Note: All photos courtesy of Steve Backman Photography.
Manda and I have been craving interaction in Escape Rooms. We wanted characters to talk to. We wanted people with personalities to interrogate. We want individuals with their own backgrounds and motivations.
And thus when Will of Escape Games Toronto approached us (‘us’ being ERA and Mike of Escape Games Review) and suggested we do a large format escape event with actors, we jumped on board. The next four months was an insane amount of preparation for what would be something not tried before in the Toronto area: An Escape Room combined with Interactive and Immersive Theatre.
I wrote about this back in July when we were in the midst of planning: “Implementing story in a Live Escape Event“.
This extremely long blog post concludes this tale and will take an in-depth look at how we ran our first Theatrical Live Escape Event: “Night at the Speakeasy”.
The Team of Awesome
I actually lied a bit in that second paragraph: I didn’t immediately jump on board. Creating and running an event for possibly 250 people is an undertaking I didn’t want to attempt.
I wanted to have my summer free; I wanted to work on the next puzzle hunt; I wanted adventure in the great, wide somewhere!
And I knew I could not do a Live Escape Event by myself.
Of course, no one was saying I had to do it by myself, but I’ve never worked with this particular set of people. In order for this to work, we needed a team to make up for my deficiencies! Just like an escape room, if a team is filled with people with all the same skills, they will fail.
Fortunately, each of us had a role, and each member executed their role quickly and efficiently.
Ruby (EGR) was our Event planner and had the network and know-how to acquire and deliver anything we needed within a matter of days. I wanted a haze machine. She got me a haze machine. For the record, she’s my favourite person.
Mike (EGR) was in charge of setting up the website, designing the website, and finding Escape Room sponsors for the evening.
Jen (EGT) was placed in charge of marketing and costumes.
And Manda (ERA) was in charge of actors, volunteers, and story and character design.
This left me for puzzle design and story flow.
Seven people, who had never worked together, were able to pull off this event with little friction. Yes, I was surprised, but very impressed and pleased with our little band of escapers turned captors.
The Puzzle Design
When I design puzzles, I try my best to follow a few rules:
- When you get the answer, you know you have the right answer
- You should never have to guess to arrive at the answer. There is no trial and error. There is a clue which will lead you to the correct answer.
- I will not have red herrings
- I will close off as many rabbit trails as I can. If there seem to be multiple legitimate pathways to a solution, I will close them off as quickly as I can so you don’t spend ten minutes on something incorrect.
“Night at the Speakeasy” had an interesting twist: there were two goals that ran in parallel to each other.
The first goal was the puzzles of the Speakeasy. Instead of requiring a simple password to gain entrance, the owner, Tony Vescovo, had set up a series of puzzles that granted the clientele access to the bar and the gambling room.
The second goal was a subplot about a Mr. X. He or she would leave secret messages for the players throughout the night. Mr. X would also task players to question the regulars of the establishment.
The two plots did not intertwine and neither had clues for the other.
There were multiple reasons for this setup. The teams were in six and I wanted to make sure every player had something to do. I made the puzzles varied enough for different types of puzzle people. However, I also wanted to provide a task for people who were intimidated by puzzles, thus the interaction with actors.
We found in our beta testing people naturally gravitated to what they liked doing best, and it was the mixed groups who would have better success at solving the night.
And by the way, I did not design the puzzles to be unsolvable. However, I did not design them to be solved by everyone either. The puzzles were crafted to be solved by a good team who worked well together. The record, from what I understand, was 45 minutes. Approximately 40% of the teams solved the puzzles of the Speakeasy. Around 25% solved both the puzzles and Mr. X’s subplot.
The Beta Tests
We had six beta tests for our event. The first beta test was with the other organizers. I gave them the puzzles which were slated for the first 20 minutes and didn’t even include the Mr. X subplot. It took them an hour to complete. Woops.
After some tweaking and cutting, I gave another puzzle set to the second beta testers. This time, I was hoping they would solve these puzzles in the first 40 minutes. It took them over an hour. Woops again.
For the third beta test, I cut out about five puzzles, refined the puzzles to be easier, and also included the subplot for Mr. X. Our testers finished in around an hour. Huzzah! The puzzle flow worked and was solvable for the time slot! I was so happy!
The fourth, fifth and sixth beta tests were for flow, tweaking, and practice with our actors. We had the dress rehearsal on the fifth beta test, and the sixth was on the day of the event!
Manda and I have been looking for a particular type of immersion in every Escape Room we’ve done. We didn’t find it so we made our own. Throughout the night, players were required to talk to the regulars of the Speakeasy, and later on, acquire alibis from the main characters.
Manda wrote out bios for every character we could possibly have. I came up with the story flow and Manda would try to document the ideas I would fire at her on our morning bus rides. Of course, after she wrote it out, I would change my mind and give her alterations but I would be more vague about it. She may not be happy with our script writing process, but she hasn’t said anything.
While we were solidifying the story, we looked for actors. We were fortunate in this process because we have performed and partnered with so many talented people! They have either starred in projects we have written or have shared the stage with us.
We were ecstatic with the people we found! The actors and the volunteers were amazing! My only regret is that I could not see any of the awesome that occurred. I was the piano player for Debs, but that isn’t to say she wasn’t amazing. She sang for three hours. When I got text messages about bookings needing to be changed, she would scat into the microphone and wait for me.
