“Solving an escape room is like being the hero of your own movie.” I’ve said that a lot over the years, trying to describe this real-life adventure and the rush that goes with it. I’ve used that analogy because it evokes a set and a story with me (or you!) as the main character, and it’s relatable to just about anyone.
An escape room might be like a movie in many ways, but I wouldn’t say it categorically is a movie. If I had to categorize it – and I do, but more on that later – I’d say, it’s theater.
Escape rooms take place in physical venues where groups of people come together in person to experience a story. Unlike the recorded movie, this performance happens live on stage every time.
The set is the stage for this piece. It might look like the attic of a manor, a spacecraft, or a pirate ship, but it has been designed around character action, story beats, pivotal scenes, and hidden effects.
Originally, the goal of the escape room was just that: escaping a locked room. Since then, this form of entertainment has evolved into a form of storytelling.
Early on, David argued that escape rooms wouldn’t be a passing fad because they had the power to tell stories. The guests interpret the story mostly from the set, the actions they take within the game, and the outcomes they accomplish.
After interviewing some of the most innovative escape room creators throughout 2019, Richard Burns concluded that today, storytelling is the driving force behind innovation in this industry.
For many top creators we’ve talked to, how guests feel while experiencing the game is even more important than the actions they take within it.
Performers & Spectators
In an escape room, the guest is both the performer and the spectator. They are the archeologist when they open the mummy’s tomb. They are the spectator when their teammate pulls the sword from the stone.
The staff too can be both performers and spectators, even when they never step onto the stage while the guests attend. In their performer role, they perform introductions and send hints as different characters. In their spectator role, they watch the performance of the guests.
There are many technicians behind the scenes in an escape room. They rig lighting and sound. They trigger effects.
While most tickets are booked online (for escape rooms and traditional theaters), at the escape room there is a box office too. It’s the person at the front desk who answers the phone and helps you with your booking questions, credit card woes, and sells you souvenirs.
In August, we published the 6 Year US Escape Room Industry Report.
When we included in that report our analysis of the PPP loans that escape rooms received in the first half of 2020, one of the reasons it was challenging to find these businesses and the database was the lack of consistent categorization. While most escape room businesses are too small to have received more than $150,000, and thus were not included in the ProPublica loan database we analyzed, we did find 13 escape room business loans listed.
These 13 businesses are classified in 7 different ways:
- All Other Amusement and Recreation Industries
- Amusement Arcades
- Other Spectator Sports
- All Other Support Services
- Other Performing Arts Companies
- Theater Companies and Dinner Theaters
- Food Service Contractors (Boda Borg does have food on site.)
While some of these seem pretty far off base (Spectator Sports? Support Services?), I can see why “Amusement” seems like it could fit.
The Amusement business operates at a scale escape rooms do not. At an amusement park, arcade, or similar attraction, many people consume entertainment at once. These businesses rely on a high volume of customers at once, and high throughput.
Escape rooms are more intimate. When I think about the staging, performance, effects, interactions, and especially the scale, escape rooms belong in the entertainment category of theater.
We aren’t big fans of categorization and labels, but we are in favor of contextual clarity.
Theater is a context Americans (and people anywhere in the world, for that matter) broadly understand.
That’s the place where you go in person to take in a story that is set on a stage, realized through performance for an audience, and augmented by lighting, sound, and effects.
Escape rooms have something unique to offer beyond traditional theater. That’s why they are new and different. However, it’s the element of theater within them that gives them their staying power.
And when an escape room is staring down the barrel of a… government form with only broad entertainment categories, an escape room is most certainly a theater.