When David Ley first arrived at The Box in New York, in 2007 just after it opened, the buzz surrounding the night club-cum-variety theater was deafening. He rocked up one night with four beautiful women, and as the last of them walked passed those pearly gates, the velvet rope fell. Ley’s ‘name was not on the list.’ With a steely resolve he sought out a friend whom he knew danced at the venue. He told her he was looking to get into something ‘a bit different’, so when a stagehand didn’t show up for work, she called him.
The impresario behind the action was (is) Simon Hammerstein, grandson of Oscar Hammerstein II, and great grandson of Oscar Hammerstein I, and while it wasn’t a foredrawn conclusion, the success of The Box and its cataclysmic effect on the live entertainment industry would be monumental.
Ley rose quickly through the ranks to become director of the New York flagship when an outpost opened in London, and in 2013 Ley relocated to Dubai to head the development and launch of the region’s very first luxury theater club. The Act. Now serving as a creative director for Variety Worldwide, founded in 2012 by Hammerstein and Randy Weiner (Sleep No More, Amaluna), Ley has overseen the entertainment at high-profile events like Prada’s Spring 2020 menswear show in Shanghai, and the highly publicised wedding celebration of Marc Jacobs and Char Defrancesco. We caught up with him in his recently reclaimed hometown, New York.
Q: Tell me about your time at the Box?
A: Honestly, when I started, even the guy that was mopping the stage was higher on the totem pole than I was. But I saw what they doing and fell in love with it, the shows and everything that went into it, and set my mind to showing what I could offer there. It wasn’t actually that long before I took over directing The Box in New York.
Q: How do you go from like mopping the floors to directing?
A: I guess I came in with a bit of cocky confidence and I knew that I had some talent to offer. I would just make suggestions and they involved me more and more in the conversation.
Q: And then director of New York.
A: Well, Simon Hammerstein, the founder of The Box and an immense talent himself, opened the second location in London and the position became available. I was the best man for the job.
Q: Simon, of course, has a historic legacy in entertainment. Was he very involved?
A: Oh, absolutely yeah. Simon has his hands on everything that has to do with The Box and it’s great. He has a very particular way about achieving what he wants to see in it. In the early days it was a lot of communication – lots of yeses but a lot of nos too.
Q: And how do you feel, having been a part of something so influential?
A: A large part of my attraction to The Box in the first place was recognising it as on the cutting edge of something that seemed to be emerging as an untapped but very viable mode of entertainment and lifestyle. It drew inspiration from the past art forms and genres like vaudeville and the music-hall era of in London especially, but there wasn’t anything really like it, It tapped into a very current energy and direction that seemed like it was definitely going somewhere.
Q: And how would you describe where it’s gone these thirteen years later?
A: I’d say we’ve moved beyond the variety theater format and into immersive theater. Which breaks down all of the walls – the difference between audience and spectacle disappears. Its makes a lot of sense that those of us that were involved in The Box from the beginning are among those that are taking that form of immersive theater into the mainstream now. The Box has become a buzz word within the event space and experiential marketing. It’s spreading out into the rest of the world, no longer contained in this little shadowy corner of the Lower East Side of New York.
Q: Do you think immersive theater is the future?
A: I think even before this mobile or social explosion, The Box was recognizing that people want to have an experience. So, the whole of entertainment is shifting in that direction in terms of getting people to show up for things. It’s about creating something for people to experience. I think that’s the key thing – you can make as many viral posts as you like, but there is a certain currency in creating something, where those that were there get to say, ‘You had to be there.’ Having that very ephemeral kind of a moment in space and time, for people to come together and have a shared experience. That’s what it’s about, and I think a lot of the best people across multiple disciplines in the arts industries are cluing into that idea of creating a moment.
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