Friday, January 29, 2010

Conni's Avant Garde Restaruant: Searching for Usually

“Usually” is a word often used by friendly people asking me about our show, Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant. Where do you usually perform? How often? Where do you usually prepare the food? How much does it cost? These basic questions stump me: We don’t “usually” anything yet. We are making it up as we go along. But, the funny thing is that as soon as you make something, people believe it already exists. We are three years old now, but the usuallies started right away. I am very wary of them and I crave them at the same time. They signal the end of the birthing process.

The way I answer the usually questions is to say what we have done already: The first year we did three stand-alone events at a rehearsal studio with a kitchen, with the idea that we would be a once a month, low key, underground supperclub serving at most 50 people. We forged our characters and our ideas in front of the audience and the evenings we bizarre and chaotic and beautiful. I did the shopping and cooking like I “usually” do, by carting it around by hand. We charged $30. The next year, we moved into the Bushwick Starr and developed the current format for the show very much in collaboration with the physical space. We developed an internal logic and invested in the stories of the characters and the the audience’s experience over the evening. We did five productions, each with a 2-night run spaced about six weeks apart, serving 120 people over each weekend. By then we had assimilated two more characters to prepare the food and we had discovered Fresh Direct. We charged $35. We increased the run to 3-nights, serving 180 people over the weekend. We became real foodies and started sourcing locally. We charged $40. We lifted that show up and plunked it in the Ohio Theatre this summer and fall, had a design duo replicate the format with bling and style, and served 320 people over a 4-night run. We found Farm to Chef. We charged $50.

We have nicknamed this full show our “Mothership” production in order to distinguish it from the “Ah La Carte” site-specific events that we write for the location and the occasion. We say yes to everyone and everything: pass-the-dessert performances for benefits, conferences, and festivals, a bridal shower at a private home with champagne cocktails and party games, full cabaret evenings at Joe’s Pub with and without food, a full holiday dinner in the lobby and conference room of a Manhattan office, and a commissioned work for a museum cafe.

I like to think that we are developing our company by trial and trial. We try something and then we try it again with a bigger audience, or seasonal food, or refined writing, or in a different setting, or more nights in a row, or spaced farther apart, or with higher price points. In other words, we don’t know what we are until after we have tried it. The one thing we do have is an army of characters whose fiction is aligned with function (cooks, general manager, bartender, diva performers, bouncer, etc.) and we can own most new set-ups by just letting the characters do what they would do. The characters might have fictional histories, but they are always in the same time and place and situation with the audience. We don’t have to be flawless or fully prepared for everything, we just have to be able to meet the unknown with grace and keep taking care of the audience.

Still, some ‘usually’ might be good for my health. We are good at trying new things and the next new thing might be taking care of ourselves. This is the part where ERPA and the larger conversation surrounding it comes in. Usually is the way you build word of mouth. Usually is the projected budget. It’s the only way to plan your calendar. Or to live a balanced life. Or to ask for funding. Our show is something new for most of our guests. They want to say things like “they usually perform in this really cool space in Bushwick.”

With the ERPA implementation grant, we are looking for “usually” this summer: Where? A great new club space. When? Once a week throughout the season. How much? Hopefully enough. The Food? Locally grown and prepared in a viable kitchen space. I don’t want to jinx it, so check back for the next blog post and I’ll tell you where we’ll be! In the meantime, we will be serving lunch at 2pm at the NoPassport Conference on February 26, Nuyorican Poets Café, $10 at the door for conference attendees. Please come and feed us back.

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