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Out of Hand stages citywide puzzle hunt

'The Game' Brain-teasing competition contains larger artistic ambition

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You can be assured that on Sat., May 11, you will not see hundreds of people doing the Chicken Dance in Little Five Points. May 11 marks the latest installment of Out of Hand Theater's citywide "puzzle hunt," The Game. A previous year's version of The Game had an en masse chicken dance as part of a clue, and Out of Hand doesn't repeat itself.

The company's co-artistic director Ariel Fristoe discourages people from comparing The Game to an old-fashioned scavenger hunt, despite some superficial similarities. "The Game is much harder," she says. "It's more like being a secret agent, or a character in The Da Vinci Code. Passers-by could be real, or could be part of The Game." The Game's theatrical elements draw on all of Atlanta as a stage.

Produced by the theater since 2006, The Game typically features 200-300 participants in teams of three to five. The Game's official website suggests that team members have special skills, like problem solving, creativity, driving, and staying cool under pressure. On Saturday, the teams gather at a secret rendezvous and solve puzzles that point to the next location, leading to a total of about eight places over the course of the afternoon. Out of Hand fields up to 25 people to run the event, either as actors incognito or as members of "Game Control," who provide hints when needed and otherwise keep the play from going off track.

Out of Hand, a wildly creative theater founded by Emory grads brimming with youthful enthusiasm, began dabbling in The Game in the late 1990s when Fristoe and the theater's co-founder Maia Knispel played a version of hosted by friends. They jumped on an opportunity to produce it themselves, but discovered that The Game had built-in strengths and limitations. "It's only one day a year and we can't do the same game more than once, or people would tell their friends the answers," says Fristoe.

Out of Hand initially hosted The Game as a fund-raiser, but began to have bigger ambitions for it. Fristoe remembers saying at the time, "This is exactly the kind of event that's an Out of Hand show. It's an interactive, innovative experience. So let's quit treating this like a way to make money, and instead put more time and money into it to make it a more immersive experience."

The website compares it to "The Amazing Race," but Fristoe says that the event took its name and much of its inspiration from the 1997 David Fincher thriller The Game, in which Sean Penn gives Michael Douglas the gift of playing a Kafkaesque game that absorbs his entire life. "Part of the reason the movie is so fun is because Michael Douglas doesn't know who's in on the game and who's not."

Sometimes The Game hinges on a unifying theme, like the 2008 edition that involved staged election events, with clues encoded in a candidate's debate, a fancy cocktail fund-raiser, and a visit to the state Capitol. Out of Hand frequently hires actors to provide clues, but often in ways the players won't expect. "One year we hired an actor to be a homeless man and try to engage with the players. People today are so good tuning out the homeless that the players spent all this time in the location trying to find the clue, when the actor was trying to give them the clue all along."

Out of Hand not only wants to make a cool experience for the players, but also for the stray bystanders and lookie-loos who wonder what's going on. "We like to get 100 or more players to study a piece of public art, the kind you might have passed a hundred times and not notice. That can make people outside The Game look at the art in a way they hadn't noticed before," says Fristoe.

Previous Out of Hand productions have ranged from the scripted outdoor wedding Big Love to the interactive comedy of the faux self-help seminar Help! to the flash mob experiment Group Intelligence. Fristoe explains how The Game fits with these theatrical happenings. "One of the litmus tests of an Out of Hand show is creating moments of mass intimacy. I know I've done my job right when an audience member or participant, depending on the kind of show, runs into another one a year later at a grocery store and says 'Hi!' as if they've known each other forever because of the experience. I still have people who'll come up to me because I was their Life Coach in Help!"

While it's all in brain-teasing fun, it has a deceptively ambitious purpose. "In a world where digital media is bigger than any life performing art, we want to make an event so interactive and intimate that it could change you. We think it's the best gift we can give the community now." At its best, the theater's Game might be more real than any stage play.

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