The team behind the What? Music and Arts Festival expands into bar design in helping to remake the former campus dive

“What happened to Midway on High?”

Precisely.

“No. What happened to Midway on High?”

That’s exactly right. What? happened to Midway on High.

OK, so it’s highly unlikely that anyone who actually visits the newly remodeled campus bar Midway on High is going to be enthralled by a decades-old riff on an Abbott and Costello routine, but What? Productions, the group behind the What? Music and Arts Festival, lives to create the types of awe-inducing interactive experiences that can bemuse and amuse in equal turns.

“As we were building this … people would literally walk in and be like, ‘Oh, is the bar open?’ The whole time there were people peeking in and asking questions,” said What? Productions co-founder and director Ryan McKee, who joined lead artist Kyle Dineen and Ali Alshahal of A&R Creative, which owns Midway, for an early October interview at the renovated space. “Even people walking by were intrigued, and that was encouraging for us, like, ‘All right, I think we’re on the right track.’”

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Prior to taking on the remodel, the What? team had never considered involving itself in construction, preferring to focus on experiential, arts-based events like its yearly music festival, which debuted at 934 Gallery in 2018 and expanded to the grounds of 400 W. Rich in 2019. Coming into 2020, the crew planned on growing the event yet again, an expectation it was forced to scrap in early spring amid coronavirus-driven shutdowns that temporarily left the group reeling.

“I was talking to [Alshahal], worried that our festival was going to be canceled, and I was like, ‘What are we going to do?’” said McKee, who previously worked as a bartender for Alshahal in college and has staged events at the now-closed Trism, which was owned and operated by A&R. “And he was like, ‘Well, we have this thing going on…’ So it turned out to be a blessing in disguise that the festival was canceled, because we ended up having the whole summer free.”

Alshahal said A&R has long had plans to remake Midway, which he described previously as a dark, dive-y place, remaking it as a DJ-centric club where even the upstairs bar is built to resemble a stage, positioned across the room from a new DJ booth constructed of digital screens that scrolled psychedelic light patterns throughout our conversation. “We’ve been thinking about Midway for years and how to transform it. … If you think about it, in normal times, anyone who was involved [in the project] might be too busy to do this,” Alshahal said of the additional time COVID-19 shutdowns afforded the team to remake the space. 

Not that the investment isn’t without its risks. The bar and restaurant industries are still dealing with capacities and hours restricted by the ongoing pandemic, with little concept of when full operations might be able to resume, or when customers might again feel comfortable congregating in public spaces. “That’s definitely a big concern … but we’re committed to the future, and hopefully at some point this will be behind us,” Alshahal said. “I wanted to position this place so that when things are somewhat back to normal, or the new normal, that it’s already moving at the right speed to truly take off.”

With no bar remodeling experience, McKee and Co. leaned heavily on lessons gleaned from building a music festival, namely: planning carefully, discussing specific steps with experts and then also not being afraid to take the occasional creative leap. Midway’s 28-foot downstairs bar top, for example, was created by pouring more than 80 gallons of epoxy one inch at a time atop a sculptural installation against the advice of a local epoxy specialist, who was concerned the material wouldn’t hold up at that scale.

“We had a super thorough plan and we talked to a ton of people, including one guy who’s probably the most important epoxy guy in the city or state … and he almost scared us out of doing it,” Dineen said. “We told them every step of the process, and we did a bunch of tests, but it was still a massive, massive leap.”

The epoxy bar is just one example of the innovation on display throughout Midway, whose various elements were inspired by a variety of venues and clubs, photos of which were tacked up on an inspiration board during the early planning stages. The bar's bathrooms are powder-coated different colors, giving each a trippy, Wonka-esque feel; there are several sculptural mirror walls; and the second floor bar is inlaid with more than 1,600 meters of LED light strips. There are also murals snaking up the stairs and throughout the space, which were done by local artist Dillon Beck.

McKee described the remodel as a group project, crediting a team of more than two dozen workers, many of whom were artists and musicians left without work amid coronavirus shutdowns.

“Our goal was to find a way to work with them … to keep our community together in some way,” McKee said. “We had a drummer sanding and a computer guy spray painting. … The guy who’s going to DJ here on Friday helped build the whole thing, and so did the guy who’s going to be running visuals. So now you have people who will play music here, or who will come hang out here, who were part of the build. And now they're also part of the community around it.”

Correction: An early posting said that the What? team had "no construction experience," which has been updated to "no bar remodeling experience," as McKee and his team have three years of building experience with this project, in addition to past experiences.