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Conni’s Restaurant satisfies the hankering for theater

By Aaron Short

When entering Conni’s Restaurant, an avant garde theater production currently in residence at the Bushwick Starr, there are certain expectations that an audience member should have that are, say, different from the traditional theater experience. Each audience member is an invited guest of Miss Conni Convergence and is encouraged to interact with the performers but there are restaurant rules to follow. First, do not refer to the performers as waiters. They don’t like it. Second, it is polite to hum and make lewd smacking sounds while eating. Third, do not, at any time of the show, refer to the performance as dinner theater. You will be reprimanded sternly. “People come to restaurants and theater, very much as jaded customers and we try to throw people off a bit,” said Connie Hall, a cast member, a.k.a. Little Connie, special liaison to Miss Conni Convergence. “We hope people take the experience as a gift and are surprised. People know they need food but they don’t know they need theater until they get the taste for it.” Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant consists of ten theater performers who write, act and handle all other aspects of the production for their show. Each show follows a similar format where the main arc of the play is interspersed with vignettes and songs that relate to the different courses served to the audience throughout the show. New productions occur every two to six months based on the calendar year, and some of the previous shows include Premature Labor Day, Feast of the Lonely Ghost on Halloween and Oh-Eat Oh-Eight just after New Years. “We open with the kitchen sink scene, then the bee, the bear, and Muffin get into an argument, which leads to the entrance of the doctor,” Hall said, describing the thematic arc that the actors modify for each production. “Usually there’s a pregnancy, whether it’s literal or metaphorical. The seed is planted in the main course and there’s a reprise in the finale.” The performers’ strengths emerge in the productions, as actors take on writing, sound design, set design, songwriting, art directing and catering functions within the producing model. The food is fresh and seasonal, as many of the ingredients for the five-course meal come from local farmers markets. “I feel like we have an interest in taking vaudeville to another level,” said Muffin, one of the main characters in the play. “We do the whole evening in character and the characters have different objectives for how the show goes.” The idea for Conni’s Restaurant was conceived in Maine, where the actors, many of whom attended Columbia University’s MFA program, met on a summer theater production of As You Like it. During the production, the actors discovered they had an easy chemistry and wanted to work together on future projects. “It’s a maturing set of relationships,” Hall said. “The chemistry was already there and that was born in Maine. We lived together and worked together. You don’t expect magic to happen, but when it happens, you need to recognize it and move on it.” In Maine, on top of a nearby hill sat an abandoned diner called Conni’s Restaurant, its doors shuttered from years of neglect. During a cast party after the show, the performers made joking observations about what it would be like if a theater company took over the diner. “There would be noises coming from the kitchen, there would be a pregnant, smoking waitress, etc,” Hall said. “We got back to New York and decided to do it here.” The current show, running on March 21 and 22, is entitled March Madness Mealtime and works off the theme of choosing between genius and happiness. “The madness and the marching might take over,” Hall said. “The group theme of madness is very interesting to us. Each of the actors in the ensemble has a different relationship to madness that will contribute to the show. It’s about the seductiveness of genius and the things that you sacrifice for art.” Conni’s Convergence has developed a strong fan base over the past year, mostly through word of mouth and friends in the theater community. “I just had an unbelievably fun time and I’m coming back with lots of friends,” said a fan, who saw the Oh-Eat-Oh-Ate production. Over the next few months, Connie Hall and the rest of cast want to transform their act into more of a full-time production instead of a side project. “This is pure joy, it really is,” Hall said. “I want it to keep going as much as we can.” Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant will be performing at the Bushwick Starr (207 Starr Street) on March 21 and March 22 at 7 p.m. For tickets and more information, email conniehall@avantgarderestaurant.com

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