Perched somewhere between elaborate board game, immersive theatre and Halloween haunted house, the escape room phenomenon seems to fly under the radar in conversations about new forms of narrative and performance, but it bears consideration.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, they all follow roughly the same idea: a small group of participants, on average between six and 12 at a time, participate in a locked room mystery. The group’s appointed task, time-limited, is to solve a series of puzzles that sequentially reveal the solution to exiting the room before the clock runs out.
They come in a variety of scenarios, from Victorian murder mysteries to science fiction adventure and zombie apocalypse horror. They take place in spaces fitted out according to the theme. Depending on the construction, there may be actors playing roles during the course of the experience, serving as guides or obstacles.
One reason escape rooms can be easily overlooked in the theatrical hierarchy is that they don’t operate within standard entertainment venues. In New York, some escape rooms can be found behind nondescript doorways alongside office suites in commercial buildings.
I confess to having been fascinated by the idea, but reticent to participate, for multiple reasons. Designed as group activities, I’m no longer of an age when I gather a group of friends looking for something to do together on a Saturday night. So, to experience an escape room, I would find myself thrown into a participatory activity with an array of strangers, which doesn’t appeal.
While not claustrophobic, the pressure of finding a solution to allow me out of a locked room provokes some anticipatory anxiety. Save for crosswords, I am not a puzzle solver, and indeed any time I attempt one I last only a few minutes before tossing it across a room. Given a healthy startle reflex, the last thing I wanted was people suddenly jumping out of shadows at me, even if I knew them to be actors.
My trepidation was overcome last weekend by an art installation that adapted the escape room model in service of a calling beyond group entertainment. Produced by the organisation Creative Time and installed in an exhibition space in a mid-town Manhattan office building, Risa Puno’s The Privilege of Escape appropriates the escape methodology in service of exploring how people in society are, or are not, the beneficiaries of privilege, through no circumstance under their control.
The Privilege of Escape scenario, written and directed by Ran Xia, is that participants are subjects in a scientific study, briefed (and later debriefed) by actors in white lab coats before being divided into two groups, which we ultimately learn is simply by the month of our birth. We are told the institute is studying how groups function, and quickly ushered into our respective rooms to solve a series of puzzles involving shapes, colours and numbers within a 45-minute period.
Without giving away any of the methodology, we discover that some participants have been afforded privileges in solving the puzzles that others are denied. At no point is privilege tied to age, race, ethnicity, or social class, but the scenario leaves participants, when it is all said and done, pondering how this arbitrary assignment of privilege might be reflected in daily life.
Having been part of various types of diversity training, if The Privilege of Escape could be toured it would prove an excellent ice-breaker for participants at such gatherings. Earlier this year in the UK, The Royal Court’s Dismantle This Room explored the escape room construct to examine gender, racial and social hierarchies within the world of theatre.
While The Privilege of Escape is rather clinical in its invented scenario, it suggests the construct can be used in service of something more than entertainment – not that there’s anything wrong with that. But there’s certainly the opportunity for even more complex semi-narrative experiences, ones that exist in scale between the expansive immersions created by Punchdrunk and the ultra-intimate, spatially constrained one-to-one entertainments found in Christine Jones’ Theatre for One.
I’d like to see more playwrights, directors and designers turned loose on the escape room framework. It could serve as a means of forging bonds among audience members and yielding dramatic inventions that make the audience the actors, while provoking questions that linger beyond the event.
All I ask is that no one locks me in a room with a zombie.
Set in a truck stop coffee shop, Lynn Nottage’s new comedy Floyd’s, about a group trying to learn the art of making a perfect sandwich premiered this week (July 27, 2019) at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. It is staged by Nottage’s frequent collaborator, Kate Whoriskey.
Agatha Christie’s brief disappearance in 1926 is once again the subject for drama, with Heidi Armbruster’s Mrs. Christie opening this week (August 1, 2019) at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Vermont. Mary Bacon plays the title role, under the direction of Giovanna Sardelli.
Shakespeare’s Coriolanus received its first Central Park outing in 40 years in the Public Theater’s outdoor Delacorte last month (July 16, 2019), with Jonathan Cake in the title role and Kate Burton playing his manipulative mother Volumnia. Daniel Sullivan directs the production.
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/