For some theater companies, the pandemic opened doors to long-considered innovative productions.
For Theater Works, that meant a journey into the wild world of immersive theater that took their artists and audience down a rabbit hole to the world of Wonderland.
Their first two trips, “Curiouser and Curiouser” and “A Curiouser Nutcracker,” sold out. Theater Works conducted surveys asking audiences what they wanted next.
A darker trip.
“That’s what ‘Curiouser and Curiouser Too’ is,” said Cate Hinkle, Theater Works’ managing director.
“It’s mostly the same concept — you’re in Wonderland and you’re walking through the different realms of Wonderland — but there are changes throughout.”
The show runs June 3 to July 25. Reservations are required through theaterworks.org.
“Curiouser and Curiouser Too” is, she said, a different story than previous efforts. For example, instead of a beach, there is a dungeon. The Red Queen wishes to release the evil Jabberwocky, and it is up to the audience, who play the role of Alice, to stop that.
Immersive, interactive experience
In immersive theater, the audience moves through the sets, interacts directly with actors, and can sometimes have an effect on the story’s outcome.
It became well-known in the United States when “Sleep No More” opened in New York. That was an interactive version of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” that took place over several floors of a former hotel.
Theater Works repurposed its building for the “Curiouser and Curiouser” experience. It turned dressing rooms into performance spaces, offices into dressing rooms, and the rehearsal space became one of the realms. Thirteen rooms were transformed into places in Wonderland.
Theater Works’ producing artistic director, Chris Hamby, had attended immersive theater in New York, San Francisco and LA. He thought the pandemic would be the perfect time to pivot to immersive theater.
The idea was to do a naturally socially distanced show. Each show has 12 audience members who are in different rooms that were disinfected between each scene.
“It was one of those things that just made sense as a response to COVID,” Hinkle said. “We couldn’t do normal theater, but with this we could control the spaces and the group sizes, and it fit very well within our constraints.”
Creating something different
When Theater Works received its first PPP loan in May, it relied on the staff to create an immersive experience. Even those who hadn’t been involved in production before became part of the team.
First, Hamby selected each room, and the team created a scenario. Then they wrote the script, working alongside designers, actors and technicians.
“It was a lot of trial and error,” Hinkle said. “Then, on the marketing and ticketing side, we just threw out the rule book. We wanted to target a younger demographic, as the experience-driven night out was something the younger demographic was interested in. We targeted our market and rebranded.”
Because “Curiouser and Curiouser” was such a departure, Theater Works created a new brand with its own logo, website and ticketing.
“We did small groups, and there were timed entries,” Hinkle said. “That was all new to everyone, and even on the designer side, immersive theater is quite different than typical theater. You are so much more intimate with your environment. We had to think about that intimacy for the individualized audience experience.”
The staff worked on the show for four months. Normally, a show like this would take two years to prepare.
“This was the thing everyone was working on, so we had dedicated time and space, which is not typical,” Hinkle said. “We were all motivated by the creativity and the newness. This was super cool and exciting. We are the first in Arizona to do this type of theater.”
Ramping up the gothic
Now in its third iteration, “Curiouser and Curiouser” is darker than the first show, which isn’t recommended for kids.
Hinkle said the first show’s light-hearted elements have grown gothic and dark. The Queen’s throne room isn’t a fun garden but more of a vampire lair. Each room has been overhauled, and there are different interactions with the actors, different choreographies and dance sequences, and an all-new look.
“Even if you saw the show before, this will be a totally different experience,” Hinkle said.
There is a guided path, but groups will split and have their own experiences. When the audience arrives, they are given a card suit that determines their journey, which includes escape rooms where attendees must solve puzzles to get a clue that allows them to leave.
Theater Works is eager to unleash “Curiouser and Curiouser Too” because of the audience’s enthusiastic response to previous offerings. For many people, “Curiouser and Curiouser” was the first time leaving their home since the pandemic started.
“There’s been so much joy that has come out of this production,” Hinkle said. “The ‘I never thought theater could be like this’ reaction has been amazing. People who aren’t theater people who experienced this realized that theater doesn’t have to be sitting in their seats being a passive observer. They can participate.”
It is that enthusiasm that she hopes will draw new audiences — audiences who can experience something new and different.
“It’s fun. It’s engaging. It is something that will expand your mind and expand your creativity,” Hinkle said. “You will never regret it. It will be the best thing that you have experienced in your life.”