At the Speakeasy's immersive underground theater, the 1920s still roar.
Chorus girls Emily Corbo, Anne Yumi Kobori, Shaneen Black, and Audrey Ella Garland perform at The Speakeasy's cabaret. (Valerie Guseva)

At the Speakeasy's immersive underground theater, the 1920s still roar.


I have to find the man in the yellow hat and scarf, that’s what my invitation says. It’s the only way into The Speakeasy: Find the yellow man, give him the password, and travel back in time.

The Speakeasy first emerged as an immersive production in the Tenderloin back in 2014, a clandestine nightclub and casino with storylines that drew the audience into a distinctly dark interpretation of the roaring ‘20s.

Now, after several years on hiatus, The Speakeasy has returned lighter and more jovial than in its previous iteration, this time to an underground venue on the border of North Beach and Chinatown. Intimate, dynamic and sometimes improvisational, the experience embraces an increasingly common form of theater, one in which all the world's a stage and we are merely players.

Most of the seats are already full inside the dimly lit bar by the time the bouncer sweeps us through the door and into the show. It’s not just the vaudevillian emcee on the small stage or the waistcoated bartenders that make it feel as though we’ve literally crossed the threshold into the past. A good 90 percent of the audience is dressed to the nines in sparkly flapper dresses and peaked fedoras. A long, vintage cigarette holder dangles from the hand of a woman at the next table. She regularly brings it to her lips, inhaling what I can only assume is nostalgia.

The bar at The Speakeasy.(Peter Liu)

On the stage, a new character, this one dressed in a red-and-white checked jacket with a heavily made-up face, begins a song dedicated to drinking—this is, after all, the era of Prohibition. Periodically, a vignette erupts in the audience. With so many people in costume, it’s hard to know where the next story will emerge.

“The magic of all theater lies in being in the same place at the same time bearing witness to the same story,” says Elizabeth Etler, entertainment director for The Speakeasy. But, “the beauty of immersive theater is that it levels up that experience, it points out that each audience member will have a different experience, not just from their own history but because of the choices they make.”

In each performance the cast follows their own scripted arcs through 17 different stories. There’s Clyde, a blackjack dealer in the casino whose librarian sister Violet dances at the cabaret to earn the extra money her brother needs to get out of his gambling debts. There’s Velma, a now fading cabaret star contemplating her future, and Eloise, the wife of the former club owner who’s taken over the business in the wake of his death. “Her track is great for guests who love being given a role to play,” says Etler. “She asks people to audition or to pitch a new act and I see a lot of audience members having great fun playing into that fantasy.”

That’s because at The Speakeasy, it isn’t just the actors who participate in the show. The audience is a character all its own. “You may be an observer, but a character can literally draw you into a scene by putting an arm around you, or whispering a secret only you can hear,” says Stefani Pelletier, general manager of The Speakeasy. “There is something enchanting about being an interactive observer of a storyline as it plays out. The improv nature of having a different audience to work off of is part of what keeps it fresh. It's never the same show twice.”

Gambling in the casino at The Speakeasy.(Andy Feifarek)

When the show at the bar ends and they open the hidden doors to the casino, people rise from their tables and scatter through the club’s rooms, some hidden behind secret doors and passages. After a bit of exploration, we post up at the blackjack table and play a few rounds while scenes—some heated, some humorous—take shape around us. When we walk away from the game, our chips lost to the house, a man grab’s my guest’s arm and declares, starstruck, that he didn’t expect to see such a famous actress slumming it at this speakeasy. He escorts us into a dressing room to show her off to the emcee. We only discover later that the interaction wasn’t exactly what we thought it was.

Eventually the audience reconvenes in the cabaret for a variety show knitted together with hot box chickies, jazzy numbers, and all the glitz of a Baz Luhrmann movie. By then, we’re so invested in the production that it may as well be the 1920s. And it’s not just the Champagne, says Etler.

“We created a good story, one worth telling again and again, and one that hopefully inspires our audiences to reflect on their own lives and tell their own stories.”

At the night’s end, transitioning out of the club and into the present is like returning from a trip to an alternate universe. There’s no bigger compliment to an immersive show. The jarring contrast between The Speakeasy and the modern day city of San Francisco is a sign that everyone, audience included, has done their jobs right.

“Our hope is that there is something for everyone at The Speakeasy, whether it's a fun night out, or a touching resonance with a character's struggle,” says Pelletier. “We have to do what we can to keep theater alive in this city,”

// The Speakeasy: Age of Scofflaws runs Wednesday through Sunday through June 23rd. Get tickets at Deal alert: 7x7 Social Club members get 15 percent off admission; join the club.

Heather Mae Steffen performs as Velma at The Speakeasy's cabaret.(Valerie Guseva)

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