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Hollow Hotel (c) Ali Wright

The Hollow Hotel – An Interview with producer Katherine Webb

21 April 2018 Suzanne Frost

DifferencENGINE, the company that brought us the sell-out immersive experience Heist and led the People’s Revolt at the Tower of London, are gearing up for a new project blending immersive theatre and escape room challenges: The Hollow Hotel is an interactive psychological horror that draws inspiration from the historical events surrounding America’s first and most terrifying serial killer – H. H. Holmes – the man whose preferred instrument of murder was a hotel. London Calling got a tour of the set with producer Katharine Webb to talk about the millions things that go into creating immersive experiences.

London Calling: Talk us through the steps of creating a new immersive adventure!
Katherine Webb: A lot of our work takes place in disused warehouses or buildings that are waiting for development so first we do a lot of site visits and look around buildings. When we find a building that looks right, we always design our work around the building on offer for multiple reasons: Firstly, we want to respect the building and the less work we have to do to it, the easier our lives are. On this particular project the Biscuit Factory in Bermondsey is a great location, and there were already a lot of rooms here so it lends itself quite well to being a hotel. Then we start thinking about the creative part. What is the unique side of the show, how does it differentiate itself from everything else and what excites us about that? We've come up with a concept, we’ve managed to secure a building, we now need to go raise the funds.

Hollow Hotel - (c) Ali Wright

LC: You have to set up multiple rooms not just one stage.
KW: Immersive theatre is very expensive to create. It’s a living set. The audience members are living within that world, they get to touch things, they sometimes break things. Maintenance costs are high and the sets have to be built in as robust a manner as possible. We start talking to set designers about the image we have in our minds, the style that we are looking for and then the rollercoaster begins. Key set items are sourced but show specific items have to be made. The pictures in the hotel rooms we had specifically designed and created for the show. They are important for the story but it is also about adding these touches that are unique so it doesn’t look like an IKEA show room. It’s all about the little details. People are in the rooms, they will explore everything, they will take apart the sofa, take the mattresses off the beds looking for something underneath it they need to find. Immersive audiences and even more so escape the room audiences are people that throw themselves in, they are not afraid or holding back.
 
LC: How are you organising the timing?
KW: Currently we have four audience time slots an evening and they overlap, before the first group have come out the second will have gone in. So in terms of the logistics of running the show it’s very challenging. You have to reset, go back in and make all the beds, put back any props they have moved. Our stage management team are doing the resets and also live directing the show with the performers so their call schedule for the show is exceptionally detailed.
 
LC: Are you following the action with cameras?
KW: There are CCTV cameras but in all of our shows we want to integrate technology into the storyline. We try to do it seamlessly. There is a purpose for it in the storyline, it makes sense. All the hotel rooms have telephones that audiences can engage with. They might answer the phone and hear screaming on the other end or have a conversation with the murderer. We use everyday technology. There’s nothing worse than wanting to get a full experience from something you signed up for and getting frustrated with technology that doesn’t work or you don’t understand. The CCTV enables the stage management team to do the resets, follow the audience and make sure the timings are being kept, but it’s also a security measure.

 Hollow Hotel - (c) Ali Wright

LC: There’s been a lot of talk recently within immersive practise about security measures.
KW: Not just for performers but also for audience members. Because we are encouraging them to be in this world and you do to touch people instinctively, there’s an ever-growing concern for the safety of performers so the CCTV enables us to keep an eye out for that and intervene if necessary.  We have a very strict no touching policy, our performers know not to touch audience members, they can hold out a hand, suggest an invitation but they will never physically touch someone and we hope the message comes across ‘We are not touching you, please don’t touch us.’
 
LC: The scarier the show, the more important security becomes. And The Hollow Hotel looks set to be very scary!
KW: This show is very much psychological horror rather than a horror house.  But different people have different scare levels so we can’t say that nothing will make you jump.
 
LC: What is the basic storyline?
KW: You have checked in to a hotel. You are aware that it has been under renovation recently, the reasons for the hotel closing are very ambiguous, nobody has really explained why. There have been a few rumours but it’s all very hush hush, which is a little bit weird. You are shown into your room and that’s where things start to go a little less ordinary: You may turn on the television, you may be able to see things from other hotel rooms, the channels may not be what you’d usually expect in a hotel. You may find that you are unable to get out of your hotel room. Subsequently there are things you can engage with in your room, like the phone, and these elements suggest to you that something isn’t right. Should you find a way out of your room, you are encouraged to go further into the hotel. You become aware that you are being taunted by someone and they are giving you games that are life or death. Will you complete this challenge? Or will you not? If you don’t complete this challenge you die. You encounter different characters you can interact with, you may meet the murderer, you may enter rooms that are somewhat disturbing. We have 10 hotel rooms in total, 9 for audiences and there’s another 12 rooms in what we refer to as the bowels of the hotel. The set is quite large and very very intricate.

 Hollow Hotel - (c) Ali Wright

LC: How do you make sure the audience follows the dramatic structure you have set up? How can you control that unknown factor of audience behaviour?
KW: There are different routes but they are generally set. A lot of the rooms are interconnecting so your way forward is the only one way you can go. It’s also how a killer would control a trap. It’s a balance between audience agency, what they want to do and giving them freedom to achieve something, and wanting both sides to have the same goals. With the work we do, there is often choice involved and we started to realise that if you give audiences choices they have to be meaningful in some shape or form. It has to matter, it has to be reflected back somewhere in the work which is what makes them the hero of the piece. So it’s really about us anticipating what the audience wants to do and prepare for a myriad of possibilities. But there’s a limited subtext, there’s failure success and the spectrum in between. We are trying to make sure that if you fail it will be the most glorious failure.
 
LC: When you say failure you mean death?
KW: Yes. But even if you die, the dead have an entire journey to go on as well. It’s not like your experience is finished, go back to the bar. There is a whole story for the dead and they can then play with people who are still living and have fun with that and still make choices.
 
The Hollow Hotel officially opens on 17 April and will currently take bookings until 17 June. Tickets are £44.67.
 
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