The Speakeasy – The Closest You’ll Ever Come To Time Travel

Posted by Sasha on Monday, April 14th, 2014

On your left, there is a closet. Open the door and climb through the grandfather clock.” This is just one of the ways that guests enter The Speakeasy in San Francisco, an immersive theater experience that takes visitors back to 1923 to drink, gamble, and watch as various dramas unfold amongst a cast of Prohibition-era characters.

The Speakeasy - photo by Peter Liu

The experience begins with guests sitting alongside barely-perceivable actor plants in either an expertly themed bar or a cabaret theater. Two versions of the first act take place, setting the stage for a few different story lines. After the first act, guests are free to explore the rest of the Speakeasy, which includes a dressing room, functioning casino, and the owner’s office. The experience depends on which characters guests decide to follow, and there is no way to witness the story in its entirety.

The dressing room - photo by Peter Liu

Nick A. Olivero, originator and producer of The Speakeasy, didn’t want the production to feel like a complete story. The show runs straight through without repeating scenes, and guests typically only see pieces of the narrative throughout the evening. As Nick explains, “The world of The Speakeasy goes on whether or not the audience is watching, much like real life.” Building this unique collage of vignettes was no easy task, and it’s an ongoing project. Each character is part of a complex web of precise timing and everything is choreographed down to the minute. Even a small change in the script can cause a domino effect. One example of the show’s precise choreography occurs when an actress leaves a scene from the very back of the establishment and heads for the front bar room, and as she enters, she exclaims, “Men!” at the same time as other characters in separate conversations.

In terms of show control, The Speakeasy employs traditional theater techniques in a clever way to highlight the production’s unique spatial quality. For instance, during the first act in the bar, the lights dim except for those shining on the actor plants as they begin a conversation. When the scene ends, the lights dim and a different part of the room is illuminated, calling attention to the next vignette. The show spaces are rigged with cameras and speakers, which allow a small team in a command module to control the lighting and sound at appropriate cues.

The production also demonstrates a close attention to spatial awareness in its low-tech sound editing. At one point in the first act, a character slides open a bookcase to reveal the hidden casino, which erupts with hubbub and conversation and convincingly dies down once the sliding bookcase is returned to normal. This subtle detail creates a sense of spatial depth and generates curiosity for what lies beyond the initial main bar room.

The casino - photo by Peter Liu

While The Speakeasy is an innovation on traditional theater, it is more striking in its effect of creating a realistic night of time travel. The audience becomes absorbed in the Prohibition era, which serves as more than just a thematic coat of paint; the characters portray real issues of the era, including post-war trauma and chauvinism, as well as the timeless and universal struggles of addiction, abuse and marital disharmony.

The Speakeasy’s relatively intimate setting poses both a benefit and a challenge: the space makes it possible to eavesdrop and observe many characters; however, it can still be challenging to keep track of them when there is a buildup of on-lookers. Like any immersive theater experience, The Speakeasy is liable to activate your “fomo” (fear of missing out), because you will inevitably miss out on plot developments. But when following the story lines gets tiring it’s easy to continue enjoying the experience more passively by hunkering down in the bar or watching the performances in the cabaret theater. In both these spaces, character interaction and plot developments will occur, which is still entertaining even if the instances are disjointed.

The Speakeasy cabaret - photo by Peter Liu

Also unique to The Speakeasy is that the audience is not passive; actors involve guests in the plot and the audience as a whole participates in real speakeasy activities, including drinking, gambling, singing and dancing. In the future, Nick expects to integrate even more guest engagement. The challenge with this is deciding how to allow for participation without putting guests uncomfortably in the spotlight or without giving them too much freedom to subvert the show.

Another innovation that The Speakeasy team is working on is integrating “Easter eggs” into the experience, or hidden cues for unlocking extra scenes. Nick has noticed that guests are hungry for more engagement and have misinterpreted objects or plot moments as Easter eggs. For example, one guest found a skeleton key and handed it to a character, expecting something to happen, when it was actually just a scenic prop. In other instances, guests have responded to a character’s repeated entreaty for men to buy her a drink, expecting that buying her a drink will unlock a hidden scene (which Nick and his team are currently working to implement).

For the most part, immersive theater caters to lovers of escapism and fantasy, but is not quite enough for the hardcore theater fans or for gaming-oriented audiences used to having their actions influence the environment and plot. If The Speakeasy team can integrate more Easter eggs and ways for the audience to get involved in the story, the show will reach a new level of immersive live entertainment that hasn’t yet been achieved.

Gameplay of "Oblivion"

Gamers are used to environments like this filled with hidden elements and “easter eggs”

What makes The Speakeasy unique in the world of themed entertainment is its ability to continuously evolve. The experience has natural variation with its selection of rooms and characters, along with its two separate first acts, but The Speakeasy has the added flexibility of changing the plot and adding new layers of interactivity over time. When it first opened, The Speakeasy was still a work in progress, and even today Nick doesn’t consider it to be finished. In addition to adding more guest interaction, Nick expects to keep building on the plot, adding new scenes and deeper character development.

Nick plans to run The Speakeasy for a year before moving to a larger space, and then hopes to replicate the production in other cities. He envisions future iterations as more immersive and extensive, with several shop fronts hiding the speakeasy. Today’s Speakeasy is hidden behind a fictional clock shop. In a future version, guests might be able to enter the speakeasy through several different shop fronts: perhaps a section of the audience might first enjoy a meal at a themed cafe, and then table by table, guests would be lead to the meat freezer in back that serves as a hidden door to the saloon. Or perhaps guests would access the speakeasy by sliding down a chute hidden beneath a barbershop chair that gets revealed with the pull of a lever (like in The Great Gatsby).

1920s themed barbershop

Whatever the future holds for The Speakeasy, it will always be incredible for achieving something that few public venues can: it gets people to dress up in period fashion, put their phones away, and experience a true alternate reality for an entire evening.


Speakeasy images courtesy of Boxcar Theater

3 responses to “The Speakeasy – The Closest You’ll Ever Come To Time Travel”

  1. Dan Heaton says:

    Wow. This looks amazing. I think venues like this are the future of themed entertainment, at least for a niche audience.

  2. Kile Ozier says:

    most cool….but…where is it, forsooth?


  3. Sasha says:

    The original show was near Civic Center in SF. New show will open next year, in a new location!

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