NEW YORK CITY (SBG) — For the final performance of the night at New York City supper club Duane Park, Opera Gaga shed a fur stole and a long white robe before climbing up onto an aerial hoop to enchant the audience below with her acrobatic tricks. Even more impressive was the fact that the hoop was suspended from the building's fire escape above the restaurant's sidewalk dining enclosure, and Opera Gaga, clothed in only a bedazzled bra and underwear with a sparkly mask to match, was braving the December weather to execute her routine. The guests were already sufficiently impressed with her expert moves that when she began to sing a stunningly beautiful operatic rendition of "O Holy Night," one diner turned to her table companion and loudly exclaimed, "Wow, she sings too?" with a tone of absolute awe.
If you follow Opera Gaga, whose real name is Marcy Richardson, on Instagram, you'll learn that she's also adept at juggling, her piano skills are top-notch, and she's an intelligent and outspoken voice in the fight to keep the performance industry alive amidst the lack of governmental support that many venues and entertainers in the city have received thus far. "While the rest of New York gets back to work, artists like me are getting left in the dust with no way to operate legally and no long-term plan to help us or the small arts businesses we work for," she wrote in a Sept. 23 post.
A strong desire to support the artists who once brought crowds into the indoor establishment was a large part of the reason why Duane Park decided to take their burlesque shows outdoors, even in less-than-optimal weather. The shows began in mid-October with the opening of "Paradise Alley," an evening of incidental acts sprinkled throughout a three-course dinner, and have continued into December with the holiday-themed "Winter Wonderland."
"We felt a deep desire and responsibility to get people back to work in the safest ways possible," said David Brouillard, director at Duane Park.
The path to transform Duane Park's typically indoor shows into an outdoor extravaganza was marked by plenty of challenges. First, there was the question of how to create enough space on the sidewalk for both the performers and the tables. The supper club had originally intended to begin their outdoor dining program in the warmer months of July and August, but using the tiny rectangle of space directly outside of the restaurant would have been unrealistic for the scale that they were envisioning, and expanding into the street was out of the question, given the restaurant's close proximity to two crosswalks.
"In October, when the city allowed you to use your neighbor's sidewalk space, with their permission, we jumped on it," said Brouillard. "We called our neighbors and asked if we could borrow their sidewalk while they remained closed. That's the kind of call you never think you're going to place."
Even with the acquisition of the ample sidewalk space required for Duane Park to be able to set up a semi-permanent facility, the dropping temperatures have presented additional obstacles, such as the question of how to keep diners warm enough (the answer: plenty of heaters and a warming menu) and the threat of precipitation; the city’s sanitation department will require a suspension of outdoor dining upon the issuance of a snow alert, which is triggered by a forecast of more than one inch of snow.
The performers, however, never hesitated when it came to wearing very little clothing in very chilly weather. Cold temperatures were no match for their eagerness to get back to work. "I can tell you this much — each and every performer and staff member giving it their all on the street here loves their craft with the fire of a thousand suns," wrote Richardson on Instagram. She also joked with one commenter that her aerial hoop routine keeps her "warm(ish)."
In addition, Duane Park's entire dining room has become an enormous dressing room to help the artists thaw after venturing out into the elements, while also giving them plenty of space to spread out from one another.
Throughout the course of the meal, the acts come and go quickly, and two performers never share the circular red carpet that serves as a stage at the same time. The fast-paced format is the result of a New York State Liquor Authority guideline that allows only for incidental performances and music at the present moment. "Music should be incidental to the dining experience and not the draw itself," the State Liquor Authority explained. As such, venues are prohibited from selling tickets to live music events.
To comply with the guidelines, Duane Park emphasizes the short duration of each act and the rapid changeover from one to the next. "We go from a girl in a bubble to a girl in a window to a band on the sidewalk to a random contortionist or juggler, and we have made sure it is not a major part of the space or the event," Brouillard said. "People are primarily coming out for a three-course meal. The acts are just there to lift their spirits a bit more."
