What do eating something inedible, barking like a dog, and humble bragging have in common?
They’ve all been used as on-stage drinking cues in TinyRhino, the monthly "Theatrical Drinking Game" brought to you by UglyRhino Productions.
Part lighter-hearted Sleep No More and part artsy social experiment, UglyRhino offers some of the most unique and enjoyable theatrical experiences in a city brimming with entertainment options. The Brooklyn-based outfit was founded in 2010 by former Public Theater staffers Danny Sharron, Nicole Rosner, and Bryce Norbitz. Frustrated with the lackluster artistic opportunities available to people their age, the three set out to redefine what a night at the theater could be.
The TinyRhino play festival remains one of the company's most popular events. Six teams of young playwrights and directors come together every month to stage original ten-minute productions, each of which must include the same five "dramatic elements." A ticket to the festival gets you a beer, along with a list of that month's elements – which might be anything from "someone takes off a hat" to "someone licks someone (or something)." Every time one of these pops up during a show, you drink.
TinyRhino may be more fun than your average night at the theater, but don't let its social atmosphere fool you; the festival has a lot more artistic integrity than the moniker "theatrical drinking game" might lead you to believe. Not only does the anticipation of drinking cues help maintain audiences' rapt attention – a hard feat to achieve even for veteran theater-makers – but the process also gives writers a chance to deeply flex their creative muscles, as they must figure out how to best connect the remarkably random elements they've been given.
UglyRhino isn't all fun and (very enjoyable) games, either; from hosting emerging musicians and giant warehouse parties, to staging full-scale interactive productions, the team is constantly working to create vibrant artistic events that will make even the most reluctant of theater-goers happy. They're also dedicated to forming an inclusive community for young artists within the daunting New York City theater scene.
I spoke with UglyRhino's Co-Artistic Director Danny Sharron about the benefits of social theater, running campy haunted houses, and the many joys and frustrations that come with founding your own company.
Full disclosure: I was a playwright in a TinyRhino event in 2012. I highly recommend attending the festival if you're in the NYC area. The next event will take place on September 24th at 8:00pm, at the Littlefield in Brooklyn.
Julianne Ross [JR]: How and why did you start UglyRhino?
Danny Sharron [DS]: We started it three years ago – myself, Nicole Rosner, and Bryce Norbitz. We'd all worked at the Public [Theater] together, and we collectively became frustrated with the state of theater opportunities for people our age. We’d been going to a lot of plays in black boxes where people were using their own clothes as wardrobes and there was no set, no production value. Tickets were like $25 and audiences were all just friends of the people in the plays.
That wasn't the kind of theater that we were interested in making – "theater for theater people." We all felt that theater should be more like an event. It should not just be a play; it should be a play, plus a band, plus drinking, plus a DJ. It should be more than going to a black box and paying $25 to see a something that your friends put together. So we decided, “Why don’t we make our own thing?”
UglyRhino initially was just a big festival in Brooklyn. Nicole directed one play and I directed another. We booked a bunch of bands and DJs, and we got food donated. That was the start of it. That was our attempt at re-framing what theater could be for people. We called that a ‘micro-season,’ and it was really successful. Since it went so well, we decided to continue working together.
JR: What were some of the unforeseen challenges of running a theater company, and what were some of the benefits that came about that you hadn’t been expecting?
DS: The very clear benefit has been that we can do the kind of work that we want to do, and not just as directors. It's about the three of us, as artists, being able to produce and realize the kind of theater that we are excited about and want to see happen.
But a benefit that happened that we weren’t expecting necessarily was that we’ve been able to form an artistic community. We have an incredible audience who comes back, and back, and back again to see shows. More often than not our audience is filled with people who are not serious theater-goers or just friends of people who are working on the plays. Which is, in my opinion, the best thing that we can do. We've been able to form a community in that way.
Building a community of artists who all pull together has also been incredible. We have 29 Associate Artists now, which is a program we started about a year ago. We wanted to be able to make an official home for the people who had been doing things over and over again for us. They're a part of our community, and we try to cast those people wherever we can if they’re actors, or we try to use those writers whenever we can. It’s a way in. And there’s a list-serve set up for it that creates a community among those people, which is really amazing.
But doing [TinyRhino] every single month, and having six playwrights, six directors, and twenty-something actors – all of whom have never really done it before – has made the community even bigger. It’s just the best thing we could ever have done.
