Throwing a party is a lot like directing a play. There's a bit of casting that goes into the guest list. The timing is crucial, and knowing how to leave them wanting more is a blockbuster-worthy talent.
Food and drink are important elements, too. Think of the menu like dialogue; it helps move things along. Too much can spoil the mood, and not enough brings scathing reviews.
The theater-party connection is a natural fit. The pre- or post-theater get-together has been a long-standing tradition: Think Sardi's or Elaine's in New York. This purpose-filled party provides an opportunity for convivial chit-chat before the curtain or a deconstructing of the production after. Unless you really want to make it an event, you're likely only to do one or the other.
With the theater season kicking up at small and large venues all around the Tampa Bay area, it's time to think about staging a party for your drama-loving friends. And who better to guide us through the planning than someone who's got one foot on the stage and the other firmly embedded in the hospitality industry?
I sat down recently with playwright and actor Joseph Alan Johnson after a rehearsal of his very witty and very adult See You Next Tuesday, which debuts Oct. 4 at the L Train Theatre Lounge in St. Petersburg, to get some tips on how to throw a "micro party" as he calls it. In his 10 years in the bay area, Johnson has been in about 30 productions, and many more during his years in New York and Los Angeles. By night, he's prowling the stage, and by day, he's a waiter at Cassis American Brasserie in downtown St. Petersburg.
Catering and waiting tables have financed his love of theater and also taught him a lot about entertaining.
"Your job is to think of everything," he says about hosting a party. "Have every base covered, be prepared." Spoken like a true string-pulling director, which he is for See You Next Tuesday, a comedy about backstage machinations between two seen-better-productions actors. Johnson plays one of those characters, too.
Johnson is a veteran at-home entertainer. He throws a monthly dinner party — the sit-down dinner for eight is his favorite arrangement — but also loves a rousing cocktail party. He inspired the menu ideas with this story and provided the drink recommendations. His mother, Charlotte Johnson, who lives in South Pasadena, has served the popular Sausage Balls at many parties and her son carries on the tradition. I provide the recipe here with a slight tweak and mustard dipping sauce.
Johnson has plenty of party advice — set up the drinks but pour for guests so they don't overindulge — and here are his top tips for putting on a theater party worthy of a standing ovation. Many of them can be adapted to upcoming holiday gatherings.
Know your audience
Are they big partiers? Maybe an after-party would be a better idea. Are they the matinee crowd? Consider a pre-theater brunch. Think about who you are inviting and how they interact. If you have friends who are habitually late, perhaps the pre-party isn't the one to invite them to. You'll need to depend on your guests to get out of the house in time to be seated when the curtain goes up.
It's all about timing
What you serve will be dictated in part by how much time you have. He suggests that the pre-theater party last about an hour. If curtain is at 8 p.m. and the theater is 30 minutes away, you should start the party at 6 p.m. Also, will you be driving together or separately? If people are traveling separately, make sure they have enough time to get to the theater, park and be seated. If need be, hand out directions.
Food and drink should be ready when guests arrive. This isn't the type of party that will unfold over the course of an evening. It's sort of like a 10-minute play — it needs to grab their attention when the lights go up (or they walk through the door).
This is an informal gathering, and people will likely be eating standing up or perched on chairs. Plan on finger foods or offerings that can be eaten with toothpicks. Have plenty of napkins, too. Stay away from foods like spaghetti, pulled-pork sandwiches and soups that can easily end up down the front of someone's special outfit.
As you put together the menu, make sure you've got a mix of sweet and savory offerings. A cheese platter at an after-theater dessert party will suffice for guests who don't love sugary treats. It's nice to have foods that satisfy a number of dietary predilections, too. Veggies, fresh fruits and nuts are good for both those watching calories and vegetarians. Decide whether this will be a meal or just a snack. You should consider something more substantial, though not so heavy as to induce sleep, before the theater and something lighter afterward.
Appreciate the offer to help
If friends want to bring something, suggest wine. This is a tightly controlled party, so you don't want to leave the offerings up to chance. Do not feel obligated to open the wine, which should be considered a gift for the host.
Know your limits
Just like your guests, you're a busy person. Do not attempt to make everything from scratch if that's beyond your ability. Use a recipe for one or two show-stopping items and then fill in the rest with prepared foods or dishes put together simply like fruit kebabs or vegetables trays. Store-bought cookies are not a crime.
Watch the booze
The last thing you want is for people to overindulge and get behind the wheel of a car. Even if they aren't driving, too much alcohol can foster bad behavior. You don't want to be responsible for people acting silly in the theater. There's also the issue of bathroom breaks. If you're providing a special cocktail, plan on one per person. At the most, two glasses of wine. Pour them small. Always have non-alcoholic beverages, too.
Themes are good
It can be quite fun to pair the food and drink with the play or musical. For instance, New Orleans fare with A Street Car Named Desire or kids' favorites with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The theater is a creative endeavor, and a themed party allows the host to show what he's got, too. A Christmas cookie party would be lovely before or after The Nutcracker or another holiday show .
What's your motivation?
Going to the theater is a special occasion, Johnson says, and getting together before the event is the "spark to get the play started." Your job as host is to put people in a festive mood as they head to the venue or provide a spot for post-theater talk. Since there's no talking during the show — or there shouldn't be — a party allows for friends to "reconnect and relax."
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.