Orlando’s Brave New Republic

23 Jun default

Minutes earlier, I had been ballroom dancing. But now I was lying down on a grimy floor, evading surveillance and trying to figure out what the hell I was doing. In more ways than one.

For a moment, I thought, “Did I really travel 3,000 miles for this?”

defaultLet me rewind a bit. A few months ago, I caught wind of a project called The Republic. I read an article that described it as an immersive experience inspired by elements from Greek mythology, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and Plato’s Republic. It was described as neither being a haunted house, escape room, nor traditional stage show, with the implied suggestion that it might contain whiffs of each. It even claimed to not be immersive theatre, at least in any sort of comparative sense to anything that’s been done before. The Republic was claiming to be something completely new. I’m so there!

September 1987 --- A fan of the band Grateful Dead holds a handmade sign reading I need a miracle, hoping to get tickets to a Grateful Dead show. --- Image by © Lynn Goldsmith/CorbisThere was just one problem. There was in Florida. It debuted at the Orlando Fringe Theatre Festival, which is nowhere near me. I needed a miracle. I asked the universe, and in reply got an email a few weeks later from a colleague telling me that I needed to go to Orlando for a tradeshow, on my birthday, while The Republic was running. Boom!

republic_front-doorNOTE: the rest of this post does not contain any explicit spoilers, but I do flirt dangerously with disclosing the nature of what happens. If you’re planning on seeing this show, and want a completely pure experience, then you’ve been warned.

On the day of the show, I received an email directing me to a nondescript warehouse near downtown Orlando. My drive was accented by a torrential downpour complete with Zeus-worthy lightning bolts that seemed somehow appropriate. I’m from California. Weather’s a novelty.

By the time I arrived, a queue of guests had already formed outside the entrance, and we went through the increasingly common waiver signing formality before being allowed to enter. Once inside, we surrendered our cell phones and entered an anteroom where we were provided with a new identity and reminded about the rules of engagement. In short, explore, ask questions, and get involved in the action.

57205429I am totally fascinated by the idea of immersive theatre. It blends storytelling, technical enhancement, and interactivity in a way that generally doesn’t exist outside the theatrical world except to a limited extent in some theme park and haunted attraction experiences. Ordinarily, attaching a genre to experiences that are attempting something groundbreaking is a restrictive and empty exercise, but it can still provide some useful context. As a baseline most productions tend to interpret it as a theatrical experience without chairs. The idea is that the elimination of the construct between the audience and the players allows for a deeper level of involvement with the drama. When it works, it can be tremendously effective. When it doesn’t, it might make you wish you had your chair back.

… if you want to

… if you want to

More ambitious productions add a layer of multiple rooms and encourage guests to do a certain amount of free roaming. In theory, the drama can potentially branch in multiple directions causing you to choose a single narrative thread at a time to follow. Some productions go even further by requiring guests to participate in the action by carrying props and executing other simple, scripted interactions.

In these types of shows, guests may have dramatically different experiences depending on the decisions they make, and may feel like they’re attending a totally different show upon repeat viewings. However, the net effect is really a partial glimpse of what is essentially a larger static narrative. The Republic does all of these things, but they’re just getting started.

Game Over Man

Game Over Man

What makes The Republic different is that each guest is required to play an active role that has the potential to redirect the outcome of the narrative. This is a pretty giant step forward from simply being up close and personal to the action. The creators compare their show to a video game, and this shared sense of agency is at the heart of it.

When the show began, we were told that we were recruits, and in the first “scene,” each guest was assigned to one of the cast members who would be training and evaluating us for inclusion within the Republic. I had been concerned about the emphasis on role playing, but the role of a trainee was easily accessible even if the context was essentially bizarre and cryptic.

do-you-like-me-yes-noEarly on, I was given a task to surreptitiously hide a folded-up note in a separate room. The room itself was a dead end, so I couldn’t go off on a tangent of wild exploration, but it did allow me to be alone for a brief moment. It may seem obvious, but I realized that I had been presented with an unspoken choice on whether to read the note before hiding it.

