Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Last Escape

Building a puzzle/escape room is one thing, and the story that unfolds while escaping is another.  You may love a venue, (consider the interior of the Pantages or the 5th Ave Theater), but it is really the show that stays with you.  

So it was important to me that the two be separated.  “Adventures by Appointment” is the name of the company that will put on the escapes, but the first puzzle room production that will launch it is called “The Last Escape”.

This all started close to a year ago in a conversation with Erik Hanberg.  He was the impetus for the exploration for this kind of entertainment in the South Sound.  He and Mary had just participated in an escape room in Portland and had had a fantastic time.  So for a few weeks we kicked it around, with discussion of themes and stories and how something like that might be received in Tacoma.

We missed a short window to visit a room up in Seattle and then I was off on vacation to Sunriver, Oregon.  As is my habit, I bring a creative project outside of my daily routine with me.  This time, it was the development of an idea for a story to become the basis for an escape.  Being the obvious person that I am I immediately thought of the greatest escape artist of all time, Ehrich Prach, known to the world as Harry Houdini.  I bought and books, articles and even read his obituary.  I began to research puzzles as well.

When I returned I was ready to move this story forward and create the production, which also meant building a company, finding a venue and spending a lot of creative energy.  Erik has been a valuable sounding board and though he is busy with being President of the Parks Commission, co owner of Side X Side Creative and releasing the second book is his sci-fi trilogy “The Iron Harvest” I am hoping to convince him to write and produce the second escape room adventure.

I decided to approach this business like a venue for theatrical productions in order to build a revenue model.  Because the number people who attend a production at any one time is very small, there are some limitations.  Nevertheless, there are many similarities.

I have a firm grasp of story and stage, as I have been in over thirty five theatrical productions over the last ten years.  Combined with my entrepreneurial experience, it has provided me with the confidence to push forward.  Unfortunately most of my experience is through the guise of an actor.   

Luckily I know a few folks with a broader set of theatrical skill sets.  I have known Chris Serface for years, since we first performed together in "My Fair Lady" at the Tacoma Musical Playhouse, then "The Wind in the Willows" and "Urinetown" among others.  Chris became Managing Artistic Director at Tacoma Little Theatre and now runs the show there along with Karen Christensen and Blake York and their board.  All of whom I have done shows with. 

Chris helped answer my questions about scheduling, budgets, roll out of productions and really helped me translate how ticket
sales and audience estimates might work with what I am trying to do.  Bottom line, less seats to sell means more shows per week.  Plus my overhead will be smaller.

I am happy to say that Tacoma Little Theatre will be partnering with me on the first production.

I mentioned Blake York, who is technical director of TLT.  He also played Ralph, the grown up Ralphie and narrator for the recent production of A Christmas Story, in which I played “The Old Man”.  Along with doing a great job with a ridiculous line load, he also designed and built a magnificent set for the show and was responsible for sound cues.  The set was truly a thing of beauty.  He had also built the set for Fox on the Fairway and at one after show cast party said he wanted to work with me on something.

This is that thing.  I am happy to announce that Blake York will be doing set, sound and light design for “The Last Escape”.  He is keen on quality and understands how to make things happen on stage.

Finally, once the script has been written and the venue has been chosen, you need someone to direct.  I met Jen York during the production of A Christmas Story and loved working with her.  She was easy to communicate with, is organized, detail oriented and very creative.  She also has a wide range of experience in all facets of theater.  She asks the right questions and can give firm instructions.

In meeting with her on the production she has never failed to give me great guidance and advice.  Several elements have come into greater focus because of tasks she gave me to complete. 

Jen York will be directing “The Last Escape”.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

RIP Marvin Minsky Artificial Intelligence Pioneer

When we are as connected as we are, (and when you are a media pig like I am) you are going to get constant notices of people passing.  Glenn Frey and David Bowie as recent examples.  I felt a little more nostalgic with Glenn Frey.  When it is someone like Alan Rickman I feel sad because of the age that he passed and knowing his personal contributions are no longer available, though his achievements will have lasting effects.  Leonard Nimoy was sad to me on a very nostalgic level.  I also recognize he had a long and fulfilling life.

This rather long preamble is for the death of Marvin Minsky at the wonderful age of 88.  Minsky co-founded the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1959. His goal was to mimic human perception and intelligence in a machine; along the way, he created some of the first robotic hands with tactile sensors, while also working to address the philosophical questions posed by the machines he created.

I met him once in my life and heard him speak twice.  At one point as a youngster in the late 80's I was deeply fascinated with his work on artificial intelligence.  He was a character.  When AI fell into a bit of a slump, (and in order to be taken seriously you had to call the next steps Expert Systems), I am sure he was as prickly as could be.  But at the same time I would have loved to hear his views on Deep Blue and Watson.  I suppose I will have to look those up.

