Since 1999, I have had the amazing opportunity of working in a specific performance niche: Dinner Theater. I started with the Funky Puppet Circus Supper, and then either performed in and/or organized the Funky Puppet Supper II through IV (all at CELLspace). In 2005 and 2006, I also worked with Circo Romani and CounterPULSE’s Feast of Fools and Friends as Stage Manager and consultant, and with Teatro ZinZanni as a Box Office Rep (got to see the show about times and hang out backstage a bit).
So I wasn’t too surprised when the Shotgun Players approached me to be their stage manager for a dinner theater fundraiser they had planned in April of this year. Unfortunately, I was in Vermont at the time training for my Sensible Priorities carnival games gig. I still wanted to help out, so I offered to give them advice on how to throw a DIY, low/no-budget, dinner theater event. They were pleased with the offer, so I took a few days to write out everything I could think of that goes into producing dinner theater.
Now, CounterPULSE is about to have their second Feast of Fools fundraiser. I’m still on their em list, so felt that the time was ripe for taking a fresh look at the brainstorm I sent to Shotgun. I wanted to post this anyway, because I think that this is a powerful framework to use to make amazing, multidimensional performance art. I have so many great memories of these productions, and have always felt blessed to be part of the cast and crew of these events. Usually put together with glue and string, and a big pot of stone soup, these events bring together a group of people who do what they do for the love of it. So much work needs to go into a DIY dinner theater production, so a lot of love and dedication makes it happen.
Hopefully, someone reading this might attempt to throw their own dinner theater show. If you have any questions beyond this essay, please feel free to contact me.
Note: The shows I have worked with are referenced throughout this text as examples of how to, and not to, create your own dinner theater show: Puppet Supper, Teatro ZinZanni, Circo Romani, and Feast of Fools
Early organization is key.
My first piece advice to you all is to get as much organized as early as possible before the night of the show. This is what you’d normally do for a show but this is a show (performers, front/back of house, a/v), plus a restaurant (kitchen, wait staff, maitre ‘d), plus a concert, (if you’re using live music), plus a volunteer pool. Not to mention ticket sales, promo, set/costumes, etc. Rehearsals or group and leader meetings are instrumental, but you may not be able to do any type of run-through with the kitchen staff there serving a real meal.
Communication before and during the show is the main chore for the producer(s). At least 2-4 folks should work together to really coordinate an event like this. If you’re in the show and producing, you will be exhausted. I’ve been there and have seen it happen to others. I got bronchitis during the 3rd Puppet Supper (puppeteer and main producer).
My main role at the dinner theater events I participated in, other than performing, has been the main conduit for all parts of the show. You should have one person, usually titled Stage Manager (but I think of it more as Show Wrangler), who is the go-to person for the main kitchen contact (usually the chef), the main waiter contact (sometimes paid, sometimes a volunteer), and the front of house, etc. Having a producer, or a shotgun person playing the role of producer, is key too, because they have the FINAL say on the coordination of the show, before it goes up and even as they’re on. They may want to let things run over, move it along, etc. Chris at the Feast of Fools wanted a slow foods event, so I checked in with him frequently to see how he felt about the timing and the upcoming cues. At Circo Romani, however, the show would fall into improv and i’d have to protect the performers FROM the stressed producer.
Do you have a kitchen?
Do you have any idea where/how you’ll set-up the kitchen? Do you have a big sink to bus and wash things? You must work with the head chef/kitchen person to coordinate all of this. CELLspace had a kitchen, but there were many items to think of for preparing the food. Keep it on warmers? Cook it there? How to serve it? Where the hell are the forks? Rent glasses and plates and silver or serve plastic/landfill? Serve wine, corking fee for BYO? etc. etc. At Feast of Fools, CounterPULSE’s office became the staging ground for the food and worked well. You’ll have to budget for the kitchen early and hopefully you have a chef that’ll take the few days needed off to work it (a lot of chefs can’t work shows for free or for a run if that’s what you’re planning). Also, how much per plate is the cost? What’s the menu? Where do you get the food to make the menu? How much to charge for all of this (too high can turn people away)? Also, do they have a catering license? A beer/wine license? Do you/can you do it illegally and hope to not get busted? Should the food be organic or not? Where can you take food donations and who will handle that?
