Five Things: “Sticky” Beginnings

A replica of a common 1920s player card - used as invite for immersive theatre event.

With audio, apps, games, and immersive theater all trying to give audiences the opportunity to become storytellers, we’ve been sharing the work of producers who are making the creative process itself ever more audience driven. What ways can we breathe new life into old stories, and create new ones to remember? Associate Producer, Miranda Smith, tells us about her latest adventure in immersive theatre which shows how episodic storytelling - building up the event before the night itself - combined with word-of-mouth and viral connections, can shape the audience members, and their actions, before the event to make the final story not just better, but also more memorable, more ‘sticky’.

Here, Miranda tells us how the story unfolded;

My Wednesday afternoon was quiet, well; quiet that is, until evidence of an apparently senseless murder in New York City landed in my email inbox: Frank Spano, Italian immigrant, husband, father - and speakeasy operator - was shot down on a street of the city in 1935, and there was even a confession! But the confessor, one John Guerrieri, also from the Old Country, walked away a free man, not even charged.

An autopsy report, newspaper articles about the murder and about the players involved (including the famous gangster Dutch Schultz), as well as the document from the DA’s office releasing Guerrieri, came in a steady flow of emails for three days, and on a Saturday night at the end of January, armed with a password and dressed as closely to a 30s moll as the weather permitted, I ventured out to the Lower East Side to discover just what had been going on at the Speakeasy Dollhouse.

While waiting to enter the speakeasy, other patrons mingled freely outside. Totally unexpected, a fight erupted as a dapper goon nearly planted some poor fellow inside a garage door. The night’s events had begun.

A suspicious-seeming police officer got me to divulge the password and I was ushered into a subterranean bar with a decidedly loose and easy atmosphere. I was handed a sliver of paper with my role and invited to strike up conversations (and to drink, of course). In fact, the more one drank, the easier it became to talk to people and harder it was to distinguish between “actors” and “audience members”. My role (which I won’t divulge, just in case) lent itself more to observing than actual participation, but I managed from my own improv training to interact with the world as presented, which teemed with politicians, gangsters, doctors, fancy ladies, and the Spano family.

The story played out in the backdrop of debauchery, including fights over booze, strong suggestions of a tawdry ongoing affair, and various gossips circulating regarding private Spano family business. Three-quarters of the way through the evening, Frank’s murder took place outside and, having immersed myself in this world by looking through into various rooms and insinuating myself into conversations therein, the shock of a body being carried in was actually palpable. I couldn’t tell which of those men bearing Frank on their shoulders were actors and who were the audience. Narrative parity had been achieved.

From there, once the funeral took place and the accusations finished flying, writer-producer Cynthia von Buhler made herself known, breaking the spell. She is the granddaughter of Frank Spano, and developed the show to play with the idea of discovering the truth of those sad events through theater.


Beguiling Speakeasy players where participants are anonymous.

Beguiling Speakeasy players where participants are anonymous.

So what did I take away, between this event and the digital storytelling event of the night before?

  1. The Speakeasy Dollshouse was a purely immersive theater experience, there was no gaming element.
  2. The story was set up in advance of the event itself, so that the audience could start taking in the characters in advance and the storylines had time to ‘breathe’ and build before the action itself took place.
  3. The structure of this event was highly controlled, and there was less agency to come up with a character; that character was literally handed to you, and the parameters of agency and creativity were set by that role.
  4. Further, the space itself and the props, the use of professional actors, costuming, and audience interaction were controlled from the start by the confines of a true story, and all roads led to one place, Frank’s murder.
  5. The interaction level of the audience directly influenced the pleasure and believability of the experience. Everyone had to participate; a sneer or a bored look could take one out of the story.


- author