Here is a snippet from an article today in Scientific America:

""Why are you asking me this question?" Minsky growled. The concern that scientists will run out of things to do is "pitiful," he said. "There's plenty to do." We humans may well be approaching our limits as scientists, but we will soon create machines much smarter than us that can continue doing science.

But that would be machine science, not human science, I said.

"You're a racist, in other words," Minsky said, his great domed forehead purpling. I scanned his face for signs of irony, but found none. "I think the important thing for us is to grow," Minsky continued, "not to remain in our own present stupid state." We humans, he added, are just "dressed up chimpanzees." Our task is not to preserve present conditions but to evolve, and create beings smarter than us."


Saturday, January 23, 2016

Juggling the Business and the Art

Some of the research being conducted for "The Last Escape"
Whenever you work on a big project you have to accommodate the ever shifting requirements that will bring it to fruition.  In the case of the puzzle/escape room under development there are several different tracks operating at the same time.  The business planning is essential for many reasons, the most prominent in my own mind is the fact that I should be practicing what I preach.  I am currently teaching two separate courses at the University of Washington Tacoma in entrepreneurship, one as an  undergraduate course and the other as part of a continuing education certificate.  Both use business planning as the infrastructure for building out your company on both an operational and a funding level.  Plus of course it is an incredibly valuable tool for a successful outcome.

So I am working on that.  Finding a venue, creating a proforma, developing marketing materials, organizing and recruiting a team, procuring funding and performing recursive reality checks are all the plates spinning right now in my off time from my day job.  I am really enjoying myself.

Additionally, there is the creative element.  The whole point of this was to produce something fun with theatrical elements.  The balance here is going to be the practical flow of the puzzles that will be challenging, exciting and fun to do as a team, the story that needs to be told over the course of an hour that will have several endings based on how far the teams progress toward the escape, the characters who will inhabit the room from the gamemaster to the limited role playing that can be infused into the customers and how much historical accuracy can be integrated into what is a fictional situation.

I am working on that.  This requires a bit of research and experimentation.

The good news is that I have the complete skeletal structure of the puzzle elements as they lead to locked boxes, strange riddles, brain teasers, hidden rooms and required tasks.  When I write stories I often have it worked out completely in my head.  Once I put it on paper I realize where I have holes to fill and characters to develop.  It is never complete until the third or fourth rewrite (for me).

In this case I have the story down.  However instead of rewriting it I need to run it.  I need to know the realistic time it might take ten people working together to finish each challenge.  It can't be too hard or to easy.

There are also several pieces that will need to be fabricated or procured.  Then there is a set to build.

My next post will talk about the people who are helping me get this done.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Bringing an Escape Room to the South Puget Sound

Real life room escape games have been cropping up around the United States with greater frequency over the last two years.  These stylized escape games which pit creative problem solving against a ticking clock started in Hungary and took off in Japan where they are extremely popular.  In our own area there are currently no less than five puzzle room companies in Seattle and at least one that I know of in Redmond, with many in Portland as well.
Theatrically speaking there is a spectrum to the experience.  On one end of the spectrum there are simple puzzle rooms that are filled with a variety of puzzle types.  Small teams of people work together to figure them out until each puzzle leads them to meta puzzles which leads you to the means to leave the room.
On the other end of the spectrum are thematic escape rooms.  These carry a story or plot line along with the necessary puzzle solving to make the escape.  They are immersive to a place or time and can heighten the urgency of the clock.  Think a prison break or escape from a mad scientist’s lab.
It is this story driven type of puzzle and escape room that I will be bringing to Tacoma (in conjunction with some great local partners).  I wanted to create something that would be a combination of stage play and puzzle room, with the idea that plotting, story line and stagecraft such as lighting and special effects would enhance the experience. 

At its core it will still be type of physical adventure game in which people are locked in a room with other participants and have to use elements of the room to solve a series of puzzles, find clues, and escape the room within a set time limit.  But there will also be a plot, characters and a story line added to the experience.  

It would be possible to put it together today and run a beta of it next week (and I was tempted to).  However, I would rather up the quality as much as I can.  This means more time and money to build a dedicated set, create special puzzles and purchase props.  So I am going to run a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a higher end product through perks that will include first patron advance ticket sales, puzzle sponsorship and hopefully some cool swag.  At the very least, this will give me the opportunity to spread the word, find some beta testers and up the quality of the experience. 

If you are interested let me know, and look for the upcoming campaign.

"Know him, Hear him, See him, Free him" - Assisting Houdini in His Last Escape

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