We attended night one of Club Drosselmeyer, Boston’s two-night World War II-themed mass-puzzling, swing-dancing, and immersive performance event, and had a swell time.
The event was so massive, detailed, and incredible that we asked its creator, Kellian Adams, to talk about the intricacies of show.
We were most surprised to learn about how the show changed on night two.
How did you develop the concept for Club Drosselmeyer?
I had always wanted to build an interactive game-based theater piece. I was at a ballet showcase when it occurred to me that The Nutcracker might be the perfect piece to experiment with because
- It’s modular.
- Interesting characters move around.
- The basic storyline connects but isn’t too tight.
- It’s a well-known story.
- It lends itself to some great music and visuals.
- It would have to be performed around the holidays.
The holiday connection was key for an experimental piece because people have more tolerance for playing along with magic and the unexpected during the holidays (as well as spending money on tickets and getting dressed up!).
What were your inspirations?
When I decided that The Nutcracker would be the base for the show, I pulled from a lot of my favorite movies. Casablanca was the main one: I had always wondered what it would be like to be a patron of Rick’s Cafe Americain, where there are all sorts of intrigues happening around you, but you might not be aware of any of them. I designed my main character, Drosselmeyer, as the club owner, which tied directly to Rick, especially where he had his perch up above everyone.
Each character has a fairly involved backstory. For example, mother Ginger – aka Ginger Lamarr – was Hedy Lamarr. Phylo Farnesworth is the inventor of the television and I took his dance team from the movie College Swing. Fritz was modeled after this fabulously devious playboy named Washington Porter Jr. Rhett the Rat was modeled after “King” Solomon, a Boston mob boss in the 30’s. You can see all of our character inspirations on Pinterest.
How much autonomy did each of the performers have?
The performers had a lot of autonomy in developing their characters and the storyline. I built out the structure of the story and they filled in the blanks.
Alice, Clara, and Phylo, for example, delved into radar and so that became a major part of the storyline, which hadn’t been part of my original vision. Also, many of the performers wanted to address the ethical question of whether we should use artificial intelligence, so we did.
The hat idea was from the actor who played the character Beta. One of my favorite parts of the whole show was him wearing a lampshade. He came up with the idea of handing out “research notes” folded into hats. They were detailed enough that many players tried to crack the codes and solve the notes, except there was nothing there!
What were your other favorite moments?
I loved seeing the looks on people’s faces when they came in on Sunday night. I don’t think they had any idea what they had signed up for, but then they walked in and the space looked beautiful: the band was playing, everybody was dressed up, and it was magical. It was so wonderful to watch everyone transition into “Dross mode!”
My other favorite moment happened during a dress rehearsal. A few people came up to me (as the character Kit) and said “WE KNOW WHO THE NUTCRACKER IS!!” Then they pointed at Beta, who at that moment was wearing a lampshade on his head and jumping up and down on the dance floor. In character I asked “that guy?” They looked at me, kind of dumbstruck and followed up with a defensive “well—he’s just a prototype…” and it was this amazing, hilarious moment where they were explaining to me the story that I wrote, and making excuses for it.
I also LOVED the waltz scene. It was a wonderful, magical moment to see everyone spinning in the snow!
Which aspects of the piece were most successful?
I was really proud that the whole “different levels of engagement” thing worked. I genuinely felt like there was something for everybody to do.
I took a lot of different activities that I love, but that can be really intimidating for other people, and arranged them in a way that I think was less intimidating than they expected. I’ve heard the usual comments to these activities SO MANY times…
- Puzzles… “I’m not smart enough.”
- Talking to characters… “I’m shy, that’s so awkward.”
- Getting dressed vintage… “I don’t have anything fancy.”
- Swing music… “I can’t dance.”
I think when they all appeared together there was at least one aspect of the show that almost everyone could engage with at some level. If none of them were even mildly appealing, you could still just sit in a beautiful time-travel club, watch the floor shows, listen to the incredible, original music of a really good swing band, drink martinis, and hang out with your friends.
What were the biggest challenges to bringing this piece to the stage?
The uncertainty of it was really hard for the cast members.
I deliberately chose my dancer friends rather than auditioning actors because I knew I didn’t want Club Drosselmeyer to be a traditional theater piece, and I didn’t want lots of professional theater people on board telling me I was doing everything wrong (because I was absolutely doing everything wrong). Also with friends, I was hoping they’d be better with the uncertainty of building something nobody had ever seen before when there wasn’t any proof that this method would work. (Nobody I knew of had done it, so I didn’t have much to point to.)
I also didn’t start with a written script, since there were a lot of moving parts. I sort of twisted myself (and my story) in knots trying to incorporate everyone’s ideas and keep them feeling good about their characters. We ended up with some serious story holes as a result. Next time I would write the whole thing out and hand it to them as a finished “script” and go from there. I would also hold auditions for some of the roles.
Were there any notable differences in player behavior between night one and night two?
There was a MASSIVE difference in the players between night one and night two.
Night one was a Sunday. At 7:00 everyone was at the door, dressed to impress and ready to play. I met people at the door in character as Kit Hollingsworth so I felt the definite buzz of electricity as everybody came in.
Night two was a Friday. At 7:00 I was at the door and … crickets. People arrived slowly, harried and distracted, and a lot of them weren’t dressed as nicely as they had been on Sunday. Many had been stuck in traffic and were grabbing really quick dinners. In general, they had a harder time transitioning into the right mood.
