Club Drosselmeyer, Behind the Scenes with Kellian Adams

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.

In-game image of a the ornate Club Drosselmeyer stage witha swing band and a floor full of people dancing.

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.

Pre-show image of the tables set and the band warming up. The room looks beautiful and elegant.

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.  

In-show: The bad ending two characters have been shot and a reporter is photographing them.

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!

Club Drosselmeyer - Cast photo on the stage

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.

North Shore Escape – Mystery at the Art Gallery [Review]

An art gallery with original pieces.

Location: Woburn, MA

Date played: December 10, 2016

Team size: up to 10; we recommend 5-7

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $27 per ticket

Story & setting

After the disappearance of the art dealer, we entered his gallery to determine what secrets might be hidden within.

The walls of Mystery at the Art Gallery were decorated largely with original artwork created by the game designer. While there were many pieces to take in, the large uncluttered space remained true to the gallery aesthetic.

In-game: a pair of gargoyles, a wall of paintings in the back.

Puzzles

Mystery at the Art Gallery included puzzles that solved quickly and those that unfolded over the course of the experience. While some puzzle threads moved forward, there was always something else to unravel that would be important later on.

The puzzles were varied, entertaining, and of mixed difficulty.

Standouts

The artwork in this game, truly part of the experience, set the tone and feel of the game. The deliberate choices – whether original creations or purchased pieces – made this gallery that much more interesting to explore. This wasn’t another art gallery game with a print of the Mona Lisa next to a dozen others from European art history’s greatest hits.

North Shore Escape created a particular ambiance for this room escape. As the mystery unfolded, they dialed up the intensity without abandoning the original feel of the game. Everything felt like it was part of a larger whole.

Shortcomings

As an individual player, it was possible to puzzle out of Mystery at the Art Gallery while ignoring much of the mystery. While some of the interactions furthered the story, others were simply puzzles in a gallery setting. With smaller or more cohesive teams, it’s likely that everyone will participate in the story experience. However, in our larger group, different players came away with more or less of an understanding of the overarching narrative.

While the art set the tone for the game, the quality of set design was a little more shaky. It did, however, improve over the course of the game.

Most of the puzzling was well thought out, but one in particular jumped out as halfheartedly implemented.

Should I play North Shore Escape’s Mystery at the Art Gallery?

Mystery at the Art Gallery would be a solid introductory game with just a little added flair. The puzzles were standard in style, but also varied and approachable. The art, ambiance, and mystery give the space some intrigue.

Experienced teams will find a fun, yet standard game that is worth the price of admission. We recommend that you bring fewer people, slow down, and cooperate, so as not to skip over the story as it unfolds.

Book your hour with North Shore Escape’s Mystery at the Art Gallery, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: North Shore Escape comped our tickets for this game.

 

Amaze Escape – Escape from Death Row [Review]

Sixty minutes of hard time.

Location: Arlington, MA

Date played: December 10, 2016

Team size: up to 6; we recommend 4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per ticket

Story & setting

Amaze Escape was located in a former municipal building that used to function as the local jail. Escape from Death Row was set in the retired jail cells. The walls, bars, and locks were real.

There wasn’t a story, but there was a goal: get out.

In-game, a jail cell with a handcuffs strapped to one of the bars.

Puzzles

Escape from Death Row‘s puzzles started strongly. They were fairly typical escape room-style puzzles, and they were fun, especially when mixed with the setting.

As the game progressed, the puzzle quality degraded. By the time we opened the exit door, our team was literally chatting about other things.

In-game: closeup of the jail cell's locking mechanism.

Standouts

The set was truly amazing because it was real. It seemed like Amaze Escape only had to make minor tweaks to gamify it.

I may have fallen in love with the jail cell lock & key; everybody has a weakness.

Giant jail cell key
One big key

In this room escape, the goal-based setup with minimal story worked well.

The early puzzling was good fun.

Shortcomings

Escape from Death Row fizzled hard.

The late game interactions were weak and at times confusing. It was “I’m not sure if I should do this” confusing, not “this is a challenging puzzle” confusing. There’s a difference.

Amaze Escape leaned too heavily on the drama coming from the set and failed to do much of anything to heighten the experience.

Should I play Amaze Escape’s Escape from Death Row?

Escape from Death Row’s set was unique and the puzzling started strong. This set the game in a great direction. As time wore on, the puzzles became less interesting and the novelty of the jail cells diminished.

I found myself wishing that the folks from Amaze Escape did a little more to capitalize on their exceptionally cool location. It’s not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but it could be so much more.

