College of Fine Arts developing climate change escape room

Brynne Herzfeld

Theatre graduate student Chris Conard has never experienced an escape room. Now, he is helping build one.

In an escape room, players solve puzzles to complete a central task within a time limit. Conard is part of a College of Fine Arts interdepartmental project constructing an escape room using climate change data from Planet Texas 2050, a UT project that develops programs to improve Texas’s resilience against natural disasters.

“I’m always looking for opportunities to work on large-scale projects that involve lots of collaboration and lots of excited people,” Conard said. “It’s definitely a challenge for everyone involved.”

In this escape room, players take on the roles of researchers on an oceanic research platform escaping a storm.

“It started off as just a project for the students, but with other entities like Planet Texas being interested, we really have to make sure it sort of meets all those expectations,” theatre professor Sven Ortel said. “The goal is to have this prototype done by the end of next semester in time for (South by Southwest).”

Ortel and his colleagues, design professors Michael Baker and Michael McKellar, developed the idea for the escape room in January and pitched it to other faculty members at the theatre and dance school.

“A lot of our students, the design students, want to apply their skills outside of theatre,” Ortel said. “They want to work in immersive experiences … any kind of experience where you basically follow a story or some sort of narrative.”

The project turned into an interdepartmental effort within the College of Fine Arts, bringing in the School of Design and Creative Technologies, the Department of Theatre and Dance and Texas Applied Arts. Scenic studio supervisor J. E. Johnson is one of the instructors leading courses where students will construct different aspects of the escape room.


“I’m teaching a course specifically for the fabrication of the physical escape room,” Johnson said. “We will be using the production design and assets created by game design courses to transform those into the physical spaces.”

Conard said one challenge is ensuring the design is communicated clearly between groups, but he is hopeful about the project’s viability.

“I don’t see any opportunities for failure — I see only opportunities for success,” Conard said. “No doubt, there’ll be struggles, but those are normally opportunities for new innovations.”