At first glance, The Cell might look like a typical brownstone or apartment complex in Chelsea, New York. But if you look closely, you’ll see a unique art fixture scaling the exterior: a floating human cut-out amongst a collection of ropes, tubes, lights, and more. Now what’s inside? An art experience that’s even more out of this world.
The Cell is a non-profit collective’s immersive art space—serving as both a theatre and gallery within a townhouse—that houses the unconventional exhibits and performances of New York City artists. In this episode, we speak with Kira Simring, co-founder and artistic director, and Jonah Levy, associate producer, to hear the founding story and how they’ve created and mastered a truly one-of-a-kind customer experience.
We also speak with Yelp reviewer Kate H., who, like many New Yorkers, had walked past The Cell many times. It wasn’t until an email newsletter caught her eye that she decided to try out the museum portion of the attraction. Her review reads: “[The] Garden of Eden [exhibit] 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 elaborated, “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.”
The Garden of Eden exhibit was intentionally designed to be experienced safely during the pandemic, serving as a welcome escape for those seeking entertainment during an isolating time. The exhibit offered an intimate, self-guided experience, even featuring a virtual tarot reading, which—as with many pandemic-related pivots—came with its share of hiccups and technical difficulties. When these problematic situations arose, Jonah and team handled them calmly. “I would always say, when [customers] come down, see how they’re feeling.” If a technical snafu prohibited the customer from having a top-notch experience, they’d offer something in return to make up for it. “If it was really messed up, we’d 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 were giving people this extraordinary opportunity to get out of their house and do something.”
Another factor that makes The Cell so special is its dedication to inclusiveness. “One thing that I love about what we’re doing here is that there’s an inclusivity element for a lot of the things that we are doing,” Jonah said. “For example, there’s a culinary artist in residence who wants to combine the worlds of art, food, science, philosophy, and history. And so his journey, his purpose, is to get a diverse audience to enjoy all of these elements together and create a dialogue together in bond over food. That’s something that really is for everyone.”
While every business survives by creating and retaining a strong customer base, The Cell also thrives in its ability to keep the artists themselves engaged, especially during a pandemic. “My major goal 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 other takeaways from this week’s episode:
It’s normal to grow slowly. In fact, growing slowly has its perks. Like many small businesses and nonprofits, The Cell grew gradually. Kira said this pace gave her more control over the business and what it could and would become.
Every business experiences technical problems. Try to proactively mitigate them, and in the cases where you can’t get ahead of the problem, calmly address the issues as a team. Check in with your customers to see how they’re feeling. If the experience was subpar, offer them a discount, a free item, or a refund. In the experience of The Cell, more often than not, customers were incredibly understanding.
Market your business on multiple platforms. Customers absorb information in a wide array of places. The more ways you distribute details about your business, the more opportunity you have to meet them where they are at that moment. Consider snail mail, online ads, and community email newsletters, which is how Kate and many others found out about The Cell.
Understand your audience. Knowing the characteristics of your customers helps you cater to their needs and customize your messaging based on their preferences. It can also make your business more approachable and 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.
Behind the Review, episode 30 transcript Creating an out-of-this-world experience
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every week I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind it. This week, we dive into the story of The Cell—an immersive New York City theater and non-profit collective with a mission to mind the mind, pierce the heart, and awaken the soul through the incubation of new artists’ work. Lets see what’s behind this week’s review.
KATE: We walked up one flight of stairs. It was like going into a secret garden, a very adult, very quirky, nightclub secret garden, in a sense. We’re going up these rickety old stairs and then we see this door with literally glowing colors coming from the entranceway, like hot pink, purple. What? I just felt so surreal, like Alice in Wonderland. There was just meticulous, thoughtful, interesting moments of surprise and delight and it all centered around Southern Creole voodoo feeling arts. I believe the music shifted as well, depending on what side of the room you were on. It was a whole experience.
It was just so out of this world, like literally it was just so artsy, so cool, and so fun. They even had a tarot experience, and it was just so normal for New York City to have a weird artsy impromptu experience. It just fills my heart with joy to be able to experience the arts during the pandemic.