I decided to read it, and I was conscious of the time it was taking me to read it, since I was only supposed to be hiding it. Once I returned, it did not feel like an appropriately confidential time to discuss what I had read. The fact that I had read the note at all may have suggested that I had betrayed a certain confidence. The character who handed me the note did not ask me whether I had read it. I was completely in my own head over this one simple task, but I was digging it. This was immersive and exciting!

jawsIn a subsequent scene, when I was able to get some time alone with my assigned character, I asked him about the note and our conversation yielded a treasure trove of information including many tantalizing new clues and facts to piece together. It made me wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t read the note. What would our conversation have been like? I caught a glimpse of the myriad possibilities and twists and turns, and my experience was just one perspective out of 20+ guests in the context of something that might or might not have happened in the first 5-10 minutes of a 90 minute experience. You’re probably starting to get the idea of how big this thing could be.

clip_image001_0001In order to pull something like this off, the creators would have had to essentially create an all-encompassing universe that could account for dozens of permutations that could be communicated, interpreted, and executed on the fly on a minute-by-minute basis by actors who are basically improvising almost 100% of the time. It’s like a single game of Dungeons & Dragons with 20 Dungeon Masters and 20 players, played in 20 different rooms all at the same time with frequent reshuffling of all components. That’s huge. Like head-spinningly crazy. Which is probably why it ultimately didn’t totally work. For me at least.

russian-block-button-shows.siIf I had to theoretically reverse-engineer this beast, the principal challenge becomes how to reconcile what could easily become a freeform exploration of chaos theory. Periodically, there seemed to be narrative inflection points, roughly occurring at the end of an “act” in theatrical parlance, although that ship sailed long ago. These moments temporarily aggregated all the players in a single room and forced various narrative threads into some form of interim resolution. Think of it as a metaphorical reset button that attempted to contain the rapidly spiraling madness.

In theory, this is a clever mechanism. In practice, I personally felt somewhat more unmoored each time until I felt utterly disconnected from the show. The story might have been reconciled, but my role in it usually became less clear. Unfortunately, that tended to create something of a vicious cycle for me: the further I felt from the momentum of the story, the harder it was for me to jump back on the merry-go-round. I’m willing to share some of the blame for this for not trying hard enough to engage or re-engage, and at some point, I must have hit a personal limit. Or maybe the heat inside that warehouse had finally scrambled my brains out of my ears. There were no mirrors so I couldn’t be sure.

So did I like it? Well, it’s complicated. It’s important to remember that this debuted at a Fringe Theatre festival that provides a “safe” place to try out all kinds of crazy stuff that would be skewered in the context of the traditional stage scene. Not all of it is going to work. And when it does work, as it did for me in the initial scenes, it was stunning.

HYDRA_alt_1I give this team a ton of credit for creating this thing in the first place. I can imagine the B.S. sessions where people were saying, “What if we riffed on Plato’s Republic and inserted a bunch of characters from Greek mythology and rendered them against a German Expressionist backdrop and involved the audience, but totally let them feel like they were directing the action so that we’d basically be improvising 100% of the time so that each night we’d basically be putting on a new show.” Believe it or not, people have these kinds of crazy ideas fairly often. However, it’s a small handful who have the balls to actually follow through and try to raise the money, develop the concept, find the space, build the team, train the actors, build the set, and the hundred other things needed to bring this fully-grown Hydra to life.

To Team Republic: Thank you for having the courage to try something so audacious.

I find myself continuing to think about it. I honestly think that the creators should launch an online message board that could be like a support group for guests to share their experiences and riff on theories. There’s a lot going on here.

metropolis_masters_of_cinema_series_2010_atf_2_bigBut the final test of whether this thing worked — I would probably see it again. Now that I have a handle on what’s going on and how it works, I’d do some things differently. I’d be curious to further test my own boundaries as a guest. I’d want to see the rooms I probably never got to see, and interact with characters that I only saw in passing. It felt like a world worth returning to, although I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to live there.

Into the Further: Virtual + Reality

10 Jun

captain-picard-full-of-win-500x381“Dude, how did you score those tickets?!”

I held the phone in disbelief.

I had heard about Into the Further 4D, a traveling, pop-up, virtual reality experience promoting the upcoming horror flick, Insidious: Chapter 3. That’s just a bunch of adjectives that you don’t usually see in the same sentence describing the same event, so I wanted in.

It was going to be in LA for a brief three days in May, and here’s the thing, the tickets were free, if you could figure out how to get them. After trying some broken promo codes, I had basically given up, until my friend called to save the day. He never really answered my question. It didn’t matter. We were going.

We showed up at a parking lot on the edges of Downtown LA just before noon on a Sunday, pretty much the most unhaunted time and setting to experience anything.

insidious_trailers_resize

Conveniently located next to Urgent Care

There were a couple of connected trailers that looked similar to the ones at last year’s Purge: Breakout escape room event. Blumhouse Productions is behind both events as well as 2013’s Purge: Fear The Night immersive theater production. Based on their track record, they are establishing a reputation for producing events that mashup horror with experiences not typically associated with horror. When they roll into town, you can pretty much expect that it will not be your run-of-the-mill haunted house.

