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Meet Matthew Bamberg-Johnson of The Speakeasy Society

Today we’d like to introduce you to Matthew Bamberg-Johnson.

Matthew, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I moved to Los Angeles in 2010 to go to grad school at CalArts, where I earned my MFA in acting. Prior to moving to LA, I had studied experimental performance at Trinity College in Hartford, CT., where I learned about the “Happenings” of Black Mountain College and focused my thesis work on the ways in which our brains evolve through the process of experiencing more complex non-linear narratives.

While I was studying at CalArts, I met the two other Artistic Directors of The Speakeasy Society, Genevieve Gearhart and Julianne Just. We bonded over the fact that we were interested in staging our class exercises in non-traditional spaces- the areas outside of the theater were more compelling than the stage itself. We knew we were interested in creating site-specific immersive and experiential work for Los Angeles but were unsure about the market for this type of material. After a trip to New York, where we saw “Sleep No More,” we understood the vast potential the medium of immersive theater has to reach a broad spectrum of patrons.

In a fabulous entrepreneurship class that we took during our MFA program, Julianne and Genevieve developed the idea of creating an immersive entertainment company for Los Angeles. I was thrilled with the idea that this work could be made in LA, and offered to help in any way I could. They were kind enough to invite me along for the ride! We chose the name “The Speakeasy Society” because we wanted to create work that hid below the surface of our everyday existence, revealing worlds that our guests never would have thought possible.

We launched our first official show as The Speakeasy Society in 2012, Since then we’ve created 18 original pieces for audiences of 1 to 150. We’ve worked in Mausoleums and Masonic Lodges, Back Yards, Bars, and Churches.

When I’m not working at my day job, auditioning, or helping to run The Speakeasy Society, I also work as a part of LEIA (The League of Experiential and Immersive Artists)- we’re a service organization dedicated to provide education, resources, and advocacy for the immersive community.

Has it been a smooth road?
We’ve enjoyed every step of the way, but it hasn’t always been easy. We all balance other jobs in addition to our work for the company- I run a Performing Arts Department for ISANA Academies, a series of free public charter schools spanning from Burbank to Compton. This work with underserved youth is incredibly rewarding, but exhausting!

One particular challenge of creating site-specific work in Los Angeles is that so many interesting locations in the city are also in demand for film shoots. This means that there can be a fair amount of insecurity in the production process, as it always feels like someone with more money and clout can swoop in and take space from you. (I’ve seen this occur midway through a production’s run). That being said, the city is filled with so many unique and amazing gems.

Another challenge that has also been an amazing opportunity is cultivating a rapidly growing audience who are coming to immersive theater from every conceivable direction… If you walk into one of our shows having only gone to Escape Rooms in the past, we want you to make sure that you feel prepared for the ways in which our work is different from what you’re used to. It’s always a challenge to help guests feel as prepared as possible for what they’re walking into- we want everyone to have a good time!

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into The Speakeasy Society story. Tell us more about the business.
The Speakeasy Society is an LA-based immersive entertainment company creating intimate and epic experiences in unexpected places.

We create 360-degree worlds providing escape through total engagement – crafting a shared experience where audience interaction becomes a vital aspect of the performance.

I think that our work has two particular strengths that we often hear guests talking about.

The first is the strength of our writing. Our Associate Artistic Director, Chris Porter, leads our writing team, and we are constantly in awe of his ability to weave rich narrative landscapes that all of our performers feel privileged to bring to life.

The second is the strength of our actors, and particularly their skill at being present with guests in emotional moments. Immersive/Interactive is a messy form, and as a performer, you have to be hyper-aware of the guest in a way that stage or film actors don’t. The guest is essentially another scene partner, and you have to balance the need to help them feel seen, heard, and honored, with your need to tell a compelling and cohesive story- sometimes those two priorities contradict each other.

I think our actors are so strong in part because we have been working with some of them for the last nine years (many of our most frequent performers are also CalArts Grads) and we have developed a bit of a shorthand language with some incredibly talented individuals.

How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
We’re very excited about the many possibilities for immersive creators in the coming years.

One huge change that we’re seeing now is many major brands choosing to use Immersive entertainment as a component of their advertising campaigns- (see the South by Southwest “Westworld” activation for an incredible example of these techniques at work) which is helping to drive awareness of the form as a whole.

We’re also seeing other companies blending live performers with augmented reality or virtual reality environments- these technologies are still developing, but there is already incredible work being done (see Chained: A Victorian Nightmare)

Ultimately, we think that a big part of what drives people’s interest in Immersive Entertainment is the visceral engagement with story and character. So much of our life is delivered through a screen, and while technology also provides us with fantastic tools for the imagination, we also crave face to face interactions with real humans who are guiding us in experiences that extend well beyond the scope of our daily lives.

Pricing:

  • Ticket prices range between $20 and $100
  • Price determined by length and complexity of experience

Contact Info:

  • Address: 4414 Brunswick Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90039
  • Website: www.speakeasysociety.com
  • Phone: 8608471098
  • Email: knockknock@speakeasysociety.com

Image Credit:
Andrew Wofford, Sara Martin, Chelsea Curtis, Daniel Kleen

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