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The Good, the Bad, and the Bonkers of Interactive Theater in NYC

Veterans of Totally Tubular Time Machine, Sleep No More, and Speakeasy Dollhouse talk poison, bar surfing, and enraged drag queens.

Whether you're craving the glam of the '80s, the sophistication of the '20s, or just wish you lived inside a Hitchcock film (weird, but sure), New York City's interactive theater scene can make it happen. Productions that give audiences almost complete freedom to get comfortable in a proscenium-free set and the opportunity to gossip with the characters are becoming increasingly ubiquitous, and that's awesome. You never have to spend a weekend in your own boring old life again.

But what's it like to share the same physical space as an audience freshly freed from the confines of reality? We convinced three interactive theater vets to step out of character and let us in on their most shocking experiences and surprising takeaways.

Meg Lanzarone
(© Sarah Schetter)
Meg Lanzarone

Show: Totally Tubular Time Machine

Synopsis: Described as an "interactive, inter-galactic, pop music experience," Totally Tubular Time Machine transports its audience to a 1980s dance club where they meet, mingle, and get freaky with musical favorites from the '80s, '90s, and today! The performers also treat their guests to renditions of pop hits performed alone and with their fans.

Character: 1980s Madonna

Most common interaction: As the audience enters, instead of giving people a hug, because I can't really do that in my cone bra, I'm like, ‘Don't be shy! Touch my costume! Touch my bra!' So nine times out of ten they do.

Most memorable interaction: There was a guy, an audience member, who was really having a good time and letting loose while I was doing "Like a Virgin" up on the bar, and I turned around, with my butt to the audience, and he came diving onto the bar in between my legs. So I'm just like, "Alright, I guess I'll just, like, straddle him and sit on him, and kind of go with it." I was just like, "Oh hello, how are you down there?"

Takeaway: What's nice about it is there's not that many rules. You can kind of do whatever, within reason. For the most part, people really respect when we're up on stage dancing and singing. They get it. You can't be grindin' on Bieber too much during his musical number. Maybe after…

That's what makes it fun for us too. We get our moments in the spotlight, and then we get to jump down and just talk to people.

Conor Doyle
(courtesy of The McKittrick Hotel)
Conor Doyle

Show: Sleep No More

Synopsis: Perhaps the most well-known (and elaborate) immersive theater experience in New York, Sleep No More is a dance-heavy, loose film-noir interpretation of Shakespeare's Macbeth and a couple other similarly macabre stories. Throughout the performance, the audience is free to wander the show's creepily appointed five-story McKittrick Hotel.

Character: Witch/Porter

Most common interaction: Sometimes people will start copying you. That was a thing that happened a lot at the beginning…Sometimes they start to copy you dancing, and then you try to make it so complicated that they can't copy you.

Most memorable interaction: There's a scene where one of the characters is poisoning another character and this woman kept on trying to save the character who was being poisoned. She kept stealing the glass with the poison in it and running off with it. It was really amazing to see this woman who was genuinely trying to save a character because she'd lost all sense of where she was and what she was doing. She was completely committed to being the hero.

Takeaway: There are some characters [who] have lots of time to play around with the audience, who can see the audience, and then some who don't see the audience. And it's about making it clear for the audience which kind of character you are. And people pick up on it extremely quickly. People are smart.

Rachel Boyadjis
(© Margee Challa)
Rachel Boyadjis

Show: Speakeasy Dollhouse

Synopsis: Based on a true story lived out by the grandparents of the show's creator, Speakeasy Dollhouse presents a series of vignettes — including a murder — in an interactive, speakeasy environment. The audience, who have been encouraged to dress in 1920s attire, are left to come to their own conclusions about the who and why.

Character: Dominick Spano, a 12-year-old boy

Most common interaction: The audience members tend to feel like they need to protect this 12-year-old kid. Usually people who come as couples like me and there's usually a couple or two who check up on me the whole time.

Most memorable interaction: Once, after the murder of my father, one of the biggest moments of the play, there was this couple who [was] really upset, and during the scene, the woman came up to me and pulled this beautiful old hanky out of her purse to wipe my tears. She gave it to me, and I keep it in my costume pocket now.

On the other hand though, there was a time with this guy, he came to the show in very period drag. He seemed normal at first, but as things got worse for Dom, he just got meaner and meaner. He would just follow my character around telling me everything was all my fault.

Takeaway: I think some people get into that context and they realize that they have freedom [that] they don't usually have: They can play. When people realize they have that freedom to create relationships, they sometimes kind of go off the deep end.

The thing I really like about this play is that, because it's small, you're very free in this world…you become part of the story just by being there.