What to Expect from the “Stranger Things” & “Bridgerton” Experiences
If you’re like me, the Stranger Things and/or Bridgerton “experiences” were heavily advertised to you on social media and probably piqued your curiosity. Co-produced by Netflix and Fever, they have certainly created a ripple in post-pandemic San Francisco, where people are thirsty to get off their couches and actually do something again. Netflix’s strategy seems obvious: people were stuck at home watching Netflix for two years, so why not get a piece of everyone’s renewed longing for interaction? I read multiple articles espousing fears that Netflix is encroaching on local theater’s turf, which makes sense. The ever-present option of endless entertainment at home, combined with the lack of stable funding for the arts, makes running any small theater company a constant struggle (I would know). The idea that Netflix could be further siphoning audiences by stepping into the theater space is frustrating. But is that what’s happening? And are these “experiences” really that bad for the local theater scene, or are the fears about them displaced? I decided to find out for myself.
The Stranger Things Experience
This is not the experience I personally wanted, but the right crowd will love it. (you can get tix right here).
When I walk into something marketed as “immersive” or an “experience,” my expectation is that I will be initially awed by the way the space has been transformed. When I walked into the Armory, what I initially noticed was a lot of pipe-and-drape black curtains surrounding a large area emitting lots of cacophonous crashy sound effects. I pointed this out to my husband, who reminded me that this was not actually billed as “immersive,” and that pipe-and-drape is a reasonable way to create division in a big empty room. I adjusted my expectations.
Here’s what happens: as you are herded into the first of several lines, employees dressed in lab coats welcome you to a “sleep study,” which is never mentioned again past the first room (one of several things that is introduced with zero follow-up). The first two rooms are led by actors in the flesh, who do a fabulous job with the material they are given, especially the actress in the Rainbow Room who convinces everyone in the audience they have telekinetic powers via fun stage effects. She gets an A+.
However, the next three rooms are not led by real people but by recordings of the show’s actors, who give the audience sometimes confusing instructions and then react as if they were carried out whether they were or not. A bored teenager in a lab coat sits in the corner looking at their iPhone, I guess to make sure nobody tries to mess with what look like very expensive sets. Meanwhile, due to the aforementioned pipe-and-drape and lack of actual ceilings, the sound effects have to be turned up obnoxiously loud to cover the sound effects from the other rooms, which in turn are obnoxiously loud. Overall, you spend the majority of the show looking at various types of screens and projections, with a few real actors and practical effects thrown in. It feels especially unimaginative considering you can watch Stranger Things on a screen at home for free.
But not everyone is a cynical experienced theater-goer like me, and not everyone is expecting theater. The rest of the audience, mostly families with kids around the age of the characters on the show, seemed to be having a great time. Are these the same people who, if not presented with this option, would have gone to an artsy local theater show instead? I doubt it. The “experience” is really more of a Universal Studios type ride, complete with an elaborate gift shop landing, and the crowd fit that bill. Despite not having ceilings, the sets are well made and the effects are pretty cool by theme park standards.
My verdict: When evaluated as immersive theater, this is far from the best I’ve seen. But if you are a teenage/adult superfan of Stranger Things, this is for you. Its existence is probably not a real threat to local theater. My optimistic view is that it could even help in the long run, as it may be a gateway to real theater for some of the audience.
The Queen’s Ball
I was charmed in spite of it all (you can get tix right here).
Instead of dragging my husband to an event based on a show he’s never watched, I took my friend Janet, who I always watch Bridgerton with. We had a nice time dressing up in the bridesmaid dresses that have been sitting in her closet, and donning long white gloves for the occasion. When we entered the venue, I was already more at ease than with Stranger Things– no pipe-and-drape in sight, just a dressed up lobby with some of the costumes from the show on display.
It immediately became clear that Bridgerton lends itself much better to this type of event than Stranger Things. It’s a show about society, after all, and San Francisco loves a reason to dress up in fun costumes and mingle. Bridgerton is already anachronistic with its use of pop songs played by string quartets, so having some modern elements around didn’t bug me (except that trying to work a smartphone with formal gloves on is clearly not an issue Regency-era people faced). I also immediately noticed the diverse crowd in the room. Much like the show itself, the event invites people of all backgrounds to participate in what has traditionally been a very white space, and that is what’s really unique and cool about it.
Upon going upstairs for the main event, I groaned at the front-and-center gift shop selling random stuff with Bridgerton characters printed on them. But admittedly, Janet and I had a fun time taking period-appropriate photos in front of various set pieces. Yes, there was some pipe-and-drape, but I didn’t mind it as much in this scenario since there were no crashy sound effects seeping through it.
However, do learn from our mistake: we didn’t realize how short the opportunity to present ourselves before the Queen would be, so we spent that time standing in line for a portrait and missed it entirely. I would advise waiting to take your pictures until later in the night when everyone is in the ballroom and there’s no line.
The ballroom was beautifully decorated, although crowded and with poor sightlines – I’d recommend standing close to the door so you get a prime spot when the doors open if you are short like me. There are some cute performances and opportunities to learn dance moves similar to the show. I was partial to the love story that played out throughout the evening, performed by two dancers – Bridgerton is all about the romance, right? Apparently all the performers are cast locally, so it did provide an opportunity for a number of talented actors (most of whom are not white, and some of whom appeared non-binary). The whole thing is cotton candy fluff, but isn’t that kind of what the show is? And as much as I scoffed at the Instagram-ness of it all, Janet and I did get some pretty great pictures. I definitely left wanting more out of this event (especially considering the ticket price), but I did have fun.
My verdict: This would be an original take on a bachelorette party or fun for someone’s birthday. It’s not as fleshed out as it could be theatrically, but I think it has potential if allowed to evolve. Events that pander to women+ (especially women+ of all races) are sadly uncommon, and that is what sets this apart. I don’t think it intersects too heavily with a serious theater crowd, so I found it relatively harmless on that front. If you go in knowing what you’re in for, you’ll probably have fun. And maybe you’ll finally reuse that expensive bridesmaid dress sitting in the back of your closet!
In conclusion, I suspect the amount you will enjoy these “experiences” is directly proportional to how much you love the shows they are based on. Stranger Things is a cool show whose artistry I respect, but it’s not my favorite. Bridgerton is a guilty pleasure that I know is just sexy, watered-down Jane Austen, but it’s fun so I don’t care that it’s kind of stupid. I felt pretty similarly about the events. And if you went to either of these and wanted more: let this be your padded gateway to go out and support local theater productions!
Howdy! My name is Katy Atchison and I'm an Associate Editor for Broke-Ass Stuart.
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