Escape rooms have been all the rage recently, and Spooky Action Theater is getting in on the trend with Happy Hour, a production created by German theater collective machina eX, which offers a live-action twist on the escape room video game genre.
In the performance piece, two audience teams must help their human avatars escape from the clutches of an evil mastermind, using only the materials at hand to find the keys, unlock the doors, and beat the clock.
“It’s a trailblazing form of theater—at the intersection of technology, gaming and live theater,” says Gillian Drake, who co-directs the production with Yves Regenass.
“There is a trend toward active participation of younger audiences in their cultural interactions. Video games have been an important part of childhood since the mid-’80s, so there is a deep personal connection to this form of entertainment. And, it’s fun and funny and you get free beer.”
Drake has been working with the Goethe-Institut of Washington for the last five years and was introduced to many innovative theater forms in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. She knew this production was the perfect marriage of an innovative German theater company and the brave, visionary D.C.-based Spooky Action Theater.
The show is set in a video-gaming bar called the Happy Hour Lounge, with screens, earphones and game controls and relies on a cooperative audience experience.
“It is a play in the style of a video game and the audience is in the control seat, but they don’t have to be concerned that they will be pulled on stage and perform or act,” Drake says. “The sneak preview party was a huge success and everyone was laughing and having a good time. And there is a certain amount of party atmosphere in our Happy Hour Lounge and show.”
There is an elaborate structure to the narrative in Happy Hour—more similar to a flow chart than a traditional script. Drake explains that though some of the principles of improv apply, you would be surprised to know how carefully planned each performance is. What is different each night is the relationship between the actors and the audience.
With the technology being so intense, and the stage manager’s booth filled with computers and wires going everywhere in the middle of the sets, directing the actors involved was not easy, Drake admits.
“The production schedule was basically backwards from a regular American play— everything had to be done before we began rehearsing,” she says. “You had to have the sets, props, computers, costumes, camera equipment, software, card readers, earphones and everything in place. It’s also in a [performing] style foreign to most actors here.”
Drake traveled to Germany in February and had artistic discussions with her co-director and the machina eX folks, and has been involved in many Skype conversations ever since. She also reworked the script to make it more accessible to a D.C. audience in terms of vernacular, hometown references, and humor.
Along with Regenass, the two have been able to discover each other’s strengths and have found a great balance. The key, she says of co-directing, is having patience and a sense of humor.
at Spooky Action
May 14 – June 5, 2016
Details and tickets
“When Yves Renegass (along with machina eX designers Philip Steimel and Lasse Marburg) arrived in the U.S., Yves’ main job was to introduce a new acting style and way of working to the actors, and also to finish creating the mis-en-scene of this production,” Drake says. Meanwhile, she dealt with many of the design elements, finalizing lights, set, costumes, and props, of course in consultation with her directing partner.
And since the nature of the show has it that there are always two narratives running concurrently, each director takes a different narrative each night and gives notes to the separate groups of actors in that narrative.
“I loved collaborating with a visiting company and with such amazingly interesting and professional theater artists,” Drake says. “Their approach to theater is completely unknown here. I love exploring new work, new forms of theater and stretching myself as a director. And, it seems completely appropriate to bring this digital-art theater piece to the country with the most advance digitalization in the world.”