Escape gaming mixes two of my greatest passions: games and storytelling. While great puzzles and smart game flow are always really important, some of my favorite escapes earned my regard with rich narratives and strong immersion – they’re stories you can reach out and touch.
But escape games aren’t the only place to find that kind of real life storytelling. For years now, innovative companies across the globe have been breaking ground in what’s come to be called “immersive” or “interactive” theatre: stage plays that eliminate the stage entirely, to blur the line between actors and audience. In normal theatrical productions the action’s all in one location, and the performance is often divided into sequential acts. But immersive theatre makes complete use of the performance space. There are no cuts, and scenes will run simultaneously in different places.
As an audience member you move freely through the performance, which means you’ll decide which parts of the story you wind up seeing. Your decision-making style is often a big factor: you might choose to follow one character for the entire show, or drift from actor to actor. You could park yourself in one location and watch as events play out, or you could wander as you wish. How you observe the play is up to you, and since the story progresses all around you in real time, two guests at the same show will often wind up having wildly different experiences.
Different productions have different rules, but it’s common for productions to play with the audience in ways traditional theatre can’t. The granddaddy of immersive theatre today is Manhattan’s Sleep No More, a prohibition era retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth; it’s famous for tense and private one-on-ones with guests who find themselves in the right place at the right time. Brooklyn’s Then She Fell is an artistic fever dream, melting the boundaries between the real life biography of author Lewis Carroll, and the world he created with Alice in Wonderland; edible and drinkable elements are a big part of its mystique. Los Angeles’ Delusion pits participants against the supernatural; guests explore hidden rooms, hide from danger, and sometimes even harness occult powers with elaborate special effects. The possibilities are endless.
Toronto was actually key to the establishment of immersive theatre as a concept in the 80’s, but while other cities revived the art form and pushed it to new heights over the past decade, Toronto was rarely more than a blip in the landscape. That all changed in January, when Hogtown debuted for a limited run at the historic Campbell House Museum.
Set on New Year’s Eve in 1926, Hogtown revolves around a Toronto mayoral race that actually happened in real life, in which Councilman Sam McBride looked to topple incumbent Mayor Thomas Foster. In Hogtown’s retelling, election day is tomorrow and both men need the support of Bob Delecourt, a local union boss, to clinch their victory. Delecourt owns the version of the Campbell House where the production takes place, and he’s hosting a massive party for New Year’s Eve. As audience members we’re all guests at his celebration.
But the House is more than it seems. The basement conceals illegal entertainments – a speakeasy and more – while upstairs, a secret society conducts sinister gatherings. Hogtown’s billed as a story about politics, but there are dozens of threads that weave in and out of that central plotline. With a cast of nearly 30 actors it’s a story filled with secrets; every character has their own reasons for attending the party, and puzzling out their agendas is a big part of the fun.
The question of format is always important for immersive theatre. How guided should the experience be? What are the rules? And how do you get your audience to buy into it? Hogtown takes a smart approach to those questions, easing guests into the concept before turning them loose. The experience begins in earnest at the posted start time, but actors are in character all over the Campbell House grounds much earlier. And while the play officially kicks off with a big opening number in the front foyer – there’s some topnotch music and even a live band – whether you see that prologue is entirely up to you. I was surprised to find that you can actually just ignore it and hang out in the speakeasy instead. That’s actually a valid option the production allows.
Once the prologue’s over Hogtown continues to make smart compromises while everyone gets their footing. With the audience gathered on the ground floor all the doors fly open, and silent ushers invite groups into different scenes. The doors then close and those scenes play out, so your first choice will determine which opening tableaus you’ll watch. But once they’re over and everyone’s got an idea of how this thing works? That’s when the real fun begins. The ushers fade into the background and suddenly you’ve got the full run of Hogtown.
From that point doors may still open and close, but it happens organically characters travel from room to room. You get the impression that guests shouldn’t be opening or closing anything mid-scene, but ducking into an open passage whenever the opportunity presents itself isn’t discouraged. Hogtown operates like a giant marvelous clockwork: some of the biggest set pieces may play out in clearly marked rooms, sure. But characters mingle, converse, and reveal important secrets all over Campbell House, and the mind blowing part is that it all happens even if no one’s watching. You never know what you might stumble into.
And while the rules state that guests may only speak when addressed, the actors make a point of drawing you in: they might enlist your help as they search the house, they might strike up a conversation about other characters, and some will even touch you and flirt with you. Suffice to say that Hogtown can get really personal, really quick.
I don’t want to spoil anything, but one of my most memorable moments of the night started when I was watching a big set piece, and a character I’d never seen before mixed herself in with the audience. As that scene played out she leaned over to the people next to her – all audience members – and whispered to ask if we’d seen her friend. No one could help her, and she spent the scene looking uncomfortable and stressed. She was treated as a light nuisance by the central figures in that scene, but she was largely a curious afterthought.
