gluck on stage in a fedora
David Gluck performing at "The Speakeasy" (Photo/Cheshire Isaacs)

Q&A: From Jewish theater to immersive ‘Speakeasy’

Name: David Gluck
Age: 48
City: San Francisco
Title: Theatrical producer

J.: Your show “The Speakeasy,” which premiered in San Francisco in January, is a hit. But it’s not a typical play. Can you describe the immersive theater experience of your audiences?

David Gluck: We have re-created a 1923 speakeasy, rendered in as much authentic period detail as possible, in a 9,000-square-foot underground space in North Beach. We populate the environment with 35 performers who play bouncers, bartenders, chanteuses, an emcee, chorus girls, World War I vets, bootleggers and conmen. Their stories unfold in tightly scripted material throughout the event.

Is the audience part of the show?

gluck in a fedora
David Gluck (Photo/Peter Liu)

Audiences are free to wander from room to room, encounter characters and listen to their stories. They can abandon the play if they want, have a drink and socialize, or they can follow the characters more closely. The bar is real. The drinks are real. The show on the vaudeville stage is a three-hour show with comedy, variety, dance and music. In the casino we have blackjack, craps and roulette.

Staging this experience was not cheap. You raised $3.5 million, but did so in an unusual way. Can you explain?

We used equity crowdfunding, to accept investments from non-credentialed individuals. It’s a new feature of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, which only became available in May 2016. We were the first to take advantage. It’s really Kickstarter with shares. It allowed us to raise about $450,000 from 80 individuals who otherwise wouldn’t have had access. We also have another 40 accredited investors.

In addition to serving as president of Theatre Bay Area, you were managing director of the Magic Theater and the interim executive director of the Jewish Theatre San Francisco in 2010. Though defunct, the latter made an impact on the local Jewish arts scene. What do you remember about that time?

It was a real privilege to get to know that group of artists, and get to know [co-founders] Naomi Newman and Corey Fischer as well. I was involved in the difficult decision to dissolve the company [in 2012]. They asked me to help them from the financial perspective. It was a very poignant time to be involved with the theater. Everyone opened their hearts. I will remember those moments forever. Stepping back, it was interesting to see that decision in light of other trends over last 10 years. Many ethnically specific theater organizations have fallen on hard times or dissolved.

Why is that?

There seems to be a trend away from identity politics, and certainly the Jewish Theatre experienced that. There was a wonderful and loyal core group of subscribers, but at the same time the casual theatergoer who happens to be Jewish seemed to regard the theater as one of many options and not necessarily give it preferential placement in their entertainment choices. Audiences became more culturally omnivorous.

As a kid from Long Island, how did you get interested in theater?

I’ve been a theater producer my entire adult life. I came to the Bay Area in 1991 and did my first show in 1993 at a small theater in North Beach. I really got bitten by the bug and pursued opportunities to be involved with theater on the production side. I decided I wanted more hard skills, so I went to UCLA where I got an MBA in arts management.

What about your Jewish backstory?

Growing up in Great Neck was great. It’s Jewish ground zero. The restaurants were closed on Yom Kippur and the bagel stores were closed over the eight days of Passover. It was shocking to leave that environment and find in the Bay Area you could buy a bagel during Passover. Today my family and I are members of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco. I’m also a fan of Beit Tikkun in Berkeley.

In this age, theater seems like a risky venture. Why do it?

I have always believed there is no substitute for gathering the community together in a space for storytelling. [“The Speakeasy” has] attracted an audience that is not a traditional theatergoing audience — a lot of millennials, tech workers, people who don’t think of themselves as theatergoers.

Your show has no closing date. What’s the plan?

We designed it for the long haul, with a 10-year lease. This business is structured to run as long as possible. We’d like to be mentioned in the same way as “Beach Blanket Babylon,” as something you have to experience.

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to sueb@jweekly.com.

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.