Tastemaker Profile: Nate Koch
Nate Koch: The Creative Force Behind NYC's Immersive Theatre
For those who have never seen the original production of Sweeney Todd or the film starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, it’s a gruesome story. A wrongly convicted barber under the fake name of Sweeney Todd returns to London for revenge. Teaming with Mrs. Lovett who owns a pie shop, Sweeney Todd begins slicing customer’s throats. The bodies are then used for the meat in her pies. Everyone loves the pie, business booms, but Sweeney’s hunger to kill the judge that ruined his life leads him on a bloody path to his own death.
It was only appropriate, then, that the first thing we did was eat pie. The Barrow Street Theatre downtown was completely transformed into a small dinky Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop, the London establishment where this immersive production began. We got our pie—we went with veggie— and drink, cafeteria style, before getting ushered to our seats. Sitting along a bar behind the communal tables that were later used by the performers, we couldn’t help but notice the details of the decor. The color of the walls was sort of a sickly green. There was a bar with bric-a-brac and bottles behind it, a menu was mounted on the wall, and there were steps leading up to Sweeney’s bloody barber shop. That’s about it. The show happened to us, around us, on top of the communal tables but the show was as intimate as it was immersive. The cast was small, most doubled as the chorus. There was a clarinetist, pianist and violinist tucked in the right hand corner, even the lighting was mostly candlelit, giving a warm and eerie vibe.
Producer Nate Koch has been in the New York immersive theatre scene for the past ten years but theatre is too limiting a word to describe his experience. He’s built an interdisciplinary career around what he loves— transforming spaces and the theatricality of experience. He began as the associate producer during the development of Sleep No More and later was one of the producers on Queen of the Night in New York City. He’s worked with David Korins Design as a designer and consultant for Broadway, television, concerts, and restaurants such as Florian Café in New York City. He was a VP of Creative Development & Business Affairs for Superfly. He was involved in the conceptual design for Bonnaroo Festivals and Outside Lands and a creative producer for the 2016 Google I/O Conference In 2016, he opened his own boutique producing company ENVEEKAY for immersive experiences. Nate is living testament of how creative the job of a producer can be.
Rogue had the chance to sit down with this multi-talented artist and discuss immersive theatre, what it means to be a producer, and how to balance a career both on and off Broadway.
ROGUE: Talk to us a little about the production of Sweeney Todd—what were its origins?
Nate: The production has a great story. Rachel Edwards, our lead producer, has a small theater company called the Tooting Arts Club. She’s a former actor but was born and raised Tooting, a neighborhood in the south of London, and continues to live there. The company is an attempt to bring culture and theatre to that area. I don’t know what the equivalent would be in LA but it would be an area that’s hustling and bustling but you wouldn’t normally equate with entertainment or “culture-making.” That’s the gist. She would call her work site-specific or a term she uses is “site-reactive…”
N: Yes, and the need for to be “site-reactive” was less about being sexy, or cool, and “of-the-moment”, but rather to respond to the fact that in Tooting there weren’t any theatre spaces available. On Selkirk Road, which is Tooting’s version of High Street, there’s a shop called Harrington’s. It’s the oldest continuously operating pie and mash shop in London. It opened in 1908. It’s an inexpensive, blue-collar meal - about £2.50, sort of akin to a bagel shop, or diner, in New York. She would pass it all the time and think “oh that’s a really beautiful old place” and across the street was a barber shop. It would constantly remind her, being a theatre person, of Sweeney Todd. After about five years, she got the courage to speak to Bev, who owns Harrington's, and asked, "would you ever be interested in letting me do a theatre show in here?" Without much fanfare Bev said, “yeah.” Rachel was elated but horrified because it meant she had to really do it. She spoke to the barber shop across the street and asked “Is there any world in which you might have a spare room that we could use for our box office and bar?" And they were like, “as a matter of fact we do!” So it became this amazing star-crossed thing. Our Director, Bill Buckhurst, initially asked himself how are we going to do this? So he locked himself in the space for five hours one day and really figured it out. His thought was to completely embrace the space and that it couldn’t feel like a theatre at all. He brought in Simon Kenny, the Designer, and they decided that the props used in the show should be limited to things that would actually be found in a pie and mash shop. Then he brought in Amy May, the lighting designer, and said we should walk in and not feel like we are in a theatre. The lighting should be exactly how it is inside the shop. That was the genesis for doing the first 25 minutes in candlelight because in that space, because it was so small, they could. And it could harken back to the Victorian era being portrayed.
R: This is what we love about these types of shows, there’s such a whimsical element to how these tend to get made. How did the show move to New York?
