The Austinites Behind the Curtain: Cheerful Secrets

Previously in this series:
Hyde Park Storytelling
Wishing Horse Productions
Tiny Minotaur
Art Island
Erica Lies
Mike Stefanik
Ron Berry
Hyperreal Film Club
Gino Scaramuzza

We love spotlighting local creatives who are responsible for the events that we list. Remember, there would be no pig parades, facial hair competitions, dance shows in quarries, or sound installations in tree houses without the individual people who organize and promote them. You can read some of our previous interviews on our website. In our May 2024 issue, we spoke with Rebecca Maag, the producer behind local immersive theater company Cheerful Secrets.

Lite + Brite: Tell us about the origin of Cheerful Secrets. What was your first event?
Rebecca Maag, Cheerful Secrets: I formed Cheerful Secrets right at the end of 2022. I was aiming to produce my first show as part of FronteraFest, a theater festival which happens in Austin every year in January-February. That first show, Flood of Spirits, was really the springboard for me. It was a good idea that just wouldn’t leave me alone. I wrote, directed, produced, and performed Flood of Spirits first at Hillside Farmacy as part of FronteraFest 2023, and then later that year, I brought it to The Driskill, where we sold out our eight-day run leading up to Halloween.

L+B: Cheerful Secrets’ current production, Overheard on a Train, is running every weekend through the end of this month. We did it a couple weeks ago, and it was so fun: the writing was excellent; it was a unique afternoon activity to do with friends; and it got us onto the commuter rail for the first time ever. How would you describe Overheard on a Train to someone who hasn’t been yet?
CS: It’s an interactive immersive experience that happens on board Austin’s commuter train. You and three friends will sign up as a group, and you’ll receive a script when you board the train. During the train journey, your foursome will read the script to each other, out loud. (It’s a “table read,” and you are the actors!) You won’t know the plot in advance; instead, your collective story will unfold as you turn each page and deliver each line. The experience lasts two hours, includes a free drink at intermission, and we start and end downtown.

L+B: How did you come up with the idea for Overheard on a Train—both the overall design concept as well as the specific plot lines for the two plays?
CS: Early in the pandemic, a friend mentioned that it would be fun to read a script of The West Wing. I assigned roles to my friends, hung up an American flag on the wall behind me, and we had a great time. And then we kept doing it. We expanded to all sorts of other shows—Friends, Justified, Peaky Blinders, Parks & Rec, Friday Night Lights, E.R., etc.—and even threw an Emmy awards ceremony for ourselves to recognize great or hilarious moments we’d had. That experience was a real bright spot for me during the pandemic. And it showed me that people have fun when they get to play pretend—we never really grow out of that. So, I knew I wanted to create a Cheerful Secrets experience that would be set up as a table read, to spread the fun to more people. 

The train idea came afterwards, when I realized I could put four characters on a train and let the real-world trappings of public transportation create an immersive experience for audience members; in that way, I’d be creating an experience that is both unique and familiar. As for the different storylines, guests are able to choose between THE BAND, in which four bandmates are on their way to a gig, or THE BACHELORETTE PARTY, in which four Austinites are on their way to a friend’s bachelorette party. Those two ideas seem to strike the right balance of approachable yet silly, familiar yet funny, and showcase characters that you plausibly could overhear on a train in Austin.

L+B: What were some of the challenges of creating and running Overheard on a Train? Have you had to deal with train delays?!
CS: No train delays so far. CapMetro is on top of it! But there is a certain element of risk in doing a production in a public space. What if the train is unexpectedly packed one day? What if there’s a disruptive person on board? I have a lot less control than I would in a traditional theatre space. It keeps things lively!

L+B: What’s the most memorable or unexpected thing to ever happen at a Cheerful Secrets event?
CS: During Flood of Spirits, I accidentally haunted someone. (Even though I’m tempted to just let that sentence hang there, I’ll explain: I was in my costume, waiting for an elevator in the Driskill in a hallway that’s near the stairs. But this group of people who were heading toward the stairs hadn’t seen me hit the button and didn’t know there was an elevator there. So, from their vantage point, all they saw was a woman in old-timely clothes seemingly walk into a wall and disappear! They were honestly freaked out and thought they saw a Driskill ghost, until I walked out of the elevator doors on the floor below. They told me what happened, and we all laughed really hard.)

L+B: One of the things that impresses me about your work is that you handle so many complicated logistical and tangible details—booking cool spaces, getting together costumes and props, designing and binding scripts—not to mention the creative details of coming up with the concepts and actually writing the plays—and yet immersive theater isn’t even your primary job! I know this is a hard question to answer, but I really want to know: how do you manage to fit this all in and keep track of it without getting overwhelmed?
CS: Lots of planning. One of my strengths is practical imagination, by which I mean my ability to imagine the experience that a guest would have, in sequence, from top to bottom. This helps me spot problems before they ever become problems. For Overheard on a Train, for example, I never want a guest to feel uncertain about which train stop to exit, so I designed the scripts to have a running “map” at the top of each page, to provide that guidance and that reassurance. I do a lot of thinking about the order of operations (e.g., you need the website ready before any marketing happens,) and I keep a to-do list on my phone, plus some paper lists here and there. I enjoy the design process for logos and other visual elements, so those happen early on.

My general advice for creators is that you always need a list, but you should also ride the wave of your enthusiasm. If you’re not in the mood to write, do the other stuff; if you’re feeling energized to assemble props, then do that even if you thought you were gonna work on the website. Everything will feel better if you’re not fighting yourself. And my other piece of advice is: Canva Pro. What a godsend. 

L+B: If money and logistics were no object, what would be your dream event to organize?
CS: I’d love to collaborate with Punchdrunk, the creators of the famous Sleep No More experience. Having a huge budget and an already-faithful audience would be amazing. Right now, I like the creating, designing, writing, and planning aspects of my projects, but the marketing aspect is a slog. I am genuinely interested in collaboration, and anyone reading this should feel free to reach out!

L+B: What’s next for Cheerful Secrets? Any events or opportunities coming up that our readers should know about?
CS: I intend to bring Flood of Spirits back to the Driskill this October, but this time it will be dinner and a show. So, expect a higher ticket price that will include a prix fixe menu from the Driskill chefs, and a little bit of extra time to dig into the real-life history before the show begins. I’m also creating an opportunity for playwrights and screenwriters to work on new storylines for Overheard on a Train—see more details about the Cheerful Secrets Writers’ Room! Follow @cheerfulsecrets on Instagram or sign up for the mailing list at to find out what comes next.

L+B: What are some of your favorite Austin events or experiences that you don’t produce?
CS: Master Pancake from Alamo Drafthouse is consistently hilarious; I never regret going and I always mention it to guests who come visit. [Editor’s note: We almost never list Master Pancake screenings in this newsletter only because they sell out so damn fast.] I felt the same about Sh*t-faced Shakespeare at Spiderhouse Ballroom, but I haven’t seen it on offer in a long time; I hope that comes back some day! Zach Theatre is my favorite place to see a show because there are no bad seats in that building. And let’s give a round of applause to Waterloo Greenway’s Creek Show, for awesome light installations made available to the public for free!