Theater Is Immersed in Caffeine at a Harlem Coffee Shop

Marissa Feinberg in Full City+
"Full City+" brings immersive theater to a Harlem coffeehouse. Actress Marissa Feinberg and a Manhattanville barista. Photos: Amy Lee Pearsall.

The doors to a coffee shop in Harlem swing wide on a Friday evening. A patron orders a latte at the counter while a guy in a corner checks his cell phone and steals hopeful glances toward the door. A grilled cheese sandwich is delivered to a table as a barista makes a pass through the room. A throat is cleared, an announcement made. Suddenly, we are inside the world of a play.

Actor Andy Wagner sits deep in thought over a laptop next to an audience member.
Actor Andy Wagner sits deep in thought over a laptop beside an audience member.

It is not entirely unexpected. The immersive theater experience Full City+ takes over Manhattanville Coffee (142 Edgecomb Ave.; 646- 781-9900) on Friday nights through Nov. 18. The theatrical comedy conceived by Joe Salvatore and Keith R. Huff places spectators in the center of the action. Around the audience — and occasionally interacting with them — actors portray eclectic staff members and regular customers. The cast features Marissa Feinberg, Sarah Mish, John Noel, Andy Wagner, Karl O’Brian Williams and, depending on the week, a rotating roster of guest artists.

Neighbors bear witness to the audience.

The audience bears witness to relationships in flux, failed online dates, moments of creative inspiration, and an ever-changing neighborhood. And the neighborhood, in turn, noticeably bears witness through the café’s large plate-glass windows to the primarily white, middle-class audience in attendance. As seating is limited, purchasing tickets online is highly recommended. Coffee, tea, beer, wine and light food are available for purchase when the doors open at 7pm for ticket holders. The audience is encouraged to order as needed throughout the performance.

And now, 5 Questions Joe Salvatore and Keith Huff Have Never Been Asked…

Amy Lee Pearsall: As co-writers and directors, how did you two meet? How did this project come about?

Actor John Noel sits in a corner, awaiting his cue.
Actor John Noel sits in a corner, awaiting his cue.

Keith Huff: Joe and I met while I was a grad student at NYU. I found through taking his classes that he and I had the same sort of way that we liked to direct and work. Long story short, I became his TA [teaching assistant] for my last semester, and he was my mentor on my independent study project. After that, we just kind of stayed in contact. Every once in a while, we would get together and discuss projects that we’d like to work on, and we stumbled upon this.

Joe Salvatore: I had done a project called Play/Date that involved individual plays in different parts of a bar. Three plays would happen simultaneously, and then they’d rotate and three more would happen. That experience was very cool, and I learned out of that that doing theater in a nontheatrical venue right now is more interesting to me. As Keith and I talked during his time at NYU and afterwards, we both became excited about the idea that we could create something fun and not be stuck in a theater. I love the idea that we flick three switches here and it changes the atmosphere. It cuts through a lot of the crap and the cost of making theater, which can be prohibitive if you’re trying to get work up and out there for an audience to see.

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AP: Did you always know you wanted to do this project as a site-specific piece of theater? Did you have a specific influence for the piece, or did you find the space first?

Actors Karl O'Brian Williams, Marissa Feinberg, and Andy Wagner.
Actors Karl O’Brian Williams, Marissa Feinberg, and Andy Wagner gather at the counter where customers can order a croissant or glass of wine during the performance.

JS: I think it was always a theater piece. I’m a giant fan of sitcoms like Alice, Happy Days, and Three’s Company shows that were filmed in front of a live studio audience. There’s something about the immediacy of that live audience that lends itself to the form. When I watch sitcoms today, I feel like they’re kind of filmed in a vacuum. I find them less interesting. This idea of a site-specific, immersive sitcom was kind of where we landed.

KH: We were also talking about how coffee shops had just sort of become this new urban work environment for people. You walk in here anytime during the week — from morning until they close — and there’s people just spread out everywhere, laptops and everything. They’re here all day. I think that’s where we gravitated towards coffeehouses. And we found this space, which is a gorgeous space. We felt it was very intimate but also very theatrical in a lot of ways. So we wrote specifically for this space.

We want this to be a Friday night place.

JS: I know someone who knows the owners. They’ve done events in here but not regularly with one group for six Friday nights. We initially wanted to do it on Mondays because we thought that would be a slow day, but they were like, “No, let’s do this on Friday nights because we want this to be a Friday night place to go.”

AP: In terms of the challenges of mounting a show in a nontraditional space, what did you come up against?

Guest artist Sarah Haruko (center) joins cast regulars John Noel and Marissa Feinberg in episode two of "Full City+."
Guest artist Sarah Haruko (center) joins cast regulars John Noel and Marissa Feinberg in episode 2 of Full City+.

JS: Finding people who are not already committed to other projects. Casting the guest stars for the episodes has been quite challenging because we’re writing about two weeks ahead.

KH: Rehearsing in the space. This is a functioning coffee shop, so we can’t have five rehearsals before the show. The cast only has one rehearsal in the space before they actually do it. The first time we were in here, it was the first time we’d rehearsed with bodies in the space. Chairs were moved out further than they were before, and the cast really had to navigate. So that was a challenge.

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AP: Do you know where the story is going? How much is scripted versus improv?

JS: We spent the summer outlining it, so all six episodes are outlined. The sixth one is flexible. I think we’re both discovering that we’re writing towards the actors playing the roles, their strengths and their timing. We’re finding the voices of the characters more individually as we get further in.

KH: The other thing that’s been great is we worked in here a lot, and some of what we observed found its way into the scripting. There’s some improvisation in a couple of the episodes. Like, in episode 3, there was a little more improvisation in terms of engaging with the audience.

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AP: How are you approaching the fact that this is a gentrifying community? How has the response been?

Shop proprietor Ray (Karl O'Brian Williams) preaches to the choir in "Full City+."
Shop proprietor Ray (Karl O’Brian Williams) preaches to the choir in Full City+.

KH: We’ve had lots of talks and discussion about that. In some of the episodes, we’ve dropped in pieces of information about topics that come up and are underlying in the community. I think Joe and I have been very conscious about that, and once we establish the world, we can start to layer in more of that. But I think we have to establish the precedence of who the characters are. And that’s why it’s so important that our shop owner, Ray, represents a specific person. Joe and I envisioned Ray to be female originally. We felt very strongly about having a female shop owner. Then we went into the rehearsal room, and Karl (O’Brian Williams) read it. He just sunk right into the role.

As a creator, it’s been nice to just come, sit, and watch the episode happen, and see how much fun people have with it and how much enjoyment they get out of it. That’s really been a great experience.

[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]