"Thank you for your email. I am out of the office until February 2017, as I am a Maze Master in The Crystal Maze. For any urgent queries, please contact…"
It sounds a little smug, but I'll be honest – I don't care. It's not often that you get to set something like this as your out of office. Even as an actor, the best that you can normally hope for is, "I will be away for a week because I'm going be dressed as a chicken in a Romanian field for a McDonald's commercial." Unless you're Benedict Cumberbatch, of course, because then you're in everything ever.
For those of you who don't remember, The Crystal Maze was a 1990s TV phenomenon. Teams of jumpsuit-clad mature students from Bridlington would be led through a warren of puzzles and challenges by eccentric hosts, walking across rotating logs and fending off animatronic spiders to win the coveted crystals, each of which gave five seconds in a giant, glass dome, where contestants had to catch golden bits of paper in hurricane force winds. Written down, it sounds utterly baffling. And it was. The contestants would travel through four zones – initially Industrial, Aztec, Medieval and Futuristic – playing improbable games, all the while being guided/mocked by either Richard O'Brien or Ed Tudor-Pole, who both added a camp cherry to the top of a deeply weird cake.
In March 2016, a live version opened in London. Created by a group of friends with backgrounds in immersive theatre, and part-funded by Indiegogo, this was the chance for all those people who sat at home in the '90s shouting "no, not like that, do that, you idiot" to finally try it themselves.
I was lucky enough to be cast as a Maze Master, one of the actors responsible for shepherding groups of excited people around as they fulfil their childhood dreams. So in February I sacked off my grown-up job and set off for a nondescript office building in Angel to see what it was all about.
On arriving, it wasn't too promising. Contractors were traipsing back and forth, the walls were wet with paint and the whole building had the fraught energy of a man waking up naked in a hedge and realising that he needed to conduct the Royal Philharmonic in half an hour. Gradually, everyone filtered upstairs to sit in rows of chairs arranged like a school assembly. The air was full of shy greetings from people who'd met at the auditions, as well as the slightly more boisterous hellos from actors and comedians who knew each other from the circuit. It turns out that sketch comedy doesn't pay the bills, but it sure gives you the lungs to bellow at an office manager from Middlesex who's trying to balance on a thin wooden beam.
Once we were all assembled, the CEO of the company appeared and started to brief us on what was going on. The reality of the situation began to sink in. This was the Crystal Maze, and it was exactly as huge and weird as we'd all hoped it would be.
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The first few days of the rehearsal process were some of the most ridiculous, baffling and fun days of work I've ever had. Maze Masters are responsible for taking people from game to game, and encouraging the players as they inevitably struggle. This, of course, meant that we had to play all the games ourselves. Repeatedly. It turns out that the daily hell of a nine-to-five commute is a lot easier to stomach when you know that, rather than sitting at a desk, you'll be heading into work to live the kind of life eight-year-old you could only dream of.
Each day would start with half an hour of cardio and yoga, before heading off to run around a partly sand-filled converted office block. By day three, I was dead on my feet. Years of sitting in front of a computer had left me with the fitness level of your average blancmange, and my last experience of yoga was putting my back out when I bent to do up my shoelaces, so this much exercise came as a terrible shock. At the end of each day, every last Maze Master was a sweaty, aching heap. Thinking about it, it's an exercise regime I'd recommend to anyone – my feet still hurt four months in, but on the plus side, I look great naked.
After everyone had gotten the hang of the games – no mean feat, considering that there's bloody loads of them, each with its own rules, timings and, you know, location in the building – it was time to start working on our characters. This was one of the trickiest aspects of the whole thing. Normally with comedy and theatre, the actors on stage are the audience's focus; the set might be nice and the costumes may be interesting, but it's the performance that draws the audience into the world. Not so with The Crystal Maze.
As Maze Masters, we want to bring the players into our world, but we're well aware that we're not the stars of the show. The Maze itself is the star – each zone unique and visually stunning, and many of the games are lifted straight from the TV show. The Maze Masters aren't even co-stars. That falls to the audience. The experience is about them, about their journey through the Maze, their successes and their failures. No one wants to spend 15 minutes hearing someone describe their character's backstory in agonising detail – they want to play the games.
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Equally, being led from room to room by a monosyllabic and uninterested tour guide would suck all the magic and wonder from an experience that's quite unlike anything else. As a group, we found the middle ground, creating characters and personas surreal enough to allow the players to immerse themselves in this weird world without worrying about looking silly, but also keeping grounded enough to let the experience shine through.
After weeks of rehearsals, first aid training and health and safety briefings – as well as watching the Maze grow from being a literal building site to a vision from our childhood – we opened to the public. I honestly didn't know what to expect. Even now, opening the door to the briefing room and meeting your team is a little like playing Russian Roulette: you have no idea who could be waiting for you.
There is one constant, however, and that's the look of excitement in everyone's eyes as they step inside the Maze for the very first time. It's an utterly magical experience and I'm so privileged to be a part of it. Even several months down the line, I'm still filled with a sense of astonishment and pride every time I get to stand at the door of the Dome and shout: "Will you start the fans, please!"
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