A new Salt Lake City theater experience takes the audience inside a chocolate factory, where they meet the chocolatier, learn his passion and eat samples of his work.
While “Thank you Theobromine” sounds similar, it is not a “Willy Wonka” remake, said Utah choreographer Graham Brown.
“It’s not Wonka at all,” he said. “A tour of a chocolate shop is the premise, but it quickly becomes the life of the chocolatier and expresses these very complicated issues.”
Like an artisan chocolate bar, “Thank You Theobromine” is layered with both sweet and bitter notes. Throughout the 90-minute production — a mix of immersive theater and dance — characters act out short vignettes displaying a range of emotions, from joy and disappointment to honesty and intrigue to unmet expectations and love of family.
Named for the stimulant inside the cacao bean, “Theobromine” is set inside The Chocolate Conspiracy, a two-story manufacturing facility at 774 S. 300 West. During the workweek, owner AJ Wentworth produces artisan chocolate bars inside his shop using minimal — but top quality — ingredients, like organic cacao beans and raw unfiltered honey.
Wentworth is letting SONDERimmersive — the production company co-owned by Brown and his sister Molly Chrisman — take over the shop Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings for “Thank You Theobromine.” Two shows, co-directed by Rick Curtiss, are performed each night through through Jan. 5.
“Thank You Theobromine” • A new story unfolds in every room during this immersive theater and dance experience, which takes place in a chocolate shop and includes samples.
When • Friday, 6 and 8:30 p.m.; Saturday, 7 and 9:30 p.m.; and Sunday, 4 and 6:30 p.m. through Jan. 5
Where • The Chocolate Conspiracy, 774 S. 300 West, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $35 per person; VIP tickets, $50; students and large groups, $30. Does not include ticket fees and tax.
Details • thankyoutheo.com
Unlike traditional theater, where the audience sits and watches the story unfold on a stage, the chocolate shop setting allows the audience — limited to 30 per show — to walk through various rooms to watch the actors perform.
The narrative unfolds simultaneously in different parts of the shop, with performers moving from room to room, up and down the stairs and even outside. Audience members watch in close proximity, following characters and occasionally being drawn into the play.
The Libra, one of seven main performers, might whisper something in an audience member’s ear; the Hero might lead one to the kitchen to concoct a chocolate elixir; the Rejector might ask another to join the dance party on the outdoor patio; or the Altruist might take a willing participant on an imaginary car ride, using her acrobatic skills to fend off an adversary.
Audience members have a lot of freedom in choosing what they watch. Initially they may be drawn to the relationship between the Kid and the Grandmother, then move to another room to watch a card game, where the players use cacao beans as poker chips.
“It’s unique and intimate,” Graham said. “No two people have the same experience.”
Dan Schmidt attended one of the opening performances, enjoying the “nontraditional approach” and the use of the space. “You kind of build your own adventure.”
For those new to immersive theater, though, it can be awkward to stand so close to the performers and feel as if they are in the way — even though that’s the intention.
“It really pushes you past your comfort zone,” said theatergoer Darliegh Webb, “and challenges some boundaries.”
“Thank You Theobromine” isn’t the first immersive show for Brown or Salt Lake City.
In 2017, he and Curtiss teamed up with Sackerson — another theater company known for creating new works in unconventional spaces — for “Sonder.” The play took place in the former Fraternal Order of Eagles building (now Caffe Molise) at 400 South and West Temple and spanned all three floors.
In August, Sackerson launched “A Brief Waltz in a Little Room: 23 Short Plays About Walter Eyer” in the back of the Urban Arts Gallery at The Gateway. The audience walks alone into a sequence of small rooms for a series of three-minute scenes. Initially, the Saturday-only show was set to end in October, but it has been extended through December.
For “Thank You Theobromine,” the audience is broken into smaller groups, too, entering — and exiting — the narrative at different times. Guests can’t see everything in the show, and Brown guesses that people could return several times and see a different play each time. It’s one reason attendees are offered bounce-back tickets at a discount price.
Cedar Hills resident Bob Downard took advantage of the offer. “After seeing it a second time,” he said, “I was able to gather a lot more understanding of the narrative and could see how the pieces of the puzzle fit.”
His advice to those who might be hesitant about immersive theater: “Come with an open mind. Just relax and experience it.”