Why Working in an Escape Room is a Great job for Theatre People

I’m lucky enough to have a part time job I really enjoy. Like most of the world, I’ve done my time in retail, and I hated almost all of it. Though great co-workers and the occasional fun customer can liven up any job, the feeling that you’re just putting in boring, tedious hours to scrape out the money you need to survive is draining and unfulfilling. It helps if you can find a job somehow relevant to your passions, but many of us aren’t so lucky. I struck gold when I found my part time job working at a local escape room.

For those unfamiliar with the escape room trend, here’s a quick explanation: You are placed into a room (or multiple) containing a series of puzzles that you must solve within a certain time frame. Often the rooms are themed. Most escape rooms are designed for anywhere from 2 to 10 participants at a time. As you solve the puzzles, a Gamemaster watches (usually from cameras) and can provide clues if necessary. Find a key to open a box, from which you get a math puzzle that works out to the combination for the 4-digit lock, which opens an envelope full of a documents that spell out a coded message– that sort of deal.

Working in an escape room is a lot of fun on its own, but it appeals especially to me because it uses many of the same skills I need when I’m working on a show! The relevance isn’t always clear from the outside, but take it from an insider: escape rooms are a great employment opportunity for those interested in acting. Here’s a few reasons why.

1. Public Speaking Galore

Part of the typical gamemaster’s job is standard customer service– greet customers, take payment if necessary, maybe have them sign any waivers required by the business. Usually the gamemaster is also in charge of explaining the story/circumstances and rules of the room to players. Some escape rooms present five to ten minute introductory presentations to explain all the players will need to know to solve the room, for which gamemasters are responsible.

If you are someone who struggles with stage fright and nerves in front of crowds, public speaking practice is especially helpful. Even if you’re a seasoned veteran in that regard, finding ways to make your audience listen and laugh to your dry introduction is a valuable skill, and can be a lot of fun.

2. Memorization Game

Memorization is a necessary skill for all actors, and one we can always use a little more practice with. As I mentioned in the previous point, gamemasters are responsible for presenting the stories and rules of their games. Usually, this means memorizing as much of the necessary information as possible to make presentation to customers quick and painless. You’ll also need to memorize the path the players will take through the game, and memorize the room layout to return all of the props and puzzles to their correct places once the game is over. (It’s a bit like setting up the stage for the top of the show after a rehearsal!)

Running a room is an active exercise in memorization. Forgetting a step or resetting the room incorrectly can have consequences. Build your memory while being accountable for a customer’s gameplay experience– you’ll train yourself to double and triple check your work very quickly!

3. Acting Opportunities

When thinking about acting jobs, few would consider escape rooms. Admittedly, very few escape rooms hire people just to act. Some escape rooms hire actors to play characters inside the rooms, though this is rare. Slightly more common is commitment to character before a group enters or exits a room. For instance, at Enter The Imaginarium, an escape room in Pittsburgh, PA, all of the gamemasters roleplay as members of a mysterious “Order”, and act in character, even while giving clues during gameplay.

Perhaps the biggest acting opportunity for escape room workers is totally hidden– an opportunity where your ability to sell someone on a slightly bent reality really matters. When groups fail to escape, they are often very hard on themselves. The fact that they didn’t escape might totally ruin their experience if they get too down about it. It’s important players know that the fun of escape rooms is in playing the room,  not necessarily the escape. Sometimes they play very well and get stuck on small things, or wind up very close to the end. It’s a shame to let a group like this leave thinking they did poorly! Then, your acting skills can come in handy for raising their spirits. Even if they did poorly, no one wants to leave feeling dumb. If you have to bend the truth just a bit to make them feel better, that’s not a bad thing– but you’d better be convincing!

4. Practice Problem Solving on the Fly

One of the best things you can learn in live theatre is how to handle crises in the blink of an eye (usually, in the dark backstage, while being totally silent). Say a prop breaks right before your entrance with it– you need to be prepared to find a solution! The same goes for working in an escape room. Puzzles break all the time. Escape room props will likely be handled roughly. Important items will snap in half, locks will fail to open, and computer-driven sequences will fail to trigger. When this happens, the gamemaster needs to be able to handle whatever is thrown at them.

Both on stage and in escape rooms, sometimes shit just happens. Getting used to that fact and becoming intimately familiar with how to behave when it does is always of your benefit.

5. Build, Design, and Get Creative

Though some escape rooms buy their games as kits and purchase their props and puzzles, many design and build their own. This is a fun, creative process wherein you can flex a lot of crafting skills! There are large “set pieces” to construct– things like tables, counters, walls, and closets– where you can practice carpentry skills useful in theatre tech. There’s also small props and pieces to design. At my job, I’ve made magic wands out of metal rods, magnets, hot glue, masking tape, and a fancy paint job. There’s also the escape room equivalent of “set dressing” to be done, providing miscellaneous non-essential props to decorate walls, shelves, and floor space. Designing the actual flow of the room is a complex process that requires consideration for storyline flow, practicality, and a whole lot of abstract thought– a bit like the thought process required in directing or writing a show.

Most importantly, working in an escape room is fun. It’s an opportunity to get away from food service or retail and work in an entertainment capacity– even if you yourself aren’t the chief entertainer! If you love theatre, working in an escape room can also be relevant to your passion. It may not be your dream job, but it can be worth your time for now!

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