It was the end of the summer of 2007, and Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant was threatening to end my relationship with my not-yet-husband. We were lost in Bushwick on a steamy August afternoon, desperately searching for the Bushwick Starr, a vanguard performance venue we’d never heard of. (Later we noticed that it was helpfully labeled by a star placed above the door). The street looked desolate. We scowled, vowing to not speak to each other for the rest of the night. Then, at the critical moment when we were about to abandon our tickets and return to Manhattan, we suddenly realized a line had formed behind us. A man appeared in a gleaming black suit and red tie (he was later identified as “Redman #2”), with slicked back hair and a cigarette dancing on his lips, telling us to please wait patiently. And just like that, what could have been the typical, relationship-ending-“we’re lost”-New-York-City fight melted away with the silky voice of a chain-smoking doorman-cum-lounge singer welcoming us to what would surely be the seminal performance of Premature Labor Days.
Taking the phrase “culinary arts” literally, Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant is an elaborate meal choreographed as a show with musical numbers, disguised as a restaurant—no matter what, it’s impossible to extrapolate the culinary from the arts. Since 2006, when the restaurant birthed its first creation, the shows have straddled the line between brilliance and insanity. Rules of engagement are helpfully laid out for you. Upon arrival, you are immediately informed that “this is not dinner theater.” Also: “You can’t order but you can ask for seconds.” And: “What happens in the restaurant stays in the restaurant.” But this is better and weirder than Vegas. If you are particularly lucky, Miss Conni Convergence herself—with her legendary cooking prowess—might possibly arrive to greet her guests. (It hasn’t happened yet, though rumors abound.) A credible source says: “I saw her at Joe’s Pub with my own eyes, and there are photographs of it but some people claim that it was not her or that the photos are fakes.” It’s this intoxicating blend of secrecy and absurdity that transforms the evening into an epic experience.
Everything at the restaurant defies expectation and easy labeling, even if some things at first seem familiar. A nametag, a spatula, a soup pot—each has the innate possibility of performance. The first stop for the evening is a “warm-in” where you’re treated to a libation by a cowboy-hat-topped barkeep and asked to collect your nametag. They’re already written out for you, names and all. My tag from 2007 still resides on my fridge: “B.J.’s Momma’s Baby Daddy.” Choosing your own identity is in itself a form of engagement—how better to break the ice than to introduce yourself by your new ridiculous name?! —as well as protection—how better to roam through the evening in semi-obscurity than under the guise of your new ridiculous name?!
Alternate identity is a prevalent theme and creative playground for Conni and her crew. Theirs is a world inhabited by endearingly demented characters whose every vocal elaboration and idiosyncratic facial tic is part of the performance. The stage is everywhere and the show is everything. The event is meta and self-aware, yet painfully, awkwardly genuine. It’s as if you’ve entered a home for wayward souls. When Sue James (General Manager of the restaurant) scowls around pre-show, serving re-pitted dates, you can’t help but acknowledge the futility of their situation (hopelessly devoted to Miss Conni because they have nowhere else to go) and the lengths to which they’ll go to impress their guests (let me repeat: re-pitted dates).
But wait, are we talking about the actors or the characters? Sometimes, it’s hard to tell.
The bios of the Miss Conni’s disciples are primers both to the history of avant-garde theater and gems of literature in their own right. For example:
Peters Character (one of the greatest performers of his generation). A member of Miss Conni’s inner circle since the age of 4, Peters has been present for the creation of all of her seminal works, including FRAGRANCE, dystopia redux, Cravings and LungFishDungPile, to name but a few.
Lady Crimson (musician and aerial artist) began her career as a small child in the Moscow Circus. She alienated audiences around the world with her shape-shifting blend of hypnotic tenderness and terrifying passion, until the unfortunate rigging scandal involving Haakon, Crown Prince of Norway.
While their pedigree is unprecedented, the motley clan feels vaguely familiar. It’s akin to family reunion with the requisite intimidation level: you don’t want to get in trouble and you want them to like you. Yet you can’t win them over, because above all, their loyalty is to Miss Conni and to their art.
