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I like to try new things. In fact, it doesn't take much to get me to agree to try something new, the caveat being that whatever the thing is it needs to intrigue me in some way.
The Mad Hatter's Gin & Tea party pop-up in Los Angeles intrigued me.
I gathered friends, who also have a love of most things Alice in Wonderland and we bought tickets to go together.
A description of the event was provided to those attending.
"An immersive theater / drinking experience
The Mad Hatter’s (Gin &) Tea Party offers guests a chance to take a trip down the rabbit hole into an immersive, 1.5 hour-long cocktail experience with teatime snacks hosted by the Hatter himself.
The Mad Hatter, Dormouse, and Hare are unleashing teatime mayhem with a brand new experience and taste of Wonderland on the West Coast! LA—prepare to go mad at one of their boozy tea parties, all talking place in a secret Wonderland garden!
Begin your journey down the rabbit hole and let your mad hosts serve you a menu of tantalizing tea party cocktails made with the most curious ingredients. But do remember—if you don’t know where you are going, then it doesn’t much matter which way you go… Just be sure that you're not late!"
This is the description that got me to pay $60 per person, because I honestly thought it would be one thing and it turned out to be something completely different.
Let's start with the location. It is located very near Hollywood and Vine, putting it smack dab in the heart of Tourist Town, Los Angeles. It appeared to be set up in an alley between two permanent structures. They have a tarp overhead and two iron doors to give it some semblance of a building, but we weren't fooled.
There is a person at a podium who checks you in and double-checks who all in your group will be drinking. As the point of this pop-up is drinking I wouldn't recommend not drinking.
The group is then ceremoniously shoved through the large double doors into the first room, which is no bigger than the size of a closet. On the walls are many mannequin heads adorned with hats.
Each person is meant to find a hat, wear it, and the name on the hat is now who you are. Most people had to settle for the hats they were near because getting across the room was practically impossible.
During the battle of the hats we are handed our first "tea." I don't recall being told the ingredients, but I was beyond caring at that point and just wanted the libations to begin.
The "tea" was served in cute jars and I knew from pictures I had seen online that they were meant to have cork lids and little embellishments with the words "drink me." Ours did not have this.
It's disappointing that my group didn't receive these things. I'm guessing it had something to do with the pop-up having ran for a few months at this point and them not replacing things that would obviously go foul or get lost during the multiple showings done in a day.
On one of the walls is an animatronic Cheshire Cat who we are told to listen to as he describes the house rules for the experience, however, the audio for the Cheshire Cat is awful and so we have a hard time making out what is being said.
Basically, we are told that the actors will in fact be interacting with the audience and that we will more than likely be asked to participate.
Despite the clear red flags I still held out hope that this would turn around, that just through the other set of doors would be an experience well worth the effort we had taken to get there.
We enter the "Garden" and while it was't what I had expected, the decor was something to marvel at for at least the first ten minutes or so. The walls are adorned with fabrics and flowers that look like they came from Joann Fabrics and Michael's. A giant clock sits on one wall and the ceiling holds a chandelier of tea cups and more flowers. I will say that it was impressive for the space they had to work with.
There are two U-shaped tables with a small stage in between where one of the actors dressed in a nightgown is sprawled across acting as if they are asleep (The dormouse). It takes me a moment to notice the other actors as they are mixed in with the audience still filing in trying to find a seat.
The Mad Hatter is the most lack luster when it comes to the costumes. He wore a simple yellow shirt with a blue vest and top hat, with simple gold makeup around his eyes.
The March Hare, who was arguably my favorite of the characters, is impressive in his lingerie-esq trimmings, complete with white garter, white skirt, and white fur scarf. Honestly, if he hadn't said he was the March Hare I would have assumed the White Rabbit, which tells me they weren't aware enough of the theme to not make that costuming mistake.
The second "tea" is served!
We are given about 1/3 a tea cup of drink, as they begin a rousing round of "Never Have I Ever." But they changed it you see, because they say, "I'm so clever, I have never..."
They split the tables into four groups and we go two rounds around our respective groups playing this game that is usually a hit in college dorm rooms or bachelorette parties, not so much at what is supposed to be a theater experience.
The March Hare plays the ukulele and sings the Jabberwocky Poem, while we are served bite sized pastries that not only look like they were purchased at a grocery store, but they were definitely purchased at a grocery store days ago. There is also a bit about chocolate covered crickets.
The third "tea" is served!
Again, a 1/3 of a tea cup's worth of cocktail.
Three members of the audience are selected to mix the cocktail and a joke is made about the fact that we each paid $60... for this. Probably not a smart move to remind those of us that aren't exactly happy about that fact.
The dormouse recites "The Walrus and the Carpenter," but I can barely hear what he is saying, as he is raising and dropping his voice throughout making it difficult to understand him. The actors weren't mic'd at all.
The March Hare disappears and a Rastafarian Caterpillar returns in his place (clearly the same actor). While I loved the March Hare, the Caterpillar was cringe inducing to say the least. I could feel the mood of the entire room shift in that moment and honestly I think that is where they finally lost all credibility with the audience.
The fourth and final "tea" is served!
We are given our final 1/3 tea cup serving of cocktail as we are finally told why these characters are stuck in this time loop garden (this is at least an hour into this thing). The Hatter had a relationship with a female version of time and essentially ghosted her.
That's it, that is the story they went with and we then watch as the Hatter sends Time a text message, using tea leaves, saying he is sorry. He obviously doesn't receive a response and then the Dormouse figures out that he could just move the hands on the giant clock all along. Hurray! They are no longer stuck in time loop garden purgatory and the entire story not only didn't make sense, but was pointless.
The March Hare returns just in time for each actor to slam (and I mean SLAM) a jar on each end of the tables for tips. That's right, after shelling out $60 a head they expect tips, making me wonder if they are even getting paid for this, which is a depressing thought. (PAY ARTISTS!)
Look, there were things I did enjoy. As I mentioned I like the actor portraying the March Hare. He was entertaining and could play the ukulele. He also interacted with the audience a lot more than the other two.
Another thing I thought was done well were the "teas" themselves. The cocktails were clever from the names, to the ingredients and they tasted decent. However, only serving about a 1/3 a cup of each doesn't justify the cost, especially when Gin is one of the cheapest liquors you can use.
The last thing that was positive and what will probably stick with me the most is the audience themselves, or at least those who like me decided to just roll with it and try to enjoy it. It was the interactions among ourselves that gave me the best moments during this experience and for that I am grateful.
Because here is the thing, you can't claim something is immersive if you don't actually make it immersive. Don't have us scramble in a packed room for a hat with a "character persona" attached if it ultimately means nothing. Don't tell us that the audience will be interacted with and then only select three audience members from a group of at least twenty AND THEN have those three just mix a cocktail.
Immersive theater to me is more than just three actors (doing their best mind you) dressed in costumes that look like they came from a Goodwill. Immersive theater to me is having the audience participate in an actual story versus handing us alcohol and having us play a weird version of "Never Have I Ever." Immersive theater is not sitting and drinking like your in a bar with some lively people instead of an actual show.
While I'm glad it is an experience I had, mainly because of the friends that came with me, I know that I wouldn't do this again. Not only that, this experience has made me weary of any future pop-ups in Los Angeles that peak my interest.