Inspire Theater a Hub for the Odd, the Interesting and the Unexpected

Downtown’s new performance space gives local talent an off-Strip venue for off-kilter ideas

Photo by Anthony Mair

Photo by Anthony Mair

Measured by cocktail standards, you’re probably not sipping a Moscow Mule (vodka, ginger beer and lime) or swilling a Blood & Sand (scotch, cherry Heering, sweet vermouth and OJ) to get lubed up for a proper, traditional evening at the thea-taaa.

Unless, perhaps, you’ve just visited the Wayfarer Bar attached to Downtown’s Inspire Theatre and ordered from the drink menu before curtain-up on an hallucinogenic, postmodern hip-hop production of Hello, Dolly!, starring Lil’ Kim.

Granted, that’s not booked just yet at Inspire. Or anywhere (that we know of). Give it time, though. This joint’s just beginning to tune up its offbeat vibe.

“The experience of performing there was amazing,” says Antwan Davis, co-founder of Molodi, the ensemble of “body percussionists” who turn everything from their limbs to their loins into living, breathing, slam-the-hell-out-of-themselves backbeats (and probably Advil-binge after each performance). “We had standing-room only and had to turn away around 30 people. Our goal is to make Inspire our home.”

“Cute,” “cozy,” “intimate,” “adorable”—pick any roundabout code word for “little” to apply to the 150-seat venue that can’t outmuscle any other performance space in town but just might out-edgy them. Or even out-weird them.

“I have a late-night, let-your-hair-down atmosphere, and they had a willingness to install an aerial rig,” says Amos Glick, host of OK, OK, The Amos Glick Variety Show. “It’s kind of an open mic for circus variety. I’ve always had plenty of clowns, different kinds of acts, acrobatics and hand-balancing. They are trying to create something Downtown, so they’re willing to work with me. That makes what I do easier to accomplish.”

Whaddaya crave?

Existential comedy? Resurrected vaudeville? Fab flicks? Circus tomfoolery? SoHo-worthy poetry-spouting? Snazzy-jazzy cabaret? Drag-show chic?

Think of it as the proverbial song, dance, seltzer down your pants—and every once in a while, even a play or two. No, not Hello, Dolly!, unless Dolly croons and hoofs to The Vagina Monologues—which was, wisely, staged in its music-free form in April by local actresses.

“With the casinos, they’re fickle and they’re not marketing to locals, so they don’t do the kind of variety that locals would see over and over,” says entertainment director Laura Herbert. “There are only certain people who will fit the programming ethos we have.”

Inspire Theatre dwells within Inspire, the umbrella moniker for the multilevel, multiroom, multifeatured complex at Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street—the $5.5 million one that sprang from the shell of a shuttered 7-Eleven. Opening piecemeal since December, it’s a partnership between Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project and the Future Restaurant Group, decked out with four bars, a coffee shop and newsstand, seemingly endless little hideaways (for laptop-tappin’, readin’, chillin’ and just noodlin’ around) and a rooftop lounge revealing panoramic Downtown vistas for aficionados of the urban experience.

Yet for all the hangin’-out potential, it’s the theater that could form a strong brand as a happenin’ hot spot for alternative entertainment—and forge a strong bond with Strip entertainers seeking off-Strip opportunities.

“A lot of performers have walked through here who are interested in doing their own shows and collaborating with other artists. We want to do things that are contributing to the cultural makeup of the city and make it a more well-rounded place to live,” says Michael Cornthwaite, co-owner of Future Restaurant Group with his wife, Jennifer.

Jennifer and Michael Cornthwaite

Jennifer and Michael Cornthwaite, co-owners of Future Restaurant Group, partnered with the Downtown Project to open Inspire Theater. (Photo by Anthony Mair)

“There are people who are super-clamoring to get in here, but we’re editing and wanting the best of the edgy, interesting stuff,” Jennifer says. “We want to make this a place where in a year or two you will trust us. You’ll know you can come to Inspire and see something that maybe you’ve never heard of before, but you know you’re going to like it because we’ve done that work for you.”

Equipped with a private, enclosed mini-balcony, sound and lighting systems and a modest stage topping out at 24 feet wide and 12 feet deep, the theater features stadium seating in perhaps the most un-stadium-esque place in town. Beyond the back row is the Wayfarer Bar, a dark-paneled, leather-and-wood-accented watering hole overlooking the theater. Depending on the show and the robustness of the crowd on a given night, those walls can slide open so additional seating and standing room can materialize.

Originally conceived strictly as a speaker’s forum, the theater will still serve that purpose largely in daytime programming with educational events. “But we added this second life to it,” Herbert says.

A lively life, too. Theatergoers in February experienced Selene Luna’s Dog & Pony Show, a mash-up of stand-up comedy, singing, burlesque and a touch of drag. March brought Krissis Reeves’ one-woman show, Spinning the Bottle, “an existential comedy for the cynical romantic,” and the Apple Sisters, a 1940s-style stew of song, dance and slapstick, with guest performers from the Paris Las Vegas production of Jersey Boys.

Other acts that Inspire inspired a visit from were Three Wise Guys + 1, a spoken-word event with local personalities Dayvid Figler, Gregory Crosby, Dena Rash Guzman and Vegas Seven/DTLV’s Geoff Carter; tap dancer Andrew Nemr; the Improv Aces; and the premieres of two movies: locally produced documentary Midnight Muse, and The Girls in the Band (about female jazz instrumentalists from the 1930s to today).

Booked to return in mid-May are both Molodi and Glick, plus SHE-nanigans, an all-female variety revue.

“In most cities, every new space that goes up is geared to make money,” says Davis of Molodi. “With Inspire, it’s people-based. They want unique and talented local talent in there. It’s the city that decides what goes into Inspire, not a guy in a suit in an office.”

While some shows are imported from beyond our borders, “local” is largely the rule. Nearly every production has a Vegas ID, whether it’s under the radar (Reeves, who doubles as social media manager for Vegas-based Vox Solid Communications) or smack-dab on it, such as Apple Sisters members who were in the casts of Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia!, and Molodi performers who’ve worked with Cirque du Soleil and in Stomp.

“I’d really like to see Inspire become a hub for [Strip] entertainers when they get off work to come Downtown,” Herbert says. “They have these amazing jobs, fulfilling creative dreams in production shows. They’re well-paid, but they’re doing the same thing every day and twice on weekends, which isn’t exactly conducive to minding the muse. We want to present more opportunities to connect to what their thing is, as opposed to what they do on a regular basis.”

Apparently, Inspire has put its monetary philosophy where its mouth is. “I don’t have to put any money up front,” says Glick, whose main gig is as a clown in a Strip extravaganza produced by a company he’d prefer not to identify without permission (but we did, two paragraphs up).

“Other venues make you pay up front a certain percentage, and there are all these rules about how the money is going to be split with fees. I’m sure down the line Inspire will be more strict with that, but right now they’re being very open.”

One requirement insisted upon, however, is the post-show schmooze. “The contracts say that the performers have to stay afterward,” Herbert says. “If people see something they’re curious about or moves them, we want them to have an analog experience in our digital age.”

So, as Inspire attempts to match the promise so boldly proclaimed in its name, just sip a Moscow Mule, swill a Blood & Sand or even guzzle a mug of domestic suds—and watch what happens.

“There’s a leap of faith that has to happen on both ends to get people to come out,” Herbert says. “But things are going to happen really fast.”

Here’s wishing them truckloads of luck … and bottoms up.

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