Seven Lessons Learned from Creating an Immersive Theatrical Whodunit
In the summer of 2017, I was commissioned to write, direct, and co-produce a ninety-minute, immersive murder-mystery for a four-floor art-deco theatre just outside of Atlanta. I knew an exciting and potentially insurmountable challenge lay ahead. The historic Earl and Rachel Smith Strand Theatre was looking to renovate its annual spring golf fundraiser into a performance event showcasing its gorgeous spaces, including its 500-seat proscenium auditorium and a fourth-floor patio view of the Marietta Square below. Teaming up with longtime friend/collaborator and escape-room designer Jeremy Ledbetter, we presented Murder! at The Strand in April 2018, billing it as an “immersive theatrical whodunit.”
There is a deep need for continued research and development in the theatre, by which I mean research past the benign safety of staged readings.
My state of Georgia is sadly ranked forty-eight nationally in state arts funding, and theatre artists looking to work past the traditional lines of “well-made” plays have few outlets to encourage their work. There is a deep need for continued research and development in the theatre, by which I mean research past the benign safety of staged readings. After a sold-out run which inspired an encore remount less than two months later, I’d like to share some lessons we learned along the way. I hope our success is an indicator to other established companies and institutions that if you collect the right people together and give them the proper resources, new (crowd-pleasing) forms can and will emerge.
1. Build a world which is reflexive, and not constrictive. Jeremy and I studied many forms of immersion including the murder mystery but extending to video games, haunted houses, escape rooms, and theatre experiences like Sleep No More. Our goal was to create a world which held a compelling (if sometimes silly) story, while offering the audience real choices as they engaged with the play’s twenty-two characters; a world more interactive than a traditional play and more character-driven than a typical escape room. This meant literally writing the audience as a voice in the play. When preparing actors to interact with a wide variety of playing styles from audience members of all ages and experience levels, we had to craft these moments accepting there’s no way to completely control the exchange. Instead, we cultivated a mood which absorbs the audience’s direct personality rather than bottlenecks it. The result? A far more visceral experience for the “player.”
2. Lean into the natural architecture/strengths of your space. Every director knows space is the first major ingredient of the theatre so don’t try to fight against it; you’ll only frustrate yourself. The audience sees what it sees, so embrace the space and instead make it as dynamic as possible—this dictates your where. The Strand’s design is art deco, which influenced both the style of our murder mystery and its structure. Originally envisioned as three thirty-minute rotating scenes by which the audience puzzles together a murder, the space literally didn’t permit the play to move that way. Instead, we opted for a free-flow audience investigation sandwiched between structured opening/closing sections. Why? It was the easiest way for our audience to move through the space.
3. Form dictates function. In addition to the natural strengths of your space, how about your actors? Your tech? Rehearsal space? Your schedule? By finding that sweet spot where artistic wishes meet practical considerations, we simultaneously appeased the Strand’s production staff and saved ourselves major story headaches down the line. Jeremy and I were both pleased and pleasantly surprised to re-discover at the end of our process that our eighty-page rehearsal script followed the one-page outline we drew up last fall—by choosing wisely where to plant, eventually the plant starts to handle the growth part on its own. By our opening, the actors were improvising new bits and interchanges I hadn’t written but which made the story all the richer for the audience.
How do you mitigate control over a very specific story with this form? The answer was surprisingly simple: pick the right actors, and trust them.
4. Something is something, and something else is something else. You must give the audience what you say you will give. If you say your piece is immersive, then make it that. Because our show intentionally blurred the traditional line separating actor and audience, that meant we had to prepare for an intense level of involvement from our audiences. We gave our audience/players three rules, one of which was “Assume everything is intentional”—but turns out we didn’t need to explicitly state that rule. Our audiences included middle-schoolers through octogenarians, and the only players unwilling to fully engage with our world were the ones who weren’t properly oriented to what the play was. For that reason, we set up a series of fail-safes to ensure audience members wouldn’t simply get lost and waste their time and invented the characters of the “Strand-Bassadors” (who also introduced the three rules at the start of the evening) as hybrid tour-guides and hint-givers living both in and out of the world itself. Sometimes the tiniest bit of clarification from a Strand-Bassador altered an audience member’s level of engagement from confusion to enlightenment. Additionally, the first fifteen minutes of our production was a tutorial like you might find in any video game, training the audience how to play while dropping critical points of exposition and introducing important characters. By getting everyone on the same page, we were then able to move forward together.
5. You may not catch your mistakes at first, but audiences surely will. In a traditional sit-down experience audiences can’t call BS when they see a false moment, but if you give them a chance to poke and prod at your story, they’ll naturally sense the inconsistencies and keep poking as long as they can. Why? Because irregularities interest us as human beings, especially where mystery is involved. We ended up changing our Rule Number Two from “assume everything is intentional” to “Conversation is your best friend,” encouraging pro-active engagement with the characters (sometimes the only way to progress along a storyline) and steering the experience away from imaginary rabbit holes. In addition to our Strand-Bassadors, the head Investigator (played by a cast member) would be there to listen to the evidence collected, and help audience members sort through what’s relevant and what isn’t if it wasn’t immediately apparent.
6. When in doubt, always trust your actors. Murder! contained clue trails and puzzle-solving but its bedrock was our twenty-two-member acting ensemble, the front line for the audiences’ experience. The meat of our evening was split into separate clue trails (we supplied the starting points but the trails themselves were only discoverable by playing), with some characters serving as points on multiple trails. After the murder occurred, the audience were given free choice to go where they pleased, prompted by helpful “clue sheets” provided by the Strand-Bassadors (for simplicity’s sake, we automatically narrowed the list of suspects to five). Now image the nightmare scenario this presents to a playwright: actors separated by distance from other clue trail characters, impossible to communicate prior audience conversations, sometimes having to interact with one quiet player or a drunken rowdy group of players, audience members trying to “outsmart” and trick ensemble members into revealing secrets… the list goes on. How do you mitigate control over a very specific story with this form? The answer was surprisingly simple: pick the right actors, and trust them. Instead of exhausting myself writing twenty versions of each scene, I worked with the cast to establish the important information and then let them play. The ensemble discovered more from one test audience than a week of rehearsal and rewrites could have ever accomplished, and by the end of our run actors were competently juggling solo players, duets, and in some cases groups of several dozen.
7. We need new forms, and new forms need institutional support. We hopefully agree on three principles involved with play production:
-Limitation: Theatre is (with some exceptions) limited to the group of people in the room who experience it;
-Reality: Space, time, and people, the theatre’s primary resources, are also its most expensive to procure; and
-Ideal: Artists should be compensated for their work in the theatre.
If our theatre is to honor these three principles, it means rethinking the relationship between artists, institutions, and entrepreneurs. It means artists thinking both inside and outside the box, and administrators actively seeking fresh ideas and partnerships.