JR: On more of an artistic level, what do you think the benefit is of making theater that is so collaborative, where the audience isn’t just a passive observer of what’s happening on stage?
DS: First of all, I think people crave that kind of theater. I don’t know if it’s the huge success of Sleep No More, or just the way our culture is, but people seem to want to engage. My personal feeling is that this is because we're engaging less and less with each other on a personal level. We’re behind screens all the time – we’re on email, we’re on our phones, we’re on our iPads. We’re not talking to each other as much, so there’s a clear need for deeper interaction, and theater provides that. We want to be in a group with other people and experience something with them.
Shows like Centralia [wherein audience members had to walk around a space in order to piece together a story] are just taking that to the next level. They're saying, not only are you in a room with these people during [a show], but you’re going to be a part of it.
I think that’s also why TinyRhino is so successful, because people are really engaging with it in the sense that they’re drinking along with [the plays]. That permission to say, “Yes, you are a part of this, we want you to drink along, this could not happen without you,” gives a sort of freedom to the audience. The mood is alive, and it’s exciting in a way that not a lot of theater is anymore, unfortunately.
JR: Speaking of TinyRhino, how do you choose the drinking elements each month?
DS: In the beginning we were choosing them ourselves. We used Google Docs, and we had a list of 100 elements or so that we’d thought up. Every month we’d decide on the ones we wanted to use. But we’ve been doing TinyRhino for two years now, which is a really long time to do a monthly event. So we started to have our Associate Artists curate months. Each month, a different artist is a guest curator, and they will come up with a list of playwrights and directors who they know of or who they want to get involved in the event. They come up with a theme and the elements, which has been really amazing. I love being able to give opportunities to people. To be able to spread the love in that way and have these people – a lot of whom are actors – take on producorial roles is really great for them and for us.
JR: What's a really interesting way that people have approached the elements you’ve given them? Were there any moments that stood out to you in particular?
DS: We always love it when [the writers] do some sort of spin on the elements. A perfect example is a play that we had in our Halloween event last October. It was written by a playwright named Jeremy Kamps, who wrote a play called Freddy Loves Jason. It was about if Freddy [Krueger] and Jason [Vorhees] were in a relationship with each other. It’s hard to explain, but it was very funny. And what [Kamps] chose to do was to put as many occurrences of the elements into the play as he could. I think he tapped in at over 100 ways of getting the elements in there, which definitely is a record.
But he also did a really clever thing at the end. One of the elements was “somebody eats candy,” and generally people took that as someone literally eating candy onstage. But what [Kamps] did was have a character named Candy, and at the end of the play she got eaten by one of the other characters. I thought that was so clever.
JR: What’s in the future for UglyRhino? What’s happening this year?
DS: We’re doing TinyRhino, because we’re doing that all the time, it never ends. [Laughs] And right now we’re in the process of figuring out what our October show is. For the past two years we’ve done an immersive, over-the-top campy Halloween kind of show.
Halloween events do really well. People like getting scared, I guess. Right now we're looking around for a run-down warehouse space in Gowanus for this show. It's going to be less campy than last year, and more about trying to scare people with real ideas that are actually terrifying. We want to do something that’s based off of how toxic the Gowanus Canal is, for example, and how dangerous it is and what role the government plays in that. Take a spooky look at that sort of thing.
JR: What advice would you give someone who’s looking to break into the theater world, or start their own company?
DS: The advice I would give is not to start a company unless it actually makes sense. Really, it’s not worth it unless it makes sense to be a company – otherwise just be a group of friends who are putting on theater, because that’s fine.
That would be my first piece of advice. The second would be to make sure you really like the people who you're making the company with, because you will spend a lot of time with them. I spend more time with Nicole and Bryce than with anyone else. Especially in the beginning when we were meeting four or five times a week. We all had full time jobs, and we were meeting right after work. It just was very, very crazy in the beginning. So you really have to get along with the people you're working with, because you're going to be spending a lot of time with them. And if [your company is] successful– and it could be amazing – you will continue to spend a lot of time with them.
Editor's note: PolicyMic is committed to highlighting millennial artists who are making their mark on the cultural landscape. If you know of someone who you think we should feature, let us know in the comments or on Twitter at @JulianneRoss.