David Valentino has been a part of the immersive theatrical family adventure, Pip’s Island, since the beginning. “I joined the founders Rania and Rami Ajami and Walter Krudop way back in 2015,” says the director of production. “We started workshopping the production with a shoestring budget at a small blackbox downtown and did a few pop-up workshops, including a version in Chelsea that was 10,000 square feet. But we realized after we closed that pop-up event in January 2017, that the only way to really make the business model work was to wholly own our own venue and build out the space from scratch.” Check out all our Pip's Island coverage here.
Finding their own real estate in Manhattan was not an easy task as they had multiple factors to consider: ceilings above 16', more than 10,000 square feet, close to transportation for Tri-State area families and tourists, and a personal relationship with a landlord rather than a corporation.
“I think I looked at over 70 spaces over the course of nine months to land on the space at 42nd and Ninth,” comments Valentino. “I very distinctly remember the day that we came across this space. This building was brand new construction. They weren't even topped out on the building yet, and there weren't windows on it.” He took the construction elevator up to the second floor (where the main event is now), saw the 30' ceilings and virtually non-existent columns in the open, 15,000 square foot space, and fell in love.
Pip’s Island immediately started working on building out the design while simultaneously negotiating the ten-year lease with ownership. Integral to the build was understanding how the show would flow through the space. Since the team wanted four groups of 50 people to be within the space at the same time, sound separated quadrants were key to creating the immersive experience. After weeks of rationalizing the sound to 80% suppression, they ultimately decided to redesign the space into three interconnected black box theatres that are completely sound isolated from each other. “When we were doing it in March, it was terrifying, because it was tearing up a lot of the work that we had done previously, especially in the construction side in terms of paperwork and drafting that we had submitted to the city already,” states Valentino. “But ultimately, it was the best decision that we made.”
Another factor that informed much of the design of the space was the ShowPulse show control system, monitored by one operator in each quadrant. “One of the key design decisions we made was were each of these four controllers going to be stationed in each of their quadrants or were they going to be in a consolidated area? We ended up deciding that it has to be in a consolidated space where everyone can monitor the quadrants via CCTV,” explains Valentino. “So that meant we had to design everything to be centralized. We built a physical backbone, architecturally into the space, with a 24'' cable trade that penetrates through the entire space so that we can run data or CCTV for control, but also be able to reconfigure it very easily in two or three years when we decide to do the next iteration of the event in the space.”
Valentino was given the nearly impossible task of opening the venue by the beginning of 2019. “Every construction contractor and production firm I talked to said that it was an impossibility,” he says. “The construction alone would be 14 months of work, not to mention bringing the production inside.” But Valentino was determined, and thus, developed a Gantt chart where he overlapped construction and production at the same time. Soon, ironworkers and riggers, electricians and scenic fabricators were working side by side in organized chaos.
“It was very much a balancing game between cost, time, and capability,” he adds. “You go from an engineering meeting about fire alarms in the morning to an afternoon creative meeting, where you're talking about Shelly’s Shore. It was really an incredibly challenging and refreshing way of working for the entire team for the first half of 2018.”
The director of production praises the creative partners of Pip’s Island. “I can't stress enough how incredible all of our partners were. They work so fluidly. We're such a dynamic company that an idea that had been in the books for four weeks could be thrown out in an afternoon when we have a stroke of genius. I really have to applaud everyone from John Creech to Grady at Paper Mache Monkey and especially Katie and Julia at Infinite Scenic who really rolled with the punches--they took every single idea that we threw at them in total stride.”
The large scenic fabrications were ready for load-in by January 2019. “Construction manager, Neslihan Ataselim, production manager, Jameson Croasdale and myself came up with kind of an insane idea to remove one of the 12' x 18' plate glass windows off the Ninth Avenue side of the building and actually shut down two lanes of traffic to the Lincoln Tunnel and crane all of the scenery into the second floor through that open window in the middle of January, during a snowstorm,” Valentino recounts. After much haggling with the building to casually take off a four-ton sheet of glass off the side of the brand new building, we kind of got them to grudgingly acquiesce. We did three crane nights where we brought in all of the scenery, all of the lighting, and all of the temporary rigging.”
After an insane couple of overnights, they were able to finish construction and load-in by the second to last week of February and start the tech process, while acquiring building permits for New York City. “Considering getting the certificate of occupancy, commissioning the fire alarm system, doing all the atmosphere testing, locking down all of the lighting with the city, having a third party inspector look at all of your systems that were installed, usually the permitting process takes three months but we condensed it down to one month to allow us to get to the point where we could have our first paid preview audiences coming in on March 15. The insane part of all of it was that from boots on the ground in August, to our first customers coming in March, we went from a cold shell space with no plumbing, HVAC, or electricity to an operating experience in nine months,” says Valentino.
“I think Pip’s is the greatest challenge of my career and the most rewarding one,” he concludes. “When I walk around the venue, I can see how incredible excited these kids are about these life-changing moments. I'm personally so proud of what I've done in the past four years with this team, and so honored to have had the opportunity to be entrusted to lead and build out this incredible space by Rami, Rania and Walter.”