NOTE: This event is gone, and it’s probably never coming back, and you’ll probably never get to see it, so spoilers will follow. make the world_front

I’ve been lurking on the periphery of the virtual reality scene since the first time I tried Oculus Rift at the 2013 NeuroGaming Conference and Expo. As an interactive experience designer, the lure of the latest and greatest technologies is a perpetual temptation and the siren song of VR can seem irresistible.

The amazing part about VR is how it can make the world around you totally disappear. The challenging part about VR, especially in terms of location-based entertainment, is how it can make the world around you totally disappear. It’s an uphill battle to provide guests with a form of entertainment that can essentially be experienced in their living room. Unless you replace the living room.

insidious_trailers_entry_resizeBack to the parking lot. We had reservations for a specific time window, but VR is generally not a high-throughput venture, and to maximize the horror, we were told that we would walk through alone. So we waited. And anticipated. And postulated. What on earth was going on inside that trailer?

The facade of the trailer was designed to look like a front door, and walking through it brought me inside the house of Elise, the paranormal investigator/medium from the first two Insidious movies. I waited as another inner door swallowed guests one at a time, and eventually me.

I entered a short, dark, narrow hallway and was accosted by an assortment of pops, air blasts, loud noises, etc., designed to put you on edge. I turned the corner and a ghoulish figure burst out, screamed at me that I had to help her, and directed me down a longer hallway toward a numbered door.

ins2The tiny chamber was cramped, dimly lit, and filled with all kinds of bric-a-brac that evoked the home-gone-wrong feel of the films. A monitor turned on and played a short video introducing the upcoming VR experience. A previously unseen door opened and another ghoulish and relatively sedate character beckoned me forward and into a chair facing a familiar red door. Seconds later, I was in the Rift, heading into the Further. Or so I thought.

The first thing I saw in VR was the same door that existed in reality. It opened and I “moved” through it and into Elise’s sitting room. She was waiting and warned me of some of the bad things that were afoot. Then things started to get real spooky including a few good scares that took full advantage of the immersive quality of the experience. There were some 4D effects including seat rumblings, and at one point, (I’m guessing) the assistant lightly brushed my arm in time with something wispy floating by. When things were about to get crazy, it faded away, and I was back, looking at the real door and being guided toward the exit.

The whole experience only lasted a few minutes, but it felt like something significant had been achieved. Haunted houses, 4D, and VR are nothing new to me, but combining all of them felt like a breakthrough. Even if it was basically a highly sophisticated movie trailer, this modest whole was definitely larger than the sum of its parts. I was satisfied with what I had seen, and curious about where it could go.  But before I launched headlong into the future, I found myself momentarily thinking about the past.

train_1I recalled a story I heard in film school. About 120 years ago, a couple of brothers were trying to figure out something cool to do with their Cinématographe — one of the first devices to resemble a motion picture camera. One of the first pieces that they screened was a short clip of a train arriving at a station, evocatively titled, “Arrival of a Train.”

The apocrypha would have us believe that some of those audience members from two centuries ago ran in terror from the theater because they thought the train would burst through the screen. I remember thinking, “That can’t possibly be true.” These were sophisticated Europeans with elevated tastes, and this was after all a shot of a train arriving at a station. Nevertheless, although it’s hard to imagine standing in their shoes in that darkened room, I wanted to believe that the truth of their reaction probably landed somewhere between the abject terror of the legend, but far from mute indifference.

kerzeA more fruitful daydream is that everybody in that room knew that they had just seen something that they’d never seen before, and that they felt like they could see that much further into what this new, crazy thing could be. And each of those early viewers might have got something out of it, talked about it with their friends who hadn’t seen it, forgotten it, or got hooked at the gills. Except they didn’t have blogs back then.

VR is out of the living room. Reality just got that much more virtual. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Story Room: Saving the World is Thirsty Work

26 May

“Are you ready to save the f–king world?” he asked. To be honest, it was a bit more than I had in mind after a day at work, but I exchanged looks with my companions and said, “Sure!” After all, what could possibly go wrong?

We were about to enter Story Room, a production of Two Bit Circus. I’m not actually quite sure what this group really is. I’ve seen them referred to as an entertainment company, a think tank, and in more pedestrian press, an agency. However, I had a great time at their STEAM Carnival last autumn, so for the purposes of this blog, I’m OK with thinking about them as a group that likes to make fun experiences. I think they’d be OK with that too.

hqdefaultSo, back to saving the world. In the real world, we were at the Brewery Arts Complex, an artist colony housed in a former brewery that is off the beaten path in an industrial part of Los Angeles. It’s an easy place to get lost in and quite mysterious in its own right. Certainly worth saving.

