The Cell Theatre’s Kira Simring and Jonah Levey explain how they operate a successful, creative space and showroom in New York City while staying safe during the pandemic.
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Behind the Review host and Yelp’s Small Business Expert, Emily Washcovick, shares a look at this week’s episode of the podcast.
Walking along West 23rd St. in Chelsea, New York, you’ll come across a funky structure. From a glance, it might look like a typical brownstone or apartment complex. Look more closely and you’ll see an LED sign of a figure falling, along with an assemblage of clear tubes and contraptions coming off the building walls. Now what’s inside? An art experience that’s even more out of this world.
That building is The Cell, a non-profit collective’s immersive art space—operating as both theatre and gallery within a townhouse—that incubates and shares unconventional, new artists’ work in the city of New York. In this week’s episode, we speak with Kira Simring, co-founder and artistic director, and Jonah Levy, associate producer, to dive into the founding story and hear how they created and continue to deliver such a unique customer experience.
Like many New Yorkers, our Yelp reviewer Kate H. has walked past The Cell many times. After seeing in an email newsletter that the theatre offered an exclusive museum experience, she immediately bought tickets and was thoroughly impressed. “Garden of Eden is an immersive art experience with a dab of museum, a dollop of that really cool crazy aunt or grandmother’s house, a spoonful of voodoo, a sprinkle of theatre, a dash of fortune telling, and a splash of other world halloween creepies,” Kate said. “It was just so out of this world, it was so artsy, so cool, and so fun. It just fills my heart with joy to be able to experience the arts during the pandemic.”
Intentionally designed to be pandemic ready, The Garden of Eden exhibit was meant to be an intimate, self guided experience. The installation’s offering of a tarot card reading occurred virtually as well, which at times inevitably led to technical difficulties. When these issues arose, Jonah and the staff at The Cell handled them calmly. “I would always say, when they come down, see how they’re feeling and offer them a pizza rat patch or tarot card. If it was really messed up, offer them a refund,” Jonah said. “Nobody really accepted that, people would say ‘no that’s fine, we had a really wonderful time.’ Really we gave people this extraordinary opportunity to get out of their house and do something.”
Inclusiveness is another challenge yet factor that makes The Cell so special. “It’s really important to know who your audience is, and to know if the artist then made this with someone like you in mind, or a broad enough range to where you can be included.” Time and again on Behind the Review, business owners have shared the importance of knowing your customer. This helps you cater to serve their wants and needs, and at the end of the day, makes your business more inclusive.
“My major goal though, to tell the truth with continuing to operate the place, is that artists get very depressed not making art. And I get depressed not making art. So that’s what we do. We have to figure out how to do it,” Kira said. “And any limitation that forces creativity is healthy for artists.”
Here are some key takeaways from this week’s episode:
Slow growth is normal. Actually, growing slowly comes with its perks. Like many other small businesses or nonprofits, The Cell grew gradually. Kira saw this as a positive aspect that allowed them to have more control over the business.
Technical issues are inevitable, handle them with grace. It’s important to proactively address potential tech related issues. However, sometimes things out of your control arise. Calmly address them as a team. If the hiccup affects the experience of your customers, check in with them on how they are feeling. If needed, offer them a discount, a free item, or a refund. In the experience of The Cell, more often than not, customers were incredibly understanding.
Utilize multiple channels to increase visibility. Email newsletters are a great option—it’s how Kate and many others found out about The Cell Theatre in New York. “Any publicity is good publicity. You just want to have publicity,” Kira said.
Know your audience. Knowing your customer helps you cater to serve their needs and it makes your business—particularly brick and mortars—more inclusive.
Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Kira, Jonah, and Kate, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.