N: Our press agent, Adrian Bryan-Brown, had been in London - and a friend recommended that he go to Tooting to see Sweeney. He was so mesmerized by it that he urged Sondheim—who was traveling to London to see another of his shows being performed—to see it, too. He loved it. After the show, he shared this beautiful tidbit with the company, that when he was originally writing Sweeney Todd that he was interested in creating a “chamber of horrors” onstage, and that the Tooting Arts Club production lived very much within that original intent. After a brief run, the show unfortunately had to close—hilariously because Harrington’s was undergoing a renovation, so they said to themselves, “well, that was fun but it’s time to move on." But then, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who had spoken to Sondheim, phoned Rachel after the closing, and said “we’ve got this vacant nightclub you can use for a few months for free…” And so Harrington’s was re-built from scratch. In doing so, Rachel and her team doubled the audience capacity. And Harrington’s was still involved. They would transport and serve pie and mash before each show at the “new” Harrington’s. As for New York, Rachel had always been interested in doing it here. She was connected initially to Jenny Gersten, and I’m beyond thankful to say that Jenny introduced me to the project. And in another stroke of luck, we got in touch with Scott Morfee (who runs the Barrow Street Theatre) who turns out to be a true Sweeney-phile, having seen the original production on Broadway umpteen times.
R: Why do you think there is such an energy around Sweeney Todd...why do people love it so much?
N: Yeah, it’s a good question. It's funny right? Because on face value you wouldn’t expect it. It’s sort of about cannibalism. It’s bloody, it’s dark. But I think there’s something about the human desire for making things right. There’s a support for the underdog. If you start to analyze it, it’s all these people in London trying to get ahead. I think that’s interesting, it takes place in London, written by an American, and it really does feel like an American story. And the music is so brilliantly written.
R: So why Barrow Street?
N: It has all the wonderful parts of a theater without feeling like one. You come into the lobby and it feels like the community center it is, with all sorts of people of all ages intersecting throughout the day. It feels cared about, but not fancy. So we redesigned the shop again, tile by tile, wall by wall, inside the Barrow Street Theatre. We wanted to preserve some of that magic from the UK production, which was complicated logistically, but maintaining that level of authenticity both to original production and the new locale was vital.
R: So what about the pies before the show?
N: Ha! Yes, it wasn’t like Harrington’s could fed-ex them right? The pre-show pie and mash was such an important element of the production so we wanted to preserve that. It was a quite challenge—creatively, logistically—but we saw it as an opportunity to further the authenticity of the experience and to find someone we could collaborate with. And then in a serendipitous turn of events, we got led to the great Bill Yosses, who had just finished his stint as the White House pastry chef for President Obama, and before him, President Bush. (Fun fact: President Obama dubbed him “The Crustmaster.") Over a series of months, we worked closely with him to develop the many creative strands that go into the meal: the recipe, plating of the food, service style, cutlery, tablescapes, etc. And we also managed to figure out a business model that maintained a reasonable price point for our audience. It was an enormous collaboration, and one that I’m so proud of and thankful for.
R: The immersive theatre experience differs from conventional theatre. You’ve created a career where you’ve produced both on Broadway, off-Broadway, with Randy Weiner and his company Variety Worldwide… so how did you get into producing?
N: My brain really thrives in thinking about creative and dramaturgical issues, storytelling issues and design questions. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an architect. Later on, I studied directing, and from there, worked a lot in production design. Those experiences swelled together into a real hunger and desire to learn the business side. All three of my main mentors: Joey Parnes, Randy Weiner, and Jeremy Blocker make decisions based on a beautiful hybrid of creative and business issues. And throughout my career, I have seen time and again how reciprocal they are. The truth is: you only have ever have a limited amount of money to spend on making the art. So one of the most creative things one can do as a producer is to confidently determine where to allocate those resources; what to stand behind and name as vital and important.
R: So what would be your definition of a producer be?
N: A problem-solver and (laughs) a peace process negotiator...
R: What’s the biggest misconception about a producer?
N: I don’t know that they’re evil? I'm joking, I don't think people still think that but there is sometimes a misconception that producers are solely concerned with financial gain and that ticket prices are set astronomically high toward that objective. Tickets for entertainment in NYC are expensive. I’m certainly sensitive to that. When I produce a show, it’s a key focus on mine to ensure that the next generation of audiences and the artistic community can see the show at a reasonable price—not only for me, but them. That being said, it’s incredibly expensive- and risky! - to put on a show with excellent talent and artistic/production integrity in NYC. That’s why I’m resistant to working in typical or standard business model paradigms or collaborative relationships. I’m always interested in structuring things, creatively and financially, in ways that feel germane to the show we are making.”
R: How much of your week is spent putting out fires?
N: It’s like any doctor. In a way, I try and do preventive care much more than emergency room care. I try to check in with everyone as much as possible with as much long-term strategic planning as I can.