EMILY: That’s Kate, our reviewer who lives in New York City. When she was looking for a fun, safe activity to celebrate her friend’s birthday, she was surprised to stumble upon an in-person event at Nancy Manocherian’s The Cell Theatre that was featuring a socially-distanced, immersive art show called the Garden of Eden. This art show features scenes of midnight in the garden of good and evil. A creative person at heart, Kate instantly knew she wanted to bring her friend there and fell in love with the experience at The Cell. Let’s hear Kate’s review.
KATE: I never knew how much I missed the physicality of art until I came here during COVID-19.
They have done such a great job creating a safe space and ensuring people are healthy and respectful. They even clean their pens between visitors!
I’d never been to this theater before but it was a really magical experience — literally! New Orleans voodoo style. I recently read “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and that book gave me a whole new appreciation for this inventive tarot art experience.
Garden of Eden is an immersive art experience with a dab of museum, a dollop of that really cool crazy aunt/grandmother’s house, a spoonful of voodoo, a sprinkle of theater, a dash of fortune telling, and a splash of other world halloween creepies.
While the price tag may seem hefty, remember you are supporting a wide variety of professionals and keeping alive theater during the economic crush of COVID-19.
Please keep in mind this space is not optimized for people with mobility needs. There are stairs and narrow passages. Also this space is not a good fit for children. It’s really meant to be for people who are comfortable carefully maneuvering around tight spots and being gentle with their surroundings.
EMILY: Kate’s description of the immersive art experience truly sounds magical. And also unique! It wasn’t just the beauty of the art and displays, but the way it was brought together with the pandemic in mind. The Cell was able to take creativity and art to a whole new level. Here’s Kira Simring, artistic director and co-founder of The Cell Theatre, sharing how the place came to be.
KIRA: I was coming out of graduate school and directing theater and opera. Nancy Manocherian wrote the libretto to an opera called Dinner and Delusion by Michael Sahl, produced by the center for contemporary opera. I was hired to direct it and it went well.
We bonded through doing this opera together and realized we had this kind of soul mate artists, art Nour, they call it now. I heard from Jonah Art-ner. I liked that relationship. I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do with my career, because I wanted to have a family and I wanted to be a theater director and the two felt very incompatible to me. I’d always worked in the nonprofit sector. So when Nancy asked me if I wanted to help her start a theater, I jumped at the opportunity. I loved her. It felt meant to be, she is the facilitator of coincidence, so she calls herself. We started producing together. We applied for a non-profit, which was granted in 2006. We were producing plays, which was nice, but it felt like we wanted to be more in the thick of development of arts that were not easy to categorize, that were interdisciplinary, that were really unique, and not built to be marketed.
Nancy had a space in Chelsea which is The Cell, where the tenants who were a photography gallery broke their lease. And we basically decided to focus our energies and efforts into the development of new work, in any discipline of art in any combination, really a categorical, which was difficult because it’s hard to brand things without a category or an identity and things were getting more and more commercial in the theater and art world.
And it wasn’t the theater that we’d fallen in love with and the experimentation that we’d grown up in, or what we’d associated with New York with. We knew that some of that stuff was being done in Brooklyn with younger people. But this is who we are. And we said, let’s just do it. If it works and if it doesn’t, it works because we are loving this and we’re loving giving these opportunities to artists who are like us, who don’t fit neatly in any categories, but who are really devoted to digging for truths that feel like they push culture forward.
We just started doing it and it grew slowly. We always say smaller is better because we were able to have staying power. And that’s essentially the story of how The Cell came about.
EMILY: With their shared passion for art, Kira and Nancy created an avenue for artists to go outside of the box and invite audiences to immerse themselves in limitless creativity at The Cell. Kate was so impressed by the surreal atmosphere, interactive elements, and the combination of museum and fortune telling experiences that the installation had to offer. Let’s hear Jonah, The Cell’s Associate Producer, talk about how the Garden of Eden installation, a hypnotic and meditative experience, came to be.
JONAH: Garden of Eden was something that wanted to give people that emotional, intentional, and intimate space within the theme of the tarot.
A lot of the installation was really focused on a self guided experience. I was not there to tell them what they would find, how they would find it, what they’re supposed to feel. But I would tell them that it’s designed for intentionality. For asking yourself a question. Some people could have a hard time up there, but that’s the time that they’re supposed to have. Maybe they’re supposed to have a hard time asking themselves a question and being with themselves and sitting down and thinking about these questions because maybe that’s not what they want it to have.
