Breaking the Fourth Wall…Underground

Posted by Sasha Bailyn on Thursday, April 18th, 2019

The Speakeasy. Jessica Waldman and Rick Roiting as the bartender. Photo by Peter Liu copy

Deep underground, on the edge of San Francisco’s Little Italy and Chinatown, a Speakeasy is coming back to life. Boxcar Theatre’s immersive production TheSpeakeasy ran for 8 months in 2014 in the appropriately shady Tenderloin district, hidden behind the false front of a clock shop. After a two-year revamp effort, the team has moved to a larger theater space in North Beach, giving producers Nick Olivero, Geoffrey Libby, and David Gluck time to enhance the audience experience. In the meantime, they opened the popular Club 1923 to keep Prohibition themes alive and city-dwellers well plied with “pretend illicit” alcohol.

Previews for the new show are set to begin later this month in a bigger space with more hidden entry points and a much more involved guest experience full of “adventures, easter eggs, and random acts.” Adventures can best be described as falling down a rabbit hole into the Speakeasy story: one or two unsuspecting guests per night will be in the right place at the right time to be brought into the action, getting passed off from one character to the next in a series of scenes and conversations. Easter eggs are one-on-one interactions between actors and guests triggered by props, though this isn’t to be confused with video game easter eggs (if you pick up an object and expect a character to appear, you’ll be disappointed). In most cases, easter eggs will be triggered backwards: initiated by the actors to the guests. Random acts are seemingly spontaneous breaks from the plot to engage with the audience; actors will surprise a few lucky visitors per night by breaking with the show without breaking character.

After the opening week in mid-October there are further exciting plans for costume rental opportunities, wherein renting a costume gives audience members the special role of a character in the show such as “The Mayor” or “The Film Producer.” The costumes will trigger the actors to treat the audience member in costume as part of the story, taking him or her on a designated “adventure track” through the Speakeasy story.

The producers’ goal with the show from the beginning has been to give the audience a feeling that their presence mattered, that their being at The Speakeasy is much more than a voyeuristic peek into the lives of Prohibition-era characters. In this next version of the show, the audience will feel that sense of participation more acutely as they get roped into storylines, asked to assist characters, and let in on character secrets.

The Speakeasy. Freddie Larson as Vinnie (2). Photo by Peter Liu copy

The main goal of immersive or “promenade” theater is to do away with the traditional separation between audience and actors, to break the invisible “fourth wall” that keeps the actors on stage and the audience in their seats. In immersive theater, show characters inhabit the same space as the audience, and vice versa. Audience members can explore the show space and follow characters. To further give a sense of “breaking the fourth wall,” actors will occasionally look directly at audience members and/or ask them to complete a task. Some productions incorporate one-on-one encounters between actor and audience member, making for a more intimate and memorable experience that propagates word-of-mouth intrigue.

In the next rendition of The Speakeasy, Olivero hopes to break the fourth wall even further by engaging with the audience on a deeper level. His team of actors are undergoing empathy exercises, which will lend to more personal and meaningful interactions with guests of the show. A multitude of breakout points have been programmed into the new script, giving the actors more opportunities to engage with the audience.

One of the challenges of building out “Speakeasy 2.0” has been finding the right balance between engaging the audience in the story and keeping a clear boundary for their participation. Giving a visitor a role, even a momentary opportunity to participate, can be a risky olive branch of power akin to saying, “now you get to be important.” The challenge is to empower and engage visitors without opening the show up to being “hijacked” by over-eager participants.

Another challenge to creating version 2.0 of the show is the logistical coordination of the story. The script itself is almost too thick to lift and the master documents tracking the timing of events, the locations of actors in the show, and the overlap of different scenes is both impressive and overwhelming. The rehearsals for a show of this complexity are mentally and physically challenging: whereas traditional shows can expect the props and scenic elements to remain more or less in place, immersive shows like the Speakeasy need to block out their scenes with contingencies. Entire scenes may need to happen in different locations and props need wide buffer times to account for audience handling.

While early rehearsals were admittedly “a hot mess,” the team is finding its stride and the final product will be a masterpiece of coordination: the cast has to multitask between their character roles, engaging with the audience, and knowing where they need to be in the sprawling show space. Show control (lighting and special effects) must be calibrated precisely, but also adaptable to time shifts if the cast is out of sync with the clock. Currently, Olivero is up to his elbows “looking at the code of the story” with the entire team as the show space rounds the bend on construction.

Nick Olivero Speakeasy

To give you a sense of how rich the Speakeasy story is, this is producer Nick Olivero holding the script for the entire show!

The resulting show will be a choreographed dance through space and time, carried by rich and engaging plot lines, dialogue, and audience interaction. A criticism that some attendees have had about the hugely popular immersive show Sleep No More is that the production’s dance-heavy story and requirement for the audience to wear masks makes for a somewhat alienating, passive experience. At The Speakeasy, most instances of dance are participatory, and more than ever, the visitors are an active, acknowledged part of the show.

While it will be quite enticing to wander the themed spaces and immerse oneself into The Speakeasy plot, those who want to disengage from the story can easily do so by retreating to the “chill bar,” which will not be populated with show characters. For the eager participants, the same “House Rules” apply: the audience needs to wait until engaged with to partake in the plot, but visitors to The Speakeasy can expect many instances of the fourth wall being broken.

1920s phone

A period-appropriate phone comes out of packaging during show install

Having been behind the scenes during development, Entertainment Designer offers this clandestine advice to anyone who plans to go: listen to the gossip, answer the phone, be curious (but respectful), and if asked to help, go for it!

Tickets are already on sale for the August previews.


Images courtesy of The Speakeasy

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