R: How did you first get into immersive theatre?
N: Well, in college I studied abroad in Ghana. I was going there to really get away from the theatre. I’d been in a dark room, for a long time, six semesters, and I needed to get out. It was there that I fell in love with the idea of culture, performance and theatrical experiences that don’t have the typical rules and frameworks that we associate with theatre. The community experience was extremely rich. Part of that is because is that there are less definitions, rules and systems that have been codified. Going to a market felt like an extraordinary experience. Everything was interactive. Coming back, the idea of making a piece that lives on a stage, with an audience that is inert, looking in one direction, in the dark, it feel less enticing. That was complicated because if I was trying to make it in the theatre then I had to go to broadway. And I was bent out of shape about it. A couple years later I worked with Randy Weiner, who became a mentor, and really started to learn about atypical non-traditional performance.
R: That leads into our next question. Now we’re talking about Randy Weiner, who with his company Emursive, brought Sleep No More to New York, and with whom you produced Queen of the Night. How did you get involved there? How did you get involved there?
N: I met Randy in 2009 when he and Simon Hammerstein (his partner at Variety Worldwide) were working with CBS Radio on a pop-up Halloween club in Times Square called “Purgatorio." It was a riff on Dante’s Inferno, and each of the three floors of the club were dedicated to Purgatory, Heaven, and Hell. I came on board as associate producer. It was an incredibly quick creative process; there was no script per se but we were “writing by designing,” led by David Korins who was a lead creative voice. We took a ton of artistic risks including inserting people into their own funerals and locking them inside spinning caskets. It really opened me up to the hybridization of theater and nightlife. I remember inviting my friends and saying: I have no idea what this is, but I think you’ll love it.
R: Can you talk about Sleep No More?
N: I worked with Randy and the Punchdrunk creative team on exploring how to transfer the show in Boston, which was in an abandoned public school, to a space in New York. If you’ve seen the show, it requires a massive amount of space, so we were trying to find a piece of real estate that would work. I was absolutely floored by the artistic integrity and ambition of the show and learned an unbelievable amount from analyzing it from the standpoint of venue acquisition, timeline, creative translation, budget…
R: So you guys were trying to imagine yourselves as audience members moving through the space?
N: We'll often use the phrase “performance architecture”...to describe where the audience is and where the characters are and how are they functioning in relationship to one another...
R: And why do you call it architecture?
N: It is the foundation of the kinetic part of the experience. It’s quite architectural in that these are the building blocks of what make the thing. So for Queen of the Night, one of the first things I did was I wrote what I would call an “audience POV.” I wrote a version of the entire piece in first person. So I pretended that it was a guy who was meeting his girlfriend at the show. It was his journey getting off the 2 train, going through Times Square, walking up this street, not knowing really what the building looks like. Then he gets there, he’s in a line, someone asks him for his ID. Then the question is who is he talking to? Who is asking him for his ID? In an immersive experience those things are all a part of the story. What a bouncer looks like, what they’re wearing, the words they are using, are all just as important as what happens inside.
R: In that case, literally, everyone is a character...
N: It’s totally true! I remember going to a nightclub one night that I was working with on a new project. I approached the doorman, gave him my name, and he totally batted me away. So I stood off to the side - slightly confused - and he called me over about 10 minutes later. Once inside, he slapped my hand, gave me a hug, and said: "good to see you Nate!” Everything is a performance. Many club owners I’ve spoken to say that the performance of being treated like shit outside on the line is exactly what clubgoers want, that it only increases the experience of the night out.
R: Now it seems that site-specific experiences are much more of the norm. Why do you think this is where theatre is going? Why do audiences crave these types of experiences?
N: I’ve always been a video game player, not obsessive but interested. There are certain video games called ‘sandbox games,” like Grand Theft Auto, where there’s a narrative but you can also just roam and explore the world at your own speed. People who are interested in these types of shows like to explore worlds. Sometimes when you go to a more traditional theatre show, which I still have great love and admiration for, it can feel a little stale. You have a phone in your pocket, you’re pressing and swiping. We play a much larger role in the things we’re looking at and interacting with then we did years before.The other thing is that we are in the Golden Age of television. It’s never been easier to access narratives from TV and we want to be more involved in the story. We want more agency. It’s a perfect response to that. Colin Nightingale from Punch Drunk would say “I think we miss being kids…” that feeling of going out in the yard and exploring a little too far into the woods. I feel like immersive theatre is like an amethyst rock where on the outside it looks very bland and boring, you would never think of picking it up, and then there is this unbelievable geode inside.
