Masked strangers stand along 4th street in Santa Monica. Modest, elegant, or eccentric; dressed in lace butterflies, jewels flowers, wolves, and skulls. We are an odd motley crew of people, straight out of a strange film. New partisan identities went with every costume—Barons, Marquises, Socialites and Aristocrats—the crème de la crème of Bourgeoise elite. People eagerly shared their elaborate backstories and gossiped with famous dress makers and exotic trade collectors. Tonight, I’m Michelle De Nimes: a baroness from the south of France, invited to the Bal Masque hosted at the prestigious Théâtre National de l’Opéra.
Days before you attend Into The Film’s A Night at the Opera, the immersion begun. With your official email, I was welcomed and invited to the Théâtre National de l’Opéra. This email further offered me a new identity to assume, and a secondary email pulled me deeper into the universe of Phantom of the Opera with a detailed backstory. Spend this time daydreaming about your role. Into the Film asked me to invest in it the way it planned to invest in me.
A formal dress code further supported the story, helping build pure excitement. I thoroughly enjoyed putting my outfit together, planning my mask and doing some gentle research on my provided name. I had fun shopping, I had fun telling my co-workers about it, even before Saturday arrived.
With all this anticipation, I was unbearably eager to play.
Suddenly, a great loud shout echoed in the plaza as the theater doors swing wide open; ‘The theater is open!’ We are greeted by the Managers, Armand and Firmin, (Peter Berube, Erin Stegeman) the newest owners. They’re all smiles and gracious to their rich, kind, rich, elite, rich benefactors. Did I mention rich?
Once, inside the theater, we’re flanked by double staircases that disappear upstairs. It is a magnificent white space, complimented by luxurious, red velvet curtains and antique furniture. Incense wafts through the theater air. Everything feels as regal as the patrons look.
The second story is an expansive wrap around balcony that is open to the theater below. But now it’s draped and sectioned with the same deluxe, beautiful red velvet curtains. A fantastically tall model of the Eiffel Tower stands nearly in the center of the walk way. The foyer is now a café, framed in red. The studio is framed in red. A mysterious fortune teller’s table is framed in a red corner with curling incense smoke.
The Historical Woman Club of Santa Monica was used masterfully. Inside, it was completely, and temporarily, renovated to match the theme of the evening. If I mention only one thing, it’s this: the application of red velvet and the sheer amount they used was strikingly regal and gorgeous. It made the space feel expensive, old and mysterious. The way the red stretched upwards along white walls, opened the space dramatically and made everything feel taller. But it wasn’t just the main room—every set they’ve created is different, representative of its character and place in the story. Carlotta’s dressing room was over the top. The Ballet studio was a functioning, mirrored work space.
The location was also filled with secret nooks, private spaces, and highly trafficked places, all without ever feeling crowded. In its entirety, Into the Film reinvented this space to tell a story beyond the stage. The immersion of this space was its own constant, unwavering presence.
My guest and I are escorted to the Manager’s office. They ooh and Aah over how smart and stylish our masks are. They then hand us envelopes to be opened later. Until ‘later’ arrived, we are free to browse about the theater, to see the dance studio, enjoy the café, or have our fortune read. Cloth and sandalwood fans are even handed out to as an apology for the muggy, Paris evening
Boisterous ballerinas (Allison Minick, Zoquera Milburn, Eve Bui) emerge introducing themselves to the aristocrats. A disheveled man with a lantern slinks his way about the theater, much to the displeasure of the dancers. They skirt around him. Back in their studio, a note is pinned to the piano: “Please close the lid after use.” Signed Opera Ghost. To the ballerinas, it’s all a prank. There is no ghost. It’s impossible. Ghosts aren’t real. But what was real was the nefarious ‘Rat Catcher’ (Luke Scorcio), who lurked about eyeing guests, and a mysterious baroness (Erin Coleman) who was as nebulous as she was beautiful.
The actors were wonderfully dedicated to their roles and this production. There were thirteen total, available for the entire evening, to help and entertain. Most of the conversations were improvised and inspired. Christine (Katya Gruzglina) was demure. Carlotta (Amiée Conn) was catty. The dancers didn’t believe the gossip. The men were full of bravado and concern. And at every interaction, they remained consistent, over four crazy hours. Even when interacting with each other.
I find the Managers, drunk in their office. “Welcome! Welcome, Come in!” They’d slur from their desk and chair, progressively very intoxicated at this point, “How can we help you? A drink? Let me take a picture of you with your tiny magical hand-held rectangle thing. This is 1880 after all!”
