When people asked about the show I was in, I would say to them, “It’s part theater, part game, part haunted house.” The show was called 10 Minutes in the Forest, produced by my friend Casey Middaugh. It was an immersive theatrical experience, where audience members would enter alone or in pairs and be the protagonist in their own fairytale, based on the Slavic folk tales about Baba Yaga and the Firebird. This is how it would go:
In the lobby right before your scheduled time, a man in a black suit tells you in a deep voice:
enter the deep forest, stranger
where Firebird hides her eggs from danger
three attempts are all you’ve got
you are safe: the eggs are not
beware, take heed, keep watch, look out:
Baba Yaga is about
You go through the door and into the black box theater. Sitting in a pool of orange light is the Firebird, a dancer wearing red, yellow, and orange wings. She looks up and coos curiously at you. She looks you up and down – her new friend(s). Behind her and taking up the entire rest of theater space is a large, messy forest made of PVC pipe, plastic wrap, and tulle. It’s dark. A disconcerting sound is heard from within the forest and Firebird begins to panic. An orange light comes up on the far side of the room, and Firebird gestures towards it. She needs her eggs. They are in the forest. But she can’t get them herself. It’s too scary.
You have to get them.
Pulsing green lights come on as you enter the forest, and you slowly move side-to-side to avoid the big, flat, plastic trees and low-hanging tulle branches. A few simple drum beats or some high harps are heard overhead, but it’s not enough to cover up the sounds from inside the forest – a tapping click, a low growl, maybe some hideous laughter. You notice a figure darting through the trees. She stays low to the ground. It’s Baba Yaga, the old, witch-like woman you were warned about. You get to the corner and find the nest, raised up on a large platform. It’s made of knotted plastic and inside are three balloons – the eggs.
You reach for a balloon and notice that Baba Yaga doesn’t seem to like this at all. She’s holding up a large knitting needle, ready to pounce and pop a balloon the moment you grab it. You take your chances, grab the balloon, and make a run for it. Baba Yaga chases you through the forest, scurrying around and catching you between trees. If you make it out with the balloon, Firebird is overjoyed and spins around in delight. If Baba Yaga gets you, the balloon is popped and Firebird lets out a wail of sorrow. Either way, you have to go back for the other two. The music is louder and the lights are flashing. And now you only have eight minutes.
The original game mechanic was simple: there were three, bright red eggs in a nest in the back of the forest, and the audience members had to recover all three and bring them to the Firebird. In an ideal scenario, Baba Yaga would pop one or two eggs but always let them get the last one. Unfortunately there’s really no way to rehearse a show where the audience is the main character. Our opening night was filled with unintentional play testers, and it was immediately clear that our game was too easy. The show was called 10 Minutes in the Forest, and people were getting out in 4-6 minutes. One group did it in three.
Because both roles are so physically demanding (especially Baba Yaga), we had two actors to play each part every night. After each run that first night Casey and the four actors (myself included) would quickly throw out ideas for how we could extend the experience. Each run gave us a new idea, which meant each audience member was seeing a slightly different game than the last. Our changes in order of implementation:
1) Add more story
Originally the audience came in to find an already panicked Firebird. Instead, we had her start happy and allow the participants to see the panic grow in her. This was a good element story-wise, though it added at most 20 seconds to the adventure.
2) Leave only one egg in the nest
The first egg was in the nest, the second we hid in the other back corner of the forest by sticking it into a sort of tulle hammock that draped just above eye level. The third we stashed behind the nest, with the intention that Baba Yaga would bring it out when the time was right. This helped a little, but once people found the hidden egg they were bolting out too fast for Baba Yaga to catch them. And one group found the third egg that we thought people wouldn’t see.
3) Seriously, hide the last egg
We moved the final egg to an area behind a black curtain where audience members were extremely unlikely to find it. Even if you started poking around in the curtain, it was easy to miss. Therefore the only way to get the final egg was to somehow get it from Baba Yaga.
4) Make the forest more difficult to navigate
After about five groups there was a big break in the time slots, and we used it to add more tulle to the forest. There was no time to secure it, so we just threw it everywhere. Anything to make it harder to move around. Before the second night of performances we came in early to hang even more. I made it my personal mission to block off the route out from the second egg.
5) Add black eggs
With only one egg in the nest, people knew right away to look for more. The second night we added two black balloons with the red one, so when you first approach it seems like these are the three eggs you’re supposed to get. However if you tried to give a black egg to the Firebird she would recoil and motion for you to go back for the red one.
6) Swaddle the second egg
We started wrapping the hidden hammock egg in tulle before placing it, so you’d only realize what it was if you were looking right at it.