R: We don’t know much about the producorial world but it feels like you are rare, in that you come from the creative world, so a big part of the way YOU approach your job is creative…
N: It was accidental but I enjoy it because it lets me be involved in all the different conversations. For instance, on Sweeney, I was having a conversation with the pie maker, graphic designer, marketing company, our press team, casting people and then we built a pie shop. It was an amazing moment in my career when we put the building permit outside the theatre because we worked so hard to get that. For me it was actually a piece of marketing because the pie shop was being built! So I got on the phone with Rachel and Simon. I told them that whenever I worked on a restaurant we put up butcher paper outside and put the permit on it because we didn’t want anyone to see inside. Simon said that I was way too excited about this. Maybe no one saw that, but it was so exciting to me because it was form, it was a legal thing but we were paying homage to how it’s actually done. I will never tire of that. That’s why i’ll never take on too many projects because I don’t wanna be too far from those conversations because if I were, I would default to whatever I’d normally do which to me is the big danger.
R: Would you attest that what’s made you so successful as a producer is the fact that you are… so detail oriented?
N: Hm. I’ve realized I’m much more type-A than I ever thought I was. I thought I was much more hippy dippy and like go with the flow… but I obsess about the details and to a degree that makes me a little mental.
R: We’ve seen Sleep No More and experienced Queen of the Night and now we’ve been captivated by Sweeney Todd. There’s an acute awareness of the entire experience — from leaving to see the show, taking the subway, the first person we’re going to meet there — there's a feeling that every single part of this, down to the door knobs, has been accounted for...
N: I just read a book about Keith McNally, and the founding of Balthazar, his iconic restaurant. And I realized that, without having ever met him, Keith McNally is one of my producing mentors. He says that he’s not a chef, or a designer, or architect, or sommelier, but rather lives at the intersection of all of them. He’s consumed with how people “feel” inside his restaurants. This is all I’m trying to do. How do we deal with our audience? At Balthazar, apparently they never ask if anyone has a reservation because they don’t want anyone to feel bad, or strange, if they don't. I love that because it is a simple, structured way of practicing one’s values and spirit and “feel.” So there's an inherent quality control built in for both the staff and audience and it gives the staff a structure to play within.
R: If you were to really think about it, a city in it of itself IS an immersive experience. Each city makes you feel a certain way. Just the architecture of the city supports that feeling. NY is really concentrated, the buildings, you can feel that energy surging through the streets because of the design of the city. It’s on an island, it’s contained whereas in LA, sometimes it can feel like being lost in the ether...because it’s so spread out.
N: Yeah, and we would say a city that doesn't have a great public transportation system has a bad front of house, in a way...right? People can’t get where they gotta go. To talk to my NY friends and LA friends, how they spend their transit time is vastly different. LA I think will really get into podcasts because of the car time. It’s interesting how much it informs so much of our experience.
R: Your career has such a large scope. So many different spaces, restaurants, Off-Broadway, Broadway, bringing things over internationally, you’ve also been a director, designer with David Korins where you designed for TV, restaurants, concerts… you’ve had such a vast experience...do you see a through-line?
N: I always come back to feeling inspired by spaces, transformative locations, and the rituals or performances that occur inside them. Clearly this isn’t a new idea—look at the incredible churches, mosques, and other places of worship throughout the world—but I am continuously excited about examining spaces and theater and ritual in the age of the iPhone. (laughs)
R: What are you working on next?
N: I’m working on a number of exciting projects but unfortunately I can’t speak about them at the moment. One I can talk about is KPOP, an immersive musical that just concluded it’s initial run at Ars Nova. It's an attempt to mash together an authentically K-Pop experience with an American audience. It’s an incredibly ambitious piece by a phenomenal creative team. In many ways it feels like a major departure from typical immersive storytelling methods. And it has some of the greatest original music I’ve ever heard. I feel like a 14-year-old again, wearing out the cassette tape from overuse.
R: Lastly, where do you see theatre going in the future? How will it survive in the modern day with social media and shorter attention spans?
N: The refrain of "the theater is dead" or "the theater is dying" is a familiar one, but I believe the theater will live on, and strongly. But to do so, we must continue to hybridize - whether we're in a warehouse or nightclub, on a street corner or rooftop, or even on Broadway. Broadway, after all, brought us the great American musical - an experience that so marvelously synthesizes story, plot, character choreography, and stage craft into a marvelous new form. But in 2017, and the years ahead, the stakes are higher. And there are more toys to play with, and other fields with whom to collaborate. And collaboration is what we do, after all. So we have a phenomenal opportunity to serve as a breeding ground for new types of experiences that bring disparate entertainment genres and technologies together. What happens when a chef, augmented reality programmer, video game designer, real estate executive, and team of theater directors, writers, designers, and performers get in a room? I don't know, but that is the room I desperately want to facilitate coming together and to lead.
Sweeney Todd is currently in performances at Barrow Street Theatre in New York City.
Written by Maria Mocerino