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This experiential theatre show turns a gallery visit into an art heist

Matt Ravier

Welcome to the 20th guest blog post of Time Out Sydney's 52 Weeks of #SydCulture 2017 challenge! May's culture selector is Mathieu Ravier: manager of Programming at the Australian Museum, board-member of Sydney Film Festival, and founder of The Festivalists (behind Jurassic Lounge and the Possible Worlds Film Festival, among other things). Every Tuesday of May, Matt will be telling us what he loved the week before. Think of it as your recommendations for this week, from someone who sees a helluva lot of arts and culture. Over to him.

When you rock up to the address listed on your ticket, it’s still hard to know what to expect from Art Heist, a new interactive experience from Jetpack Theatre. Inside an empty shopfront in Dulwich Hill, we are greeted by director Jim Fishwick. After signing a waiver, we put our valuables in a safe and are given a quickfire mission brief. Our objective is to steal a valuable painting (‘The Fat Dragon’) from under the noses of two quick-footed security guards and return it to its rightful owner. We know the gallery closes in 10 minutes, after which we have half an hour to complete our mission. We barely have time to process this information before we step through a door and into the gallery.

The fictional gallery is a creation of the Jetpack collective, complete with home-made contemporary art and hilarious labels that send up the pretensions of certain artists and galleries. Immediately we spot the prize, an ugly figurative masterpiece protected by guards, lasers and security cameras. Already the PA system informs us the gallery is closing, there’s no time to waste.

We sneak off to the bathroom and lock ourselves in the janitor’s room at the back as security guards lock down the gallery. The clock is ticking. Whispering frantically, we get to work, our hearts racing, deciphering clues and using our collective cunning to come up with a plan.

The next 30 minutes pass by in a flash, involving the sort of shenanigans I used to dream up in bed as an over-imaginative 11-year-old. I won’t spoil what unfolds in that eventful half hour. I’ll only reveal that we were only partially successful in our mission (I got caught, my friends got away, Fat Dragon under their arm).

Escape rooms have been around for a while. Room-size puzzles solved as a team, they’re often run by entertainment conglomerates in malls or multiplexes. What’s exciting and refreshing here is the home-made nature of the experience, crowdfunded and conjured with inventiveness and hard work by an independent, up-and-coming arts collective. It’s rough around the edges, but it works. And unlike most escape rooms it requires not just mental skills but active physical engagement from participants. Hearts pounding loudly in our chests, we suspended disbelief and felt for a moment like our lives were truly on the line.  

We left in a state of giddy euphoria, our bodies vibrating with residual excitement, energised by the level of agency bestowed upon us as participants.

This is the exact feeling I seek to provide audiences, on a larger scale, as a cultural programmer. The night before, our team had delivered the inaugural Murder at the Museum, an after-hours murder mystery party for 300 active visitors at the Australian Museum. The successful event saw five competing teams attempt to solve a complex whodunnit unfolding in real time, like characters in an Agatha Christie novel. In the process, they learned about our collection, had a drink or two, befriended complete strangers and use their wits to highly rewarding effect.

Murder at the Museum – Australian Museum
Photograph: Tim Levy

Both Art Heist and Murder at the Museum strive to redefine the relationship between performer and spectator, and how we engage with culture. These immersive experiences offer the interactivity usually found in the digital space, transposed to a real-life social context. That giddy euphoria is more than a private feeling, its power is amplified by the collective nature of the experience. When did you last think of visiting a gallery or a museum as an adventure?

Art Heist runs until July 30. Murder at the Museum will return at the Australian Museum in September.

Check out our list of the best escape rooms in Sydney – then read more about our 52 Weeks of #SydCulture challenge, and let us know what you're seeing/loving on Instagram via the hashtag #SydCulture.

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