The more we ran the piece, the more we realized how different each experience could be, and how our attempts to draw out the game ended up adding a much richer story. People now had to go through three trials, just like one would expect from a fairytale. The first was to figure out their task (red eggs, not black eggs). The second was to venture deeper into the forest (find the second egg). The third was a direct confrontation with Baba Yaga herself (she is holding the final egg).
What may not have been clear to the audience members is that they really were informing the whole story. If you came in with fast energy, Baba Yaga would be running around and jumping out at you. If you were really scared, Baba Yaga would be quiet, slow, and creepy. This wasn’t something we discussed with Casey ahead of time, but something all of us who played Baba Yaga naturally did. Baba Yaga is not always the villain in the original folklore, and we loved playing with that idea. If you treated her like an evil witch that’s how she would act. If you were respectful and unthreatening, she might decide to trust you.
A handful of the things that happened in the forest:
A young couple came in, and before I had a chance to present myself as the Firebird the woman loudly announced, “Alright, we’ve got to get some eggs.” They were ready for the game. Once inside the forest I heard her tell her partner, “We gotta get them for my friend Feeny” (as in Phoenix). They found the hidden hammock egg first, Baba Yaga began to chase them, and from somewhere in the forest I heard the woman yell, “Move, move, there’s a witch, bro!”
One young woman, after getting the second egg down from the hammock, held the black one out in front of her to ward me off like a human shield. I decided to play along with her idea, decided I didn’t want the black ones harmed. When it came time for the final egg she approached me with the black one, lowered it near the floor, and lifted her foot. It was a threat. Give her the red egg or she’ll pop the black one. It was brilliant. We traded.
An older couple came in and took the longest time figuring out they needed to get the eggs. The wife realized it first, and she noticed that I (as Baba Yaga) would respond to her movement, and even chase her around if she got my attention. I heard her whisper to her husband to “get the eggs!” before getting me to follow her away from the nest. In response, he stood there. He stood right next to the unguarded nest and did nothing. She and I did this twice more before he finally caught on. They got the second egg without much trouble, and I held the third one close thinking they might offer a trade. Instead she started approaching me and making noises to see how I’d react. For a minute I thought she was going to simply ask for the egg, but instead she tried to startle me and I recoiled. The husband was standing nearby, and after watching her interact with me for a while he held his hands up slowly as if to say “I’m unarmed.” He then gently lowered and extended them, asking without words for the egg. I ignored the woman and handed it to him. If you were nice to Baba Yaga, she would give up the final egg.
When all three eggs were either found or destroyed, a white light would come up over the second lobby door and Firebird would stand by it, bowing in gratitude and showing audience members the way out. One man didn’t get this at all and rather than going out the correct door or even back through the entrance, he walked out a third door over by the booth that was only for actors.
A young woman and her boyfriend came in, him in casual street clothes and her in full Lolita fashion attire. I don’t know if it was the wedge heels or just the way she always walked, but she moved very slowly and didn’t want to run. He was able to get the first egg out without trouble, and I staked out my usual threatening spot near the second egg. He came over and stood on the other side of a plastic tree, right between me and the egg. He grabbed the side of the tree and moved it back and forth, using the plastic to block my path. No one else had thought to “trap” Baba Yaga like this, and I started clawing at the shrink-wrap like a bear. I shifted to the side and he grabbed another tree, blocking me again. The whole time, Lolita was slowly pulling the second egg down from its nest and quietly making her way out of the forest.
When the actors were taking a break from performance we would usually sit in the booth with Casey. You could see the whole forest from up there and watch the story play out. When watching from the booth, nothing was better than the Narrators – that was the nickname we gave to anyone who narrated their own experience out loud. When Narrators talked to Firebird it was like playing charades.
“So we need to go in there and bring back the eggs.” Firebird would nod. “Will you go with us?” Firebird would shake her head.
Once inside they would talk about Baba Yaga. “There’s some kind of witch or something in here,” they yelled loudly. We loved Narrators because we could go on the whole journey with them – mistaking the black eggs, looking for the hidden one, trying to decide what to do at the end.
My friends Kristina and Joe came through when I was Firebird. Kristina was startled every time Baba Yaga made a move toward them. Once they were deep in the forest I heard the following.
Joe: “We could use the buddy system.”
Kristina: “What do you mean the buddy system?”
Joe: “You know, you don’t have to be faster than the Baba Yaga, you just have to be faster than your buddy.”