Coordinating the raw food purchases to cook with is important, so the earlier you get this worked out the better.
A word about quality: I’ve noticed for most of the shows that the food just isn’t up to par. It’s hard to make it work on a budget with tight timing for the kitchen. Feast of Fools was by far the best tasting, and it took three volunteer chefs to do it! Teatro ZinZanni pulls it off with a corporate catering company running a full industrial kitchen (they do precook entrees and keep it on warmers during the show).
What about servers?
You should appoint a Head Waiter to coordinate them all. Details need to be worked out like: What’s the seating potential/final arrangement? How many entrees and how to let the patrons choose one? How do you coordinate that with the kitchen? How to bus during the performance so as not to create noise and distraction (For most of the events I’ve done, we’ve choreographed the busing along with the serving in conjunction with the performance to avoid this). Do you need to wash dishes during the show? Will that make noise? How can you choreograph the performers to be in the show and in the audience? Want a maitre ‘d? You should have one who can seat late people and make sure that you have enough seats for the patrons. At Teatro Zinzanni, they make the table arrangement a week in advance for sold out shows to avoid the nasty “party of 3 is late, only 3 separate seats available”. This came up a few times at Circo Romani and the person organizing it learned the hard way. I’ve found that the House Manager and Maitre ‘d usually cannot wear the same hat unless they’re a superstar. The Maitre ‘d can be a good restaurant-go-to person for the Stage Manager. He serves as a conduit for the chef and head waiter. You should try to sell this thing out in advance to do the seating arrangement. If it doesn’t sell out, then you’ll have to figure out how many people to cook for and how many extra could potentially buy a meal.
Wrangling Performers and Band.
I’ve seen different variations of how to incorporate performance into a dinner theater. You can have the performers be the servers. You can have a group of performers fill space around starring acts. You can have performers just serve and create pre-show acts and improv moments. ZinZanni and Romani used similar themes based around being an actual circus. Puppet Supper had commedia, buffoonery, and puppetry framed around featured acts. All of the dinner theaters I’ve been part of have used audience participation, circus-theme, and a combination of the above approaches.
I have also seen different approaches for the rehearsal process. If you aren’t paying much, finding committed talent can be extremely difficult. Using emerging talent helps, and maybe paying a bit more for featured talent will bring in the ringers. All of this can make the rehearsal process a pain to coordinate. The best way I’ve seen to handle the performers is to have one of the producers be the main director of the show. If there are just two of you, then that may prove exhausting. One of the miracles of all of the shows I’ve seen is that the talent comes together and amazing moments happen. The first Puppet Supper had almost no rehearsal, but ringers stepped up who believed in the show. Dan Chumley ended up being a sudden director and commedia bits were worked out. For the price of admission, the talent and food (and puppet crafting before the show) were well done.
Having producers as actors can prove exhausting. But this is DIY dinner theater, so the person who just had the run-through, after painting the set, will need to deal with the kitchen, is a common occurrence. I’ve been there, and saw it during Puppet Supper IV and Circo Romani. Having performers as servers, and as other parts of the production can hinder the rehearsal process too. Throwing in puppet acts that need their own rehearsals, production, etc., can also prove exhausting. Again, I’m am always amazed at the quality of work that comes out of these events, no matter how quickly planned. Magic does happen!
If you have live music, they should get in on the meetings and planning early. Maybe they send a rep. Dr. Abacus was our house band at a few Puppet Suppers, and they’d come to a few rehearsals to see what’s up and then work it out at the pay-what-you-can dress rehearsal. At Circo Romani, the band showed up late in the process and were rough the first weekend. The dress was bad, so we added a rehearsal. Then they got it. Feast of Fools didn’t do it this way so avoided the problem (They also didn’t really bus things to avoid that problem. Hell, they brought the food in already cooked and just washed trays. we had a few delays with the kitchen, but nothing too bad).
How to Develop the Script
The producer for Circo Romani went to Teatro ZinZanni and timed the night. The show ran really long at three hours so he made romani a two-hour night. That felt right to me, especially after Romani started its run. He timed everything and then I got an actual time/call sheet from ZinZanni’s production. They have the cues for food, performance, etc. down to a science. I recommend that you do that too if that’s the kind of show you want. Feast of Fools wasn’t into that, but they made a “framework” for the show and actually stuck to it. I did have to put a bit of pressure on the kitchen a few times, because the patrons were just sitting around. That’s when live music can help (or waiter improv) to oil those lulls.
