FOR: SAN DIEGO JEWISH JOURNAL
The La Jolla Playhouse hosts another site-specific charmer
Shhhhh . It’s a secret. Nobody knows where it starts or who’s involved. But you’re welcome to be a co-conspirator.
“ACCOMPLICE: San Diego” is part game, part scavenger hunt, part walking tour, part immersive, interactive theater experience. And all mystery.
Tom Salamon , who created the concept with his sister, Betsy Salamon-Sufott , isn’t giving much away. But the show has been a big hit in five other places: two areas in New York, where it’s been running since 2005, as well as in Hollywood, London and, briefly, at the Museum of Natural History (New York).
The most important instructions to potential accomplices are: “Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut!”
“It’s all shrouded in mystery !, ” Salamon exclaims as disclaimer. He remains cryptic, he insists, to preserve the intrigue and excitement.
“The audience is a major part of the story,” he says, “passing off messages and packages. When you put ten people together to have this kind of experience, anything can happen. There are different group dynamics, different strengths emerge. Some want to interact more than others. Some want to lead. We give enough for everyone to participate. We want everyone to have a unique, intimate experience.”
So, what exactly is the experience, and how did it all begin?
Salamon was born in New York and grew up (and was Bar Mitzvahed ) just north of the City, in Westchester County. He was initially “the black sheep of the family. Now,” he exults, “I’m the prodigy!”
It all started in 2004, when the Salamon family went on “an immigrants’ walking tour” of the Lower East Side. They were shown the Jewish section, the Italian section, “ the original pickle guy.”
It was, Salamon recalls, “very interesting, historical. All the neighborhoods had changed dramatically, of course, but there were still some remnants. My sister and I started talking about it a couple of days later. We thought a really fun way to experience all these places might be through a story rather than a guide.
“We worked on the idea for three or four months and launched a trial run for her 40th birthday. We had four or five different small groups, starting out a half-hour apart. We cast it through Craig’s List, built all the crude props by hand, and created this game with a story line. Everyone had an amazing time. Some of the elements in the New York shows (“ACCOMPLICE: New York” and “ACCOMPLICE: The Village”) remain the same as when we started. Some of them are in the San Diego version. But others had to change.”
At first, the Salamons made use of the subway, “but there was no way to gauge the timing.” There was also a scene set up in Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library.
“We took a book out of the library, something obscure, on the 6th floor. We wrote three words on page 196, in the upper left corner. And the participants were led to this via a recording that told them, “Go to the 6th floor. At your knees, there’s a book…” But by the fifth time, library personnel were getting suspicious. There was no way we could keep that up!”
But the idea of a mystery to solve, doling out clues to the participants, remained. And the locations got more and more interesting.
They rented a Manhattan mini-storage facility and gave people electronic keys and the combinations to locks. What they found within was a suitcase filled with body parts. There are surprising locations in Chinatown and Little Italy.
“Everyone was so enthusiastic. They saw places they’d never seen before, they had to figure out the mystery. The actors were great and the participants got fooled by them again and again. It was, many people said, one of their most fun days of New York City life.”
The Salamons kept refining the concept and details. They amped up the production values. Once they began running every week, the press started getting in on the act. And they loved it.
“The coolest thing we’ve heard about in a long time,” crowed CNN. “Genius – leaves even jaded New Yorkers seeing the city like never before,” said Fox 5. “An essential experience for natives, long-time residents and out-of-towners alike,” said Flavorpill .
When actor/singer/director Neil Patrick Harris experienced the show in New York, he was smitten, enthusiastically bringing the idea to Hollywood and London, serving as co-producer.
After eight years and five venues (not to mention private and corporate parties), ACCOMPLICE has become a full-time job for Tom Salamon and his sister. She’s holding down the fort in New York, while he’s out here, scoping out locations, adapting the story, hiring actors, directing and otherwise getting ready for the latest city to get on the ACCOMPLICE bandwagon, at the invitation of the La Jolla Playhouse, as part of its WoW ( WithOutWalls ) program of site-specific productions.