We were welcomed inside an anteroom and provided with a smattering of backstory. It involved aliens. It sounded important. And then a door opened, we entered, it closed behind us, and we were inside the story!

Half the fun of Story Room is not having a clear idea of what to expect, and I don’t intend to spoil that for you. The website describes it as a “unique multiplayer experience that combines problem solving with character twists to create a new form of live entertainment.” Clear as mud, but intriguing as hell.

journey-escape(4)However, if you’ve read their website, you’re probably wondering, is this an escape room attraction? If you haven’t experienced one, escape rooms are pretty much what they sound like: you’re placed in a locked room and have to figure out how to get out, usually within a fixed time limit. And there’s no guarantee that you will. Getting out usually requires solving a number of puzzles based on objects in your environment, while possibly fending off antagonistic or distracting elements. I has a tremendous time at last year’s Purge: Breakout, but I haven’t felt drawn to seek out similar experiences.

Although an escape room can be elegant and complex in the design of its puzzles, the underlying narrative can sometimes feel limited. The context for your situation ultimately boils down to being trapped and needing to escape. Although there is a binary, win/lose aspect to it that appeals to my competitive side, it tends to conflict with my desire to just be entertained.

Story Room shares many of the game mechanics and sensibilities of an escape room, but the narrative framework substitutes progress for escape. It’s a subtle nuance, and therein lies all the difference.

In Story Room, as we solved the puzzles, we learned more about our situation. Rooms started to feel more like scenes, and the puzzles themselves felt increasingly like a connected, rational part of the underlying story. On one hand, it’s a different means to a similar end, but it places the focus on the journey, not the destination.

As a practical illustration: we did OK with the puzzles, but we were occasionally assisted via a mechanism that was integrated with the story. Sure, my ego would have been more gratified if we had performed better, but I found myself less focused on winning or losing and far more interested in what would happen next.
In the final room, we had to choose between two objectives to pursue. Either one would have constituted “success,” but we decided based on what we had learned about the story in the previous rooms and how we personally felt it should resolve.

In short, this show lived up to its name. We were in the story! In fact, we discovered afterward that had we done better in one of the previous rooms, we may have learned something that could have influenced our decision in the final room.

magnacovblankeThe website boldly namechecks the Choose Your Own Adventure book series from the 80s & 90s. This type of branching narrative is a holy grail of sorts for experience designers in location-based entertainment, but can be operationally difficult to execute. It seems that on some level, even if we didn’t experience all the possible outcomes, they pulled it off.

The puzzles were excellently designed and thoughtfully crafted to require multiple participants to solve them. In similar attractions, multiple players allow you to simply “throw more bodies at the problem” by being able to more rapidly find hidden objects. In Story Room, multiple players are critical because many of the puzzles consist of discrete tasks that need to be performed in parallel. In the final room, we each had distinct roles to play to reach our objective.

iwantmoreWe were in there slightly over an hour, but time flies, as the saying goes. Understanding that like any production, they are limited by real resources such as budget and space, my main feedback for future productions would be to create more “scenes” even if each is shorter. Reflecting on how this show redraws the line between storytelling and problem-solving, I would love to see them take it even further and incorporate more branching, more rooms, and maybe even some live performers. In other words, more of everything that worked so well.

As you could probably guess, saving the world is thirsty work, so we were delighted to discover that the Brewery just happened to have a gastropub on the premises. Tasty food. Cold beer. Good times. Highly recommended.

If you’re in LA, and this show is still happening, I would recommend checking it out. And if you’re not in LA, why not? It’s real nice here.

Never Be Bored Again

20 Feb

rarelyLook around you. Where are you reading this right now? Chances are, you’re minutes away from an immersive, interactive experience that is waiting for you to discover it. Curious?

First, some background. I’m one of those people who has a hard time doing nothing. That sense of peace that comes from “getting away from it all” wears off for me after about five minutes, and I find myself looking for something stimulating. Not surprisingly, my young children tend to feel the same way. It’s something of a curse, but on a recent trip to the Central Sierras, a wonderland of natural beauty, I was determined to turn it into an opportunity. There just had to be something to do up here that would be entertaining for all of us, right?

screen-shot-2014-02-02-at-15-02-05I asked the Internet, and found a tourist-oriented website for the tiny village we were in, and scanned through the usual list of activities. Fishing: please no. Snowmobiling: need snow for that. Hiking: with kids, it ends up being “carrying.” Prospects seemed dismal until I came across “Geocaching.” That rang a bell — something to do with GPS and hiding stuff, but I realized that I really had no idea how one actually did it.

