“I want to believe that joy is essential work.” Kellian Pletcher
One encounter with Kellian Pletcher’s tenacious spirit and gleaming personality, and you too will willingly take the effervescent plunge into her uniquely intelligent imaginative world.
And why wouldn’t you want to? Her first production, “Murder at the Met,” under her then newly-formed company Green Door Labs, an interactive game company founded by Pletcher in 2012, was utilized by, of course, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
An active participant of the New England vintage community, Pletcher’s venture into theater, Club Drosselmeyer, an immersive late 1930s- early 1940s-themed soiree that took place at Club OBERON in Cambridge in its first year, sold out.
“It’s a cocktail party, but it’s also a swing dance, variety show and escape room. I showed up with a Swing Band, an aerialist and a bunch of tap dancers,” says Pletcher, “both shows sold out, right out of the gate.”
Pletcher’s eclectic ideas began when she took the role of producer at a video game company while living abroad in Shanghai.
“We were teaching Americans how to speak Chinese. I loved it. I loved the process, and I loved designing for it. I just enjoyed it so much. I signed up for grad school first (to become a teacher) and then I got the job and was like, Oh! This is where I’m supposed to be. I’m supposed to be designing these things!” Pletcher’s new-found joy for design led to her building interactive games for museums and launching her niche career.
With over 10 years of game-building experience, her 2020 version of Club Drosselmeyer 1943, billed as an immersive, interactive radio adventure “for Swingtime Sleuths and Swells!!,” shifts the game to a virtual space featuring cleverly named period characters such as Herbert O. Yardley, Rhett “the rat” King and Ginger Lamarr (who needs you to suggest the correct shade of lipstick before being shot out of a cannon). Due to its innovation, Club Drosselmeyer 1943 earned multiple awards including the 2020 Room Escape Artist Golden Lock Award, the Escape the Roomers 2020 Bullseye Award, and was featured in Oprah Daily’s 10 Best Virtual Escape Rooms to Play Online With Friends and Family.
“You have to figure out who set off the air raid alarm and why…and so you sort of go down this rabbit hole and you start solving puzzles. depending on the number that you call, depending on the puzzle that you solve, the audio file you are listening to, will change,” says Pletcher.
Pletcher is a true citizen of New Hampshire and spent her formative years growing up in multiple counties of the state, including Rockingham, Coos, and Hillsborough. In (2016) she collaborated with SEE Science Center in Manchester conducting a game design camp for middle schoolers. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Pletcher.
CC: What was your first game?
Back in 2012, Green Door Labs came out of the gate with Murder at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and oh my gosh, talk about high stakes for your very first project! So we survived. It was a great game, you know, even still people talk about that game. It was at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. They did it for their teen program so we had maybe about 200-300 teenagers running around The Met trying to find out who murdered “Madame X.”
CC: How did you ever come up with the concept of this particular career?
I sort of fell into it. I love museums and I love games and when you do a thing- and then you do it more- it just becomes the thing you’re known for doing! As far as I know we’re the only studio that focuses specifically on museum game design. There are other design studios that work with museums and build games, but they’re just much bigger and so they design a lot of other things, as well. I’m pretty good at building with tight budgets and tight deadlines. Places turn to me when they have $20 and a roll of duct tape, which happens a lot with museums. It’s a lot of fun but, at the same time when they have big budgets, they tend to turn to the bigger design firms. Ironically, a lot of the work these bigger firms build mirrors work that I’ve already done. As a small studio, I can spearhead new ideas before someone is willing to risk a big budget on them. But, I just love this work so much. It’s just, it’s so rewarding.
CC: How did Club Drosselmeyer come to be?
It was around 2015 that I decided that I wanted to start building bigger things, like immersive theater productions, and museums weren’t going to hire me to build these things. I needed to build them on my own. I’ve been a Lindy Hopper for such a long time and part of the vintage community so I knew I wanted to build something related to history but I wasn’t sure what it was. In 2015 I was at the Dance for World Community festival in Harvard Square. Here were a bunch of dancers, doing this really beautiful ballet routine, and I was like, A Nutcracker! That’s it! That’s the solution! And it all kind of clicked into place. It’s perfect because it’s modular, and it’s well known. It’s sort of in the cultural canon, so people will know what things are, but there’s no copyright to it. I don’t have to hire a team that will do all of the dances, I can pull from all different dance communities here in Boston. I was pretty excited about that. It also meant that we could scale it. Doesn’t mean that we have to have the same sugar plums every night. You can rotate. If we wanted to bring the show up to Montreal, or if we wanted to bring it down to New York, well, we just find their local dancers that would be willing to be part of the production there.
So yeah, it just felt like something I could really move around a lot with. I was really excited about this idea of advancing the art of jazz and swing and Lindy Hop. I didn’t want us to just be people who only preserved the art but also to put our mark from our own era, to advance this art form that we’re sort of conserving as best we can.
