San Franciscans love their immersive experiences. Some people think it’s because of the trite technology-obsessed narrative (“We’re so stuck on our phones, haven’t seen our families in days, etc…”). Personally, I just think everyone’s bound to get bored of their day-to-day lives eventually.
Immersive experiences are supposed to provide escapism. That’s something the Speakeasy tried to do before it stopped its regular production in 2019. The Speakeasy used to be a theatrical bar and show where you could pretend it was the 1920s and speak to actors placed throughout the venue to find out their stories. It was revived momentarily, for two nights during Sketchfest, in collaboration with the popular old time radio-style podcast and staged show The Thrilling Adventure Hour.
This Speakeasy was a bit different from its past self. There was less “choose your own adventure” (as far as I could tell, there were no actors with their own storylines throughout the room) and more opportunities to interact with The Thrilling Adventure Hour actors, like Autumn Reeser and Janet Varney (who also started Sketchfest, super casual, super chill), in office hours. There weren’t any instructions for visitors to dress like it was the 1920s, something that the old Speakeasy used to enforce. The result was a crowded line of 21st Century people lined up next to a mysterious armoire in a 20th Century setting.
You were definitely getting a lot less “immersion” in this format, but the tradeoff for The Thrilling Adventure Hour fans was probably worth it. After all, this Sketchfest event was definitely advertised with the podcast show at its forefront. (Speakeasy fans might have better luck when the immersive show returns for a special Valentine’s Day event.) At the main cabaret stage, Rhett Miller serenaded the crowd with a few songs, Marc Evan Jackson delivered his signature deadpan-esque humor in an episode of Sparks Nevada, and Paul F. Tompkins and Paget Brewster delivered a delightful and heartrending story of Frank and Sadie Doyle, a ghost-hunting couple investigating a haunted hotel.
Collaborative experiences like these serve as clever reminders of how theater can really go beyond the stage — that podcasts don’t have to stay within your Spotify queue. When The Thrilling Adventure Hour and the Speakeasy joined forces, they filled a niche that San Franciscans are constantly looking to expand.
Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.