cacheiskingSkeptically, I installed a free app, waited for it to locate me, and discovered that there were DOZENS of caches within a few miles of my current location (in the middle of nowhere) including one that was 163 FEET away (we were in a local playground at this point.) I tromped off alone in a trance into the adjacent woods like a very slow, poorly-trained bloodhound, climbing over rocks, crossing brooks, crashing through brambles, trying to close the distance between me and whatever lay at the marker on my map. Soon, the other grown-ups got involved, and the kids buzzed around us discovering the fantastic natural playground surrounding them. Looking back, I guess my biggest misconception about geocaching was that it was something that you had to “get into.” However, without really trying, we had effortlessly and unexpectedly landed in the middle of an adventure!

product1We didn’t find what we were looking for, but we were undeterred, so for our second try, we chose a cache that seemed a bit easier. Each cache is ranked for difficulty and terrain, and contains a description and optional hints that guide you to the hidden location. We made our way to an unnoteworthy cluster of trees on a street corner that we would have otherwise driven past without giving a second look, however now it was imbued with mystery and potential. We descended upon it like a shoal of piranhas, discovered a camouflage canister hanging from a branch, and eagerly grabbed it, unscrewed the lid. The kids thrilled at the mysterious trove of miscellaneous knick-knacks within while we examined with curiosity the little notepad filled with messages from those who came before us. As we left our own impromptu scrawl for those who would in turn follow in our footsteps, we unwittingly jumped into the slipstream of a previously unknown world that was hidden in plain sight.

Now we were hooked and consulted the app for our next find. It was another easy one, embedded in a jumble of rocks that anchored the sign for a wilderness trail. Except now, the world was transformed; a rusted chain buried in the rocks became a  guardian rattlesnake and the unassuming container was a treasure chest of mystery and possibility. We were so engrossed in our adventure that we almost didn’t notice the car pull up behind us.

Hunger-games-gamemakersThe gentleman who stepped out introduced himself as papahog46, and told us that this was his cache. He just happened to be driving by, and he knew exactly what we were up to. I chatted with him a bit, and he said that he had recently come back from the Caribbean where he had left a few caches, and that he has also left a few in various places in Europe. The app allows you to log your finds, and leave a brief message, and he commented that many of the thank you notes he received were in other languages. After he left us to our meanderings, it occurred to me we had been having fun that he had made; transient explorers of a new world he created. We had been hanging out with the Game Maker!

mugglesI finally started to realize that this thing was big. I used the app to see what was around my house: dozens, including one a block away. The neighborhood around my work: lousy with caches, including four in the park where I often eat lunch. A random place where I stopped for lunch on the way to San Diego: loads. I realized that geocaching is nothing short of a global phenomenon that has created a parallel universe bound together by a community that borders on a secret society. It has its own lingo, which I picked up on from reading the entries in the logbooks — kind of like a written secret handshake. In fact, geocachers have appropriated the word Muggle from the Harry Potter universe to designate a person who is not playing, a shorthand that happens to be pretty much spot-on.

POD_dandelionBecause there are no formal rules except a common-sense code of conduct that requires you to be a good citizen, it didn’t take long to figure out that caches needn’t be limited to dime-store trinkets and logbooks. Caches could be designed like any other experience and could include a history lesson, or a series of related puzzles, or an elaborate story, or all of them at the same time. I realized that when I entered this world, I felt the same thrill of discovery and ignition of imagination that I get from the best immersive experiences. Except instead of traveling for hours and waiting in line and most likely seeing something that I’ve probably seen before, I could do this anytime, anywhere. Best of all, with an inkling of inclination and a jab of imagination, I could create my own world within the world. Perhaps even one that you’ll stumble into someday.

Wicked Lit’s Tough Crowd: Dead People

3 Nov

About midway through Unbound Productions’ performance of Wicked Lit, I couldn’t help noticing that although there were hundreds of us in the crowd, only about 30 of us were still alive by this point.

When I heard that Wicked Lit featured plays being performed in a graveyard, I flashed back to those cringeworthy moments of my youth making short films in cemeteries, and thought, “This can go very wrong.” However, it was October, and I’ll try anything once if it involves Halloween. As we entered the venue, I had no way of knowing that I was about to experience my favorite show of a very busy season of haunted attractions.

cover_1128171732012_rWe were at the Mountain View Mortuary, Cemetery, and Crematory in Altadena, CA. The facility’s ample grounds also include an extensive mausoleum, which pretty much makes it a one-stop shop for dead people. Although the show was scheduled to start at 7:30, we arrived at about 7:15 to find an entertaining pre-show involving a host who was part hypnotist/magician/paranormal investigator and his various assistants already in the process of various shenanigans. This part of the show took place in a courtyard with walls consisting of mostly occupied drawers of the not-so-recently departed. The living crowd was divided into three groups, and each was led to experience a different one-act play before regrouping in the courtyard for more entertainment and subsequent dispatch until each group had seen all three shows.