All the actors dove into their roles with enthusiasm and loved playing their parts. We didn’t give them scripts because we didn’t know what players would ask, or how they would approach them. Instead, we gave them their background and motivations and told them the story for the evening.
Because we were trying to get the story polished, we did not give bios to our bouncers or volunteers. However, that did not stop them from adopting a persona! A lot of them wanted to have a bio of their own, so they made one for themselves, and kept to that role throughout the night. Did you know the bouncer to the gambling area (played by Tom White) was Tommy “No Talk”? I didn’t. But that was the character he made for himself and faithfully did not talk throughout the night. Seriously, all our volunteers were amazing!
You know what was unanimous in our feedback forms?
The actors and the volunteers.
People loved talking to them and interacting with them. I’m kicking myself we didn’t have the resources to film things. It would have been awesome. Please check the cast page on Canadian Caper to see our wonderful actors, but at the bottom, I will list the all the people involved!
Finally, the venue itself was gorgeous! The open brick walls, the safe door, the bar, the gambling area, all of it was key in transporting us back to the 1920s! Thank you, The Gates. Your staff was wonderful!
A lot of players came dressed in their best 1920s garb, and they looked fantastic! I was surprised how many people participated and took on personas of their own. They roleplayed! They would try different ways to subtly pull alibi information from the actors. They would sit and chat with characters at the blackjack table. They would flirt with Manda, some abandoning their teams just to spend time with her.
If you came to our Speakeasy, thank you! You were the people key in making the night awesome for us and your fellow players!
Critiques and Changes
The night was amazing, but, of course, it wasn’t perfect.
The eight o’clock show was sold out and very crowded. On top of that, we moved a team to that time because they missed the six o’clock show. They wanted to experience the game and I couldn’t say no. This event was one night only, and I was confident that it would be fun for people. I didn’t want anyone to miss it!
However, if this event were to ever be put on again, we would seriously looking into the optimal amount of people to give the same atmosphere of a crowded speakeasy without impeding on the fun and flow of the night.
This, of course, led to the second problem: bottlenecking near the end. Again, my apologies for that, and we do have ways to fix that if we ever repeat this night!
A Labour of Love
For those that are wondering how we did financially, we are in the black but not by much. However, we did this because we knew there could be more to Live Escape Events. We wanted to create a truly immersive experience!
We don’t have current plans to run the event again, but if we were to put on “Night at the Speakeasy”, we want to pay the actors this time. These were all professional actors and they put a lot of time into this event as a favour to me and Manda. I cannot thank them enough.
They did an amazing job, and we were all crazy proud of their work and dedication.
We were told by a few participants we underpriced the event. I was humbled and glad to know we provided something of high quality and value!
We received about 140 feedback forms out of the approximate 220 players. 95% of the people were willing to do another event we put out, and many of the comment forms were nothing but positive.
These are a few of the comments:
“1000x yes would attend again, let me know if I can help”
”All well organized”
”Please do another! This was wonderful!”
”Totally fun. Thank you.”
“Very much enjoyed having to interact with actors.”
“Do another one”
“It was fun + hard”
“Great first game guys! I can’t wait to see what the future holds for you!!”
“Actors were all great”
“Puzzles matched theme perfectly”
“The immersive atmosphere – actors, dressing up, awesome!”
“This was my first escape room and it was awesome.”
“more events! ”
People loved the immersion. I am extremely happy about this. My wife told me a story that one player was literally shaking after their team escaped, he was so excited.
We don’t know. I certainly don’t, but it could be because I haven’t been reading the emails fully. It’s been a crazy four months during which I dedicated all the free time I could to this Speakeasy Event. All I want to do now is play video games and watch Netflix.
But we did it! We were successful! And I am extremely chuffed at how it went. If I were clever that would have been a 1920s term. But it wasn’t.
We know an Immersive Escape Room can be done, and we are excited to be one of the first in Toronto to combine a puzzle room with immersive theatre.
Scott Nicholson, a professor in game design, tweeted this: “@CdnCaper had a great combination of puzzling, roleplaying elements, set design, and immersive narrative. Great first run.”
He has succinctly stated everything we wanted to do in our Live Escape Event, and we couldn’t be happier.
I had a chance to talk to Rob, who is also looking for a truly immersive Escape Room, and he left this wonderful review on our facebook page “You guys have raised the bar for what a puzzle adventure should be.”
And now, we want other Escape Companies to COPY us. I would love to do a Live Escape Event similar to the one we put on. I want to see a story. I want to interact with actors. I want that immersion.
Thank you, to all of you: the organizers, the actors, the volunteers! You have been an absolute joy to work with.
And thank you, the players, for your enthusiasm, your participation, and the small little community we have built around Escape Rooms (of all things)!
Keep a look out for us because I do love designing these things, and will find a way to do it again. ^_^
Organizers: Will Hutcheson, Yuri Chumak, Ruby Yuan, Mike Yuan, Jen Fehr, Manda Whitney and Errol Elumir.
Volunteers: Jenn Yach, Mayu Silver, Dan Charrington, Tom White, Melanie Abadiano, Vaheesan Markandu, Keren Elumir, Ekko Elumir, Zoe Elumir, David Profit.
Actors: Joshua Barbeau, Barbara-Audrey Bergeron, Manda Whitney, Dale Wells, Mark Lindan, Lyf Stolte
Singer: Deborah Linden
Make Up Artist: Emma-Lee Hilton
Photographer: Steve Backman