“We didn't have to leave Albuquerque to build this,” Lise Watkins, Art Director for Electric Playhouse, explains. “You don't have to leave Albuquerque to do basically anything.”
The Electric Playhouse team of just under 30 locals reflects the diverse experience you’d expect from an “all-ages dining, gaming, and recreation wonderland.” John Mark Collins, CEO and co-founder, has a background in culinary arts and a degree in computer science from The University of New Mexico. He spent years in fine dining — and as a collector of skills — decided to meld two of his worlds into one coherent and fantastical experience.
Albuquerque local Julian Griego is the Head Chef and works in close conjunction with the sound and lighting team to make sure each immersive meal experience is cohesive, and that every step of the meal is conducive to serving all of the diners’ senses. “All of the content on the walls and the music is made in-house to go with the menu that's curated by the chef,” says Kristen Garcia, Community Relations Manager. The team plans to rotate the dining experience every three-months.
“A majority of our leadership staff are native New Mexicans, and if not, they've adopted this as their home,” Garcia says. “We're committed to bringing something to Albuquerque that we were all proud of, have committed to keeping the art here, creating jobs, and keeping our talent is huge for us.”
Located in a former Staples (Thanks a lot, Amazon), Electric Playhouse is easy to find if you’re even remotely familiar with westside Albuquerque. According to Garcia, there are over 30,000 empty box stores just like this one across the country. Over the past two years, the 25,000 square feet space has been transformed into a playground. Or rather, a Playhouse.
With a full commercial restaurant kitchen, the only remnant of the previous business is the double glass door entry. Everything else is brand new. The full bar (a hard commodity to come by in New Mexico) speaks to the efforts placed into making the completely interactive and immersive, family-style dining events a worthwhile experience. After a drink or two, the lights projected onto the walls and tables — specifically paired with the food and sound design — come alive.
The entrance features the familiar: a merch section, quiet cafe, a few TVs. What you don’t see coming is a beckoning rainbow-lit hallway designed in part by co-founder Brandon Garrett and fabricated by Dekker/Perich/Sabatini Architects. The hallway can be lit in any combination of rainbow colors and/or animation. After passing through, you leave behind the color story of the real-world and step into a Tron-like cosmic experience.
The Kaleidotorium, a dimly lit space around the size of a basketball court, is an interactive gaming space where two-to-four teams run to jump on color-specific tiles. The game uses 3D and depth sensors to make sure each team scores. “A key member of our team on the programming side is Luke Balaoro,” Watkins says of Balaoro, another UNM graduate. “He's a partner and also a leader with the development of the technology that is used to run this space. It's just his kind of creative genius.”
Watkins proudly states that they recently gained the coveted B-Corp certification, which is only granted to a handful of companies around the world. Being B-Corp certified means that the business “meets the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.”
“We're joining the likes of Meow Wolf and other progressive companies in New Mexico, and a part of that mission is to employ local people and to pay a fair wage,” she says. “That's something that we take really seriously. It's part of the company culture. That's a really great part of being here.”
Once past the Kaleidotorium, you enter one of eight smaller “pods” and make your way to the Octagon, a performance space featuring audio reactive technology in the floors and walls. Mesmerizing colors and patterns are created through touch and sound. There’s also a pod with a ring light to make Instagram Boomerangs and an area called The Arena, which includes a Snake-like depth sensory game visitors plays by running around.
Not only does Electric Playhouse encourage healthy play, they are also building a curriculum to introduce community kids to STEAM education through group lessons from technology and development teams. They’ve already worked with an after-school math and robotics group, who were able to play before speaking to the sound designer about his career path.
Albuquerque is not Santa Fe. It’s not Tucson. It’s not Colorado Springs. It’s a unique home to a wealth of diverse people and cultures. Electric Playhouse’s use of local resources and investment into the community is inspiring. Albuquerque can and should have all of the experiences of larger cities, and should continue to grow out of it’s “little big city” reputation. Electric Playhouse is now a huge part of that movement.