The Grift: Bay Street Teaches Art of the Con on Sag Harbor Streets

Tom Salamon, creator of "The Grift"
Tom Salamon, creator of “The Grift”

This past year, Bay Street Theater has been pushing the boundaries of the experiences it can offer audiences — from an outdoor staged concert of Camelot in Bridgehampton to a production of Macbeth, rehearsed and recorded for on-demand viewing in under a week. The next experience, a village-wide immersive theater piece known as The Grift, looks to be the most engaging yet.

Written and directed by Tom Salamon for its San Diego debut in 2015, The Grift is a hit immersive, site-specific experience that gives participants the chance to train in the art of deception, meeting shady characters throughout various locations and solving clues that will hopefully lead to the takedown of a criminal mastermind. An immersive theater aficionado for over a decade, Salamon has created experiences for Walt Disney Imagineering, Amazon Studios, Netflix, Nike, Google and the like, while also writing and directing unique productions such as The Wizards of Oakwood Drive, Accomplice and Goosebumps Alive.

Part theater, part game, the latest rendition of The Grift takes place throughout Sag Harbor Village, beginning and ending at Bay Street. An audience of 50 per show, split into groups of 10, will be thrust into an adventure that will test their intelligence and problem-solving skills as they’re trained in scams like The Pig in the Poke, The Round-the-Corner and The Money Swap. Players will quickly become master grifters in order to pull off one final con in Sag Harbor.

"The Grift" comes to Bay Street Theater (and locations throughout Sag Harbor) on March 17
“The Grift” comes to Bay Street Theater (and locations around Sag Harbor) March 24

Salamon describes The Grift to be like “stepping inside Ocean’s Eleven or The Sting, or any of those other conman movies,” an idea that came to him several years ago and instantly seemed like a concept worth developing as an immersive theater experience.

“That nugget feels like a really good idea — and, of course, there’s a long way to go before you solve all the problems with how you do that — but when you come up with something that’s going to be really fun to engage in, I love that initial nugget of a gem of an idea,” he says. “My stuff is really active, so I want the audience to feel like they’re really a part of it. There’s immersive stuff there that gives you agency to walk around and look at different things.”

The Grift found acclaim in San Diego, and later London in 2018, by acting as a work of historical fiction — shaping its narrative to fit seamlessly and organically in the context of its location, thus creating two distinct productions. Now coming to Sag Harbor, the show will include “some inventive history of Sag Harbor and some actual history” as it takes groups to meet characters at a local bar, art gallery, garden, townhouse and other stops along its winding adventure. The scene inside the townhouse, in particular, “will knock your socks off,” Salamon says.

With an audience of 50 split into five groups of 10 to be sent on their puzzle-solving adventures in Sag Harbor, the question of structure arises. As numerous groups embark on their journeys around the same time, their own way and at their own pace, how are they supposed to stay on track and on time in a way that the narrative makes sense?

The answer is a strict timeline (about 90 minutes) and a “little bit of a juggling.”

Unlike some other immersive theater pieces, participants can’t visit story points in any order. There is a set order of scenes, each running about 12 minutes, depending on the puzzle-solving speed of the group. The actors and stage managers are also tasked with keeping groups moving along in time with the preceding and following groups.

“It’s looser than traditional theater, but it’s still within this time window of experiencing a scene,” Salamon says explaining that structure is key to telling a compelling, engaging story. “There are opportunities to play along, participate, engage, figure things out, hold things, learn these cons, unlock locks, solve clues and things like that, but that is all within a structure that is very organized and time-driven.”

Featuring mental and physical puzzles that must be solved within an allotted time, similar to an escape room, The Grift is balanced in favor of its players. Between the 10 members of each group, they should have no issue finding the solutions they seek and advancing to the next plot point in time for the next group.

“This is not meant to be really, really challenging because what happens then is you have winners and losers in those things (escape rooms), and I don’t want anybody to feel like a loser,” Salamon explains, adding that, on the other hand, “if it’s too simple, it’s no fun. It’s just finding that balance of what’s fun to engage in and figure out, but not so difficult that people walk away feeling like, ‘Oh, I lost.’”

Ultimately, The Grift is intended to be a fun, immersive experience unique to Sag Harbor, the likes of which have been historically exclusive to big cities like NYC, Los Angeles and Chicago. Salamon looks forward to its debut and admits that, as is the case with all his productions, seeing participants enjoy taking part in his carefully crafted story is his favorite part of the process.

“Watching people participate in it and get super involved in it, you can see when people are having a really good time, as opposed to a darkened theater where you can get a tangible sense of what the audience is feeling, but when you’re watching people do this thing and they’re smiling, laughing and are completely engaged, that part is really fun,” he says.

The Grift runs Thursday, March 24 through Sunday, April 3, with six shows per week. Masks and proof of vaccination are required for entry. Tickets start at $39 and are available through the box office by calling 631-725-9500 and at baystreet.org.

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