For people who long for the communal experience of grabbing a beer and making conversation with a stranger, there’s a new immersive theater experience for you. At “Overheard At Joe’s,” the audience and performers come together during an improvised performance that asks viewers to become part of a real Manhattan bar’s rich tapestry of characters.
Creator Christian Kelty has been doing a version of the show since it debuted at the 2001 Orlando International Fringe Festival. Previously titled “Joe’s NYC Bar,” it was inspired, Kelty said, by the watering holes he used to visit.
“The old-school New York bars I used to go to, you would go to the bar to talk about life, the universe and everything, engaging with other people.”
Wanting to recreate those experiences, Kelty conceived a show in which audience members mingle at an actual bar with performers. As the “bartender,” Kelty starts the conversation. Though it’s gone through several iterations, the current version, which he developed at the 2017 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, tells a complete, improvised narrative leads to a completely different story every night.
Picture it like stepping into an episode of “Cheers.” There are the usual players, the bar regulars and employees who have relationships with each other and have a reason for coming in night after night. The audience members make up the rest of the cast — and choose whether their roles add to the crux of the story or function more as extras, happy to be in the background of the party with drink in hand.
Even for people who feel a bit shy about the idea of being “onstage” (even if that means in the midst of a busy Theater District bar), the environment is supportive.
“No matter what your point of view is about something, there’s going to be a character that shares your point of view,” Kelty promised, with a caveat: “Unless you’re a complete monster.”
And it’s that audience involvement that makes it such a great show, David Carpenter, one of the show’s producers, said.
“We see that kind of interaction happen every day on Facebook,” he said, emphasizing the importance of the live component in “Joe’s.” “It’s a very raw and vulnerable experience.”
Carpenter’s company Tilted Windmills Theatricals also produces the Off-Broadway Harry Potter comedy sensation “Puffs: or, Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic.” He believes that “Joe’s,” like “Puffs,” might get many repeat viewers, particularly because the show is always different — from performance to performance the lead character changes and the comedy and drama comes from different sources.
It also effectively works just like the bars of yore, before the dawn of the smartphone, in that strangers might just make a new friend, or at least leave hearing a completely different point of view.
“People who may be complete strangers, who might have disagreed with each other, they tend to stick around and hang out after the show,” Kelty said.
Cheers to that.
For information on show times: overheardatjoes.com.