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Something to Chew On
Eating Their Words offers dinner and theatre with sophisticated bite

By Lauren Kay
July 16, 2008

Eating Their Words is a company that makes good on its name. Founded by director-choreographer Marlo Hunter, it presents one-night-only, meal-specific theatrical events at high-profile New York City restaurants. The success of the evening rests upon weeks of communication between chefs, writers, and Hunter, not to mention a short, intense rehearsal period involving veteran — and brave — actors. Before each course from a prix fixe menu is served to diners, up to four actors at a central table perform plays commissioned specifically for that night, with the dishes linked to the drama by a common theme.

Because theatrical and culinary experts have equal input, this setup both encourages and relies upon true collaboration among disparate artists. The hoped-for outcome is an investigation into the interplay between performance and food, such as occurs in the hyperbolic, "theatrical" experiences that take place at restaurants daily. Who hasn't had a bad breakup in a diner or overheard one happening at a nearby table?

Creating an artistic melting pot was exactly what Hunter envisioned when she founded Eating Their Words last January. "I love directing new work and eating good food, so I wanted to accomplish both without having to wait for someone to hand me my career or an opportunity," she says. "There is an unfortunate mentality that artists don't expect to support themselves through their craft, and that makes me really angry for all of us. I refuse to believe that, and I made a choice to see if I could pave the way for myself." An alumna of New York's Primary Stages and the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, Hunter says she financed the company's first event herself and that all revenue comes from ticket sales, not fundraising.

Through cold calling, emailing, and indefatigable networking, the petite, spitfire director has also inveigled some serious talent into participating in this fusion of forms. Playwright Theresa Rebeck wrote a piece for a March event at Colin Alevras' now-closed Tasting Room in the NoLIta section of Manhattan. More recently, at Cedric Tovar's Peacock Alley in the august Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, playwright Annie Baker — whose acclaimed Body Awareness closed last month at Off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater — contributed one of the three pieces seen in Eating Their Words' June event: a poignant and raw "last supper" between former boyfriends. Poetically, it was accompanied by the serving of a tender duck-and-beef duo.

Baker first met Hunter through the Ensemble Studio Theatre troupe Youngblood. "I love working with Marlo," she says. "She is so willing to try anything and is the type of creative director who really commits to the writer's vision. It's one of those rare situations where everyone ends up feeling respected."

Patch Darragh, who acted at Peacock Alley, explains that Eating Their Words can be equally thrilling for performers eager to dig into the kind of meaty roles that are too often scarce. "Actor friends had done it and loved it," he says. "Plus, I got to work with some of the greatest writers. When is that normally possible?"

Hunter notes that it's not uncommon for chefs to have past performance or production experience, allowing them to be more involved in, or valuable to, the process than she anticipated. Alevras, whose wife's family has an extensive theatre background, explains: "The singularity of a performance and the execution of a menu are very similar — the choices that playwrights and chefs make are very personal and somewhat random. The chance to collaborate with three of them, plus a director, seemed unique and intriguing."

A successful evening is not without challenges, however. For the Peacock Alley event, the actors had all of three rehearsals to nail their lines, tone, chemistry, and depth. Henry Stram, who performed in all three pieces that night, wishes there had been more time to prepare, though he admits the time crunch can be a powerful motivator. "It felt like we were shot out of cannons," he says. "It was so exciting. We were so dependent on each other as actors that it made it very intimate." Darragh agrees that the singular nature of the evening makes it intense. "It's like a movie in that it's a normal audio level and really specific," he says. "But even more than a movie — where you get many takes — in this you only get one shot, one night. It's a lot of pressure."

With a "Lawless Cuisine" event set for the Michelin-starred restaurant Country on July 21 — featuring plays by Neil LaBute, Brooke Berman, and Steven Levenson on the menu — the intensity will no doubt continue to rise. And it seems that's what everyone involved appreciates the most: a meaningful, worthwhile challenge. "Until they actually do it, the actors don't truly understand that this is a film set with everyone watching you — but without cameras," says Hunter. "It's consistently rewarding to see them respond to the evening. They all say, 'That was the coolest thing I've ever done as an actor. I felt so vulnerable, and the audience was right there with me. It was so stimulating.' " And not at all a bitter pill to swallow.