Each Escape Room is managed and run by a team of incredible people – we asked Christine of Denver Escape Room to share a little bit about her job and how her degree in Technical Theatre aligns with her job at Denver Escape Room.
So, a little about my background for context. My degree is in Technical Theatre from Case Western Reserve University, with a concentration in Scenic Design. Since I graduated, I really focused in more on special effects, specifically blood rigging and makeup, although I’ve done my fair share of propping, painting, and building sets for shows as well. I’ve worked primarily for theatres in the Cleveland area, as well as for Williamstown Theatre Festival, and for three seasons (soon to be four, as I’m returning to Ohio in the fall) I worked as the Technical Director at a college preparatory program called the Academy for the Performing Arts in Chagrin Falls, building sets and props, acting as the resident makeup/sfx (special effects) designer, and occasionally costuming or sound designing shows.
There’s something immediately translatable about an escape room for anyone in the entertainment industry, particularly in theatre. It’s the simulation of a world that doesn’t really exist, that invites people to check their real lives at the door and live inside another reality for an hour.
What the escape room can do differently from stage or film is to take that a step further. Aside from being allowed to peer into a story, escape rooms allow players to interact and manipulate the storyline. They get to touch the props and physically be in the space; as opposed to just watching FBI agents in a film, they get to BE the agents finding the clues to rescue a hostage before the bomb goes off. It’s a level of immersive storytelling that theatre rarely achieves.
Having a background in theatre was extremely useful in knowing the materials often used in sets, knowing where to acquire obscure props, or how to fabricate them for far cheaper than market price. Building techniques, creative uses for hot-glue, faux-finishing methods, and understanding elements of design necessary to creating an immersive and believable world are incredibly useful in escape rooms.
Understanding how to fabricate an alternate reality convincingly is crucial in creating a game that players can lose themselves in, and experience in building sets, props, and the unreal or fantastic certainly gives a leg up on those approaching the field outside the entertainment industry. Tricks of the trade are readily translatable–most of the time. But there are definitely differences. When you break the fourth wall, it has to be durable.
Actors are trained not to do damage to props, and know how to manipulate them so that they are perceived the way we want them to be. A bag of flour can be filled with cotton, and the actor can make up the difference in the way the prop is held. In an escape room, a bag of flour that is filled with cotton would be suspiciously light, prompting either further investigation or a loss of suspension of disbelief.
It’s certainly been a learning curve in audience-proofing. Players are given guidelines, but the creativity of a player is infinite. I’ve seen players take apart props and use the components to short out systems. It’s incredible what people set to a mission will come up with. Props, that I would be comfortable giving actors for a month long run, have been destroyed by the first group of beta testers. Paint that’s been sealed with so much clear-coat it’s waterproof has to be touched up on a regular basis, as players idly pick at it, or drop it, or suddenly suspect that something relevant is hidden beneath the paint’s surface. Little things that can be handy for building become more of a problem than anticipated. In one game, we covered a thermostat with a wood casing, and put hinges on it so we could readily access the thermostat for maintenance. Players see hinges and assume, despite no clear way to open the case, as it required the removal of two screws, that it must be opened. Until we move the thermostat and the hinges, players consistently had to be told that there was nothing hidden inside that case.
I’m confident any of our game masters could make excellent stage hands, and that stage hands could make excellent game masters. A large portion of the job requires a quick reset, making sure every tiny item in the room is in exactly the same location before each game starts, much like at the top of each show, or a change-over between scenes in a blackout. Often props and game elements are scattered, sometimes difficult to find. After each game, our game masters locate every piece and reset the game so it’s always an identical setup for every player’s experience. They put things on invisible spike marks, using other elements of the room as reference points, to ensure that every time the game starts, the game master running the game knows where to guide players if they’re missing something important. Likewise, a stagehand who sets the props must always place them where the actor expects them, lest there be improvisation while the actor masks their confusion while searching for their missing prop.
Christine Woods left her job at Denver Escape Room as a manager to work on a theatrical production in Cleveland, Ohio!