It can be easy to forget how much work goes into putting on a play, so I was eager to get behind the scenes for the upcoming NNT Fringe show The Escape Room. Written and directed by Emma Collingwood, it is loosely based on the existentialist play No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre. The play leans into this philosophical edge, exploring ground-breaking ideas about the self in relation to society. The three characters trapped onstage are forced into ‘moments of introspection that they would rather not face’.
I was certainly unsure of what I would find while observing the cast and crew getting ready to rehearse. Upon arriving, however, I was immediately struck by how evidently close and hardworking the team was.
Emma was busy, delegating, and organising. Publicity Assistant Nicola Lang updated the NNT Instagram, as Hair and Makeup Artist Aimee Donaghy transformed each actor into their character. Emily Grote, Assistant Producer and Director, was cool and collected as preparations for the evening began. The cast, consisting of Alice Martin, playing Beatrice, Georgia Barnwell as Marion, Luwa Adebanjo as Host, and Jack Linley as Roger, were at ease as they got into character.
I appreciated the chance to chat with the cast and crew, finding out what the weeks prior to curtains up had entailed.
“The cast were at ease as they got into character…”
Emma: Collaboration has been a big part of it. The little details are a lot, the little things that always come up are things you have to deal with, but this chaos feeds into the play.
The Escape Room is the penultimate performance in this season of NNT’s Fringe, and also the biggest Fringe play so far, despite only having four cast members.
Emma: We’ve had a lot of one person plays, a lot of monologues. But it’s nice to have a bigger cast because it means you can do more things with the play and the space.
The rehearsal was taking place that night in Studio A, a claustrophobic room at the back of the theatre. Despite this, Emma clearly viewed it as a blessing in disguise.
Does your adaption play into the recent popularity of escape rooms at all?
Emma: A little bit. As you can tell the set is quite plain, which is probably not what you’d expect. However, there are some gimmicks, let’s say, that relate to the escape rooms you see in popular culture. But the main idea of the room concept came from Sartre’s No Exit, with this concept of three people who essentially don’t get along, being trapped in a room together, and how those dynamics play out.
You have a thrust stage, the audience sat on three sides, and just one door, which mimics how an escape room works. I suppose you have to both imagine the confined space, the feeling of entrapment, as well as physically create it.
Emma: Which is why doing the play in a relatively small studio works quite well. I don’t think we would’ve had the same effect if this has been an in-house show. It does feel quite confined and with the audience coming into the room for our pre-set by walking across the stage, hopefully that will make them feel a part of this confinement.
“The main idea of the room concept came from Sartre’s No Exit, with this concept of three people who essentially don’t get along, being trapped in a room together.”
One way in, one way out.
Emma: Exactly, exactly! Everyone’s quite close together in here, and we have the audience at the sides, so it’s like the audience members are the walls, essentially. And that’s how the characters will respond to them, as if they’re not there, as if they are walls. The audience are just silent spectators to this entrapment.
The play covers an array of topics and poses some big questions about morality and mortality. Realising such existential themes on the stage seemed a challenge for both the crew and the audience, but Emma was assured that it would work out.
Emma: I think the most accessible thing about the play is the characterisation, and the way that the characters develop on stage. They are people you can sympathise with but are also people you love to hate. I think everyone can get on board with that.
[To Alice, Georgia, Luwa, and Jack] Speaking of the characters, what drew you to performing in this production?
Georgia: I really like the play, especially the twists. It’s a cool concept as well. There are other plays like this, but because the characters in this are so in-depth and have so much backstory behind them it makes it really interesting.
Alice: It was interesting being able to perform with the characters learning the backstory as the audience does.
Do you feel like learning the backstory as you went made it difficult to get into character?
Alice: It was definitely interesting doing our first run-throughs. Of course, I had read the script before we did it scene-by-scene, but until you actually act it you don’t fully get what’s going on. So it’s curious to see how the first couple of scenes changed once we’d done the last scenes, you know, once we understood where we needed to get to.
Emily: I’d say that the interaction between the characters is really crucial as well. I won’t tell you exactly why, but I think you need to go through the whole play to then work out those relationships, and then go back to the beginning.
How did you approach playing a ‘love to hate character’? Is it enjoyable?
Jack: For me it’s quite different because I’ve mainly played heroic characters. (laughter) It’s a challenge. It allows you to tap into things. You get to extend your range, develop how much of the character is very much you.
Alice: You just sort of experiment and find out what feels right. For the first two thirds my character is fairly similar to a lot of stuff that I’ve done before. But that just makes the last third so much fun.
“I think you need to go through the whole play to then work out those relationships, and then go back to the beginning.”
[To Emma] How did you approach writing the play?
Emma: It took about three days to write the first half before submitting the proposal. Fringe shows tend to be shorter, so you can write it in a shorter amount of time. But I found out after I submitted it that the rest of the student-written plays weren’t complete either, which made me think that I could slow down a bit.
So it wasn’t a long-winded, meditative process?
Emma: No, it took about a week to write. But you can feel that tension come through in the play.
What was the biggest challenge you faced being the writer and director?
Emma: I think the biggest problem for me was having this idea in my head and having on paper, and then when it came to doing it physically there were a few things I realised didn’t work so well in practice. (laughs) Overcoming those obstacles is all part of the rehearsals, seeing what works and what doesn’t. The good thing was that because this is a student-written play, we could change things. I gave the actors the ability to edit lines if they wanted to. It’s all about teamwork.
Luwa: It’s weird for me as the ‘host’ of the escape room, because I’ve watched the play so many times since I’m in it fairly briefly, so I relate to the characters. I feel bad for them, but then my character obviously doesn’t because she’s the host of this room. It’s a bit hard getting on stage and being this bubbly host for this thing that’s depressing.
It must be a nice jarring effect, though?
Luwa: Yeah! It’s very jarring.
Emily: It works really well, I’ve found.
Emma: The host is very different from the other three characters. She’s on a different level to everyone else. She seems to have a lot of information that the others don’t, and she gives off the appearance of really knowing what she’s doing and being very comfortable where she is. Because of that, she doesn’t come across as completely human. There are definitely traits within her character which are unnerving and almost robotic.
You must have a lot of freedom when it comes to exploring these ideas, then.
Emma: Creatively speaking, yes, you have a lot of freedom. You still have to address any welfare issues, but otherwise you’re very free.
“The audience will definitely connect to it.”
You’ve all mentioned how this is meant to be an unnerving play. If you had to summarise The Escape Room in three words, what would they be?
Alice: Two words—messed up.
Georgia: Three words—thoroughly messed up.
Luwa: You can’t leave? (laughter)
Alice: There’s no exit?
Georgia: I think you could use, like fifteen words, and not capture it.
Emily: It’s a very raw performance. There’s both the natural and the unnatural. The audience will definitely connect to it.
The Escape Room is showing Sunday 2nd December 5:30pm, Monday 3rd December 7:30pm, and Tuesday 4th December 7:30pm. Capacity has been increased due to high demand, with extra tickets available on the door for all three shows.
Featured image courtesy of Amy Crighton.
Article images courtesy of Naomi James.
Image use licence here.