At 7:30 p.m. on Monday night, the sun having set three hours previously, hundreds of people were shivering in a line that stretched halfway down a long Chelsea block waiting to get into something that had advertised itself, cheekily, as a “safe space.”
The temperature hung at an unsafe-feeling 23 degrees Fahrenheit, but nobody in line seemed to mind much.
It’s not every night you get the chance to see a series of performances by some of the city’s theater professionals inspired by a single tweet from Donald Trump.
Nothing about “A Safe and Special Place,” held at the McKittrick Hotel—home, most famously of Sleep No More—was varnished or predictable, much like the series of events that inspired it.
The evening owed its existence to Vice President Mike Pence. On Nov. 18, Pence attended a showing of Hamilton, where the cast read him a statement urging him to be a leader for all Americans.
Some in the crowd booed the Indiana governor. On Nov. 19, like clockwork, President-elect Donald Trump threw a bit of an online tantrum over that series of events, tweeting that the theater “must always be a safe and special place.” He demanded the cast of Hamilton apologize.
For freelance theater director Shira Milikowsky, Trump’s attitude was especially irksome. It took a lot of nerve for somebody like him to dictate to theater artists how to make art.
“Somebody should do something,” her friend, playwright, screenwriter, and showrunner Liz Meriwether texted her from the wee hours of Los Angeles.
Over the course of that morning, the “something” to be done took shape. The two longtime friends decided that the theater community should respond by raising money for actual safe spaces, to turn Trump’s ignorant tweet into art for a cause. They reached out to friends, directors, and playwrights.
Milikowsky would wake up every morning and go over the massive spreadsheet she’d made to assess where they were, what actors they needed for what roles. Organizing the safe place became a nearly full-time commitment. Before long, the event had a roster of impressive writers and actors on board.
“A Safe and Special Place” sold out of the 300 tickets it made publicly available. Not only did it sell out, it raised over $15,000 for The Trevor Project and KIND, charities that benefit LGBTQ teens and young adults and legal aid for undocumented children who enter the U.S. unaccompanied.
Those who braved the cold got their money’s worth; it’s hard to overstate how impressive a roster Milikowsky and Meriwether’s “safe space” attracted. Eve Ensler, Zosia Mamet, the composer César Alvarez, Nick Kroll and John Mulaney of Oh, Hello fame, and Meriwether herself contributed acts to the performance. Girls star Andrew Rannells, who is currently performing in Falsettos on Broadway, read a monologue by Sam Hunter.
Every single one of the actors and playwrights who participated did so on a volunteer basis. Some performers sang, some pleaded, some joked. Glen Pannell, the best Mike Pence impersonator I can fathom existing, made an appearance. The performances took on abortion, opiate addiction, shock, hope, and feeling of paralysis with which many do-gooders are painfully familiar.
Inside, it was almost too warm, in both the literal and figurative sense. Half of the attendees didn’t have a place to sit, but nobody was crabby about it. Everybody seemed to run into at least one person they were surprised and delighted to see. There was a lot of hugging.
The performance lasted for a normally-punishing two and a half hours, and most people stuck around for the whole thing. It felt a bit like a wake, but nobody was crying. The actors read from scripts, unrehearsed and raw, but every performance was met with lusty applause.
“My biggest hope is that it, in some way, the night inspired people to do more things like this,” Meriwether told The Daily Beast. “Losing an election tends to shut people down, but I think it’s important that we try to keep engaging in the world and coming together.”
The show did not provide answers. The closest thing to a call to arms was Eve Ensler’s “Let Donald Trump Be Our Unifier.” But shared questions united performers, writers, and audience members. The evening felt truly safe and special, in all the ways a post-Trump piece of art should.
Meriwether said something Alvarez told her that night had stuck in her mind. “César was like, ‘Theater is about people wanting to feel like they’re not alone. In the end, that’s what all theater events are.’ And I think in this political climate people are needing that and reaching for it. And I think, entertainment-wise, we have so many ways to experience entertainment by ourselves. And going to the theater proves we’re not alone.”