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The Drama Desk Awards: What Makes a Unique Theatrical Experience?

We spoke to several people at the Drama Desk nominees reception to find out about the Awards' most unique category.

Cirkopolis, from Montreal-based Cirque Eloize, is one of the six shows nominated for a Drama Desk Award in the category of Unique Theatrical Experience.
(Courtesy of Cirque Eloize)

Every year, the Drama Desk honors a group of boundary-pushing shows with a competitive category that doesn't exist for any other theater award. You might call it "unique" to the Drama Desk Awards. This is the category of "Unique Theatrical Experience."

This year's nominees include two magic shows, two circus shows, a sexy Christmas bacchanal, and a smart-aleck take on one of America's most prolific playwrights. [Click here for a complete list of Drama Desk Nominees.] But what exactly makes these shows so unique? We spoke to representatives from three of them at the annual Drama Desk nominee reception to find out.

Magician Vinny DePonto celebrates his nomination for a Drama Desk Award in the category of Unique Theatrical Experience for his Ars Nova show Charlatan.
(© David Gordon)

The first person to show up and claim his nomination was magician Vinny DePonto, whose show at Ars Nova, Charlatan, had critics raving last month. "It's part-research project, part-magic show, part-mentalism show, and part-immersive theater," DePonto explained.

DePonto requests something unusual from his audience when they enter the theater: Each person is given a card and asked to write a confession to place in a sealed envelope at the foot of the stage. "We live in an age where we tweet, tumble, pin, and post everything. Genuine Secrets have become even more valuable," he elaborated. "They're a taboo thing. When you bring them out into the playing space, you get under people's skin, which is a nice thing."

Ars Nova Associate Artistic Director Emily Shooltz knew that DePonto was a talented magician, but she picked up his show because of his willingness to collaborate with other artists. "Vinny is a magician who was working with a theater director and a playwright," she said. "That's the kind of theater we like to make: hybrid pieces that bring artists from different disciplines together."

Costumer Zane Pihlstrom and director Austin McCormick collected two Drama Desk Award nominations for their decadent holiday spectacular Nutcracker Rouge.
(© David Gordon)

Similarly, Company XIV Artistic Director Austin McCormick is also interested in bridging divides with his work. His latest project, Nutcracker Rouge, is a randy take on the holiday ballet classic: "It's burlesque, ballet, circus, opera, and purely opulent design," he said enthusiastically, adding, "It's an exciting combination of nightlife and traditional theater." Audience members were encouraged to get up, grab a drink at the bar, and interact with the performers when the show ran at the Minetta Lane Theatre last December. "We're really trying to cultivate theater that has more of a party atmosphere." So is that it? Is it all about the party, or "immersive" experience?

The reigning granddaddy of immersive theater, Sleep No More, won in the category of "Unique Theatrical Experience" in 2011. Still, other interactive experiences, like Here Lies Love and Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, were nominated in the "Outstanding Musical" category. So what makes Sleep No More more unique than those two shows? We spoke to a two-time nominee to try to find out the secret to making unique theater.

This is the second time director Christopher Loar has seen one of his Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill shows nominated in the category of Unique Theatrical Experience.
(© David Gordon)

Director Christopher Loar was nominated in the "Unique Theatrical Experience" category in 2012 for The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill Vol. 1. He's nominated again this year for Vol. 2, which recently closed at Theater for the New City. The concept is pretty simple: Loar takes several Eugene O'Neill plays, removes all the dialogue, and performs them as a series of actions to see how the story holds up without words. "He was an incredibly obsessive-compulsive writer who was quite mistrustful of anyone who would attempt to direct or act in any of his plays," Loar said. "In every single one of his plays he prescribes an intense list of italicized commands, almost as an insurance policy against anyone screwing them up."

Provocative! Incendiary! But unless trolling traditionalist adherents of Irish-American drama is your idea of a great shindig, it doesn't sound like much of a party. Nor does the show feature magic or circus tricks. Is The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill Vol. 2 even more unique than the aforementioned unique shows? Why does it belong in the same category as Mother Africa and Cirkopolis? "Well, I guess you'll have to ask the nominating committee about that one," Loar responded. So we did.

Barbara Siegel is the chairperson of the Drama Desk nominating committee. She's seen over 300 shows in New York this past season. "That's not counting the shows I went back to see a second time," she hastily added. Few people have a more comprehensive knowledge of the New York theater scene, so if anyone would have a clear definition of a "Unique Theatrical Experience", it would be her.

"We don't have a clear definition that I could tell you," Siegel said. "Usually it's not a plot-driven or story-driven show. They're things like circuses, stage directions, magic shows — things that are odds and ends that don't fit in any other category." In fact, when Siegel and her fellow nominators are confounded by a show, they usually bring it to the Drama Desk board, which then issues a ruling on what category a show belongs in. If they can't reasonably put it in any other category, it goes to "Unique Theatrical Experience."

"It's really a wonderful category because there would be shows that would be aced out entirely because they don't fit neatly into the category of a play or musical or revue," Siegel further explained. As writers, directors, and performers continue to push the boundaries of traditional theater into new and exciting genres and forms, this category is more essential than ever.

If you value innovation in theater, this is the group to watch. These shows are so genre-defying, not even a panel of theater critics could categorize them. For the punk rockers of the stage, intent on defying traditional labels, that is quite an achievement. It also proves the old cliché true: It's an honor just to be nominated.