Theater, music, and the other arts, including the culinary, appeal to more than a single sense. Consider the importance of presentation in a fine restaurant. It cannot merely taste good. It must look good as well, for we taste not only with our tongue and nose but with our eyes and even our ears.
"The senses aren't confined to the plate," agrees Courtney Oliver, head of public relations at Playhouse on the Square. "It's about lighting and color and space and what music is playing. It's why the best servers are the invisible ones ... so that the diner can concentrate on conversation and consumption without distraction."
Oliver knows a bit about arranging food and drink in a theatrical setting. She is part of the team that works on Playhouse's "First Sundays." These events, on the first Sunday of a play's production, celebrate the play in a unique way: using food to attract audiences. And the events can get pretty serious. Competition is fierce, for example, during the annual tuna casserole cook-off that accompanies Playhouse's holiday tradition, A Tuna Christmas.
"For The Buddy Holly Story, we're doing all-American food — apple pie, root-beer floats, hot dogs, and apple martinis," Oliver says. "For The Light in the Piazza, we'll do an Italian wine tasting and serve pizzas and bruschetta."
Other local theaters also promote productions with creative uses of food. Theatre Memphis takes its opening-night receptions so seriously it's planning for a wedding — well, the wedding cake anyway — for its August production of Oklahoma!. "And corn," adds Kell Christie, TM's artistic director. "There's got to be corn."
For TM's upcoming production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a certain meat pie takes center stage. (Hint: The secret ingredient is people!) Christie is hesitant to serve anything resembling protagonist Mrs. Lovett's vicious dish. "For our reception, I think we'll be going in, oh, the other direction," she says emphatically. "The anti-Sweeney Todd. Some nice fruit. Vegetables. Maybe we'll even go vegan."
Germantown Community Theatre (of which, in the spirit of full disclosure, I serve as executive producer) has a similar ritual: tailgate parties, also on the first Sunday of a play's opening weekend. Some tailgates are themed, as with last year's Oktoberfest party for The Underpants (Steve Martin's adaptation of a German play) and an Italian feast for Romeo and Juliet.
One unexpected consequence of the tailgate parties has been the emergence of theater supporters who come to shows only on those days. One regular can be relied upon to provide one of the area's premier bread puddings, and about 10 theatergoers dress in the theme of the show, including a giant pair of underpants (fitting three of them together) for The Underpants. Also on the sweet side, GCT serves ice cream at intermission after yours truly saw Judi Dench in Hay Fever in London. To my surprise, ice cream is a staple of the West End theater scene. While Londoners prefer Godiva, we go with Ben & Jerry's.
While the food served in conjunction with a show can enhance the theater experience, food on stage isn't always so inviting. Local actor Bonnie Kourvelas recounts a Germantown production of Dearly Departed in which the character of Delightful consumes corn dogs. "Sooner or later, there would be a slip-up," Kourvelas recalls. "The corn dog wouldn't be cooked all the way through and would be semi-frozen in the center. The poor actress playing Delightful would have to gag it down anyway."
Actor Leah Bray Nichols laments her own past experience as a consumables wrangler. "I was a human garbage disposal," she confesses of her duties behind the scenes of Playhouse's Having Our Say, in which the illusion of a working sink was accomplished using a spout that emptied into buckets in a basement green room. "Each morning following a night show, my job was to dump the old water and food and clean out the buckets for that evening's performance. Mmmmmm ... live theater is so glamorous."
Glamour is sure to be in abundant supply at this year's Ostrander awards ceremony, where a fantastic edible spread will hopefully lack the one ingredient that can spoil any meal: drama.
The Ostranders, Sunday, August 24th, at the Memphis Botanic Garden. Cocktail reception: 6-7:30 p.m.; awards ceremony: 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $5.