This year, as we’ve already reported, 26 productions were so popular at the box office they earned extensions and 5 productions were co-produced and played or will play in each company’s theatres. But for one, the response was so overwhelming, the producing company not only found another location, but sees demand to produce it in 2020.
That show is The Smuggler from Solas Nua. We talked with Rex Daughtery, Solas Nua’s artistic director, who performs the solo show, and his director Laley Lippard.
The solo show follows a struggling Irish immigrant named Tim Finnegan, who addresses the audience from behind a bar on the island of Amity in wealthy Martha’s Vineyard. He dives into an illegal underworld and the play becomes Finnegan’s confession, told entirely in rhyme.
When Daugherty saw Ronán Noone’s The Smuggler in New York at Origin Theatre Company’s first Irish Theater Festival, he immediately started conceptualizing a DC show in an immersive environment.
“It wasn’t produced in a bar, but here was this story of an Irish immigrant who was struggling in the United States and he could not achieve the American Dream without criminality,” he says. “I thought that was such an interesting way to look at the American Dream as it relates to non-documented workers and immigration.”
Daugherty also thought the play was really funny and the opportunity to talk about this subject in a comedic, almost roast way, was interesting to him both as a performer and producer.
“He is a bartender, so I thought it would work great set in a bar where we served drinks,” he says. “It was a chance to have a conversation about immigration but in a very friendly, disarming way, like you would in a bar.”
He set out a plan to perform the show in Allegory, a 30-seat cocktail bar tucked away behind the Radical Library on the first floor of the Eaton DC hotel on 12th and K Northwest. His idea included mixing cocktails for the audience.
Daugherty met with director Laley Lippard about his vision and the two quickly shared a symbiotic love with the play.
“I could see in Rex someone who thought about immersive theater in a really radical, out-of-the-box way,” she says. “Plus Ronán’s piece, the way he can spin a rhyme to make it feel like butter and create an image that is so palpable and yet so off-handed is truly genius. The script itself piqued my interest and made me inspired.”
She notes there was something special about The Smuggler from the outset.
“When Rex and I first had a conversation about this piece, we spoke the same language; there was a synergy and a resonance around the piece that felt very magical,” Lippard says. “For me, aside from the clear pointers of how I thought the production would be successful, there was this incredible core bond. Here we were, two artists who also functioned as producers, who were deeply inside of this poetic and powerful work.”
“From the get-go, Laley and I both knew that the Allegory was a really amazing place, and it was fortuitous that the week we opened, Time Magazine released an article that listed Eaton as one of the Top 100 places on earth,” Daugherty says. “That was unexpected, and we thought it was really cool.”
And while hopes were high that the show would play well with audiences, no one expected it to take the journey it did. The show had a successful, sold-out run Sept. 8 through Oct. 6, and then moved to the dramatically renovated bar at Round House Theatre in Bethesda for another sold-out run, November 1-13.
“We expected it to sell well because all of our site-specific shows have been box office hits for us,” Daugherty says. “Still, there was a lot we didn’t plan, because how could you know? We had no idea we would be extending three times and then moving it to Round House because shows in D.C. don’t usually move up to bigger theaters.”
But once the original run sold out quickly, Daugherty started looking for ways to keep this going for other audiences, and the Round House opportunity got on his radar.
“Round House was actually our third venue, because we had one show at the Mansion on O Street, which stripped away all of the cocktails and bartending, and Laley and I restaged it for just an open room,” Daugherty says. “There were about 80 to 100 people there, and it was almost like going back into rehearsal to really focus on the story. The effect of that was I learned that it became lager than it was in the storytelling device. The story took more of a dynamic step.”
Back at a bar in Round House, it could return to a more intimate story, despite running in a space that was two-and-a-half times bigger than the original Allegory space.
Of course, moving to a different space meant some changes in the show.
“Given that the space becomes another character—there’s not a designer who has built something specifically for us—there were so many changes, so many different nuanced and detailed changes,” Lippard says. “The way Rex interacts with the space, the actual geography of the space itself to how close the audience was to him. Plus, the sense of the largeness of this space. Not only the architecture, but the fact that it is in a theater and those who arrive are in a different headspace than a patron who shows up at a bar ready to drink.”
Speaking of drinks, Daugherty also made some changes to his bartending skills at Round House. At Eaton, he only served two types of cocktails because he was just learning to bartend, but at Round House, he was so much more comfortable mixing drinks, the menu was expanded to include five different drinks.
Not that the story changed at all. The perspective and intentions of Daugherty’s character remained the same, as he skillfully recited his 9,000 words in rhyme.
“For me as a performer, the biggest thing that changed is that it became slightly more heightened in its theatricality,” Daugherty says. “It remained an intimate cocktail immersive theater piece.”
The Smuggler will continue to live in 2020 for Daugherty and Lippard, as it’s coming back to Round House from Jan. 2-12. That run is nearly sold out.
“It’s obviously something that has been resonating with audiences and we are actively exploring other venues, other cities and other ways to find a bigger platform for this story because the audience response has been so overwhelming,” Daugherty says. “The audience has told us to keep the ball in the air here and keep exploring how to get this to new people.”