The Feast of Fools vibe was chill. No one was in a hurry, and I found myself sitting around some sipping wine instead of running around calling cues (hard to have wireless talk back in about 7 places on no/low budget). They also incorporated video and talks which worked well in that setting.
Other ways that I have been a part of include: writing the script early and incorporating changes during the rehearsal process, having no script at all and working it out right before the show (not recommended), having a framework and changing it according to who’s in the show (ZinZanni does this), creating a story and work-shopping the script. Many things can get left out if you don’t think about them: food course cues, bussing cues, pauses to allow audience to buy drinks or go to the bathroom, etc.
When the show is running you should post an outline of the show backstage, in the AV booth, and in the kitchen.
Costuming has proven sticky and can get forgotten. You might want one person on that (Feast of Fools kept this loose and the clowns came up with their own costumes based upon a theme)
Set/table dressing can get put aside too. Romani had an amazing set and lost money on it (the producers built it themselves and burned out the first week of the run) while the Feast of Fools set volunteer was a no-show. We had basic sets during the Puppet Supper, but would sometimes need a volunteer to strike items.
Thinking of letting folks in who don’t want to eat? Usually not a good idea but Romani had rows of general admission seating in the back and they didn’t get served (but bought booze). ZinZanni doesn’t let people not eat, and I’ve had problems with folks eating who didn’t pay for it during early Puppet Supper runs.
Hmm, how to feed the crew and performers: Feast of Fools did it best with a scheduled in shift meal before the doors opened. We ate what was left afterwards too. If you’re still running around setting up at the very end, then the shift meal may not work. At Romani, we were given a few catered dinners (cooked by staff) at the beginning, but ended up eating leftovers from the main meal for the rest of the run.
Keeping the early stages of the production simple is the key, so the producer should watch out for those late-in-the-curve ideas (unless they’re easy to implement and someone else can do it). Trying to light some things via a regular grid system may prove difficult/expensive, but if you have a ringer lighting person, then I’m sure they can work it out.
Don’t count on volunteers unless you have a solid base who are dedicated to the cause. Julia Butterfly Hill comes to mind as an amazing dedicated Puppet Supper volunteer who would work all night for a weekend straight if she could schedule it. I have seen miracle volunteers show up who worked their asses off during many of the Puppet Suppers. I always bless the dishwasher volunteers: they are the unsung heroes. You should try to figure out the volunteer situation as early as possible too. It usually doesn’t end up being a problem but is always stressful to coordinate. It usually always works out!
Promotions should be done by a dedicated person, most likely a producer. I am good with this, so would usually do it for the dinner shows I have produced. Make flyers, posters, and post the event to web sites and event lists. Make a press release and send it to all the calendars you can. One thing I have done for Puppet Supper posters is to put tear-away info squares at the bottom. Usually you see those on for-sale flyers, but I think it’s a great way to get reservations.
Reservations should be coordinated by a producer if possible. It has become easy to set up ticket sales online, but some coordination needs to be done at the box office to make sure that you do not oversell or break up parties. Make sure you clearly state when the deadline is for late arrival. I also recommend no refunds to no-shows. For the Puppet Supper, I kept simple reservation lists and would bring them to the show for the Head Waiter or Maitre ‘d to use to set up the tables and seating arrangements. Most reservations usually show up.
Accounting should also be handled by a producer. They should take all the receipts and work out the profits and losses for the run. Most of the dinner theater shows I’ve helped with do not start with a set budget. We tried with Puppet Supper IV and did pretty well. You should decide early what will be funded and what won’t to avoid confusion and anger. One year, a performer spent money on his act and thought that we would cover it. To avoid argument, we did. At the end of the shows, I like to present the profit and loss sheet to the cast and crew. For Puppet Supper, we would offer everyone a share of the profits, and would have a party to hand the cash out. I always kept the books open and allowed folks to tally up the receipts themselves if they disagreed with the totals. All of the productions I have been in have broken even or ahead. The best-funded DIY event, Circo Romani, lost the most money. But it was a beautiful show with cast and crew that actually got paid a decent stipend or wage. Volunteer fundraisers like Feast of Fools and Puppet Supper III did great because no one got paid.