You walk into Taylor Theatre. Before you’ve taken more than four steps, a boy claiming to have lost his baseball runs to you and your friends. Panicked, he tells you his baseball went into the Johnson’s home, and you need to help him get it back. Beside the boy, the façade of a small pink suburban home sits directly in the middle of the theater.
First, you must figure out how to get inside the house. Once you manage to do so, dozens more puzzles, including magnets, keys, and secret codes, await you inside the home. Before long, the seemingly minor adventure to retrieve the baseball transforms into a whole lot more.
Escape rooms are physical puzzle that have steadily risen in popularity over the past 10 years. The idea is pretty simple. Using various elements and hidden clues within a room, you and a team must, as the name suggests, escape the room, often within a limited amount of time. Originally, the game was based off of an earlier genre of point-and-click “escape the room” videogames. Escape rooms are typically popular amongst companies looking for team-building exercises, but that doesn’t mean college kids can’t use them for fun.
Last Wednesday through Friday, Taylor Theatre featured its very own escape room for the second time this year. The project was originally the brainchild of Robert Mahaffie and Lucy Houlihan; the two assembled and ran the first escape room during the fall semester entirely by themselves, and it turned out to be immensely successful. Upon their proposition to the Student Theatre for a second go around, they were approved. “We have a $7,000 annual budget that we pretty much delegate to whatever we think is most interesting in terms of the season,” said Sam Dahnert, the tech director for Theatre Workshop and one of the several people who helped organize and run this latest escape room. “And you know, we’re student theatre so we’re all for this kind of shit [escape rooms], so we decided to give it a go.”
“It’s a fun concept, and then there’s nothing else on campus that does this,” Dahnert continued. “And we really wanted to broaden the spectrum of things provided by the student theatre on campus. We have the space and we have the money, so I can’t think of a better application than investing in projects like these.” In addition to some of the student theatre’s budget, a lot of time, effort, and heart went into embodying the escape room.
However, with only two weeks of preparation and a limited staff, the escape room proved to be a rather stressful production for those involved. Since opening, the students have faced occasional technical issues and other difficulties. One of the greatest challenges has been providing for the amount of people who want to participate. “That’s probably the most difficult thing about escape rooms. We can’t always accommodate the 150 people that show up to TWIT shows, for example. It’s a very difficult thing to do for the masses,” Dahnert conceded. Given the nature of escape rooms, only a limited number of people can participate. There is a deadline on how long a group can work and a capacity on how big that group can be, so with a finite number of slots, not everyone on campus is guaranteed an opportunity to make it through.
“I hate to make student theatre exclusive because our whole thing is about inclusivity—anyone can come, anyone can put on anything, anyone can experience anything,” said Dahnert.
“So we’re trying to appeal and provide to as many people as possible.” Unfortunately, due to the difficulty of production, the process of expanding accommodations will likely be slow and small, and there will probably not be another escape room this semester. The response has been so overwhelmingly positive, though, that Dahnert says to keep your eyes open for next year.