We had the good fortune of connecting with Haley E. R. Cooper and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Haley E. R., we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
Immersive theatre is a brand-new genre of arts entertainment that has the potential to thrill audiences like nothing else. Imagine theatre turned into a 360-degree living game that YOU get to star in. You take action, make choices, build relationships, and live in that world for an evening. That’s what Strange Bird Immersive is dedicated to delivering to Houston. My spouse and co-artistic director J. Cameron Cooper and I have long been members of the Houston theatre community, but were disheartened by how uninterested our peers were in our productions. When we attended “Sleep No More” in New York City, we saw first-hand how immersive theatre can ignite audiences. Theatre that causes your adrenaline to spike? Theatre that makes you feel like a hero? We wanted to be a part of that! When we also played our very first escape room, we saw enormous potential for bringing the tools of theatre to this popular new genre of live game. From that twin-inspiration, Strange Bird Immersive was born. We wanted to be a part of an artistic revolution. The results? We’ve won the Top Escape Rooms Project’s award for #1 escape room in the United States two years in a row.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
According to our guests, what sets Strange Bird Immersive apart from other escape room companies is our commitment. Where other companies have beautiful sets or fun puzzles, we deliver much more: a cinematic reality that you can lose yourself in for two hours and emerge a hero. From your entrance to exit, we craft a believable story-world with actors, sets, puzzles, and special effects committed to that world, so our guests feel free to engage in the sort of imaginary play that comes so easily to children. It’s simply a liberating experience, like starring in a movie or living a dream. We’ve learned that success is in the details. The slightest thing, like a frustrating puzzle or a hint provided too late, can have a major impact on our guest’s experience. Once we design a production, whether it’s our in-person game “The Man From Beyond” or our virtual mystery “The Strange Secret of Mr. Adrian Rook,” we test our designs, observe guests, and listen to feedback, and then make changes both big and small to the experience until we hit that maximum sweet-spot of ultimate FUN. Ideas are great, but we think execution—getting all the details of an experience just right—matters the most. And once we hit that sweet-spot, we make sure everything stays in top-working-order, so every guest can have the same high-quality experience. As far as challenges go, we’ve learned it’s not enough “to be the best” to achieve financial success. We’ve won countless awards and have been voted the #1 escape room in the United States by players two years in a row. We’re internationally known in the escape room community, but still locally unknown to our Houston audiences! So we’re still working on getting the word out. And then of course, there’s the challenge of the pandemic! We’re surviving by offering a new virtual experience. Our online production, “The Strange Secret of Mr. Adrian Rook,” gives teams of 8 the opportunity to solve the mystery of a missing person at Strange Bird. That show has proven popular and appeared in the New York Times as “recommended theatre to stream.” That pivot is helping pay our rent while our doors are closed. We measure our success at Strange Bird by the number of people who say the experience is unforgettable. While we are a business, we are artists first, and our goal will always be transforming people with our experiences.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Strange Bird Immersive has brought a number of guests to Houston just to see “The Man From Beyond” for themselves, so we’ve had many opportunities (pre-pandemic) to show off our city. We like the unique places in Houston, the kinds of places you can’t visit anywhere else. For culture, I love the Menil Collection. It’s free, and I can’t count the number of exhibitions of contemporary works that have inspired me there. They have a lot of space committed to fresh perspectives. It’s a wonderful place for new ideas. Along the same lines, I’d recommend the Contemporary Arts Museum (fully committed to rotating exhibitions and also free!). I’m hopeful for the promise of the MFAH’s Kinder Building. It’s perhaps not surprising that Strange Bird Immersive loves cutting-edge visual artists! For dinner, we love Hearsay Market Square—located in Houston’s second oldest building. Brick walls and chandeliers, need I say more? We often take guests to La Carafe next door for after-dinner drinks. It’s cash-only and worth it. The atmosphere is unlike anywhere else in town. A must-see! For cocktail lovers, you can’t beat Julep on Washington. For entertainment, we recommend The Catastrophic Theatre—leading producer of strange and contemporary plays in town. Whatever you see there is guaranteed to be thought-provoking. For something completely different, visit the Cistern!
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Shout out to Third Rail Projects and their production of “Then She Fell.” It was a highly-acclaimed immersive theatre show in Brooklyn with 8 actors and 15 audience members. It proved to us that small-scale immersive productions could be just as compelling, or even more so, than large scale-productions. We knew Houston couldn’t support 300 audience members a night, but knew it could handle smaller groups. It paved the way for us to offer our actor-driven escape rooms, where a team of 4 to 8 enter an imaginary world where they can help our actors in the story.
Other: Blog: https://strangebirdimmersive.com/immersology/
Images credited to Strange Bird Immersive