I could see that logistically this was already a very ambitious production, but I found that it was well-matched by the sophistication of the creative execution. The playwrights of the three pieces bill their work as “adaptations,” but a quick comparison between the source material and the final product suggests that this is perhaps an excessively modest attribution of what appears to be highly original creative work. The three main plays offered a diversity of themes, styles, and settings with minimal overlap making for a very well-rounded and satisfying experience. As a guest, it can be exhausting to mentally shift gears between three different stories in a single evening of entertainment, but each piece was rooted in a familiar spooky trope that made it easy to get your bearings, before these wicked geniuses proceeded to turn the tables on you.

Our first offering was Dracula’s Guest, and we began by walking through the inner halls of the mausoleum that were spookily lit throughout, an impressive feat considering the myriad corridors and stairways through which we passed. The play started in what was probably the most tradtional “set” of the entire evening — a classic three-walled construction of a 19th century inn. We were soon introduced to Jonathan Harker of Dracula fame, and noted the presence of silver bullets and other familiar trappings of nocturnal menaces. But as quickly as they arrived, these ephemeral wisps of familiar milieu were dissipated by the winds of a brisker, edgier narrative. Harker’s archetypal naiveté is warped by a fierce insolence and (dare I say, millennial) sense of entitlement that made me wonder whether he might actually be better off with a couple of fangs in his neck. We were whisked outside the mausoleum to witness Harker’s journey through the Carpathians, before trekking to the final scene in a vast graveyard that was expansively tricked out with dramatic lighting and immersive sound effects. There, we watched a fierce and decidedly risqué encounter between Harker and two of the Count’s comelier devotees, before returning to the courtyard for our next adventure.

Despite its familiar themes and melodramatic flourishes, there was a decided lack of campiness in Dracula’s Guest. The performances struck the perfect balance of not taking themselves too seriously while not taking the easy way out into parody. And just when the tension seemed to be too much to handle for a leisurely weeknight out in the graveyard, the piece ended and we were allowed to decompress with the appropriately themed intermission hijinks in the courtyard. It was a dynamic that would be repeated throughout the night, and it was always effective. During these intermissions, I noticed a unique intimacy and sense of community that permeated the entire show. I even had a chance to chat with some of the producers and learn more about the history of the company.

The second play was The Monk, and it took place in Inquisition-era Venice. In this story, the familiar anchor was that of a Faustian bargain, but with a modern feminist twist. Our heroine was a young woman who, through an unexpected set of circumstances, finds that the pension that has been supporting her studies has been absorbed by the Church. Without this support, as a woman with academic ambitions in 17th century Europe, she finds herself with no option except to join a convent. She enters into a deal with a satanic figure to gain her freedom from society and the Church, but instead of bartering her soul, she must use her powers of seduction to ruin a man of the cloth. The deal itself, and its attendant hooded ghouls and wicked devil, was staged in the mortuary church, a delectably sinful nuance of the production. Finally, we watched the climactic crescendo play out below us in the mausoleum’s beautiful garden from the unique perspective of a balcony.

The third play was Las Lloronas. Whereas the first two plays were clever dramatic narrative retellings, this piece was an impressionistic feast of story, dance, music, multimedia, and a succession of absolute knockout dramatic performances by every single one of the players. The gist of the narrative was the retelling of an Aztec legend in which a native of Tenochtitlan finds herself wed to Cortes, and subsequently driven mad by his betrayal to the point where she murders her children. The four scenes that followed depicted similar vignettes that showed how this tragic pattern repeated itself in successive generations and increasingly familiar and contemporary settings. While each vignette was hosted and narrated by a handsomely demonic figure, the emotional current of the story was conveyed through movement and passionate performances that embody the special power of the theatre. I felt very fortunate that through the luck of the draw, our group saw this piece last. It was definitely my favorite, and in its final moments, it sent the types of chills down my spine that I had been seeking (and not always finding) all month.

I attended quite a few events this Halloween season, and felt that each was satisfying in its own way, but Wicked Lit was definitely my personal favorite. The material was developed and executed with a freshness and a depth that tends to be difficult or impractical for this type of seasonal event. I was particularly struck by the fact that there were no small roles. Every player had a meaningful, challenging part, and I am grateful to them for bringing so much energy and intensity to their performances, especially considering that each actor delivered three performances per night. Special kudos to all of the talented and passionate performers in Las Lloronas.

