When you read the phrase “dinner theater,” your mind likely conjures a hokey, over-acted tourist attraction focusing on a murder mystery or a highly costumed historical period. Secret Supper: The Musical was nothing like that, but rather a uniquely classy affair, where the actors encircled the dinner tables and both the food and the performances were offered in alternating courses, all taking place within a half-built structure on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
“We wanted to give the performances similar attention as the food,” says Amy Virginia Buchanan, co-founder and artistic director of Spring Street Social Society, the members-only group that organized the event. “People want to consume artistic content one thing at a time, which is why we took away a plate of food before each performance.” So, for example, a first course of sourdough bread with salted butter was followed by a scene in which each of five actors told stories about the last time they’d cried; adventures on the subway followed a chicken pot pie; and the last scene/course of snow/tarte tatin closed off the evening, with the kitchen crew coming out dancing in the grand finale. “[The chef] has a background in theater,” Buchanan says. “The play is all about feeling nervous and anxious, so he wanted to provide comfort food when he was crafting the menu.”
Although this was the Spring Street Social Society’s very first musical, it’s far from their first production. Buchanan and Patrick Janelle — the society’s other co-founder and executive director — first met five years ago, introduced to each other by a mutual favorite coffee shop barista. Buchanan had moved to New York “fresh out of clown school” and was looking to get into avant-garde theater, while Janelle was seeking a unique event to produce. “Two weeks after we met, we had our first cabaret in his backyard,” Buchanan remembers. Nine months later, the duo hosted their first dinner, with performance woven throughout. Since then, Spring Street Social Society has grown by leaps and bounds. It currently has about 350 members, and the co-founders produce events in New York, Los Angeles, London, and San Francisco.
The society’s offerings vary throughout the year, but each takes place in an unusual location, which is revealed to attendees the morning of the event. “We love transitional moments and spaces,” Buchanan says. “We have speakeasies, cultural cocktail parties, dinners, and cabarets.”
The musical, which ran for two weekends, was the first time they’ve ever done the same show more than once, and also the first time they opened up tickets to the general public. As for the impetus behind the characters, Buchanan says playwright T. Adamson “created caricatures of Spring Street members.” During the production, Buchanan walked around the tables, chatting with members and pouring wine, and she found that many people were delighted to recognize themselves in the characters. “It’s a play about one of our dinners, or a meta-theater version of one of our dinners, with all the social anxiety and need to gather together.”
About 500 people attended Secret Supper: The Musical, and Buchannan hopes to make larger productions like this a yearly tradition. In the meantime, current society members can attend an upcoming parlor party in New York and a small dinner in Los Angeles in December, and membership will open up to the general public in January. The primary goal of the society and all of its events? “Bringing people together for something special,” Buchanan says. In that, they have certainly been successful.