The Art of Self-Immersion

by Bryan Reesman
in Feature

Lena Doino (Syrie Moskowitz) comforting Lucrezia Guerrieri (Katelan Foisy) in Speakeasy Dollhouse
Lena Doino (Syrie Moskowitz) comforting Lucrezia Guerrieri (Katelan Foisy) in Speakeasy Dollhouse

Cynthia von Buhler took a research project into her grandfather’s murder and turned it into Speakeasy Dollhouse, a show that’s part gin joint, part immersion theatre

Cynthia von Buhler turns even casual artistic whims into bold new adventures. Throughout her career she has been an illustrator, children’s book author, painter, sculptor, band manager and performance artist. Her latest endeavor, Speakeasy Dollhouse, is an immersive theatre experience that takes attendees back to the 1920s and the mystery of her grandfather Frank Spano’s murder. While it emerged initially as a one-off show inspired by book research, the production has evolved into an elaborate, weekly, multi-room production that plays inside gangster Meyer Lansky’s former hangout in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It’s a time-travel adventure for audiences that allows them to immerse themselves as deeply as they like and come back for more.

Stage Directions: You don’t have a classical theatre background like doing plays or musicals. You’ve been doing performance art and putting on interactive shows at your parties.

I grew up in the Berkshires where I was completely surrounded by world-class theatre, so I grew up in a theatrical atmosphere. I sang in plays and created performance art from kindergarten through college. It’s interesting that my life has come full circle—I’ve gone back to my theatrical roots. When I did the Kickstarter to fund Speakeasy Dollhouse I was able to combine everything I do well—writing, parties, dollhouse building, set building, painting and theatre. I even have homing pigeons I rescued from a slaughterhouse in the play! You know how much I love rescuing animals. I get bored if I just do one thing. This way I can do everything all at once.

What first inspired you to do the play, and what has it been like watching it transform and expand?


Scott Southard as Hulon Capshaw, a corrupt New York City judge
Scott Southard as Hulon Capshaw, a corrupt New York City judge

All of this started because I have always been obsessed with my grandfather’s mysterious murder. I started researching what happened. I ordered autopsy records, court documents, etc. I was becoming a private detective. Then I turned to the Kickstarter for funding, and as an afterthought I decided to do a one night immersive play where we would re-create the murder. That was in 2011, and at that point I was still figuring everything out, but people loved it and we sold out both shows. I added another show, and another show, and another show and it kept selling out. It hasn’t stopped since October 2011. It used to be staged twice a month and now we are expanding it to every weekend. Our new play at a famous Manhattan mansion opens in February of 2014. Speakeasy Dollhouse started as a book and then the play took over and now it is leading to other “speakeasy” plays in NYC and worldwide. And I’m still finessing the graphic novel. I call it pulp non-fiction. I’m working with a former editor from Dark Horse Comics, Rachel Edidin. She has been amazing to work with. Her insights are brilliant.


How has the show evolved since you first opened?

There are so many things we’ve changed, I can’t remember everything. A year ago I decided that I would give everybody a role to play when they came in, which would make them move around and force them to talk to other people. People love becoming a part of the show. It was something I originally wanted to do, but some of the actors thought it wasn’t going to work. But it has worked, and I should have trusted my instincts.

What kind of roles do you give people?

For example, “You are Frank Spano’s illegitimate sister from Italy. Go find Frank and tell him that you have the same father.” Or, “You saw Frank Spano’s fireworks display in Italy. Go and tell him how much you loved it.” When the audience member interacts with Frank, he gives them a message to give to somebody else. By doing this, people wander around and become engaged in the story. I’ve even incorporated myself into it. Some audience members have to go look at the dollhouse in the bedroom. I set up a murder scene in the dollhouse men’s room. There’s someone in the bathroom stall and there’s blood and a gun on the floor. A role might say, “Go to the bedroom and take a look in her dollhouse. Is there anything unusual in it? Then find Cynthia and ask her about what you found.” They’ll come to me, and I’ll send them to Dutch Schultz to tell him that he is the dead man in the dollhouse bathroom—and that is what is going to happen to him for instigating Frank Spano’s murder. Dutch Schultz and I hate each other in this play.

The one problem I had [when we first started] is that people would come and sit at the bar and not move around. We have a fortuneteller now who gives out the roles—she and a maid guide people. There are also new tunnels we’ve discovered in the building. We send people through tunnels to get from one place to the other. We have a barbershop now, so you can get a haircut and a shave.

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned in doing Speakeasy Dollhouse?

I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned is I’m actually quite good at creating immersive theatre. I don’t get flustered when things go in unexpected directions. I thrive on spontaneity. As long as I have the ultimate control I work well with others. I have never enjoyed performing alone, so when I have all of these people together and I’m orchestrating them I’m in my element. The tagline for the show is, “The speakeasy is my dollhouse, and you are my dolls.” Basically, I’m using the actors and audience as real-life dolls. I play with them, but they make their own choices and discoveries.

One of the things I’ve realized over the years is that as an artist you don’t come up alone. You really have to cultivate a following. I remember when you managed the band Splashdown and presented their first club gig in Boston over 15 years ago, and you had a bunch of your friends show up to support the group. And it’s the same thing I saw in an early performance of Speakeasy Dollhouse. It was obvious that you knew a majority of the people who were there, and they were willing to come and support you, which helps get projects off the ground and shows that there’s interest in your work. Otherwise it’s a lot harder to make it. I think it’s something younger artists need to understand when they’re coming up.


Cynthia Von Buhler in character for Speakeasy Dollhouse
Cynthia Von Buhler in character for Speakeasy Dollhouse

That’s actually true. I keep those connections and never lose them. Like our connection. You reviewed Splashdown years ago and here we are doing an interview more than a decade later. We’ve never stopped being in touch all of these years. Many audience members come all the way from Boston—repeatedly! A few of the actors are from Boston. In 2001, I moved to New York and made new connections. Now I live in Connecticut too, and I’m making connections here. So it is about staying connected and growing that fan base. I try to keep everybody nurtured, happy and entertained. Really I’m an entertainer—whether I’m entertaining with a play, a painting, or a party, I’m trying to keep everyone exhilarated. People appreciate that, so they continue to support my projects. I’ve been running Speakeasy Dollhouse for two-and-a-half years now, and I’m still thoroughly enjoying myself. I love immersing people in my creations. It’s like letting them take a two-and-a-half-hour swim in my brain.