The restaurant is ripe with tongue-in-cheek humor. In one performance, audience members were invited to read inane lines of text to each other later revealed to be lifted from the 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Dinner With Friends. Indeed, the group hungrily consumes the entire canon of theater, thriving on cliché and pouring on the schmaltz to re-serve it as something utterly fresh and surprising. Each show grapples with the existential condition of the ensemble and often pivots around Muffin Character Hanshake (“deviser of original work”) and her decision to have a child. Naturally, such a momentous life-changing event has serious ramifications for her co-performers. Underneath this predicament, Miss Conni’s artistic concerns run deeper. The aforementioned Sue James revealed more to the audience (perhaps with the help of “D” the Resident Dramaturg):
March Madness Mealtime looked at the relationships between physical pain, madness, and genius. Mayday Mayday looked at the tradeoffs of the choice to pursue art in a world of commodification.
At its root, each performance explores the absurdity of creating theater and the impossibility of giving it up. But this adventure is not solely cerebral. If there’s one thing that you can count on, you will be served soup. Really, really good soup. (For those attending the upcoming Irondale performance, you’ll be treated to cucumber gazpacho.) Even while contemplating life, death and motherhood, Muffin and her compatriots will not let you go hungry.
Indeed, perhaps the most important ingredient in Miss Conni’s recipes is sustenance. You eat family-style at long tables with friends and strangers while dishes are served as part of the choreography of a classic rock song like “Rock n Roll Suicide.” Eating food presented via ballad tends to imbue the atmosphere with giddy excitement. The ingredients for the meal are connected to the place, usually locally grown and produced. In Cleveland, they even found a kindred spirit in a local pastry chef: ChefChef BonBon. The communal feeling that’s established in Conni’s world is rare and one which sustains you long after you’ve left the table. This shared meal is a vehicle for something larger. On a blog called the Ashden Directory, a publication devoted to green issues and the performing arts, Carolyn Steel (architect, lecturer, and author of Hungry City) recentlytapped into that notion, “The table is a place where you don’t just share food, but you share ideas, you share love, you share conversation.”
Lifting the veil to see the inner mechanics at play, you’ll find Connie Hall, one of the founders and the Producing Director of Conni’s Restaurant. Thanks in part to being chosen as a recipient of the ERPA (Economic Revitalization for Performing Artists) grant administered by the Field, Connie attended the Culinary Management Program at the Institute of Culinary Education in preparation for her role as the restaurant’s manager (both in real life and when in character). In one of her posts on the ERPA blog, she makes a convincing case for the similarity between theater and restaurants. Both are continually threatened, often outdated and constantly innovating how to sustain an income and an audience. One might say they have a symbiotic relationship with their diners/audience, requiring devotees to cultivate and consume. Despite this insight, Connie writes, “I strongly believe that we theater artists are uniquely qualified to create live experiences that are more memorable and transformative than any restaurant.”
The evolution of dinner theater seems to be gaining some traction of late and Conni’s is not the only example of an unexpected restaurant with theatrical flair. Take another recent twist: a six-course gourmet lunch served on the L train to 12 lucky (and bewildered) diners. A Razor, A Shiny Knife—a company described as “an educational, social and theatrical culinary experience”—hosted the meal, which spanned from 14th Street and 8th Avenue to Canarsie and was impressively served on real china and silverware. Inconceivable transformations of space and elegant logistical feats can be absolutely exhilarating (though personally, my appetite for foie gras would not be stimulated by an incoming blast of the L train platform at Third Avenue).
Recently, Charles Isherwood, New York Times theater reviewer, took a slightly more conventional route: a dinner at Aldea in a seat facing the kitchen. Upon watching the distilled theatrics of Chef George Mendes, Isherwood pondered, “Good food enhances the joy we may take in life, but can it really express a vision of life the way art can? I’m sure there are many who would argue the point.”
Indeed, Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant will keep on arguing, one fantastical meal after another.