It was possibly the oddest brief I’ve ever had, whilst working in Heritage. I took a call from a friend and colleague, Steve Blake of East Anglia Puzzle Rooms, who I first met during the gestation of the “Royalist Round-up” Pop-Up Escape Room at Oliver Cromwell’s House. A project which began as a slightly crazy idea, combining an site of great historical importance, the oak panelled office in which Oliver Cromwell would have worked during his time as Collector of the Tithe, with the latest craze in “Experiences” – the Escape Room.
An Escape Room is the physical version of the internet craze of the early 21st century, often “Point and Click” flash games, with problem solving driven scenarios, usually a combined selection of seeking and finding key items and solving puzzles, allowing the player to progress. They are now often found in industrial estates, with wonderfully crafted but still “synthetic” surroundings and props. It’s fair to say, since they appeared in Japan, they have begun to spread across the globe, creating a whole new sub-section of “Tourism” – Escape Room Tourists, like their E-Gaming cousins, dedicated and professional individuals or teams who tour their local area and beyond, taking on every room they can. The disposable income and the hunt for non-tangible experiences has driven this industry to a point of great expansion.
What Steve and the Oliver Cromwell’s House team wanted to do however, was to create something unique, something that couldn’t be put in a box, taken from one place to another, unpacked and recreated. From a single weekend per month, with sceptical and ultimately limited hope, the Royalist Roundup went from a few sessions booked to extra sessions being added, corporate groups seeking a new and exciting form of team building and over a year of great success, leaving Steve Blake and I in a position where we both take pleasure in saying “We never ever get tired of hearing people say “Wow” when they enter the puzzle room.” It’s been fun, it’s been frightening at times and it’s been hugely successful. But where next?
Steve received a call from a client, wanting a large scale team building exercise to allow a cohesive union of different office groups, due to a large scale restructuring, he was given a location, a budget and left to his own devices. That’s where I came in. As i said at the start of this post, Steve called me. He called me one evening and said “Remember we talked about….” This unspecified point of reference is and was, a theatrical experience Steve had enjoyed in Suffolk, based around theatrical led interactions and puzzles, imagine a large scale Murder Mystery event and throw in the concept of “Cluedo” or as our beloved US cousins would call it, “Clue” and you might begin to get the idea…. Well we’d talked about it over a few ales, in a beer garden in a pocket city and then we’d sadly put it to the back of our minds. Steve had a Lord Protector to be coping with, as did I, Steve also had his business running other pop-up Escape Rooms all over Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk and I had my job, which was consumed by large scale events for the coming season. Now however, the ideas came clawing back to the front of our minds.
The planning began, in earnest. Steve found the venue, the wonderful Moyses Hall in Bury St Edmunds and after an initial visit, I was given the outlined logistics of what Steve wanted to achieve, agreed with the client, and an enormous span of History and Heritage to work from.
Sir Terry Pratchett, who I miss dreadfully having read his books since my early teens, once said of Folklore “I think about folklore the same way a carpenter thinks about trees” – It is perhaps a little heavy handed to say the same thing about Heritage, but it should be noted with a second quote by Pratchett, “A good carpenter works with the grain of the wood and should endeavour to make a table that leaves the tree glad that it became timber”, that the same should be done by any Interpreter of History and Heritage. Preserving the integrity of memory, association and legacy of an artefact or event should be the primary objective, though equally it should share it’s position on the pedestal with engagement and entertainment.
Without going in to the laborious aspects of the planning, research and consideration, and causing you to drift away from the blog post, the narrative became apparent, the characters began to form from either the rooms, their exhibits and their stories, along with a decent sized lump of imagination and humour. What began as a slightly odd idea, became something more tangible. Utilising murder, medieval history and warfare, along with an exciting Sci-Fi exhibition, a story of mischief and madness took shape and the next steps became apparent.
Steve Blake, it must be said here and now, is a dangerously devious genius. Truly a Puzzle Master, who can be given a very brief narrative idea at 11.30pm on a Monday only to return to the author at 8.34am the next day with the framework of the puzzles, including their links to other later aspects of the experience. It’s like alchemy, you lob the raw base metal in and suddenly you’ve got gold.
As things progressed, we set the date, booked the venue, polished the narrative, Steve designed the puzzles and I found the players for the snap-shots in History that we had chosen. I had a great deal of fun with my own character, The Celestial Meddler (An entity who finds joy in confusion, sadness and puzzles).
Bringing in trusted comrades, one of my closest friends with whom I’ve appeared many times on stage, Damien O’Donovan, and the remarkable History Needs You team, Matthew and Gill, Steve and I with the rest of the team, met outside the venue as the sun set on a Friday evening in November. What we went on to create, with laughter and trepidation, was something truly unique.
Four teams, four rooms, four snapshots of History, each featuring a unique puzzle based around the room, it’s contents and it’s particular narrative, with a rounded character (in appropriate costume) acting as a location specific guide and narrator, turned in to a fast paced, fun and testing event, culminating in a final salvo from The Celestial Meddler, in which all of the teams came back and formed a single unit and were forced to take aspects of each room and defeat the well attired antagonist of the piece.
After the dust had settled, the warmth and delight that emanated from a group of people who had, in many parts not known each other before hand, knocked the entire team of their feet. As people left, they shook our hands and smiled, thanked us and in many cases said they would be coming back to the museum to have a more leisurely wander to explore the heritage of the area.
Whilst we changed back in to a normal selection of clothing and tottered off to a local pub for a well deserved pint, we left a museum and staff, slightly bemused but enthralled by what 5 very odd people can do within a venue that can often be overlooked.
We left very proud, we also left in a very reflective mood, buoyant from what we had achieved, with pockets full of ideas, modifications and future plans. So, when you hear about an “Immersive Theatrical Problem Solving Experience” in a heritage site near you, perhaps it’ll be Magpie Memoria and East Anglian Escape Rooms trawling through the wonderful collections of your local museum, country pile, townhouse or place of faith, crafting something truly wonderful from objects, stories and places, to show you the future in history.
For further information, don’t hesitate to get in touch and keep an eye out for events near you, in the near future, set in the past.