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The Grift’ Serves Up Interactive Play At The Lafayette Hotel

Latest production in La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls program teaches how to pull a short con

If you think going to the theater is a passive activity, think again. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando takes us to a performance of "The Grift" where audiences follow a play through the Lafayette Hotel and are asked to perform tasks along the way.


Companion Viewing

"The Lady Eve" (1941)

"The Flim-Flam Man" (1967)

"Skin Game" (1971)

"The Sting" (1973)

"The Grifters" (1990)

If you think going to the theater is a passive activity, think again. Audiences for "The Grift" follow the play through The Lafayette Hotel and are asked to perform tasks along the way.

Imagine North Park’s Lafayette Hotel as if it were a live action Clue board game but instead of trying to figure out who killed whom with what you’re being moved from room to room, character to character, and being asked to partake in a con game.

At the start of "The Grift," audience members watch a video featuring a man who introduces himself like this: "Hello, there. I have a death bed confession. I am a lifelong con man."

His name is Ben, and he's the creation of writer-director Tom Salamon.

"Being in the participatory theatre world for awhile now, I thought that the art of the con would lend itself well to audiences having to participate," Salamon said.

Participatory theater is something that’s becoming a specialty for Salamon. He created a play called "Accomplice New York" that took place on the streets of Manhattan with actors in bars and on street corners. He then designed a San Diego version. Now he’s asking audiences to participate even more for his new interactive play, "The Grift."

"So you are going to be randomly dropped into this story, and it’s going to take place all over the hotel, and you’re doing the bidding of a guy who grew up and lived his whole life within the hotel," Salamon explained. "As an audience member you’re going to be thrown into the middle of this experience that takes place in different locations across the hotel."

Marike Fitzgerald, associate producer for Without Walls, said the show was created to be performed at the hotel.

"Without Walls is a new series that was started in 2010, through the La Jolla Playhouse, that was designed to take theater outside the traditional theater spaces and out into the community at unique and exciting locations. … We were sort of scouting ideas for a new show and our creator, Tom, said: ' Hey, how about a hotel? Can you bring me to some neighborhoods and some landmarks to see what might spark an idea?'"

Salamon said, "You find a location, and you have a story idea, and then you utilize the location to fit with your story, and you try to get away with whatever you can get away with in that space and feature the space as best you can."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Jim Carmody

Scott Nickley (left) as “The Lifeguard’s Grandson,” with audience participants, in La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls presentation of "The Grift" at The Lafayette Hotel in North Park.

He called the Lafayette a dream location with a touch of noir. But it’s also a functioning hotel, which means that on opening weekend your play might be sharing space with a drag queen convention.

"I’m sure our audience thought we maybe orchestrated that. We did not," Salamon said. "It was just something that was going on at the hotel and it played a big part in the show in certain respects. It was like they were all extras in our story, and there were drag queens all over the place in the middle of the lobby, by the pool, at the bar, and the audience took it all in stride and the actors referred to it sometimes."

Out of necessity, the actors have to be able to roll with the punches.

"That’s why they are cast, they are great improvisers and can think on their feet," Salamon said.

That's because things never go as planned.

"So you make assumptions about how people are going to react to certain things, what they are going to be able to figure out and process, and so as soon as you start to put bodies in the space they may act differently," Salamon said. "You can speculate how they will act but you never really know. They are supposed to do one thing and they do something else, so you sort of mend it and adjust as you find out the psychology of how these groups act."

But that’s the excitement and energy that La Jolla Playhouse's Without Walls was designed to create.

"Can we as an organization challenge ourselves to rethink how we are making theater, how we are doing business, really kind of break out of the traditional structures that we’re used to?" Fitzgerald said.

And break audiences out of their expectations by enticing them with something new, said Salamon.

"I think that a show like this plays to the ego because it feels like the entire world has been created for you," he said.

That’s essentially what a clever con does as well, but at least with "The Grift," you're in on the rouse.

La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls production of "The Grift" continues at The Lafayette Hotel through March 22. The hotel is at 2223 El Cajon Blvd.


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Photo of Beth Accomando

Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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