Escape Room Theatre and BeyondOn July 29, 2020 by Joshua Kitz
Live History has performed “escape room theatre” since it’s inception in 2015. But what exactly is “escape room theatre?” Can we define it? What is it like for an audience member, or for a museum? And finally how have our experiences evolved?
What is Escape Room Theatre?
If you asked one of our other founders, you’d certainly get a slightly different answer. My role since the beginning has been to build and design our mysteries, puzzles, escape room elements, and keep an eye towards the overall audience experience. We call this role the “show designer.” So what does the show designer think escape room theatre is?
At it’s most basic, escape room theatre is incorporating escape room like puzzles into the story and interaction that the audience experiences during one of our shows. Small audience size allows for an intimate, interactive experience, and having puzzles to solve gives our audience an additional reason to talk with the historic characters in our shows. Escape room puzzles tend to be—at least partially—physical (a challenge we will overcome for re-opening during Covid-19) and may well involve finding hidden objects, cracking ciphers, solving riddles, or even opening lockboxes.
Our props/clues are not actual antiques! Our props/clue objects blend in with historic locations and part of the fun in show design is finding the most interesting place to position or hide our props. One of the responsibilities of our actors and show managers is to make sure only our items, not the exhibits on display, end up getting handled by our audiences.
Examples of Escape Room Theatre:
So what does this look like for an audience member arriving at one of our shows? Let’s illustrate with two of our original shows from our first two seasons. Mary’s Odyssey was a promenade show where audience members travel from room to room with Mary, the maid, in a historic house. At the beginning of the show, audience members are given either a copy of the Odyssey, or a chalk board with which to keep notes and solve clues. The Odyssey had a series of markings on various pages, most of which lead to a specific object in the historic house, and once all the objects are found, a final clue lead to a hidden treasure. Clues lead the audience from room to room, and as this happened they were also told stories that occurred in these rooms.
Catherine’s Creed was a one room show, intended for historic places. Audience members had gathered together after the funeral of a historic person, in the attempt to find some of the inheritance she/he had set aside. As the audience entered the historic space, the show manager handed them a hand-written note or a historic looking item (like a playing card, or a wooden spool). The audience took their seats in the historic space, met a relative of the deceased (one of our actors), and then met Catherine, a bitter women who held the other major piece of the mystery: the deceased’s copy of the Iliad, packed with notes.
As Catherine’s Creed proceeded, they combined the notes and objects they were given with the clues in the Iliad. Between solving clues, they heard stories of Catherine’s life and the deceased historic character’s life.
How hard are the clues in escape room theatre:
Our productions generally run 1 hour to 1.5 hours. When our shows are 1.5 hours, audience members are also eating. Most escape rooms have a time limit of 45minutes or 1 hour to successfully escape. Since we also devote time for the “theatre” part of the experience—scenes, monologues, and character-based interaction—the main difference is that there are fewer clues then in a full escape room. The design objective is usually to have about 1/3 of the experience be the audience working on clues and puzzles with the performers. Difficulty? Well like most escape rooms the goal is to have some easy, some moderate and some hard.
Most escape rooms allow for a few hints to still provide a successful escape—our performers are directly working with the audience and occasionally provide hints when it seems like audience members are getting frustrated or if time is becoming an issue.
Our experiences have never been that the audience must solve clues to escape. Rather, that they are working to find something important, be it a treasure, and inheritance, or someone’s name.
Beyond Escape Room Theatre
As the years have passed we’ve continually challenged ourselves to innovate and find ways to make our theatre experiences even more engaging and immersive for our audiences. We’ve moved towards experiential escape room theatre, quest based experiences, and choose-your-own adventure theatre, and even flirted with more traditional murder mystery style puzzles (no murder involved). All have had some basis in the escape room style puzzles that we started with. And, as Covid-19 changes the world, we will continue to adapt and evolve with touchless clues, mental rather than physical puzzles, and new experiences.
I’ll talk about some of these shifts, and their productions in future blogs. Until then, see you in the past!