The Movie Experience’s Clumsy Casablanca

By: Jessica Goddard

There are two unique components to the premise of The Movie Experience hosted by The Secret Sessions – the featured film the event will be based upon is to be kept secret, and that the event is immersive.  Patrons mingle with actors playing characters from the movie in a location decorated according to the mystery film’s setting, culminating in a screening of the movie that is simultaneously acted out by the cast.

The “secret” element of The Secret Sessions is that when you buy your ticket, you do so without being told what the movie will be.  You are informed of the dress code, and 24 hours prior to the event, you’re sent the details of the secret venue.  The “experience” element of The Movie Experience is that you’re meant to live scenes from the movie, meaning that there are moments when you’ll be mingling with the other audience members and a dramatic scene from the film will be played out, loud and clear in a corner of the room, so that everyone stops what they’re doing and watches.

But when you’re working with a film as cherished as Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, one wonders whether at least one part of this (admirably daring) concept is doomed from the get-go.

For background, this is the second Toronto installment of The Movie Experience by The Secret Sessions; the first being themed around Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy in November of last year.  An important difference should be established between a movie like Anchorman and Casablanca – the former is a true cult classic with a devoted, more niche fanbase, while the latter is frequently referred to as one of the greatest movies of all time, even 75 years later.  Of course, Anchorman is also an irreverent comedy, while Casablanca is a romantic drama that literally features subject matter as heavy as Nazi occupations.

This makes Casablanca a bold choice, to be sure.  For one thing, for those who know the movie, it’s kind of hard to know how to react when a Nazi character approaches you while you’re at the roulette table.  You know it’s just an actor, but he’s also supposed to be a Nazi.  Are you meant to be making nice with a Nazi?  He’s certainly friendly and charismatic, but if the idea is to immerse yourself in the story, the impulse is obviously to call him slime and kick this innocent actor in the shins.

However, The Secret Sessions is generous in its attention to detail.  Everything is very well thought-out, from the Moroccan-style food provided, to the excellent pianist and accompanying singer, to the lighthearted faux-gambling table located in the upstairs portion of the venue.

But, one of the issues with this event is that it requires a lot of willing and enthusiastic participants in its audience in order to be executed most effectively.  Interacting with the characters is fun and playful if you get to do it according to your own pace, but if the venue isn’t packed, the actors are too eager to chat and they start to get a little pushy.  When you consider that there’s no guarantee in this day and age that younger folks will have seen a black-and-white movie from the 40s like Casablanca, the sometimes-overbearing persistence of the actors can be awkward.

Another challenge to this particular production is that most of the actors involved – while generally talented – don’t quite fit age-wise with the characters we know and love from the film.  Of course there’s only so much that can be done about such a thing, but the result of having a classic Humphrey Bogart character played by an actor who is clearly in his early 20s is that you start to feel like you’re watching a high school play.

Then there’s also the matter of having the cast talking over one of the best movies ever produced.  Yes, Casablanca is physically accessible and anyone who wants to watch it uninterrupted can do so at any other time, but there’s just something frustrating about being engrossed in the ever-celebrated chemistry of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman only to have the actors jump in and speak over them.

This installment of The Movie Experience is obviously a noble effort, and it should be made clear that this kind of artistic initiative is exactly the kind that should see more support in the city of Toronto.  But it does seem like The Secret Sessions’ choice of film this time around was a little clumsy.  Not to mention the fact that Casablanca is so beloved that it probably does this company few favours to not be able to advertise that the event is basically one big Casablanca party.

While the idea behind this theatre-film-mashup is exciting and fresh, selecting Casablanca was an overreach in practice.  However, the experience is still a good time if you’re familiar with the movie and you’re in the mood to participate, rather than simply observe.

Learn more about The Secret Sessions by visiting their website!

Photography by: Devon Lowry

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