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A performer who has branched out into the escape-room business has brought one to this year’s Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival to see if fringe-goers can solve his puzzles and crack his codes.

Richard Maritzer, who plays Cyranose de Bivouac in the outlandish comedy Sound & Fury’s Cyranose at the West End Cultural Centre (Venue 20) for all 10 evenings of the fringe fest, has also set up The Speakeasy from his company, Escape Room Treasure Hunt, at the WECC. Sessions run until Saturday, July 28.

Maritzer got into the escape-room business about three years ago; he had tried several and figured he could create a better experience. He took them on the road when Sound & Fury went to perform at fringe festivals in Australia and they were so successful, he moved from Los Angeles to Houston to set up a permanent business in the Lone Star State.

A second business, to go along with acting, became an economic necessity, Maritzer says. When L.A.’s Sound & Fury first made their way to the Winnipeg fringe, Canada’s loonie and the U.S. greenback were roughly at par, so producing and acting in fringe shows was a solid financial business for American actors. But these days, with Canada’s dollar worth a paltry 76 cents when converted to the U.S. buck, many fringe performers are resorting to acting in two or three different shows, or in Maritzer’s case, introducing a new side business, to make up the slack.

Sound & Fury also performs at fringe festivals in Australia, and the low exchange rate with the dollar Down Under provides similar difficulties, he says.

"When we do Sound & Fury shows, whatever money we’d make we’d divide by three and we were still doing all right," Maritzer says, recalling those heady days when the dollar was worth a dollar. "When the exchange rate dropped, we all needed to find other things to make it profitable, because we wouldn’t make enough money just doing Sound & Fury."

On previous fringe stops in Winnipeg, Maritzer noticed how many escape-room businesses there are and figured the city would be ready for a two-week taste of his puzzler, which is set in Prohibition-era Manhattan.

"It’s been doing great here. I’ve been telling people what I’ve noticed about Winnipeg is the only thing they like more than escape rooms are Slurpees," Maritzer jokes. "They’re definitely some good ones in Winnipeg, and they’re a lot of fun."

The Speakeasy escape room is set in Manhattan during the Prohibition era.</p>

The Speakeasy escape room is set in Manhattan during the Prohibition era.

The Speakeasy isn’t an official fringe show and isn’t found in the festival program. He wanted it to be included, but since he charges $20 per person, plus tax, to take part in the escape room — more than a regular fringe show — and he holds more than one escape room showing a day, The Speakeasy falls outside the regulations set up by the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals, a non-profit umbrella group that oversees Canada’s fringe festivals.

"I’ve been wanting to bring one to Winnipeg for a couple of years now," Maritzer says. "When I can only put eight or 10 people at a time in a room once a day, it wouldn’t be profitable in the Canadian fringe system."

Maritzer says he usually sets up his escape rooms so that 18 to 20 per cent of participants can succeed; he figures Winnipeggers are cracking his puzzles at a 25 per cent rate during the festival. He assumes that’s due to the popularity of escape rooms in the city.

"A significant proportion of the people who’ve been showing up have been doing more than five, more than 10, some more than 15, not just in Winnipeg but in travelling," he says. "Everywhere else I go it’s 80 per cent their first time doing one. And Winnipeg is exactly the opposite."

Maritzer enjoys the group dynamic that’s revealed when participants are holed up in the escape room, trying to figure their way out using the clues provided.

"From my perspective, I love watching people do them," he says. "They’re a lot of fun to create, and they’re fun to run, but it’s really fun watching groups get together, especially if they don’t know each other.

"It’s one thing if you get 10 people who are all friends; they all have their pecking order as friends. But if you get three groups of two... and they all have to work together as a team, it’s exciting to watch people on their best behaviour, and because they don’t have a pecking order... it’s almost a dance. Is someone going to take the lead, or not?

"Ninety per cent of the time when you throw disparate people together, they work together really well."

alan.small@freepress.mb.ca Twitter:@AlanDSmall


Alan Small

Alan Small

Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.

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