Escape from Death Row was a solid game for beginners. The intensity of the set wasn’t overwhelming and there was plenty for newbies to sink their teeth into.

Experienced players will need to decide if escaping from a real jail cell is enough of a draw when the puzzle and gameflow are not, but I am happy that I decided to play.

Book your hour with Amaze Escape’s Escape from Death Row, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Amaze Escape provided media discounted tickets for this game.

 

Curious Escape Rooms – The Dollhouse [Review]

Feel little again.

Location: Fitchburg, MA

Date played: December 10, 2016

Team size: 4-8; we recommend 4-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per ticket

Story & setting

In The Dollhouse we entered a life-size dollhouse.

The Dollhouse looked like the hodgepodge mess of furniture and toys that one would find in a kid’s dollhouse. Not mine… which was anal-retentively matched, but I certainly had friends with dollhouses that felt a lot like the one built by Curious Escape Rooms.

The pretense for this excursion was secondary to the puzzle adventure in the world Curious Escape Rooms created, but that journey was magnificently child-like.

In-game: A giant Barbie doll sitting at a table dressed as a child-like detective in a dollhouse.

Puzzles

Many of the puzzles in The Dollhouse required substantial searching.

As long as we had all the components, the puzzles made sense and flowed logically one to the next.

Standouts

Curious Escape Rooms built this entire experience with a small budget and a lot of creativity. The designers knew their strengths and steered into those skills when they conceptualized and constructed The Dollhouse. As a result of their ingenuity, they produced a unique game with some imaginative, yet budget-conscious innovation.

The Dollhouse manipulated perspective in unexpected ways. It was an unusual theme and it came to life, so to speak.

A pair of particularly surprising moments added depth and made The Dollhouse pretty damn compelling.

The conclusion was clever.

Shortcomings

While the aesthetic held together, some of the set could have been more thoroughly cleaned, especially considering the extent to which we had to scavenge.

The Dollhouse involved moving more substantial setpieces than experienced players will generally feel comfortable with.

One puzzle overstayed its welcome and probably should have been broken up into a few smaller interactions.

Should I play Curious Escape Rooms’ The Dollhouse?

The Dollhouse was a fun escape room that brought childhood memories to life through creative perspective and skillful use of technology.

Note that this room escape is playful and approachable for all audiences; it is not creepy.

The puzzling was relatively basic. The beauty of The Dollhouse was playing around inside it. It was a great beginner game.

Curious Escape Rooms is a little over an hour’s drive west of Boston, but also accessible by train. It might be a hike, but The Dollhouse is worth a visit for experienced players interested in seeing how escape room designers embraced constraints and used their skills to create something brilliantly unusual.

Book your hour with Curious Escape Rooms’ The Dollhouse, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Curious Escape Rooms comped our tickets for this game.

 

Room Escapers – Naughty, or Nice? [Review]

Grand Theft Naughty List.

Location: Boston, MA

Date played: December 10, 2016

Team size: up to 10; we recommend 6-8

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per ticket

Story & setting

Our names made it onto Santa’s Naughty List.

Santa had left the building and it was now our team’s chance to break into the old man’s workshop and swap our forged naughty list for the real one. It was a risky heist, but with quality presents at risk, we had to take action.

The setting was bright, festive, and more red, green, and white than Boston’s North End. The room was pretty hacked together. However, the aesthetic and build quality greatly exceeded what we were expecting from a temporary seasonal game.

In-game, close-up of the Naughty List.
The book of judgements.

In a word, it was adorable.

Puzzles

There was a lot to find and solve in Naughty, or Nice?.

The game flowed smoothly from start to finish. It wasn’t a particularly challenging game, and our experienced team ripped through it like a puzzling tornado. There were, however, a few moments that made us slow down and one that nearly tripped us up.

Standouts

In our review of Room Escapers’ first game, Pirate’s Booty, we were underwhelmed by the start of the game. It wasn’t until we were halfway through the room escape that it turned into something interesting. Oh my, was that problem solved in Naughty, or Nice?. We were genuinely surprised by the opening moments of the game.

The theming work was super cute and Room Escapers seriously committed to it. The staff members wore fetching elf costumes and the lobby had been fully decorated in the spirit of the season.

In-game - A fireplace with stockings hanging from it beside a white Christmas tree surrounded by presents.

Everything was overflowing with personality.

