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Escape Room

ONU thespians stage creative problem-solving endeavor

The play has ended. Its star, a beautiful actress named Vivian, graces the stage for her final bow. An adoring audience erupts in raucous applause at the sight of her. Suddenly, she jolts forward and stumbles to her knees. There is a gasp from the crowd as she falls lifelessly to the stage. The evening has come to an awful and abrupt halt. But the challenge has just begun.

This was the scene that played out before a number of Ohio Northern University students participating in “The Final Bow,” an interactive escape-room activity presented by ONU’s Theta Alpha Phi chapter on campus Feb. 25-26.

All the rage right now, escape rooms are immersive adventure experiences where players are put into a scenario and must try to “escape” the room by following clues and solving a series of puzzles. Theta Alpha Phi, ONU’s chapter of the national theatre honor society, decided to tap into the popularity of this puzzle-solving pursuit for one of its annual fundraisers.

The setting for “The Final Bow” was Stambaugh Studio Theatre in the Freed Center for the Performing Arts. Its premise was that players must solve the murder to escape the room, thereby freeing Vivian’s spirit. After viewing the opening scene portraying the mysterious murder, teams of up to eight people were given 20 minutes to escape the room, using elements of the room to solve a series of puzzles and complete tasks.

The theatre was all decked out with special lighting, props and scenery to set the mood, but this staging wasn’t just for show; each element held distinctive clues for teams to use to escape the room. Another challenging twist to the event was that players were not allowed to bring their cell phones with them, ensuring complete authenticity within the experience.

The motivation for players to participate was their own entertainment, but for senior musical theatre student Alecia Pagnotta, who played Vivian, the entertainment came in watching the teams work together in a collaborative problem-solving effort.

It’s really fun to see people go in there and have to work as a team and see some of the things they’ll come up with trying to problem solve,” Pagnotta says. “I think it’s a really good bonding exercise, and it’s a lot of fun to do with your friends.

A member of Theta Alpha Phi, Pagnotta says the idea for the chapter’s first escape room was borne when they chose to come up with alternatives to their traditional fundraiser, Freed Fright Night, which usually occurs around Halloween. Due to time conflicts with Freed Center events and students’ schedules, the chapter decided to hold off and conduct their fundraiser later in the school year instead. Given the increasing popularity of escape rooms, as well as the theatre department’s flair for the dramatic, it seemed like a perfect fit.

The decision turned out to be the right one, resulting in a successful run far exceeding the chapter’s expectations. Around 16 teams participated, and best of all, everyone had a lot of fun.

Subsequently, the escape room gave ONU’s thespians a chance to do what they do best – stage a production. The entire theatre department had a hand in the event, with everyone pooling together their collective talents in theatre to create an immersive experience for the players. From the carefully crafted storyline to the cleverly arranged scenery to the special lighting effects, everyone’s footprints were apparent in some way.

The chapter was very pleased with the outcome of its new fundraiser, which raised $240 to allow students in the theatre department to travel off campus for auditions. Pagnotta says they plan to hold more escape rooms in the future, perhaps one around Halloween that will add more of a spooky aura.

In the end, when students get the chance to exercise their critical-thinking skills in a fun, creative way, and the theatre department gets to put their skills into action, it’s definitely a win-win situation.