In terms of absolutely precious things people did to convince Baba Yaga to give up the final egg, no one beats my friend Brandon. I was Firebird the night he went through, and I crouched down low to watch the final interaction from between the trees. Brandon first tried to bargain, but he didn’t have a black egg so there wasn’t much he could offer. He handed Baba Yaga a bit of broken balloon, but she didn’t seem to care. He grabbed a bit of the plastic wrap from the nest and offered it, but she just laughed and gestured to the forest around her, filled with plastic. He patted his pockets for a moment, looking for anything else he could offer her. Finally he started to lower himself to the ground. It was pretty common for people to lower their stance when attempting to make a deal with Baba Yaga. At first it seemed like Brandon was just trying to mimic her movements – maybe to trick her, maybe to make fun of her. But Brandon kept going. Slowly, steadily, he went all the way to the floor until he was completely prostrate. He was lying flat on his belly, chin on the floor. Baba Yaga rose up a bit, enjoying the respect he was showing to her and the forest. She gave him the balloon.
Whispered between a young couple:
“Should we split up?”
“No, no, we should never split up.”
A woman came out of the forest in the middle of a particularly energetic run and looked up straight up at the booth. “I lost my shoe in there!” We never spoke to audience members from the booth, but in this case we assured her that we’d go get it once they were done. She nodded and started back towards the forest to join her friend, who was still inside chasing Baba Yaga. She then stopped, took off her remaining shoe, and threw it on an open shelf near the exit.
Some people would temporarily give up. They’d go see the eggs, see Baba Yaga guarding them, then come back out to Firebird and say, “We tried, but there’s this woman there.” As Firebird, some runs you had to work harder than others. Yes I need the eggs. No I don’t want black ones. Yes I mean the red ones. Yes there are more to find. No I can’t come help you.
As Firebird, communicating ‘yes’ and ‘no’ without words is easy, but telling someone ‘I have no opinion on that idea’ is rather difficult. So questions like “Should we put the black ones back in the nest?” or “What should we do next?” were difficult to respond to. Next time you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, try expressing the sentiment “I don’t care, you do what you want,” through a series of balletic shrugs.
The last run of the show I watched from the booth. Two young men came in and the taller of the two immediately demonstrated that he was a Narrator. He started talking rapidly to the Firebird, asking her questions and explaining to her how they needed to find some eggs. While he was asking real questions, there was humor in his voice. He was being good natured and playing along, but he wasn’t really invested. Baba Yaga began to rustle in the forest. Firebird pointed toward her eggs and the tall man said, “We should probably enter this…scary forest.” Wink wink. They approached the edge and he nudged his friend forward. “You go first,” he said, “I got you though.” Wink.
The next few minutes were fast and chaotic and full of laughs as they went through all the normal steps of the show. Each time the tall man let us know exactly what he was thinking. They found the black eggs and were confused about why she didn’t want them; they found the hidden egg and tried to get it away from Baba Yaga (they lost that second egg; it got popped in the struggle and Firebird cried). But they made it through in the end and recovered the last one by trading the black eggs. As they were walking out and Firebird was giving her thank you bows, the tall man yelled into the forest, “Goodbye misunderstood old lady! I hope you enjoy your black eggs!”
Because it was the last run of the night, we all went out to talk with them afterwards. The tall man explained that in situations like this, he uses humor to deflect so he doesn’t have to worry about things getting too scary or too intense. But when the second egg popped and he saw how sad the Firebird was, he really started to go on an emotional journey. Then at the end, seeing that Baba Yaga wasn’t just some crazy killer took him to a whole different emotional place. He said that being in the forest made him drop his usual defenses.
I loved every night of the show and many people managed to get all three eggs, but if I had to pick a true winner it would be my friend Jillian. She ran the show with her fiancee Jake, and their experience was mostly typical. They each grabbed a black egg only to find they were worthless. Like most, they left them on the floor near the Firebird and went to retrieve the first two real eggs. When we got to the end I held the third egg close, thinking Jake and Jillian were the kind of people that would think to trade. Sure enough Jillian disappeared and came back with a black balloon. She held it out in front of her with a stern look on her face, pulling back slightly when I reached for it. It was a gesture I’d seen a lot from audience members: ‘you hand me yours and I’ll hand you mine.’
Slowly I gave up the red egg and grabbed for the black. Jillian disappeared with her prize and I began my usual end routine of making scary laughing noises while Firebird escorted the audience members out. I went back to the nest but when I turned around, Jillian was there again. She had the other black balloon, and was holding it out for me. I’m not sure what face I made, but it was probably one of shocked gratitude. When you’re Baba Yaga you take the way people treat you to heart. Jillian already had what she came for. All three red eggs were safe. She didn’t have to come back into the forest, but she did. After the show I told her how surprised I was that she brought me the second black egg even though she had already won.
“We had a deal,” she told me.
What you get from the forest is what you bring into it. It was such a joy to see the excitement, confusion, creativity, and fear. Everyone is precious. Humans are great. Thank you to Casey, my fellow actors, the Pocket Theater, and everyone who helped make this show possible. Let’s keep making weird things happen.