Photo: Damian Loeb.
"The worst thing about a hangover is you become very mean to yourself."
Simon Hammerstein, proprietor of The Box, offers this insight as he sits on one of the club's velvet couches, smoking a cigarette. He's directing a burlesque number involving a blues singer named Kim, who is meant to mimic a "walk of shame." Hammerstein isn't quite sold on Kim's rendition of the hangover.
"Maybe you should audition," he tells me, gesturing toward the stage.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited Hammerstein's LES hot spot; now I'm sitting in on a rehearsal to see exactly what goes into one of NYC's edgiest shows. The Box is an exclusive destination entrenched in "door culture." Its nightly shows are a combination of burlesque, fetish, and narrative — and Hammerstein is obsessed with the latter. "It can end up being sexual," he explains, "but there's gotta be a story. I have to believe it." I simultaneously admire and question his focus on the stage — because anyone who's been to this club knows that the real stage is all around us. The evening entertainment may begin front-and-center, but before you know it, it's lurking around every corner. The Box is an immersion course in releasing inhibitions.
Photo: Damian Loeb.
Though the hyperbolic tales of a night at The Box can make it sound like a sordid sex den, the rehearsals are just like those of any other high-caliber theater. Despite the graphic nature of the shows, the players are true professionals: talent Hammerstein found on YouTube, in burlesque competitions, or on the street. One artist even went on to win America's Got Talent. Still, Hammerstein admits The Box is far from what he planned when he first opened it, having imagined a "shorthand for Vaudeville," with classic plays from Eugene O'Neill and Jack Kerouac.
No matter what, Hammerstein's priority is the viewer. "The shared power of an audience is much greater than liquor or sex," he says. "It's the lubricant for an evening." In his opinion, theater brings everyone together. And, at The Box, that bond is rooted in a "synchronization of the audience, mesmerized by 'Where the fuck is this going?' It's the journey that's more important than the result, whether it ends up being shocking or humorous." The show's sexual content is just a byproduct.
Hammerstein operates under what he calls the "mission statement" of The Box. "When you're here, you're accepted. You can be yourself. We challenge you to lose your insecurities. We tease out things in a place of non-judgement."