When you’re a hip downtown Las Vegas arts venue and COVID kicks your season in the teeth, how do you go on with the show? The Majestic Repertory Theatre found the answer in drive-thru theater.
Majestic Repertory Theatre delivers a drive-thru theater like none other
The Majestic’s creative director Troy Heard has been shaking up the Las Vegas theater scene for years, with a reputation for edgy interactive shows. The pandemic and resulting shutdown presented an artistic challenge to be met with humor and a little social commentary. For three weeks in May, that meant giving audiences a theatrical thrill while they sat in their cars in the alley behind the theater.
“We have a story to tell, and we’ll tell that story in any form, whether it’s a grand spectacle or whether it’s a one-on-one immersive experience or whether it’s an Instagram live story,” Heard said.
Heard closed down the company’s attention-grabbing drive-thru theater May 31, as temperatures in Las Vegas soared and political unrest around the country put a damper on the project’s playful vibe. Now it’s on to the next thing in immersive theater for the award-winning director.
“We’ve got to figure out what the whole audience experience will look like. That’s where we have a much stronger advantage than larger companies,” Heard said. “We’ve been used to creating experiences.”
Think of it as curbside theater
The Majestic Drive-Thru helped keep the Las Vegas theater scene alive for weeks during a period of paralysis for the arts around the country. Heard chalks it up to the company’s outside-the-box approach — and a handy retail license.
In a riff on America’s new curbside pickup culture, Heard came up with a curbside theater experience for fans. Drive-thru customers weren’t going to a show per se. Instead they were picking up a pre-purchased mask and T-shirt — with a very unusual delivery setup that featured everything from burlesque dancers to actors (including Heard) in hazmat suits.
“That was sort of our in. Because we’re retail, we could sell T-shirts and masks, we could do curbside. But nothing said that you couldn’t do curbside with a flair,” Heard said.
The experience included a drive-thru decontamination zone. Plus, goofy and spoofy interrogations about everything from eating habits to quarantine status. What Heard discovered was that as much as audiences wanted to be entertained, they were really craving connection.
“When I would ask, ‘Have you left the house in the last two months?’ It kind of became a real moment,” Heard said. “They would have the sense of relief that they were outside doing something normal again. It really moved me the first couple of times…To see the smile on their face and see their posts on social media. That’s what was really fulfilling about this process. It proves again that the arts and entertainment are crucial. It’s the release valve when the steam builds up.”
‘The brakes were slammed’
When the COVID shutdown hit in mid-March, the Majestic had just premiered Heard’s original immersive Mad Men-era dark comedy “The Garden Party” and were gearing up for a big spring production of the cult classic musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
“The show was up, we were ready to go, we have these stories to tell–then boom the brakes were slammed,” Heard said.
But instead of a full stop, for Heard the shutdown was a cue to shift gears. His immediate response was to take interactive theater online. He plucked a comic character from “The Garden Party,” the Episcopal priest Rev. Eugene Dolor, and made the character the host of an online, dial-in show “Dial S for Salvation.” That got fans out of their funk and onto social media for some online engagement.
When the concept of drive-thru theater came up, Heard’s first thought was a drive-by take on an old-school peep show using the storefront theater’s picture windows. His wife, Kady Heard, is a dancer who runs the Tease & Tails burlesque troupe, and it seemed like a natural social distancing extension of the Majestic’s esthetic. But with west-facing windows and Vegas temps starting to rise, Heard shifted his focus to the Majestic’s back alley, and the drive-thru theater concept was born.
Within three weeks, the concept garnered national press and legions of local fans. But with temperatures approaching 100 degrees by late May and the country in a political crisis on top of a public health nightmare, Heard pulled the plug May 31.
“Even if we were still doing it, I’d pause it right now in light of the political climate,” Heard said. “It just doesn’t feel right.”
‘Walking that dark line’
Heard grew up in Columbus, Georgia, with a GenX childhood that pushes through in his work.
“I’m a horror geek. I grew up on the slasher films of the 80s. Stranger Things is my biography except for the monsters coming to life,” he said.
After graduating with an MFA in performing arts from Savannah College of Art and Design, Heard headed to Vegas to pursue his passion for interactive theater.
“All along, I’ve been interested in immersive and interactive theater,” he said. “We tell stories and we like to pull each participant into that as well.”
One of Heard’s first shows on the Vegas scene was Jonestown, an immersive experience designed to take the audience through life in Jim Jones’ People’s Temple all the way through the Kool-Aid line in Guyana.
Heard launched the Majestic Repertory Theatre in 2016 in a storefront in Las Vegas’ downtown arts district. It quickly built a reputation for original work with a political edge, plenty of dark humor and experimental takes on standards like Our Town and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
“A lot of things I create walk that dark line,” he said.
‘Not an obstacle but a challenge’
With the Majestic’s drive-thru theater project on the shelf, Heard is moving on to what’s next. While traditional theaters may be forced to stay closed, his company’s flexible black box setup and experimental approach gives them an advantage.
Things may not be the same for a while. But there will be theater in Las Vegas.
“I think back to September when we opened with Green Day’s ‘American Idiot. And we had 19 twenty-somethings all running off stage sweating all over each other, making a mess of the theater and climbing all over the audience in anarchy. Just imagining what that would be like now with fabric masks and rubber gloves,” Heard said. “Everything is temporal, and eventually we can get back to the bigger spectacles. But being able to survive and tell stories, we’re adaptable and can do it.”
The Majestic has several larger-scale premieres on tap for this season, including “Clown Bar 2.” The show is a sequel of playwright Adam Szymkowicz’s off-Broadway film noir spoof “Clown Bar.” Heard is also keeping the lid on another on-hold premiere — a dark fantasy musical by noted Broadway writers that was initially slated to open in October.
“We’re sitting on some great, great stuff,” he said.
For now, the company is exploring new options for digital experiences and looking at “boutique experiences” as it moves toward a physical reopening. The focus in the early phases will likely be on solo or duo shows with small audiences. The Majestic has a comic one-man version of Goethe’s “Faust” by a Chicago playwright ready to go when state regulations allow — and when the company and audiences feel ready.
For a company that thrives on experimentation, reopening is a chance to truly get creative.
“We are going to return to some sort of normal. We just don’t know what it is,” Heard said. “We’re looking at it not as an obstacle but a challenge to tackle head first.”