If you’re lucky, you’ve experienced the prior WoW experiments in experiential theater: “Susurrus,” haunting music, story and a tour through the San Diego Botanic Garden; the fabulous, unique “Car Plays: San Diego,” each performed in the front seat of a parked vehicle, with two audience onlookers in the back; and “ Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir ,” staged as a cabaret act in an actual cabaret venue.
The San Diego Edition
The local locale for ACCOMPLICE will be Little Italy. It’ll start with a call to your cellphone, disclosing a secret meeting-place. Then, you and nine others (friends or strangers) will be sent on a mission, bolstered by clues and assisted by an odd assortment of local characters lurking in bars, on street corners, in restaurants, shops and out-of-the-way spots. (It may be hard to tell the actors from the Real Thing).
As you walk from place to place, you become part of the story, helping to propel the action, an accessory to a nefarious crime. The whole deal takes 2½ hours and includes about a mile of walking, with minimal stairs and unpaved pathways. You’re advised to wear comfortable clothes. Along the way, you might stop for a nosh and a drink.
“It’s designed for locals,” says Salamon . “They’ll very likely see things they haven’t seen before. That makes it a three-way win: for us, the audience and the venues.”
The Little Italy Association was happy to become a community partner. “Our neighborhood is made up of art galleries, public art, restaurants, shops and so much more,” says Marco LiMandri , Chief Administrative Office for the Association. “We’re proud to be able to host a performing art exhibition like this. It’s phenomenal. Everyone is excited.”
The casting is, of course, not made public. “It’s mostly local,” is all Salamon will say. “They’re fantastic.”
The proceedings are part scripted, part improvisational. As for the plot, here’s all he’ll reveal:
“The audience is aiding and abetting a big, meticulously plotted crime by a bunch of parolees, from a crime syndicate. If you’re adventurous, you’ll get into it. People who are drawn to the show are usually outgoing, and looking for out-of-the-box experiences. They’ll have a good, fun, campy time.” Oh, and by the way, he mentions, there is no murder involved.
There are a couple of caveats, however. You have to have a cellphone, for one. And you have to sign a waiver before you begin the experience. It’s recommended that 10-15 year olds be accompanied by parents. “If your child is below the age of 10,” says the funny/snarky website ( www.accomplicetheshow.com ), “do you really want them exposed to a life of crime at such an impressionable age? Having said that, if you have a child that’s particularly sharp and can keep his or her mouth shut, bring ‘ em along. Just don’t be upset at the innocence lost.”
Innocence Lost ?
So why was Tom Salamon the “black sheep” of the family, you may ask. Well, for starters, his father is a psychiatrist, his mother a social worker at a women’s health clinic. One sister is an obstetrician; another, a social worker (that’s Betsy, his collaborator). And he went to Penn State to study filmmaking. Even less aligned with the medically-oriented family, he started out as a musician, with a passion for guitar, bass and piano. He did some composing. He was in a rock band. Then he got into film post-production in New York, designing the color and look of music videos, TV shows and commercials. In the midst of all this came that immigrants’ walking tour. And the dark horse became a champion.
Now, the Salamon sibs have a staff and a slick website and lots of media requests. In off-hours, they’re busy considering “other outside-the-box theatrical experiences.”
Will we get to see Salamon himself during “ACCOMPLICE: San Diego?”
“You might meet me; you never know.” There’s just one thing he’s definitive and unambiguous about: “If you’re willing to take the leap, you’ll have a ball!”
“ACCOMPLICE: SAN DIEGO” runs through April 14, in Little Italy. Performances begin every half hour, Thursdays and Fridays from 4:40-7:00pm, and Saturday and Sundays from 1:00-5:00pm Tickets are $35-45. For the inside scoop, contact the La Jolla Playhouse, 858-550-1010, www.lajollaplyhouse.org
©2013 PAT LAUNER