People also drank a lot more on Friday than they had on Sunday, probably because they didn’t have to go to work the next day.
How did you change the event from night one to night two?
First, we added line management. We added an extra person to “interview” people in the Drosselmeyer line and make sure they wanted to actually be there.
Second, we asked the performers to soften their characters and be more forthcoming with information, even if their character would “never” do that. There was this line between pretending, where you try to get as close to your character’s authentic response as possible, and performing, where you acknowledge there’s more to it. We had to remind ourselves that it was theater and our goals were for people to learn the story and have fun.
And finally, we didn’t change the ending, but the audience did.
We experienced the cheery ending on night one (because we chose it). Can you talk about the ending on night two and the reaction to it?
The teams were looking for blueprints, in order to bring these to one of the characters and trigger the ending of the show. On night two, the winning team decided to hand the blueprints over to the bad guy.
We actually had two groups get to the blueprints at the same time, but the group that wanted to give the blueprints to Drosselmeyer (the good guy) had one number in their combination wrong, so the other team got them instead and gave them to Rhett (the bad guy).
When other teams realized what was happening, a lot of them tried really hard to keep the bad ending from occurring. They tried to negotiate with the winning team. Then another team tried to negotiate directly with Rhett to get the papers back. Afterward, the actor who played Rhett told me after that he was really concerned they were going to physically restrain him and take the papers back.
The bad ending was really dark. When Rhett walked out, we pulled up the house lights and played Springtime For Hitler over the loudspeaker. No curtain call. Just awkward house lights and silence.
I wanted to create something where people felt that they had agency. I also didn’t want to theater-coat any of it and make the bad ending fun or cheerful or pithy. Choosing to give technology to Nazis is bad and I think we should let it be bad. I got many emails and asides from people telling me they thought it was an unkind ending, but it was 2016 and I didn’t really feel like giving people a happy ending if they didn’t choose it. Some people were upset and said that because they hadn’t chosen the ending – it had been chosen for them – they shouldn’t have had to suffer through it, but things don’t really work that way. Others said that they weren’t even part of the puzzling – they were just drinking and hanging out and then this terrible thing happened, to which I was thinking: EXACTLY. I wrote a lot about this in a blog post.
I don’t think I would do it like that again, but I’m glad that we did it once. That’s where theater and games diverge, right? I never could have done that with a show.
What surprised you most about how the event played out?
We were surprised how crowded the space was and how long people had to wait in line to speak with key characters. We expected some amount of waiting but not to the extent that it happened, so we got that under control the second night.
We were also surprised that people found it hard to engage with the story. They were confused and didn’t quite know what to do. We had three characters whose job it was to pull people in and we had a full “instructions” sheet, but it wasn’t enough. Next time I want to have a “briefing room” where – out of character – we help the audience figure out how to engage.
I was also surprised that people were so upset about the “bad ending” the second night. I did build a ton of story and nuance in there; it was a pretty dark commentary on 1939 and 2016. On the night of, people just looked confused, like it was a mistake. The people who chose the bad ending literally said “wheee! We’re glad he’s dead! Being bad is fun!” Everyone else was just like “oh well.” Later on they expressed that they were upset and even outraged. I wasn’t expecting the “slow burn” on that ending.
How did you manage to put on so much spectacle with tickets as affordable as they were?
It’s hard to overstate how helpful it was working with Oberon and the American Repertory Theater. The pricing for the space was really reasonable and they helped with EVERYTHING from staging to lights to sound. This was a risk for them because they didn’t entirely understand what we were doing. I got this wonderful email from them afterwards where they said “we took a crazy risk and it paid out in spades!!” I’m saving that email forever! A bunch of people in the Oberon staff said it was one of the coolest, most unique, and beautiful shows they’d seen in that space.
Also, I design everything based on my resources. We had a lot of dancers and musicians and friends to abuse. Just about everybody worked for us under cost. Hooray for friends!!
Do you have any advice for creating this type of piece that you’d like to share with our readers?
Stay infinitely flexible. Give good people what they need to build good things and just keep your eye on the ball. I’m just so proud of how my team made this crazy idea into something special.
Use your resources. Club Drosselmeyer worked because I had a swing band, singers, dancers, and people who knew how to dress like it was 1939. If I’d had to find these people or have other people create this environment, it would have been much more difficult.
What was it like seeing the entire piece come together?
AMAZING!!!! Day of, I looked at the set and the band and the dancers working on things and I was like “this is exactly what was in my head… and now it exists.” It was a surreal experience. It was both totally natural because it had been hanging out in my head for such a long time and totally unnatural because I’m aware that imaginary things don’t usually exist in real life.
Should we expect a sequel?
ABSOLUTELY!! The story will have to be completely different. I think there will be some new acts and new characters. I think it will have to be 1940… and that brings a whole new set of challenges. Germany just marched into France so we’ve got the French Underground and there are spies everywhere!
What’s next for the team behind Club Drosselmeyer?
We’re buzzing along with our Edventure Builder games and we just released updates to a game we built with the Boston Children’s Museum at lxbgame.com.
I’m most excited about a modular escape room for middle schoolers that I’m brainstorming with the Teacher’s Education Resource Center… I don’t want to say too much about it other than that I really really hope it happens.
We’re also building something for this summer likely called the “society for historical inaccuracies.” It will be an interactive mystery tour around Boston, helping people stay abreast of all the things that never happened in Boston fictional history. I’d like to say we’re making history. Up.