BROOKSVILLE — Inspired by mysteries and movies, the popularity of escape rooms continues to grow. But local residents generally have to travel elsewhere for the experience.
So when friends and colleagues Lori Erickson and Rebecca Pusta went to an escape room together over the summer, the two local high school theater teachers hatched a plan.
"We really thought we could do this," said Erickson, theater teacher at Nature Coast Technical High School. "We thought this could seriously be a lot of fun for the community … and give our students a different kind of performing experience."
The result of their collaboration is "To Escape or Not to Escape!" — Hernando County's first escape room event — which will be Sept. 15 and 16 at the Black Box Theatre at Nature Coast Technical High.
Escape rooms are interactive experiences where groups of participants are "locked" in a room and have 60 minutes to find all of the clues, solve the puzzles and ultimately free themselves. This event will feature three original, interactive rooms from which to choose:
• "The Show Must Go On!" The stage manager needs the group to save the day by unscrambling a variety of backstage dilemmas before the curtain goes up on opening night. Can the group save the play? (For groups of four to eight.)
• "A Murder Most Fowl." The group is called in to solve the murder of an eccentric millionaire who had a peculiar obsession with birds. Exposing the murderer is the key to escaping this room. (For groups of six to 10.)
• "The Gravedigger's Dilemma." An unidentified corpse has turned up in a haunted graveyard. Can the group discover the identity of the deceased and piece together what happened to the dearly departed? (For groups of eight to 14.)
Erickson said two versions of "The Show Must Go On!" will run simultaneously so four groups can be scheduled to participate each hour.
"To Escape or Not to Escape" is a joint effort between the theater groups at Nature Coast, which Erickson heads, and at Springstead High School, which Pusta leads. It involves about 30 Springstead and Nature Coast theater students, with 22 of them working as a rotating cast among the rooms.
Erickson said the rooms are designed with characters in them, but student/character involvement is minimal. "They are there more for the atmosphere and to help out if people get stuck."
The experience that guests have should be quite different than what other escape rooms offer.
"There will be a little touch of theater to each room," Erickson said. "And, hopefully, they will know a little bit about theater when they leave."
Guests may reserve one room or do all of them. Unlike other escape rooms, which can be quite costly (the average is $25 to $30 per person), the local event is $7 per person. Erickson recommends making reservations, as time slots are already being booked.
And while the event is a first for Hernando County, it also is the first joint public event between the two theater departments.
"It's been a lot of fun putting together," Erickson said. "And (the students) are just having fun with it."