Shortcomings

Naughty, or Nice? was a temporary construction and some of it was unpolished and hacked together, but it all worked. The game was fun. A good time was had by all… but there were a lot of little details that were deliberately overlooked due to the impermanence of the game.

Also… it’s a temporary game. As fun as it was, it’s only available for a limited time.

Should I play Room Escapers’ Naughty, or Nice??

Yes, if you’re in the area, Naughty, or Nice? is well worth a playthrough.

If you’re a newbie, it’s an approachable, bright, and cheery game.

If you’re an experienced player, it’s adorably inventive and does a few things differently.

Naughty, or Nice? should be open through most of January. Grab tickets while you can.

Book your hour with Room Escapers’ Naughty, or Nice?, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: We traded Room Escapers a handpicked selection of excellent IPAs for tickets to this game.

Club Drosselmeyer [Puzzle Event Review]

Aces!

Location: Cambridge, MA

Date played: December 11, 2016

Price: $45 – 80 per ticket

Story & setting

Set in a 1939 nightclub, attendees had the opportunity to explore dance, take in a variety of performing acts, and puzzle through a story of espionage and intrigue.

The band was incredible. The venue was awesome. The dancers were on fire. The characters were engaging… and damn near the entire audience was decked out in full costume.

About last night #clubdrosselmeyer

A post shared by Kelly Hansen (@keltastic) on

This puzzling event was so much more than a couple of hundred people sitting around tables solving their way through a manila envelope of puzzles. It was a living, breathing, and occasionally chaotic mystery. No one, not even the actors, knew exactly how the evening would unfold.

Lisa and David in costume swing dancing.
A shot of us swing dancing, courtesy of our friend Denise Kuehner.

Puzzles

The puzzles weren’t delivered to the tables; we had to earn them by interacting with the various non-player characters (NPCs). They would send us on quests to gain bits of information or give us things that we had to solve. While some puzzles were straightforward, others involved less-than-usual interactions with the cast.

Every puzzle advanced the story, even if it only added a little depth to a character.

Standouts

The band and Lindy hoppers were of particular note. Both fit beautifully into spectacle of the evening. Let’s be real; in 2016, a swing band and a gaggle of folks Lindy hopping with style and skill isn’t exactly an everyday occurrence.

The setting was amazing.

The audience looked awesome. We were shocked to see so many people fully commit to the evening. My hat is off to everyone in attendance. Such a classy bunch.

The actors were exceptional at improvising with us. We didn’t see anyone break character.

#snowball #💗 #❄️

A post shared by Annaliese Rittershaus Brauman (@vonvalkyrie) on

The puzzling and live action roleplaying were strong. Our team was split into puzzlers and interacters. Lisa and I spent most of the evening playing with the characters, unraveling the interpersonal mysteries, and dancing. Lisa solved two puzzles and I only got around to solving the last one. There was a lot to do.

Attendees who wanted to dance could pretty much go the entire night doing nothing but dancing.

Attendees who wanted to puzzle could puzzle the night away (if they teamed up with some folks who would handle the NPC interactions).

Attendees who wanted to passively watch everything unfold could simply enjoy that.

Shortcomings

We attended opening night and there were a few places where Club Drosselmeyer felt like a public beta test:

  • A lot of players seemed to struggle getting started and finding their place in the narrative.
  • There were moments when we became confused, and therefore baffled the actors a little bit because they didn’t understand what we weren’t getting (and no one was breaking character, us included).
  • One particular character was a bit too necessary and popular. A line formed to interact with him and that slowed the game’s pace and progression.
  • The area around our table was consumed by people waiting on line to meet with the aforementioned popular character.

The stage acting at the end felt very forced. It was cute, but it wasn’t compelling.

The VIP ticket designation didn’t matter. At any ticket level, audience members made their experience what they wanted.

Club Drosselmeyer’s run is only two shows. The final show is tomorrow night (December 16, 2016).

Should I play Club Drosselmeyer?

Club Drosselmeyer was more than I could have ever hoped for from a puzzling event and I couldn’t help but go in with high expectations.

Puzzling, swing dancing, and interactive theater are three of my favorite things.

We worked hard throughout Club Drosselmeyer and left exhausted. It was worth every ounce of effort. Our team was the only one to unravel the main storyline and thus I got to choose the path that the ending would take.

If you’re going tonight, dress up, become a character, team up, and play hard. There are plots and subplots to explore (many of which went unexplored on opening night). There’s more than one evening’s worth of fun at Club Drosselmeyer. I wish I could go back.

Club Drosselmeyer is sold out… as it should be.