Drinking games and performance art are not a likely combination, and yet that is precisely what was on offer at UglyRhino Productions last Friday night, at an event called “Ugly Shots.” Walking in, I was handed a program plus a ticket for my first drink. After grabbing an ale and finding my seat, my fellow audience members and I were given our instructions for the night: We were about to watch a series of new short films, and hidden in each one were several dramatic elements — a spontaneous dance break, say, or a slow-motion shot. Our job as the audience was to drink every time one of these dramatic elements occurred.
We certainly obliged. This was audience interaction at its finest, and everyone laughed and gasped each time we raised our drinks. Patrons who missed a sip usually got a friendly nudge from their neighbors, ensuring we all stayed in this together. I found myself trotting to the bar during each of the intermissions to prepare myself for the next round.
The idea to combine performance with drinking games started the way most good ideas do: with a group of friends, late at night, over several rounds of drinks. UglyRhino Productions, a performance space founded in Brooklyn, was facing a challenge. It had a lot of writers and actors it wanted to work with but couldn’t fit them all into the schedule. Other companies usually solve this with 10-minute play or film festivals, but UglyRhino wanted to do something different.
“In New York there’s so many 10-minute festivals, and at some point they all start to feel the same,” explained Danny Sharron, the company’s New York artistic director.
One night in a bar, over a few pitchers of beer, the directors were shooting around ideas and came up with something entirely new: a large-scale drinking game, built into an affordable evening of new plays. They dubbed their new idea “TinyRhino,” and the film version “UglyShots.”
In the early shows, everyone was handed a standard-issue can of Tecate on arrival. As things developed, the group started to bring in different beverages based on the season. Now, at the Littlefield performance space in Brooklyn when they run their shows, there’s a full bar where patrons can sidle up for a reload.
Still, during these performances, patrons are encouraged to take it easy. The goal is to have a fun and safe night, with the audience participating (without falling out of their chairs) from beginning to end.
“People always stay after to hang out,” Sharron told me, insisting the events are about more than just the performances. “It’s an evening where you meet new people, drink, talk and just have a good time.”
In a nondescript building in the Arts District in Los Angeles, Cole Rosner, co-artistic director of TinyRhino, gave me the West Coast story. “We used to perform here in this space, with about 200 people jammed in,” she said. “Until the cops started to notice.”
Since then, they’ve performed at nearby Art Share L.A., where each month they set up a bar with an ever-changing beer and wine menu. “There’s always a sparkling wine cocktail,” said Rosner, “made with fresh ingredients, built around the night’s theme.”
Because it’s a drinking game, there also seems to be less pressure on everyone. Yes, the shows are high quality, but they offer a relaxed atmosphere. And that’s unusual, said Sharron: “Here people take theater so seriously sometimes, but in this context? It’s not about inviting some agent or director you have to impress, it’s just people having a good time.”
I found the same thing to be true in L.A. as the lights dimmed, people cheered and the first film began. My whole evening with the Ugly Rhino crew felt like a friend’s house party. The show started late and the intermissions ran long because people were just enjoying one another’s company (and the Lagunitas-sponsored bar). It was the kind of event where I felt like I could invite anyone and they’d have a good time, like the theater equivalent of “ wanna grab a pint?” And I think everyone there felt that it was exactly what we all needed.