Escape rooms have become incredibly pervasive over the past few years, but they’re not usually thought of as fantastic storytelling platforms. They’re more about the premise: giving participants a way to buy into the idea that they’re locked in a single location for a given amount of time, so they can create their own personal tale of how they collaborated with friends to get out, or failed miserably.
In the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, a show called The Nest has been changing that. Designed as a side project by a duo from Walt Disney Imagineering — the creative group behind the company’s elaborate theme parks — it utilizes serialized radio play elements and detailed set design to tell the tragic life story of a woman named Josie. The Nest may involve sending a pair of participants into an enclosed space and, yes, they may need to collect clues to make their way out. But the project transcends its escape room and video game influences, turning a well-known format into a dramatic and emotional experience that is utterly unique.
“The idea of doing our own show had always been brewing,” Jarrett Lantz tells me over the phone. Lantz and co-creator Jeff Leinenveber are the founders of Scout Expedition Co., the company behind The Nest. The duo first met through Imagineering — both worked on attractions at Shanghai Disney — but outside of the office they found themselves increasingly intrigued by the world of immersive theater. That led to non-Disney collaborations with groups like Third Rail Projects and the interactive horror play Delusion, until they decided to create their own immersive production from the ground up. “I think that's the goal for a lot of designers,” Lantz admits. “Just to go through the entire process of putting on a show, because that's something that we had never done before”
The Nest begins with a letter. A woman named Josephine Annette Carroll has died and left her storage unit to her next of kin — which, audience members discover, is where they come in. They enter the storage unit (actually a repurposed structure in Leinenveber’s backyard) with only a flashlight to illuminate their path. An old-school tape recorder awaits inside, and as participants explore the story unfolds in a series of audio cassette recordings, labyrinthian mazes of junk, and mementos from Josie’s life.
‘Firewatch’ and ‘Gone Home’ were vital influences
“We say it's an immersive experience that has elements of a lot of different things,” Lantz explains, citing escape rooms and games like Firewatch and Gone Home as vital influences. “A little bit of immersive theater elements [are there], but obviously missing the actors and actresses themselves. It's not really any of those things, but it has a couple elements of each.”
Imagine the way holotapes are used to dole out story beats in Fallout 4, and you’ll get a sense of how the audio cassette portion of The Nest works. Audience members — only two go through the show at a time — find the tapes scattered throughout the space, and each recording reveals a part of Josie’s story, starting with her as a young, aspiring writer, and eventually tracking the triumphs and tragic disappointments of her life. But it’s a fragmented, non-linear narrative, participants hearing a given tape only when they find it and choose to listen. Which tapes they discover, and what order they hear them in, can lead to radically different interpretations of the same events.
“There's 12 main tapes, and then a bunch of secondary tapes,” Lantz says. The main tapes cover pivotal moments in Josie’s life — a career decision, for example, or a particular struggle with her husband, Tom — and are carefully placed in the space so audiences can’t miss them. Those secondary tapes, however, flesh out her story, adding new perspectives and insights. “Depending on the different filler tapes you find, you end up with a different impression of all those characters,” he explains. “Cause if you listen to some tapes, people are like, ‘Oh, Tom is so nice.’ And then other people are, ‘Tom is such an asshole!’”
When I experienced The Nest, I found myself on the latter team when it came to Tom, which seemed like a minor miracle of storytelling unto itself. There I was, looking through lockers and cabinets in the dark, and I’d been pulled in so completely that I was outright angry at what her husband had done. As the show worked towards its climax, I listened to one of the final tapes, guarding myself against what felt like an inevitable revelation in the slow-motion car crash that was Josie’s life. My stomach dropped when what I feared came to pass. The puzzles and locked doors that are so familiar from escape rooms were fun unto themselves and kept me constantly engaged, but they were simply the framework upon which Lantz and Leinenveber hung Josie’s story, and the combination resulted in a bracing emotional experience full of pain and regret.
It’s a testament not just to the narrative contained on the tapes, but to the storytelling done by the physical space itself — something that the creators’ work as Imagineers made them particularly suited for. “We are most confident in being set designers, and creating the set,” Leinenveber explains. “We wanted the set to be able to inform the story just as much as the writing.”
“We wanted the set to inform the story just as much as the writing.”
That approach is felt throughout the show. A set of old high school lockers that play an important puzzle-solving role evoke Josie’s internal angst and struggles with self-confidence, while a hidden space discovered towards the end reveals the single-minded obsession that overtook her in the wake of a particularly tragic personal loss. It’s not design for the sake of design; it’s character and story, expressed through physical objects the audience can touch and feel.
“There is a big difference between working at Imagineering and working on a small show like this,” Lantz says. “At Imagineering, when we decide what story we want to tell, we decide exactly what we want, we draw everything, and then we produce everything that we draw. And of course everything’s custom, and everything's millions and millions of dollars.” Working on an indie show, he says, requires working with found objects that can be discovered at estate sales or auctions, leading to a process of investigation and iteration that in the case of The Nest ended up transforming the story itself.
The lockers that I found so pivotal are perhaps the best example. “We went to this auction, and they happened to have a couple of sets of high school lockers,” Leinenveber explains. “That wasn't on our list of things to buy for the show. But when we came across them and they were the right price, we thought, ‘We need to get these, and we'll figure out a way to incorporate these into the show.’ Now I can't imagine the show without it.”
That combination of scrappy invention and high-end expertise is vital to the success of The Nest. And much like a blockbuster Hollywood filmmaker making an indie film in order to take some creative risks, building their own smaller shows allows both Leinenveber and Lantz to experiment in ways they can’t while working on big-budget theme parks.
“We've learned so much from Imagineering that applies to shows of any scale. Guest flow, operations; that's something we have to think about every day,” says Lantz. But those large-scale projects bring with them the stakes of large-scale investment. Scout Expedition Co., on the other hand, is a creative playground without any expectations but their own.
“We want to use that opportunity to take big risks.”
Leinenveber puts it best. “We want to use that opportunity to take big risks,” he says, and the constant sell-outs The Nest has been enjoying point to it paying off. (Tickets for the show’s recent June extension disappeared in less than 20 minutes, with the final July extension going on sale next month.) But it’s also a reminder of how nascent so many immersive mediums actually are. Escape rooms may be popping up everywhere, but creatively they’re still in their infancy, with endless undiscovered potential for creative exploration and new modes of storytelling. The Nest reveals one new direction to go in, but there are countless other avenues for creators to walk down and explore.
Scout Expedition Co., however, is already looking beyond The Nest’s unique audio drama-meets-escape room format. “We have lots of ideas for shows in the future, and they run the gamut in terms of style,” Lantz says. “We have ideas for Halloween stuff, of course, because it’s Los Angeles and you have to have a Halloween show. We also really want to focus on doing stuff that's more accessible to a wider audience.” They ultimately consider their work immersive theater, he says, which despite increasing visibility is still a niche format. “How do we expand that? How do you crack a more mainstream audience for this sort of thing?”
“We want to totally flip the script every time — or at least take a left turn,” adds Leinenveber. “If right now we don't have any actors, maybe next time we do. Or maybe next time it's a large-scale show with a bigger group. We just want to keep challenging ourselves.”
Tickets for the July run of The Nest will be available on June 18th at 3PM ET / 12PM PT. Presales will be available through the show’s newsletter.