The Speakeasy and Audience Consent

The Speakeasy

On Friday September 30th 2016, I attended a preview performance of The Boxcar Theatre’s The Speakeasy, an immersive theatre performance at the production scale rivaling that of Sleep No More in New York City.

Marketing photo from Boxcar Productions.

There are a number of aspects of this show that were going right. The cast are all extremely talented delights who really show the depth of their abilities as performers. The content itself has very challenging questions posed both in content and to the art form. Sadly, the piece obfuscates all of that with significant consent issues.

I have serious issues with the safety and comfort of the audience of this show. As a professional house manager and immersive experience artist, there are conditions and policies that concern me. Conditions which, at best, prevent audiences from enjoying the piece. At worst, can cause emotional, if not physical harm. It comes down to providing constant and continuous consent throughout the performance. An audience that is well informed of what’s expected and how to opt-out of the space temporarily, if needed.

My concerns can be solved by the following:

  • Clearly identified, accessible non-performing ushers in every room;
  • Clearly identified, accessible non-performance audience lobby;
  • An organized front-of-house experience.

I’m deeply concerned this production will leave a horrible experience to people who haven’t experienced immersive theatre. After my experience, I wouldn’t blame someone to cast off the art form completely. I’d rather not make a habit of saying other productions could improve respecting an audience. I want Boxcar Theatre to respect their audiences now.

Consent In Immersive Experience

My foundation for immersive experiences is built on continuous, constant consent from the audience. The folks at Foma Labs write on the topic of consent frequently. Most notably with the article On Responsibility in Immersive Experience.

“Immersive experiences often do not have these inherent safety barriers. Because of that, or rather the lack of that, emotions can be even MORE intense. If the immersive experience is designed well, the events of the story are REAL. While watching someone crawl through the dark in a movie can put us on the edge of our seat, crawling through the dark in real life can be downright unsettling in an unpredictable and sometimes unexpected way.”

Consent isn’t simply asking to opt-in at the beginning. Clear communication and permission to opt-out at every point of the experience is essential. Allowing the audience to self-serve their opt-out in a non-disruptive way is key.

The very foundation which we can allow our audiences to enjoy experiences is providing a foundation of safety. When the individual has a baseline of safety, they have the confidence to be a part of the piece and confront challenging material. When an audience worries about their safety, they’re unable to experience the piece.

Clearly Identified Ushers

At no point during the performance is a non-performer usher available to patrons.

I know this isn’t strictly true. I know the staff is watching from an assortment of cameras and non-performing staff flow throughout the space. To a patron, the only confirmed staff personnel are the performers. The personnel you’re told not to interact with unless they interact with you.

What if an action occurs that isn’t immediately visible on the security cameras? Someone starts to verbally assault a patron. Someone witnesses someone slipping a substance into a drink. Someone is about to have a panic attack and needs assistance. What are the ways in which a patron can express concern? A patron can’t ask for help because there’s no one definitive to ask.

Patrons are asked to dress as period and formal or risk denial of entry. This makes every person in the space look very similar to the performers. There is no one you can turn to if there is a problem.

Sleep No More tells patrons that any individual wearing a black mask is approachable at any time. Problems? Go to a black mask. You’ll find them quickly when you’re looking for them, but they don’t stand out to distract from the experience. This solves the problems you know you’ll have, and more importantly the problems you never knew you’ll have. Most of the time it’s where the bathroom is or where to find the lobby for a break. Sometimes another patron causing a security risk.

Every room needs a non-performing staff member. Clearly identifiable and always accessible.

This is a solvable without a complete break in costume aesthetic. Station usher staff in each room with yellow hats — the same hats used to get to will-call. They serve as matching the visual esthetic while uniquely distinct from a normal patron or performer. Noticeable when looking for assistance from across the room, but not distracting when enjoying the show.

Audience Lobby

Patrons need a way to temporarily exit the performance space and pause their experience. In traditional theatre, this is what the lobby is for. A way to excuse yourself from the performance without completely leaving the space entirely. For recorded media, we have pause and off buttons.

Among an assortment of documentation one receives for Speakeasy is this line:

No in-and-out privileges

Does it mean the marked exit doors you won’t be let back in? Now a patron is faced with the choice of having to find a place to break within the performance space, even when they want to pause their experience in the 4 hour show. There’s restrooms, but even they are performance spaces in the production. There is nowhere to opt-out of the show.

A non-performance lobby, clearly communicated to patrons, with access back to the performance space.

There is space within the building structure that is outside of the performance space and can be used for this lobby. It allows an opt-out space which someone can come right back into the piece when they’re ready. No punishments or judgements. Open to all, easy for anyone to enter or exit.

Front of House Experience

All of this ties into having a clear and welcoming front-of-house experience for patrons. Simplifying rules, simplifying procedures, and warming the audience up for what they are about to experience. Make them comfortable, excited, and ready for the experience.

None of these things will happen when you attend Speakeasy.

There are three different will-call check ins, each with a 5 minutes per entry time in the span of an hour. When you can check-in, you’re given one or two envelopes with some form of instructions written on them, but asked to go to a named place… that isn’t marked with signs. If you’re lucky to find the place, you’re asked if you need coat check, told again not to talk, and placed into the space. My personal experience was interrupted by an actor conducting a 1 on 1 experience that required me to talk. So… I guess I’m allowed to talk? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Tons of people are waiting outside on the sidewalk. Everyone got confused on where to go. Instructions that don’t mean a damn thing. It’s an unorganized mess that contributes nothing to the narrative.

I get they’re trying to present the experience of going to a secret space, but the logistics didn’t scale. This worked enough for the Club 1929 experience with one entrance and real will-call inside the space. This does not work out when moving in 250+ people within an hour over three different entrances.

The show needs ONE will-call area, regardless of entry point.

From that ONE point, you can lead patrons in groups to the entry points. At these entry points, conduct a performance purely about illustrating the rules of the space. This way the experience does start correctly within the narrative, supporting a positive experience.

Oh, and coat check? At the end of the night they roll out the racks in the middle of the casino room to find your own coat. Or take someone else’s stuff if you like. No one is checking claim tickets.

Boxcar Theatre: Please Fix This

Immersive theatre in this modern form is a new form of media. Mistakes will be made and situations will arise which no one will have ever predicted. Planning for the unknown means creating the environment where all participants know clearly when they can ask for help in a non judgemental environment.

The Speakeasy contains huge gaps in establishing trust with an audience. They are very fixable problems with minimal alteration to the piece itself. Communicate with your audience as welcomed and aid them in creating an enjoyable experience.

Don’t judge anyone for the needs they may have. Don’t dismiss anyone having issues as “not getting it” or other dismissive comments. Listen to your audience. Treat the audience as a part of the immersive production. It makes for a more immersive production.

Clearly communicate consent and opt-out for the audience at every moment.