Games in Theater- Pulling People Through the 4th Wall

Theaters making games. Gamer designers making theater! 4th walls coming down… and not really coming down… so many cool things happening. Here I review three different game/theater experiences I had in NYC and list a bunch of cool other ones. Plus- announcing CLUB DROSSELMEYER in Dec. 2016!! 

What makes a show interactive? What makes a game theater? In January, I saw two amazing shows: Sleep No More and Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. And then I did 7 escape rooms in NYC… Two theater experiences trying to be more like games and one type of game that’s an awful lot like theater. It seems inevitable that these art forms are going to collide and the result will be some incredibly cool stuff. 


This is a rock opera that they’re billing as an “immersive” experience and by immersive, they specifically mean set. And what a set it was!! You walked into the space and it was magic: you felt like you had been transported to another time and place.

The nice part about this type of immersion was that I had a place. I belonged there in my seat. I was the audience. The other awesome part was they let me know what was happening. The opening number ran through each of the characters with one personality trait to help me remember them “Sonya is good, Natasha is young and Andre isn’t here.” gottit. They warned me in song “It’s a complicated Russian novel, so follow along in your program.” Thanks! They even had a map of the characters in the program. One of the main points of a storyteller is to make sure your listener understands the story and they really took that seriously.

So it was immersive in that it was physically around me. But was it interactive? No. Definitely not. They gave me perogies (Also awesome). They dragged unsuspecting people into the spotlight occasionally. Sometimes they gave us little instruments to shake along or had an awkward audience member stand while they sang to them. Those parts really made me think hard about how difficult it is for theater folks to see people as anything other than audience. 

I felt bad for the people who had been dragged into the limelight to have actors sing to them. They didn’t have a role, they couldn’t opt out and their only response was to stand there quietly and try not to mess up the show. That’s not interactivity- that’s… something else. I watched shaking instruments or I watched with the performers around me or behind me but I still watched. Immersive-ish, but definitely not interactive. 

Then there’s SLEEP NO MORE

This has been a big deal for a long time and I’m glad I FINALLY got to see it but I have to say, it wasn’t what I expected. Again, immersive- definitely. Interactive? I’m not certain. I was still just watching. I was running around and watching from different angles… I could decide what part of the story I wanted to see… more interactive than anything else I’ve ever seen.

There are hallways and bedrooms and bars and lobbies and a streetscape- an incredible immersive set, all of which I’m allowed to explore on my own. I can scavenge through the spaces, look in drawers, try to find evidence (which I LOVED). The story is happening around me- it’s a modern dance version of MacBeth… or Rebecca. Or both. But I’m not sure because I had no idea what the hell was going on. And that’s where the interactive part fell apart for me. 

For Sleep No More, I had done my homework: I watched MacBeth and Rebecca recently. I read the reviews on how best to go through the space- I tried one tactic while my husband tried another. But neitheer of us had any idea what the plot was. And while I could decide where to go…and I did have a role, I had a mask on and that made me some sort of ghost or spectator, I really had no impact on the story. I tripped over people- they tripped over me. I heard screams and then stood behind large groups of people with no idea who was screaming or why. It was a little bit of mayhem. I’m not sure what it was five years ago, but now it’s a cash cow with some crowd control issues and clear marketing strategy: personal experiences with the actors. Which is a bit of a human hack. Ask anybody what they thought of Sleep No More and they’ll probably tell you, “I danced with MacBeth” or something that happened to just them and eclipsed the whole rest of the show in their minds. Brilliant, yes. I know… gotta sell tickets. But still. 

Don’t get me wrong, it was still very cool. But it seemed obvious to me at the end when they tried to sell me a book with a map of what actually happened that I wasn’t supposed to get what was going on. They didn’t intend for me to understand it and I found that really exhausting. Two solid hours of having no idea what was happening. I was yearning for that nice intro song from Natasha and Pierre. 

Then… there’s the ESCAPE ROOM!

If you haven’t played an Escape Room yet… play an escape room. I wrote about them in Europe maybe two years ago and they are HERE and in force. There are over 40 in NYC. In Budapest there are supposedly 300 and in cities like Shanghai and Singapore there are even more.

