic event live.
Yes. When the audience is excited we welcome that positive energy; it translates into the artists’ energy. Then the energy bull would ride into midnight!
But if there’s an unhappy audience, or just a few audience members who show up in bad moods, ticked off at the world that day, it can be completely toxic.
I’m a hospitality kid. It is my job to make the guest happy. If they show up unhappy, I have three and a half hours to turn the tides. We did our damnedest.
So you are really trying to bring the world of hospitality into the world of live theater, or really, to combine them?
Yes. That is precisely what we’re trying to do.
I know you’re from the DC area; have you ever been to the Inn at Little Washington?
No, the Inn is very expensive…
It is expensive, but the value that you get is phenomenal. I was there once for one night and spent about $700. But, besides the room in a lovely hotel for the night, we had three meals. A tea service with pastry upon check in, a delicious dinner with wine that evening, and a phenomenal breakfast in the morning. Anyway, you should go. But the reason you should go (and make it a business expense!) is that they really specialize in hospitality there. They make every effort, not just to serve you a good meal, but to ensure that each guest is having a fantastic time. They are actively working to bring that energy level up in a way that very few places do.
I do know someone who used to work there…now working in New York. And yes, I will have to go!
Anyway, you’re trying to do something new with theater. Why? Do you feel that something is lacking in the theater experience in New York?
Yes. Audiences should demand more from their experience in the theater. You pay a lot of money for a Broadway show, maybe $180. It’s crowded. The seats are small. You’re on top of each other. The ushers bark at you. The content might be good. But it’s an uncomfortable experience. An impersonal experience.
I think that with Nightcap Riot, the greater experience drives the content. We got millennials to go and see Jim Knable’s rendition of a George Bernard Shaw play and drink kombucha.
So, to use an old term from my graduate student days, you’re really talking about the mise-en-scène?
Yes. I’m talking about the total experience of a show. I usually go to three to four shows a week, and I’m a bit frustrated with what’s out there.
We are trying to deliver a really cool, revenue-generating experience. We want to enhance the total experience. I was a theater kid, and then I went to hospitality school. I know something about the business of entertainment. Most people don’t have that kind of background.
So you’re not interested in forming a non-profit, then?
I’m interested in the possibility of creating a viable model of commercial theatrical production. 85% of Broadway shows lose money. And they cost tens of millions of dollars to produce. We need to take care of our artists, our community, and our hospitality partners. I want to offer them value.
I’ve definitely heard the criticism of theater that it often does not respect its audience. Do you agree with that line of thinking?
Yes, it’s often frustrating. Artistic directors dictate content without necessarily listening to their audience.
An arts organization, like any business, has to have core values. A rationale. A mission statement.
So with this inaugural Nightcap Riot production, were you pleased with it?
The content played well. I think we kicked butt! But still plenty of room for improvement…
So what’s next? Is this your full time occupation now?
Now I’m planning what’s next. This has been full time for me since October–I’ve dedicated my time to this. We have some traction now, we got some great reviews and attention in the press, but I don’t want to rush into something over the next few months. I want to make sure we build with integrity. I have to be passionate about what we do next. It has to function well. We put this together quickly in some ways, but really it was ten years in the making. I met Jim Knable ten years ago, and it was only in the last year we commissioned him to be our playwright. I met Rich Awn of Mombucha a year ago.
We’re now doing our due diligence, checking our numbers and figuring out what works. Greenpoint was great, but maybe Red Hook is next. Or Topeka? Or Vegas? The idea is that we’re going to be mobile and sustainable.
I have a mantra that I got from Eric Tucker at Bedlam theater company: take it and make it harder. Are you familiar with Bedlam?
Yes, I actually just saw Sense and Sensibility, and it was terrific.
Eric Tucker directed it.
He did a great job! You would think that a Jane Austen adaptation might be a bit staid and quiet, but this was such a high-energy show. Everyone was talking at once, and dancing, and physically active. Everything on the stage was on wheels, and moved all around, chairs, props, things were spinning. It was an excellent show.
