Prohibition Lives in New Boxcar Production

by Jean Schiffman

"The Speakeasy" invites audiences into a meta-theatrical world.

Imagine this: You, an audience member, time-travel to a 1920s San Francisco speakeasy that’s teeming with life. You move individually and freely throughout a multi-room venue to follow characters and threads of storyline, to watch vaudeville acts in the cabaret (perhaps from the mezzanine), to stumble upon a temperance meeting, to play roulette, craps or blackjack in the casino or simply to buy a cocktail at the bar and observe this unfamiliar, meta-theatrical world.

"The Speakeasy" is Boxcar Theatre’s most ambitious endeavor yet; it is an immersive, historically precise, site-specific experience that is unique. Cofounder/artistic director Nick A. Olivero, in trying to describe that experience, starts by explaining what "The Speakeasy" is not.

It is not, for example, "Tony ’n ’ Tina’s Wedding," a nationally popular improvised show. Olivero hired actors--about 35 of them--not improv artists.

Nor is it murder-mystery dinner theater, or a haunted house, although it encompasses a total indoor environment in which you can imagine that the characters you see are ghosts of long-gone bootleggers and bouncers, war veterans, barflies, out-of-town customers and neighborhood regulars, all of whom might have lingered here if this had indeed been a speakeasy in 1923.

While the expansive Boxcar production has all the accoutrements of a stage play--compact script, storyline, content, characters, period sets, costumes, song and recorded music--it is also an interactive theatrical installation with participatory activities and lowbrow entertainment. Ultimately it is a dramatic, experiential look at various aspects of the period between the end of World War I and the beginning of the Great Depression, during which Prohibition was the law of the land.

Upon entering the secret venue that’s hidden behind an old clock shop in the Civic Center area (you’ll be given instructions and password by text message or email, one of the show’s few nods to the 21st century), you find yourself in a dimly lit bar: faded Persian carpets, wall sconces, a red velvet curtain, Tiffany lamps, an old brocade sofa, an upright piano on a platform. You’ll eavesdrop on overlapping conversations, including one between a shell-shocked war veteran and his buddy and another between a couple in San Francisco from the "farmland"--faraway Concord. From this point on, things get increasingly layered as the storyline progresses and as you wander from room to room. You’ll peek at the chorus girls in their dressing room through a one-way mirror, step into hidden rooms, poke into closets, nooks and crannies. Although the show’s overall length is 3 ½ hours, you can arrive at any time, leave early or stay for the after-party until 1 a.m.

The scripted action in "The Speakeasy" takes place one time only and then moves forward. No one patron can ever see the entire show in one evening. "But," says Olivero, who describes himself as nerdish and scientific about the whole carefully calibrated project, "we try to divide the themes [time and fortune] and ideas among all the characters, so you still have an overarching journey that’s similar for everyone [in the audience]; everyone goes through a past, present and future.

"It’s kind of fitting that the show is about time, and we have to have the show run on time in multiple areas simultaneously," he adds. "Every second counts." Although actors do break the fourth wall intermittently throughout the night to interact with audience members, the players control the scenes and stick to the precision timing. Multiple climaxes and denouements occur throughout the evening, with multiple "endings" for different characters--each of whom, upon exiting, is going somewhere specific, a "somewhere" that must coincide with where the rest of this fictional world is at that moment.

Olivero, who founded Boxcar in 2005 with Peter Matthews, conceived of this theatrical event before the recent film "The Great Gatsby" and the current infatuation with the roaring ’20s. He’d long admired such big-idea theatrical auteurs as Frank Galati, and likes "pretty pictures," and surrealism ("I’m a Magritte fan") as well as Norman Rockwell. He became especially excited about experiential, or immersive, theater, and has produced many site-specific shows.

Over the years, his concept for "The Speakeasy" evolved organically, getting bigger and bigger in terms of production elements and yet more and more specific as to story and characters, with theme and content coalescing. Through long brainstorming sessions and storyboarding as in film preparation, Olivero and a writing team of seven--including head writer Barry Eitel, Olivero and the codirector, Peter Ruocco--fleshed out the characters. "It can’t be superficial," explains Olivero. He aimed to pinpoint what actually happens, and why we should care about each specific character in the room.

Two dramaturgs studied the era extensively--from watching Ken Burns’ 2011 documentary "Prohibition" to researching San Francisco speakeasies specifically. Music director Grace Renaud and choreographer Kelsey Bergstrom looked up the music and dance styles of the era. Old Sears Roebuck catalogues were perused. The team examined gender issues and race relations--what was the attitude toward Chinese immigrants in San Francisco?--as well as era-specific language. Events from the year 1923 are referenced throughout, but with artistic license as to the literal dates of those events.

Music is from the era, but not necessarily the orchestrations themselves--some of those come from later renditions, as rerecorded by singers like Sinatra or Crosby; Olivero wanted versions with more upbeat tempos than the slower tempos common to the ’20s.

"Nick has always had these crazy visions, and he always pulls them off," comments codirector Ruocco, who is also a Bay Area actor. Even if the idea for "The Speakeasy" sounded impossible to achieve, Ruocco was sure Olivero could make it happen.

One of the challenges to the project, says Ruocco, is to rethink the entire theatrical experience. "There are characters, and they have lives, they’re going after something," he explains. "It’s about trying to understand these humans and what they’re going through. . . . [But] then how do you craft the complete experience when the perspective keeps changing? How much are we going to demand the audience’s attention at any particular moment? Or how much are we going to let the atmosphere exist naturally with these characters in it? They’re just here--but from another time, sharing the space. . . . The idea is that there are spirits inhabiting the space and we happen to witness them because of this special journey we’re taking."

Olivero has spent a lot of time thinking about how audiences will respond, crafting the show as though it were a science project, considering all the variables involved. "The audience has to be respected," he asserts. "And that’s this other element that changes the show--the impact of the audience on the material."

Secret location, Jan. 10-Mar. 15.