When the other guests left the room to cross the hall for the next big spectacle I followed the mystery girl instead; she reluctantly explored the house and gave descriptions of her friend whenever she could muster up the boldness. I shadowed her as she went, and her search eventually led the two of us down to the basement, where she grew hesitant hearing the noise of the speakeasy. Just as she worked up her nerve and moved hesitantly to enter, all the doors around us slammed shut.
Four characters burst into the scene and suddenly I was the only person watching an exchange that revealed important information about the girl. It was an intense few moments, and the fact that it was all being played for an audience of one didn’t phase the actors; creating that moment in a space that could only accommodate one or two guests was completely intentional.
With that scene over and the characters having decided their next actions, they disappeared behind a cast-only door. But armed with the girl’s secret and a description of her missing friend, I decided to case the house and continue the search myself. By that point I didn’t care about the election story: I wanted to know why those two characters were at the party, what they were doing there, and whether they’d be reunited. Moments later I found the missing friend and I hovered around here, screaming inside and waiting for her to ask me if I’d seen the other character. But instead of inquiring about that, she took my rule-abiding silence as romantic interest, and I quickly found out she was very different from her timid friend.
The knowledge I’d learned trailing the first character colored my interaction with the second, and that information would later develop into a major plot point at the end of the production. It was an amazing moment when that secret was finally revealed to the rest of the audience because I knew what was going to happen when no one else did. It was single-serving dramatic irony, and it was something I never anticipated going in. The entire play is full of those types of experiences.
While Hogtown’s sold as a clash between two rival politicians, it’s also the story of two intrepid party crashers; of a baseball player taking his last shot at the pros; a doctor trying to help oppressed women; a small-time crook looking to make it big; a determined spouse hiding a dangerous gambit; a mysterious figure conducting strange rituals; a troubled reporter fighting for journalistic integrity; a hardboiled detective searching for the truth; a local celebrity hiding an alter ego; an aging real estate mogul looking for a legacy, and it goes on and on. You’d have to see it half a dozen times to take it all in.
And while the idea of all of those characters bumping into each other is fun, the greatest thing about Hogtown is that each of them brings something different to the play in terms of theme. Depending on how things stack up, Hogtown can wind up being “about” completely different things. The combination of performances you see can overlap enough to create rich dialogues that ruminate on central issues, and if you hit the right mix you’ll see the same ideas explored through different perspectives and contrasting arcs. Some of those stories won’t even intersect; the characters involved may never collide and interact. But taken together they form cohesive discussions, and it blew me away to see how it all came together.
On top of all the artifice and coordination that makes Hogtown happen, the performances are stellar. David Keeley was incredible as union boss Bob Delecourt; nuanced and quiet one moment, then explosive and menacing the next, he electrifies every scene he’s in. Jerome Bourgault and David Rosser both carve out unique roles as the political rivals that anchor the play. But for me, the smaller performances were some of the most memorable.
Kelly Holiff’s turn as the party-crashing Louise “Lulu” Hearts sees her character start in one place and wind up somewhere very different, with each step along the way feeling completely natural as Lulu falls deeper down the rabbit hole. And my final scene for the night was the conclusion to the story of Gabi Epstein’s Maddy Foster, which ended with a fourth-wall-shattering moment that devastated everyone in the room and left me feeling chills for days. Jenni Burke, Allan Price, and Nicole McCafferty were standouts as well.
I saw Hogtown five days into its one week run back in January, and every actor was perfectly equipped to tackle the challenges of the format. It can’t be easy putting on superb scripted performances under the constant pressure of interaction and improv; the actors are constantly working around audience members, perpetually adapting to a living, breathing performance space.
Hogtown’s a blast, but your approach to it can influence the quality of your experience. A few tips can help you make the most of it. A lot of people at my showing shuffled from room to room and huddled together in big groups. That’s fine, but there are things you can do to get more out of the show. We’re gamers, so let’s talk strategy.
And it was long. From start to finish, Hogtown was something like two and a half hours, and there was never really any suggestion of when it would end. Ignoring my watch and my phone made the experience feel organic and expansive; I could’ve happily stayed in that world all weekend. This is a different beast from escape gaming, but what immersive theatre lacks in puzzles it makes up in other forms of engagement, and the two genres wind up contrasting nicely. There’s no timer ticking down to zero, but the story’s chock full of tension anyways, and your own mounting need to see everything before it ends adds even more electricity to the show.
Hogtown’s January debut sold out instantly, but after lots of rumors about a summer run tickets are finally open for the July and August return. I’m already booked to see it again – the replay value’s crazy high – and if you’re chomping at the bit like me you can follow @hogtownlive for updates.
Toronto’s never seen immersive theatre at this scale before and the experience is absolutely addicting. If you love the immersion and atmosphere of escape gaming, be prepared: your first trip to Hogtown might not be your last.