It's certainly a departure from Duane Park's full-scale live shows, but the edited version is no less entertaining. While you enjoy your appetizer, entree, and dessert, you'll switch your gaze between your plate and the incredible maneuvers happening on the sidewalk in front of you. Knives may fly within close proximity to your table during Paris the Hip Hop Juggler's routine, while contortionist Allison Schieler will constantly surprise you with the seemingly impossible shapes that she creates with her body. All the while, a band called ALMALUNA, set up on the sidewalk outside of the dining enclosure, adds to the holiday atmosphere by playing all of your favorite Christmas carols.
Aside from the band, all of the other performances take place within the roped-off dining area or, in the case of burlesque artist Tansy, inside of a street-facing window box directly above one of the tables. The exposure to the street means that a crowd typically gathers outside of Duane Park to enjoy the music and the performances. Even bikers seemingly in a hurry to get somewhere will pull over for a moment to bask in the joy of live entertainment, especially as live entertainment has been so rare to come by throughout most of the year.
"People stop and gather every night. People dance in the street. Couples and friends stand out there together watching and enjoying, and it's so nice to see people enjoying themselves. Cars honk; the fire department drives by and waves. It feels like a little community gathers every night to appreciate what's happening," said Brouillard.
While watching from the sidewalk is free of charge, tips are absolutely appreciated as a way of showing the performers that you're grateful for all that they are doing to keep the spirit of the city alive, especially as many of the artists have found themselves in a precarious financial situation as a result of the pandemic. And if you like what you see, you may consider booking a table for a future show to support Duane Park as well.
The spectators aren't the only ones left with an uplifting feeling post-show — even if many of the performers are working with an abbreviated event schedule in a way that is entirely unfamiliar from what they were used to before the pandemic, the presence of a live audience has provided them with a significant morale boost.
Richardson has been incredibly transparent on social media with regard to the ways in which the pandemic has affected her mental health. In the early days of quarantine, she used studio lighting within her apartment to recreate the experience of a live show for virtual events and tried to stay positive that performing over Zoom would be an adequate substitution for in-person events. The comments that audience members wrote during her Zoom shows became a new form of applause, but when the meeting ended and the comments disappeared, all of the good feelings faded away as well. "My screen goes black, and I am there sitting alone in the dark in a costume feeling completely destroyed inside," she shared back in May.
"Participating almost makes me feel worse because it’s such a pathetic shred of what my life used to be. The stage is my home, my heart, and my life. I don’t know how much longer I can go on like this," Richardson continued in that same post.
Having the opportunity to once again share her artistry with a live audience has been a bright spot for Richardson, who vows that she will never flee New York City for the suburbs and will continue to perform for live audiences as long as she is safely able to do so. Richardson has also turned her Bushwick backyard into a makeshift performance space, complete with at least 12 feet of socially distancing for guests and unlimited alcohol.
While performers and venues continue to urge the government to provide the industry with a greater level of support during the trying time, a lack of sufficient response as of yet has forced artists like Richardson to get creative. Tansy has turned to both virtual events and burlesque films during the pandemic to fill the gaps left by live performances. "It hasn’t always felt easy to be creative during these wild times. Live performance has always been a healing form of self expression, one that fuels my heart and spirit, recharging my artistic tank," she acknowledged on Instagram. But for many, creativity has become a necessary skill for survival.
Duane Park's innovative offering is currently set to run through Dec. 19 with Thursday, Friday, and Saturday seatings; limited reservations remain. Despite the prospective end date, the supper club hopes to continue to support the artists and delight dinner guests for as long as possible.
"We will keep finding ways to keep our staff, performers, and customers safe and happy" Brouillard said. "We all deserve a little life and joy. And what we are offering outside isn't just a meal and incidental acts. It's an escape from the rough times we have all just been through."