For local production company No Exit, any space in the city can potentially be transformed into a performance venue, no matter how big or how small. This will again be the case when they present a dinner-theater show in the middle of Indianapolis restaurant Mesh on Mass.
Described as "A Romance in Four Courses," the alternative Valentine's Day event was inspired by Mesh's diverse menu and the interpersonal relationships forged while dining with loved ones. With this in mind, the show is accompanied by four courses of food and wine pairings, each coinciding with the progression of one couple's relationship around a table. Alongside the pair of performers (Jonathyn Carey and Simon Pawlak of Butler University's dance program), there will also be live musical accompaniment provided by Brian Grimm from Madison, Wisconsin.
For the production, award-winning director and choreographer Tommy Lewey of No Exit teamed up with Mesh on Mass chef Aaron Bender to craft a four-course menu to accompany his choreography. In addition to being a part of No Exit, Lewey is also a server and bartender at Mesh, meaning he chats food on a daily basis. But even for him, the process of curating this menu with Bender was difficult.
"We had an initial meeting with the chef, and it was a little bit awkward at first," recalls Lewey of the first time he and No Exit executive director Lukas Schooler chatted with Bender about the show's menu. "As visual and performing artists, we have a way of describing things that non-artsy people have a hard time grasping. So when we were talking to him, we were trying to use emotional descriptive words, and that was something that he couldn't really translate to food."
Eventually, they were able to meet on the idea that the show is about two people coming together. Lewey elaborates, "So the idea was, 'With each course, why don't we have the focus be about two things coming together that aren't usually paired together?'" For example, Lewey explains that the second course will consist of a bruschetta salad paired with a sweet and sour meatball. Since the pre-selected menu does consist of unlikely pairings, however, Lewey admits that it may not be for everyone. "I'd have to say it's definitely for foodies. Ya know, people who are very open to trying new things and not necessarily afraid of a pre-selected menu," says Lewey.
A collaboration between a chef and a director/choreographer is in step with the recent direction of No Exit, explains Schooler. Late last year, Schooler took over as the production company's executive director, filling the shoes of Georgeanna Wade Smith. Upon receiving this new role, he told NUVO arts editor Emily Taylor, that his hope was for No Exit to "break out" of the "formulaic method of what it means to be a theater company." Taking this into consideration, he's quite excited that the company is collaborating with a chef for the first time ever.
"This is an opportunity for us to broaden the idea of who can perform, what performance is, and how art can manifest itself," says Schooler, who also works as a server at Mesh on Mass. "Chefs are artists as well. Chef Bender puts just as much thought and work into a dish as we do for a performance."
With years of experience working in the restaurant industry, Schooler admits that he's wanted to set a performance in a restaurant for years but just never had the resources
"I've been working in restaurants since I was 15. I come from a family of restaurateurs, so I have always had that desire," says Schooler. Unlike most other dinner-theater, this production is unique in that the menu and the show directly speak to each other.
"Traditionally, you're sitting down in a cabaret setting, and you're enjoying a meal while watching a performance," says Schooler. "But, that performance could literally be anything, and that dinner could be a selection off of a wide menu. So they're not necessarily speaking to each other."
Like other No Exit productions, this romance will also allow audience members to feel a part of the show, being that it won't be set on a stage but rather in the middle of a restaurant.
"It's not just sitting in a chair and watching something for two hours," says Lewey. "You actually get to feel like you're participating in the show yourself, which makes the audience engaged and active."
A romance in 4 coures
Feb 21, 5:30 p.m.
Mesh on Mass, 725 Massachusetts Ave