Jean Tegtmeyer and Alice Sylvie in The Stacks: An Immersive Mystery

Everything I knew about immersive theatre I learned from the 1997 Bill Murray film The Man Who Knew Too Little. Until Monday night, that is, when I attended a preview performance of The Stacks: An Immersive Mystery by Ben Gougeon and Alexander Richardson (who also is a Reader reviewer) and learned … . Well, "learned" isn't quite right.

The venue is the Sound Conservatory, a music academy and store. For the past three months, it has occupied the Carnegie building that, from 1904 to 2009, served as the first Moline Public Library. Hence, the stacks – rows of regimented shelves that once held the adult nonfiction collection – were bare, waiting for removal. This inspired veteran actor/director Gougeon, experienced in New York immersive theatre, to produce a show there. He had only about 10 weeks to find actors and crew, figure out lighting, sound, set décor, props … . Oh, and come up with a plot. And a script. With Richardson as co-writer, and together with about 30 other artists, they assembled an eerie place and time for us to experience.

Yes! That's the right word. In this troupe's skilled hands, the stacks become a 1950s Catholic-college library where a murder is imminent – a little three-dimensional world in which to experience a time long past. And all this world's a stage.

Immersive theatre comes in different flavors. In the Murray movie, his character believes he's the star of a spy-themed immersive production with improv actors. In The Stacks, scripted scenes unfold intermittently in various locations: upstairs, the main floor, and the basement art-department studios. You're invisible to the characters; there's no interaction between performers and audience, and no talking between spectators. But you can prowl and eavesdrop at will. Everyone witnesses the happenings differently.

Titus Jildera and Kira Rangel in The Stacks: An Immersive Mystery

At the start, we each get a card naming a task. Mine was to find a particular item in the basement. At first, not being a natural Nancy Drew type (or Miss Marple, Kinsey Millhone, Stephanie Plum, Jane Rizzoli – ask a librarian for more mystery-book recommendations!), I found it disconcerting to walk into a room where an actor stood (or soon might enter) and poke around like I was looking to buy the place. I got bolder. At one point, I found a mysterious door that opened to a closet, concealing (dun dun DUN!) a vacuum cleaner. But most of your investigating will likely yield enigmatic treasures. (I never did find that item, by the way, and suspect it was a misdirect to get me going.)

You can get very nosy with props. You can't move them from their designated spots, but peeking at letters, fliers, class notebooks, and inside files is encouraged. And, naturally, there are books. But they are few, placed artfully about, many with ominous titles. (Even if you don't know German, "Jetzt Kommt Euer Betthupferl" – "Now comes your bedtime treat" – is sufficiently menacing, even though it's simply a children's fairy-tale collection.) The mostly empty stacks mean you've got through-the-shelves sight lines to events yards away – or, from the next row, about a foot away. (Loved that.)

The irregular, multi-shaded glows of light, surreal levitating objects, and hushed, echoing voices create a dreamlike atmosphere; I was a spectre with the power to go anywhere, see anything, with no one knowing. And here, time is not linear. The actors repeat scenes, so we all have a chance to discover as we wander. As a patron of this used-to-be library, I even encountered ghosts of myself.

Titus Jildera and Jeremy Mahr in The Stacks: An Immersive Mystery

Gougeon's performers – Alice Sylvie, Anya Giordano, Bradley Robert Jensen, Eric Teeter, Jean Tegtmeyer, Jeremy Mahr, Kira Rangel, and Titus Jilderda – are convincing and simply outstanding, as I'd expected from knowing their work, and acting as The Stacks' stewards are Emma Watts, Dash Crow, Emily Baker, Jack Pawlak, and Noel Jean Huntley. Stewards are there to shine flashlights for you, gently lead you out of the way if a scene is imminent – or lead you forward. One beckoned to me and opened a door, silently inviting me to enter a small, dim room studded with flickering LED candles and packed with uneasy atmosphere. Within a minute, someone entered and revealed … well, stuff that didn't help me with the mystery. But the performance was raw, captivating, and literally in my face.

Be prepared for an hour-15 of walking and standing, including stairs. However, you can move as much or as little as you choose. The upper balcony is a prime spot for watching main-floor scenes, and you can often hear conversations from a distance. You can even ask for a chair – much will unfold in your sight. Plus, there are wide window ledges handy for brief rests, as well as ample shelving to lean on.

And don't worry about solving the mystery. Really. You could come every night and have a different experience each time. I stumbled into one plot thread that happened to comprise roughly 60 percent of everything I witnessed, but my companion hadn't heard even a breath of it. He did, however, witness the killing.

Soon, the stacks – and The Stacks – will be gone; the space repurposed. You'll never get another chance to linger in this 105-year-old former library and absorb this fascinating, ingenious drama. Do not miss it.


The Stacks: An Immersive Mystery runs at the Sound Conservatory (504 17th Street, Moline IL) through March 2, and more information and tickets are available by visiting and

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