Immersive events sometimes overlook facilitating the incorporation of their participants to the experience. Yet this experience did not suffer from this problem. The Managers offered constancy to newer, novice players. They were a charming surprise for all involved, providing the perfect glue for the experience. Their goal was to bridge the story, answer out of and in game questions, and coordinate the movement of people. They were funny, informative, and were a familiar presence to the patrons
After socializing for a time, nearly a hundred guests are ushered into the theater space, with many red, draped chairs. The Theater ceiling is tall, with large roof windows open to the hot, night air. This center space is edged by the second story banister, perfect for a silent, lurking observer.
My eyes engulf a beautiful ballet and my ears are treated to an angelic rendition of a song from Faust by the mysterious and talented Christine. But the production is troubled with flickering lights and interruptions. Christine seems particularly skittish, eyeing the corners of the rooms. Her powerful aria is interrupted by sudden chaos and screaming. The Phantom (Alex Lewis) himself, looming over all the audience from shadowy box five. He dares us to open our letters. We have until the end of the evening to solve his mysteries; if not, theaters are very flammable these days.
Christine sprints off the stage, terrified.
Into the Film has an innovative puzzle system that incorporates complete inclusiveness. Everyone received their clues at the same time, but clearly not everyone understood their purpose. There was a broad spectrum of puzzle players, novice and experienced, and it showed. Some patrons needed no help, others needed an exorbitant amount. Regardless, Into the Film rewarded effort, not results. The semi-finale was available to everyone by the end of the evening. Characters and fellow patrons alike helped make sure that no one was left out of the fun. Because mostly, this was about entertainment and experiencing Phantom of the Opera, not competition or even completion.
With our envelopes opened, people rushed off, combing over the Opera House for clues and characters. Carlotta pouts in her dressing room. Raoul (Milo Shearer) and his brother Phillipe (Ace Marrero) are at a loss to explain the Phantom and also beg to find Christine, who has disappeared. The staff hides. And a Fortune teller (Cami Arboles) hired for the evening gives fractured, dark readings of perils to come.
Blatantly ignoring the calamity, the managers assure everyone, drinks in hand, that the evening is going off swimmingly. Just swimmingly! Ignoring the troubles that just occurred, they pushed for the start of the next event: the silent movie “Phantom of the Opera” staring Lon Chaney. But how can I watch a movie with a mystery to be solved?!
Remarkably, this freshman event from Into the Film, could easily pass as a well-seasoned show.
Initially, once the clues were distributed, some of the more novice players were very lost. Within an hour, bodies moved with purpose; up the stairs, down the stairs, back up the stairs, down the stairs. Had there been anyone with mobile disabilities, it surely would have taken some clever stage craft to make sure they had the same experience as everyone. It should be mentioned; the venue is not universally accessible. Even for me, able-bodied and (relatively) young, I was exhausted by the time the finale took place. Which isn’t a negative per say, I’m just out of shape.
Only certain events produced rewards; so then, other characters provided only distractions. It was very, very possible to spend too much fruitless time with someone, only to find this is irrelevant to the overall puzzle. Which, given Into the Film’s pursuit of an inclusive event, seems a bit contradictory. If the ending was available to everyone, what does it matter if all characters or events had some way of building towards the finale, so your investment was never wasted? I found myself clamoring up the tail end of puzzles, only after realizing what I was doing was a very fun non-sequitur.
Towards the end, once the rewards were accomplished, there was a sudden drop in activity. Had we won? Did anyone know? Was there a follow up-puzzle? There initially was too much energy and then a stall. However, a good filler was sitting and enjoying the film in the main theater space, with the accompanying music. So smartly, there was something to do albeit, passively.
Into the Film has made an amazing product. The stage craft of the night was exquisite, supported by a phenomenal cast. This was a vision, orchestrated by many people and felt like one cohesive story. This is an experience, like no other, for a fan of immersive theater. Aside from some bumpy puzzle and time elements, I’m confident their next event will more than likely be close to flawless.
In the end, Into the Film is on another level of involvement. I eagerly await their next project and there’s still one more weekend of A Night at the Opera!
$59.00 per person
August 11th – 7:30pm
August 12th – 6:30pm
August 13th – 6:30pm
Venue info:Historical Woman Club of Santa Monica, 1210 4th Street, Santa Monica
Facebook.com: IntotheFilmLA, @intothefilmLA