Unbound Productions is an exciting, passionate, and innovative group, and while I’ll definitely be back for Wicked Lit 2015, I look forward to seeing what they do in the interim!

The Most Fun I Ever Had Being Murdered

22 Jul

I died in tmeme3he Purge last week. OK, that came out weird, let me explain.

The Purge is a film that came out last year that generally, and not incorrectly, gets lumped into the horror genre. However, it’s actually a political science thought experiment wrapped in a veneer of science fiction dystopia that dials up the suspense until it implodes into horror. The general conceit is that in the year 2022, a new political party has “fixed” America; there is 1% unemployment and almost no crime. The catch: all crime, including murder, is actually legal during a 12-hour period called the Purge that occurs once per year. Despite its macrocosmic context, the movie had a minimalistic feel that focused on the experiences of a single family in a discrete location and the ethical dilemmas posed by this practice. It wasn’t a perfect movie, but there was something oddly compelling and surprisingly thought-provoking about it. I knew there had to be more to the story.

When I heard that there would be a sequel being released this summer, I knew I would see it at some point. However, when I heard that they were promoting it through The Purge: Breakout, a pop-up haunted attraction that was touring the country, I dropped everything to get a ticket. A haunted attraction in July? Talk about Christmas coming early!

928930cc-09e0-41e7-8d3f-751858ff0972The typical haunted attraction tends to be a fairly linear affair. You start at the beginning and keep moving until you get to the end, trying to absorb or avoid (depending on your preference) as many scares as you can along the way. In contrast, Breakout is billed as “An Immersive Escape Experience.” Groups of up to six guests are locked into the attraction at one time and given thirty minutes to try to figure out how to get out by deciphering clues and solving puzzles that are embedded in the surroundings. The concept of an Escape Room attraction is not new, and did not originate as a horror-themed show, but as some designers have discovered, they really are two great tastes that taste great together.

Welcome to the Hotel California

I found a friend who agreed that this sounded like an excellent way to spend an evening, and we headed out to the location, a parking lot on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles where a few trailers decked out in full Purge regalia awaited us. As we watched the sun go down, I started to feel.

It wasn’t quite the stomach-churning dread of a haunted house. It was more of a light, but increasing anxiety that I would totally choke on the puzzles. I immediately reflected that I was grateful to be feeling anything! It occurred to me that going to the movies or even certain live events just wasn’t doing anything for me recently, and that one of the reasons why I keep coming back to haunted attractions is because they stir something that lies dormant for too long of a stretch.

Not for the claustrophobic

Before entering, we had about five minutes to get to know our three fellow participants with whom we would be trapped, and indulged in the futility of concocting a strategy for getting out. I was nominated as some kind of leader. Anxiety level rises. One of the hosts came out and gave us the setup: we’re locked in some weirdo’s basement on Purge Night, which begins in 30 minutes. We need to escape or he kills us. Not necessarily true to the sophisticated moral complexities of the movie, but I wasn’t complaining. We were characters in the story, and it was about to begin! We were provided with some straightforward rules: don’t break or take anything, don’t try to use a light, if you trigger one of the emergency buttons (you are locked in, after all) then it’s immediate game over, no refunds, no questions. Oh, and there was one more thing, only about 1% of everybody who’s played the game has escaped. And you thought Vegas was rough.

Once the door locked behind us, the panic began. . . immediately. Any remnant of any strategy that we thought would have been useful dissipated in the first 15 seconds. In true basement style, it’s not very well-lit, which is a problem when your success hinges on finding objects in your environment. In addition to miscellaneous klaxons, sound effects, and the sound of your blood pumping in your ears, every five minutes there were very loud, periodic reminders that the Purge would be starting in 25, 20, 15, etc., minutes. Needless to say, when all five of us were huddled in a very small room and stuck on a puzzle, these reminders were anything but calming.

We solved a bunch of puzzles. We tried our hardest. We celebrated our successes. But in the end, we died. Murdered to be exact. Time ran out, and for us, it just wasn’t enough. If we had five more minutes! If we had only done such-and-such! Did we remember to look behind that one thing? We wallowed in the coulda-woulda-shouldas for a minute or two, but the general consensus from all of us was, “That was SUPER FUN!”

Totally Occupied The Purge

It was an exceptionally produced show. I love puzzles, and I felt that they were well-tested to be achievable but challenging (obviously, since we died!) The makeshift trailer setup was not at all reflective of the excellent production design and technical sophistication that kept our attention for thirty action-packed minutes in such a small amount of space. It was 100% adrenaline from beginning to end and when it was all over, I wanted more. However, part of what makes this type of show special is that it’s really something you do once and only once.