So how did you end up with Rich Awn (above) and Mombucha? Did you meet him by chance?
No, I sought him out. I wanted to learn more about tea and he is an expert in tea. We met for a drink at the Algonquin and just hit it off and wanted to work together. That’s why we did our show in his space.
Perhaps the ghost of Dorothy Parker was looking over you there.
Could have been!
On to another topic, do you have a book recommendation for us? What should everyone read?
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Although my favorite genre is magical realism. I really like The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia. And Dona Flor and her Two Husbands. They pushed me to think harder.
What’s your favorite theater?
The best producing theater in North America is the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.
And who is your favorite performer?
Do you have a favorite restaurant in New York?
Do you have a favorite movie?
Well, I really like The Goodbye Girl and On Golden Pond. I’m an old sap.
If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would it be?
I would have loved to have seen Warren Zevon in concert before he died.
If there’s anyone else you really want to see, you’d better hurry up. 2016 has been horrible for musicians so far.
I was sad about David Bowie. I’d never seen him in concert either, which was too bad, but it didn’t hit me the way Warren Zevon did.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Revolution by deed. A lot of people talk about their ideas, but they end up doing the same old thing. Or just talking!
Last, but not least, is there anything you want to pitch, promote, or discuss?
Nightcap Riot! Keep an eye on the website for what we’re doing next. Artists who are interested in what we’re doing should reach out to me.
The theater piece is important, the beverage, and the hospitality. The way people are consuming entertainment is changing, and some of the existing models don’t translate. We need more innovation.
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Other Q&As By Laura LaVelle
* Alexi Auld, author
* Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director, Historic Districts Council
* Eric Bennett, author
* Alexander Campos, Executive Director, Center for Book Arts
* Mark Cheever, Friends of Hudson River Park
* Betsy Crapps, founder of Mom Prom
* Margaret Dorsey, anthropologist
* Mamady Doumbouya, Jonathan Halloran, & Robert Hornsby, founders of American Homebuilders of West Africa
* Kinsey Dyckman, Board Member, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum
* Rhonda Eleish & Edie van Breems, interior designers
* Leslie Green Guilbault, artist, potter
* Garnet Heraman, brand strategist for Karina Dresses, serial entrepreneur
* Meredith Sorin Horsford, Executive Director, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum
* Camilla Huey, artist, designer
*Dr. Brett Jarrell & Dr. Walter Neto, founders of Biovita
* Beth Johnson, Townsend Press editor
* Mahanth Joishy, founder of United States – India Monitor
* Jim Knable, playwright and musician
* Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art & Antiquities for NYC Parks Department
* Ann Lawrence, Co-Founder of Pink51
* Jessica Lee, dancer, Sable Project Administrator
* Najaam Lee, artist and sickle cell advocate
*Ellie Montazeri, Tunisian towel manufacturer
* Heather-Marie Montilla, Executive Director, Pequot Library
* Yurika Nakazono, rainwear designer, Terra New York
* Jibrail Nor, drummer
* Alice Quinn, Executive Director, Poetry Society of America
* Ryan Ringholz, children’s shoe designer, Plae Shoes
* Alanna Rutherford, Board Member, Andrew Glover Youth Program
* Deborah Ryan & Frank Vagnone, Historic House Anarchists
* Lawrence Schwartzwald, photographer
* Peter Sís, writer and illustrator
* Patrick Smith, author and pilot
* Jeffrey Sumber, psychotherapist and author
* Rich Tafel, life coach and Swedenborgian minister
* Andra Tomsa, creator of SPARE app
* Maggie Topkis, mystery fiction publisher
* Carol Ward, Executive Director, Morris-Jumel Mansion
* Adamu Waziri, creator of children’s television program Bino and Fino
* Ekow Yankah, law professor
All images courtesy of Nightcap Riot