I would explain there’s a dark side and a light side. On your left is the dark side and on your right of the light. Your tarot reading will take place on the light side, so I recommend starting on the dark side. And there are questions that were intended to draw introspection, which you are encouraged to ask yourself, ask your partner aloud, write down anonymously, and post it as dozens of people have. So by the end of the installation, we had dozens and dozens of these little white pieces of paper, people answering questions about their fears, their hopes, and a piece of advice.
EMILY: Because of the self-guided, highly immersive nature of the installation paired with the need to maintain social distancing, The Cell’s crew realized early on they needed to make sure they were able to accompany their audiences and navigate them at the beginning. Let’s hear how the team was able to successfully lock down a seamless self led art experience that incorporates safety protocols.
JONAH: People wander up and it’s a little confusing because you go up one set of stairs and to your right is the person and to your left is another set of stairs. It’s a little jarring because there’s AstroTurf when you walk in as well.
So they were very well-trained to say, watch your step please. Then check them in and say, are you here for Garden of Eden? So they know they’re in the right place. They don’t know where the hell they are. They know that they came to The Cell, but we got written up in the New York Times and a lot of people saw that and said, oh, I’ll buy tickets for this. I have no idea what it is. And so we had a lot of those folks who have no idea what they were stepping into.
We each had our own different spiel about what they would find and about how long it lasted, then half an hour in you’ll hear a tone. That means that your tarot reader is calling in on the iPad in the light half of the room. And letting them know to keep their mask on at all times. And that when they’re done with their tarot reading, they can come on down so I can sanitize the space for the next guest.
EMILY: The virtual tarot reading was an impromptu element that Kate loved about the whole experience. Something so “New York” as she described. Because of the pandemic, The Cell wasn’t able to deliver this fortune telling component in person and designed a virtual alternative for the audiences insead. With limited staff, that came with its own challenges. Let’s hear how Jonah addressed those hiccups.
JONAH: The pandemic brought a lot of tech issues to people in the entertainment industry and pretty much every industry. Wifi connection, zoom capability, multi-channel audio design, all brought around the ugly head of the fact that people didn’t know when their tarot reading was beginning.
So I had Lexi, our chief tarot reader. We had a few different tarot readers. Lexi would call me at, the tarot reading began at half past the hour every time. She would call me at 8:31pm, 9:31pm, and 10:31pm. “They’re not answering Jonah,” and I’ll be like, “Okay, hold on. Please call again.” And I’d go up. And I would see if they were in the other part of the installation, because it’s a whole townhouse that we’re in. So people can be at the far end of the installation with this beating heart in an aspect of this six foot tall heart with a rib cage around it with this literal, beating sound effect and not hear it ring on the other side of the room. Or they were sitting there waiting for it and it wasn’t signed in or the wifi was being janky or something. I would just toggle it on and off or just make sure that it was plugged in and physically answered the call for them and make sure that everybody was connected. That happened unfortunately a few too many times.
Because of technical issues that I experienced as well as every other gallery center that we had, they would get nervous about the people going through something that was really janky and messed up. I would always say, when they come down, see how they’re feeling and offer them a pizza rat patch or a tarot card or something. Offer them a refund if it was really janky and really messed up.
Really, we gave people this extraordinary opportunity to get out of their house, just do something, be in a different space, be in a different headspace, and be with their friends and loved ones. So even though there were a little bit of tech issues and everybody knows how tech issues just appear everywhere you look, that they still really appreciated the experience.
KATE: Somehow years ago, I got added to this email list that goes out on Saturdays and it aggregates really cool fun stuff happening in New York City, really about in-person events and then they try to transition to virtual. So when the Cell Theater showed up and was having an in-person event, I was like, what?!
EMILY: The Cell Theatre uses multiple channels to spread the word about their current installations and experiences. Like Kate, many people find out about the current show through local newsletters or features in publications. In addition to getting mentioned on lists and in various places, The Cell Theatre also has its own list of contacts that they promote to.
JONAH: We’re really proud of our newsletter and the consistency of it once a week. Also we’re just starting on something newer and introducing people to who we are and what we are before we just throw them into the newsletter. They bought a ticket, we say, hi, we’re the Cell Theater, this is what we’ve done, this is what we’re doing now, this is what’s coming up, and then show them an image of the building.
