At a Show:UP! dinner party, audience members don't just sit and eat, they become part of the show.
The theater felt limiting for William Bryant Miles — no eating, no talking, no phones. Crossed legs, hands folded and clapping when appropriate. He wanted something less restrictive and more immersive. So, the Bed-Stuy native teamed up with his former Howard classmate and actor friend Nickolas Vaughan to create Show:UP!, an unconventional theater experience that fuses elements of improv with an actual dinner party.
"If people want to eat and drink in the theater, let them have cake. I don't see eating and drinking as a threat," said Miles who wants guests to connect at their shows. "A play can be the most emotionally moving piece. But if you and I don't come to the play together, we probably won't talk to each other. And that's not the way our show is built."
At a Show:UP! dinner party audience members don't just sit and eat, they become part of the show. Creative directors Miles and Vaughan build universes, as they call it, storylines for the audiences to interact with each other.
Miles and Vaughan create characters inspired by people they know, and they immerse them in environments which are oftentimes emulating what they'd like to see more of in the world. The universes frequently feature stories about people of color, women in prominent positions of power, or queer relationships who battle with problems outside their queerness. And through that, Miles explained, he has been able to expand horizons for the audiences and create opportunities for his friends.
"I've been able to help artist friends of mine and help audiences see things in different ways," Miles said. "But in some ways, it also frustrates me further because now that I see it really isn't that hard — it's not that hard to find a black actress. And we're not writing about aliens on the moon. We're writing normal stories about a woman owning her own business and everyone being okay with that."
The food is part of the creation, too. With the help of culinary director Shellie Porter, a childhood friend of Miles, the team curates down to the last bite. Porter's menus are all designed in line with the storytelling. One story may call for a multi-course dinner, while another one calls for a taco cart, it all depends on the universe.
All dinners take place in private homes and are very intimate experiences. Miles wants to connect people — people in the neighborhood — who have walked by each other a thousand times and have never had a conversation.
"Being born and raised in Bed-Stuy and living here most of adult life, it is fascinating being inside homes I've been walking by my entire life. We get to see the people who live there and create something new around that," he said, believing that in the intimate setting of Show:UP! people can truly connect. "It's a very subtle experience, but there's a certain theatricality to it, about exploring humanity and making people have meaningful connections."
During the election year, Show:UP! held a show in Detroit. At the table sat Trump supporters, serious liberals and everyone in between.
"By the end of the night, everyone was exchanging phone numbers. No one challenged anyone's politics. People were able to find what connected them rather than what kept them separate," Miles remembered. "That's been a lot of fun to see that happen. Especially the way Brooklyn has been changing."
Since 2014, the team has built over ten different universes and 25 characters. Usually, these universes exist only for the night of the show. However, their most recent project, City of Dreams, will return on Saturday, April 28, for its third episode. The narrative carries from one party to the next, yet the audience is immersed in the same world.
If you want to learn more about this unique theater dinner experience, go here. The next location will be revealed to ticket holders 24 hours prior to the event. And if it is your first experience, the team will catch you up on what you missed. Just Show:UP!