A love letter to the lost art of browsing: This 'escape room' plunges you into VHS nostalgia

The Tape Escape — the latest project from immersive theatre company Outside the March — is a narrative take on the escape room.

Immersive theatre project The Tape Escape is a narrative take on the escape room

Nick Bottomley. (Graham Isador)

Earlier this year, Toronto's Queen Video closed its final location. The business ran for 38 years, with their expansive collection offering cinephiles both new releases and rare movie rentals nearly impossible to find elsewhere. Even at the end Queen Video had its loyal customers, but the concept of a video store is increasingly anachronistic. It's rooted in a time period where physical media and communal experiences were two more common ways of engaging with art. But with their latest project, immersive theatre company Outside the March are trying to capture nostalgia for that time.

The Tape Escape is a theatrical escape room built in the Annex location of the former video store. Queen Video owner Howard Levman gave his blessing for the escape room to co-creators actress/writer Vanessa Smythe, video and projection artist Nick Bottomley and Outside the March artistic director Mitchell Cushman by leasing out the storefront at a grandfathered rental rate.

"We can only really create this project because Howie has been so generous," Bottomley tells CBC Arts. "One aspect of The Tape Escape is offering up remembrance of what came before us. It's inspiring to be in a space that was fiercely independent. Queen Video brought a unique offering to the community; it wasn't quite like anything else. When I think of the work our company is trying to do...we hope we're offering a similar vibe."

Over the past few months, the team — alongside designers Anahita Dehbonehie and Nick Blais — have meticulously transformed the shop to resemble a video store from 1999. Among the VHS lined walls, old televisions and VCRs, audiences are invited to participate in three different escape experiences with various themes: sci-fi (Yesterday's Heroes), romance (Love Without Late Fees) or family (A Grown-Up's Guide to Flying). As participants solve puzzles, more of the narrative behind each escape experience unfolds. Over the course of the game the shop is animated by actors playing clerks, giving often funny and sometimes heartbreaking glimpses of their day-to-day lives.

"A subtitle for this piece is A love letter to the lost art of browsing. People going through an escape room would mirror some of the time and effort it used to take to find something you loved," says Bottomley. "We felt as theatre markers we might be able to add something to the escape room form. We wanted to embrace the escape elements, and the physical space, to play to our larger themes."

Mitchell Cushman. (Graham Isador)

Since forming a decade ago, Outside the March have built their reputation on creating work that expands beyond the typical scope of the theatre. Other shows from the company have allowed audiences to physically follow a paramedic with PTSD, invited them to a funeral of a cult leader and asked participants to play truth or dare using their cellphones. The Tape Escape continues to expand Outside the March's definition of theatre, straddling several genres by blending elements of escape rooms, improv, and narrative drama to create a truly unique experience. The company intends to use The Tape Escape and projects like it to bring in crowds who may be adverse to a typical theatre setting.

"If people come and see one of our events and leave without knowing they've experienced a play, that's totally fine," says Outside the March artistic director Mitchell Cushman. "This project is our largest experiment in theatricality. But when we're programing we always ask if there is a new audience we can introduce our work to. How can we coax people into the work? If we can use an escape room to sneak theatre into people's diets, that's great."

If people come and see one of our events and leave without knowing they've experienced a play, that's totally fine...We always ask if there is a new audience we can introduce our work to.- Mitchell Cushman, Outside the March artistic director

The Tape Escape is set to run until the end of the Summer. The company's next offering will feel more like a traditional play, though has thematic links to the escape room: they'll team with Crow's Theatre this October to produce Annie Baker's esteemed play The Flick, a drama navigating the world of three minimum wage movie ushers overseeing the last 35mm film projector in town. For the production, Outside the March will be making over the Crow's venue to resemble an aging independent movie theatre, complete with popcorn.

"The Flick is closer to the traditional theatre experience than The Tape Escape, but I think both offer the potential for an active experience for the audience," says Cushman. "As a writer, Baker has such a keen sense of the real world that you often feel like a fly on the wall. The beautiful metaphor of that play is what's lost from film to digital projection. I connect that with the experience of watching things on our phones compared to having a communal experience. I think there is still something special about communal experience. As theatre makers I have to believe that still matters, no matter what the setting."

Tickets for The Tape Escape are available at


Graham Isador is a writer and theatre creator based out of Toronto. He trained as a part of the playwright unit at Soulpepper Theatre. Isador's work has appeared at VICE, The Risk Podcast, and the punk rock satire site The Hard Times, among other places.