I cannot tell you how many times, especially in recent weeks, someone said, I walked by that place all the time and I always wondered what was going on there. That was me. I worked as a tour guide before I got into the arts full-fledged. I would walk to the high line park and walk past this building with the falling man sculpture coming out of it. And I’d be like, I think that’s a gallery when tourists asked me what it was.
The image of the building. We’re talking a lot about what our building looks like, how we can convey more information on the front of it because I’ve worked at a lot of spaces and participated in a lot of stuff that’s location independent and branches off and has partnerships and other spaces. The Cell exists within this building. The Cell is not location independent. We struggled a lot. We had a lot of success with online programming, but we struggled a lot with it too, because so much was lost in translation from the heart and the soul of what the space is. And I got to tell you, 14 months cleaning the space up and down, getting rid of furniture, or getting rid of trash, fixing stuff, and getting things together. It’s a really, really special space.
EMILY: Accurately representing who you are as a business and what you do to customers is important! And for brick and mortar businesses, you want to make sure your physical space reflects that message in the best way. Additionally, utilizing channels like email newsletters is a great way to increase visibility and convey the essence of who you are. So much of the experience at The Garden of Eden was visual. And that was something that Kate loved and wanted to capture in her review. That’s why she decided to include photos as she shared her experience on Yelp.
KATE: I think consumer photos or consumers like Yelp reviewers like me are really essential in providing that authenticity. A business owner wants their stuff to look good and they are going to curate their presentation as they should. But a person that walks in that’s a client is going to actually show what that space looks like when it’s not at its best. And that’s really important to me. And likewise if it’s an experiential event such as this theatrical event, having been a professional creative, I really wanted to toe the line of not giving away all of the good stuff, but enticing people to come and support this business.
EMILY: As for Kira who’s been receiving feedback on her artistic work for a long time, she understands the driving force behind reviews and how to incorporate them into the business.
KIRA: For me, I’ve been trained to read reviews on my own work originally. And I was taught if you want to read the good reviews, you got to read the bad reviews. You can’t just read some reviews. And also that any publicity is good publicity. You just want to have publicity.
But it’s shifted dramatically in the last decade. Everybody has had to shift. I was very resistant to the new way of doing things, feeling like anybody was empowered to say anything. And there was no curation of it. At the same time, I read Yelp reviews all the time to figure out where I want to go and all other kinds of reviews. So I eventually came around giving into an understanding that it’s just the way that things are now and how to be creative in engaging with it. I think actively in the process of that now.
There’ve been bad reviews I’ve been grateful for and I’ve taken notes from. There’ve been good reviews that have been meaningless to me. Obviously there’ve been good reviews that have made me say, thank God you care, and are watching and looking and bad reviews that have hurt but it’s the level of engagement.
EMILY: As a business in the art scene, it is important to recognize that audiences can come in with their biases and that everyone has a different perception of the work. At the same time, The Cell hopes to bring people together through inclusive experiences where anyone can enjoy the art.
JONAH: It’s really important to know who your audience is. It’s a paramount thing. And to know if you’re going to enjoy a piece of art, to know if the artist made this with someone like you in mind, or a broad enough range where you can be included. Inclusiveness is a really important thing I think, to discuss in terms of art, especially right now.
One thing that I love about what we’re doing here is that there’s an inclusivity element for a lot of the things that we are doing. For example, there’s a culinary artist in residence who wants to combine the worlds of art, food, science, philosophy, and history. And so his journey, his purpose, is to get a diverse audience to enjoy all of these elements together and create a dialogue together in bond over food. That’s something that really is for everyone.
EMILY: To close us out, let’s hear Kira talk about The Cell’s dedication to finding ways to persevere through hardship and to bring arts to people and support creativity in artists at the same time.
KIRA: Streaming for accessibility. It’s true to people in different countries, to people who are homebound, to have the aspect and element of streaming worked out is enormous. Even with the tarot readers in Garden of Eden, they would have been live, but there’s something to be said for the way that it was done remotely. It was pretty magical.
My major goal though, to tell the truth with continuing the place operating, which Nancy made possible, is that artists get very depressed not making art. And I get very depressed not making art. So that’s what we do. We had to figure out how to do it. And any limitation that forces creativity is healthy for artists.