Mike Hibarger directed me toward Club OBERON. I’m not connected to a theater or anything and they didn’t respond to me, so I just kept sending them emails. Eventually, they acquiesced. They got back to me, and they were like, “Okay, we’ll give you a couple of days.” But, they were nervous, you know. They had never seen anything like this before. I really thought that I was just gonna walk into the theater world and be like, “People, I have a new idea! Let’s be best friends!” They’d never worked with a game designer before and they were a little suspicious. They’re used to doing stuff that’s experimental but the stage performers are doing the experiments, not the audience. For most theater producers, the audience is pretty predictable but game designers don’t even have audiences, we have players or participants. I have this letter that I got from Club OBERON after the first show that I keep in my box of ridiculous random keepsakes, and it said, We took a chance on you and it paid off in spades. We’re so glad to be working with you. See you next year. They really took a leap of faith in letting me run the show there and now every year, you know, they’re like, “okay, when is Drosselmeyer?” It’s become a regular thing every Christmas, so it’s just become a really wonderful relationship. I was really lucky. I couldn’t have done it without them.
CC: So the actual game is basically Club Drosselmeyer at home?
Yes. That’s what we did this year. So we overbuilt, which is what we always do. We could have built a fraction of it and it still would have been fine: it’s a radio show and also a puzzle hunt and also a choose-your-own-adventure and an audio concert. You can listen to this radio show and never participate if you’d like. But, at a certain point in the story, it will say “As civilian defense units, we need your help! Call the Civilian Defense Central office number right now!” So you sort of go down this rabbit hole and you solve puzzles and talk to different characters. You have to figure out who set off the air raid alarm, but there are seven different endings based on the choices you make!”
CC: How do you come up with your ideas?
I think a lot of writers will say that it doesn’t feel like you’re inventing anything, it feels more like you’re speaking the stories. It’s out there already, you’re picking something up and figuring out how to make sense of it. You feel more like an archaeologist! I’ll be thinking out loud around my husband, and I’ll be like, how about this, how about that, how to come up with this wonderful solution to something. And my husband comes up with a million ideas and so does my cast! They don’t always necessarily know how it fits together, but they’re like, “what if there was some sort of a military-grade appliance like a toaster?” I’m good at abusing my friends and their ideas and their talents so long as they’re willing. I don’t ever feel like it’s the type of thing that anybody else couldn’t create or wouldn’t, I’m just more likely to bumble into it because I’m less aloof. Other people may have more reserve but I’m like, hey I have a military toaster!
CC: How did your game get to Oprah Daily?
I have no idea. I think they found us on Ars Technica? Somebody who wrote for Ars Technica posted on an escape room FB group and was like, “Hey, does anybody know any holiday games?” I was like “ME! pick me!” I bugged all my friends on that group, I was like, “back me up on this guys! Like it and heart it!” So she wrote about me and a couple of other really wonderful friends. Then a couple of weeks later we ended up in Oprah Magazine!
CC: When you found out that you were featured in Oprah Daily, what was that like?
It was a very good day! I was very excited. I couldn’t believe it!!! I think it’s all a blur. We were right in the middle of production for Club Drosselmeyer and so we were just so crazy getting the game out. So like, it was a big deal, but, it definitely didn’t stop our day because we just had so much going on to get the game out anyway.
CC: It takes big ideas and bolder action to create a Drosselmyer etc. Where does your inner confidence come from? What advice would you give someone else?
Thanks! Yeah, I wouldn’t argue that – sometimes I look at it and I’m like “sheesh that was insane, how did you pull that off?” But I think I’m able to do it because I’m not a perfectionist and I have a lot of faith in my friends– and my husband. I think there’s this cult of “perfectionism.” You hear it all the time with this sort of humblebrag: “I’m such a perfectionist. I’m sort of OCD.” That’s good for some things. It’s good for being a student and good for some jobs but it’s death for innovation. To build something new you have to be willing to stumble through the imperfect and have faith that things will be alright anyway. And even if they’re not, you just roll with it- you do the next thing. If you’re waiting for the perfect, you’ll never get anything off the ground. I’m also surrounded by really talented people and I don’t have to hover, I can point in a direction and have faith that they’ll take it from there. I KNOW my band will be incredible. I KNOW my dancers will kill it, I KNOW my husband (Herr Drosselmeyer) will have all of the puzzle logistics wrapped up. They’re so talented that it lets me think about the bigger picture, and it lets the bigger picture get bigger and bigger!!
I’ll never forget opening night in the Oberon. It was the tech rehearsal, we’d never done any of this before but there was the set, looking exactly like I had imagined it and the band warming up, sounding exactly like I’d imagined. My husband was there doling out puzzles and getting our systems ready and the dancers were practicing and the costumes looked great and I remember just thinking, “This is it! This is the thing I had in my head! How did you guys know??”
CC: What does the future look like?
It’s awesome. I intended Club Drosselmeyer to be a four-year show starting in 1939, but it ended up being a five-year show. So next year, we’re going back to 1939 again but now we really know how to run the shows. Oh my gosh, the first year was like Swiss cheese. There were so many holes in the story, but now that we know how to run it, we’re going to rewrite it and tighten it up. I would like to expand it: You could run a Club Drosselmeyer in community theaters, colleges even in other cities! I think it’s a really interesting setup for the WWII Museum in New Orleans. I’ve been talking to some friends in New York. I’m definitely interested in working in London, but I’m not sure which venues yet. I’m also really interested in Montreal because I know that Montreal has the Montreal Jazz Festival, a really great swing scene, and a really good vintage scene. I’m excited to share Club Drosselmeyer with the world!