Date of Degree
James F. Wilson
Theatre and Performance Studies | Theatre History
immersive theatre, concert saloons, slumming, Punchdrunk, intoxication
This dissertation contends that the social practice of drinking alcohol is a significant yet under-analyzed factor in the creation of immersive theatrical spaces that house a variety of historic and contemporary performance practices in New York City. Each chapter thereby analyzes intoxication as a phenomenon functioning both physiologically and ideologically within a variety of spaces in New York: the themed, theatrical spaces of mid-nineteenth century concert saloons of lower-Manhattan, segregated jazz clubs of Prohibition-era Harlem, interactive dinner theatre of the late eighties, and contemporary immersive theatre productions by Punchdrunk and Cynthia von Buhler. The claim that unifies these diverse sites of immersive performance, which span over a century-and-a-half of history, is that immersion and intoxication are never ideologically neutral practices; rather, both have played significant roles in reinscribing certain racial, spatial, gendered, and economic inequalities in New York City. As alcohol and temperance historian W. J. Rorabaugh argues, “drinking often occurs in proximity to power,” and this project seeks to outline these proximities within the theatre and performance situation (Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: An International Encyclopedia, Volume 1,19).
Though my analytical focus shifts between producers and consumers of immersive performance across these chapters, one ingredient of immersive experience remains of utmost interest throughout: alcohol, of course, and the various ways that drinking co-produces immersive theatrical space. In chapter one, for example, I focus on the concert saloon’s waiter-girl, who not only sold alcoholic drinks to her patrons, but performed a version of affable, submissive feminine sexuality that played directly into a dominant masculine sporting culture of the time. Chapter two, in turn, shuttles between the perspective of white slummers and black performers at Harlem’s Cotton Club during Prohibition. At a time when drinking was legally taboo but still commonplace, white slummers in Harlem got drunk physically and ideologically on both bootlegged liquor and the fantasy of blackness as exotic, erotic, and primitive. Moving into the 1980s, chapter three focuses on the interrelationships between theatre producers, New York theatre critics, and a population of increasingly entrepreneurial audience members attending early immersive theatre productions such as Tamara and Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. Drinks consumed within these novel theatrical experiences were physically real but fictionally integrated their surrounding immersive world of the play, such as the champagne toasts made in honor of the titular characters of both productions: Tamara, Tony, and Tina. Finally, chapter four focuses on the intentionally vague participatory contracts that are implicit within contemporary immersive theatre spaces such as Sleep No More, which informs participants upon entry that “fortune favors the bold.” This invitation is further blurred by the ubiquitous presence of drinks and drinking, which has emboldened some masked spectators to cross participatory boundaries, thereby increasing the risks for other performers, crew, and audience members sharing the theatrical space. Ultimately, this dissertation aims to prove that while drinking is not part of every spectator’s lived experience of immersive theatre for a variety of reasons, every participant, whether knowingly or not, is still “under the influence” of the spatial and social effects of alcohol when it is made available within public theatre and performance venues.
Edmonson, Chloë R., "Under the Influence: Drinking and Immersion in New York City Theatre and Popular Entertainment, 1850 to Present" (2018). CUNY Academic Works.