NORTHGLENN, CO – DECEMBER 16: Tamsen Olson looks through a drawer as Doug Saxen checks the bedding during a game at Denver Escape Room in Northglenn, Colorado on December 16, 2014. Denver Escape Room features three puzzle rooms of varying difficulties. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

The idea is that you walk into a room, they lock the door behind you, and you have an hour to solve all the puzzles that will give you the key to escape the room. You’ll usually do this in groups of 3 to 10 and it is a ton of fun. They have different themes: spy stories, jail breaks, spaceships- and the set is one of the funnest parts of it. The sets have varying levels of sophistication but the ones that really fully immerse you (like Komnata Quest or Amaze Escape) are a whole new level of fun. You’re the character, you’re in the space, you have to explore the space in order to get out. And you have to explore everything- drawers, ceilings, walls- escape rooms are fantastic games. 

And there ARE elements of theater there: the set first of all- and some of them have actors. Zombie room escape has been so successful that they have franchises all over the world. (An actor plays a zombie who is getting closer to you as you try and solve the puzzles and get out of the room.) What seems to be missing in a lot of these escape rooms is the story. Some of them set up a nice story base “you’re imprisoned, you’re trying to get out”… and then sometimes they’ll also build some story elements into the puzzles but often it’s just a fancy room of puzzles. This is where they could take a page from the world of theater. I would give anything to see a theater company build an escape room. 


There are some other cool things on the horizon as well. Then She Fell is supposed to be closer to this game/theater hybrid. It leans towards the Sleep No More model but without the crowd control issues. Then there’s The Grand Paradise by Third Rail productions, (the same company as Then She Fell) which looks like a successor to Sleep No More. One thing I have to say about Sleep No More is that it has been wildly financially successful so I can see it being a model other companies would want to try. The Alving Estate looks terrifying and awesome. I’m especially excited about that because it’s happening at the Morris Jumel Mansion: Theater and historic homes partnering!!! GAH!! BEST THING EVER!! This is actually happening more, too- there have been interactive performances at places like the Emily Dickinson Museum

On the gaming side of the equation, organizations like MegaGames are creating interactive (but not quite LARP-y) games for ticket sales. Coming up in Chicago is Watch The Skies You lucky Chicagoans. 

The Game Theater looks amazing. It’s in NYC… of course… and it seems like tickets are pretty hard to get but I’m absolutely intrigued because it’s run by game designers. 

I was at a conference the other day and mentioned LARPs. Someone said “Of course LARPs, you love LARPs” and I was surprised because in fact I don’t think LARPs are the solution. I’m totally intrigued by them but I think the barrier to entry is too high for regular folks… too many rules. Too many people concerned about rules. But there are a couple of LARPs that seemto be exactly this immersive theater that I’m thinking about. Not necessarily game-y, but very immersive and completely interactive: Like this Downton Abbey-inspired immersive Fairweather Manor. Or Demeter… an amazing TERRIFYING interactive story about Dracula’s travel to England. On a boat (WHaaaaaat??!) Or the College of Wizardry. All this crazy stuff makes me want to go to Poland. 

So much to think about.

“So Kellian,” you may say. “What are you going to do about it? Are you just going to wait for tickets to show up for this things in NYC and Poland?”

Oh hells no.

I’m building one of course. I want to see how they work and how far we can push this art form. Next Christmas, we’ll be producing Club Drosselmeyer right here in Boston. Part game, part show, part spy thriller, part big band concert, part night out, I want to see what we can do to mix all the things into one fabulous retro pot. Because of course it will be retro. And of course there will be swing dancing. Check out CLUB DROSSELMEYER where you can sign up for the mailing list and get updates. We’ll be moving forward as soon as I get confirmation on our location.

So games and theater. I still feel like we’re not quite at a perfect hybrid yet- but it will happen. Theater has something games and exhibits don’t: a true world-build, an immersive set with people and props and details. They also have the infrastructure to build all these things- theater spaces and set builders and people who want to support theater, which is no small thing. But games have something theater doesn’t as well: agency. A true break in the 4th wall. Games have players. Shows have audiences. Players have agency. Audiences watch players. Players do things to affect the story but audiences do not. Theater keeps doing dumb “interactive” stuff like giving audience members maracas and telling them they’re part of the show. On the other hand, games are still striving for the artistry of theater. 

We’ll get there, and I cannot WAIT to play these shows. 


One response to “Games in Theater- Pulling People Through the 4th Wall”

  1. Really interesting, thank you so much, if you decide to come cros Ocean in Rome, Italy i would come to be parte of your show, i’m an Artist scenografy, it can be useful.

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