The coolest part of the show turned out to be something I least expected — us! A common feature of many immersive experiences is to get you out of your chair and into the action. However, this often takes the form of occupying the same space as the actors while they go about their business. The better-written productions allow for some latitude and improvisation, but there is still a script, and you’re still essentially watching, or in some cases being guided/goaded through some simple participation. Breakout was different — we were the cast. The story consisted entirely of what we did. There was one non-player cast member, but I think she was there to make sure that we didn’t go completely off the rails. And man, did we kill it! Before we got killed, that is.

I was in awe at how naturally we worked together as a team, despite the fact that we barely knew each other. People’s strengths immediately surfaced — the codebreakers, the searchers, the observers, the scouts — without any explicit coordination. Almost all of the puzzles required some form of cooperation, but it somehow happened in a seamless way. When it was all over with, we felt like old friends, and made plans to get together for future events once October rolls around. It was magical.

We are a culture that is screamingly desperate for personal connection. We are undoubtedly the most well-connected, lonely people that the planet has ever hosted. Breakout showed that when you put people together and give them a story and some purpose, you just might end up with something unforgettable. We need to be creating more experiences like this.

Reality is Overrated

15 May

Awesome PicHave you ever had that feeling where you come across something that stops you dead in your tracks, and then you take a step back, and you think,”Yeah, maybe that wasn’t such a big deal,” and then you let go of it for a few days, and then you come roaring back, and say, “No, that’s pretty messed up, the world needs to know about this.” I did recently, and you’re about to hear about it.

I just got a brand new Android phone, and as is recommended when you join forces with the Droid, I recognized that things are easier when you sign your life over to Google. Setting aside my knowledge that Google’s promotional offer of 50GB of free Google Drive space for two years is the cloud storage equivalent of giving away dime bags at a junior high, I agreed to have all the pictures on my phone automatically uploaded to “Drive” for “safekeeping.” I have kids, so the odds of my phone and all of its pictures ending up in any number of compromising situations involving bathtubs or impromptu aerodynamic trials are relatively high compared to Google accidentally losing my data.

Kung_Fu_Panda_Fan_art_by_Slacker_RBSo I’m merrily going about my life, taking too many pictures and videos of my kids instead of enjoying the reality of their company, and generally doing a serviceable job of being a decent dad. Flash forward a few hours and I get a notification that not only have my photos been uploaded to Google Drive, but that there is a new “Auto Awesome” picture waiting for me. If you’re not familiar with this feature, it basically adds special effects to pictures that you’ve taken that meet certain criteria. The effects can range from the mildly amusing and patently fake effect of adding a snow animation to a picture taken when it’s snowing to the moderately impressive compositing of several related pictures into a short, stuttery animation. There are other effects like photobooth-style compositing and an impressive feature that combines photos and videos into a slideshow/video presentation. Basically, if you’re the kind of person who likes to spend hours trying to turn your personal photos and videos into amateur-looking mini-masterpieces, then this is bad news for you, because the Auto-Awesome algorithm does it automatically and it’s actually pretty decent. As a technology enthusiast, I applaud the questionable diversion of shareholder value into the development of what is actually a very sophisticated application of powerful computer vision algorithms.  So far, so good.

More-Awesome-Than-A-Double-Rainbow_4663-lBut not really. Because Google didn’t make it snow in my picture, nor auto-create a panorama, but instead applied the “Smile” effect. If you’ve ever tried to take a picture of a child under the age of five, then you already know that your ok-fine-that’s-good-enough shooting ratio is somewhere in the neighborhood of 150:1. If you’re trying to take a picture of two or more children under five, then chances are one of you will burst into tears before an acceptable image is captured. And yet there we were, my two-year-old son, without any coercion or threats on my part was hugging my four-year-old daughter, who was patiently and willingly tolerating and even reciprocating it. I immediately took about ten pictures and felt that I had achieved moderate success. I immediately checked them out and found the usual assortment of unprovoked distraction, unilateral nose-picking, and asynchronous emotional expression that characterizes EVERY picture  I’ve ever taken of them.

dont-think-just-be-awesomeBut there was one gem in the bunch. He is hugging her with an angelic expression of contentment and security on his face, and she is smiling and touching his head in a loving way, accepting his embrace. However, her smile is tempered by a subtle reflective aspect as if in that moment she understands that she will always be older, and he will always be younger, and she will always be his big sister and while they will learn from each other and grow together, she will always be there for him in the special and unique way that only a big sister can be. Then I checked out the Auto-Awesome picture.

The Smile effect had identified a different picture in which my daughter has a totally fake senior portrait smile whereas my son looks like he just bonged a 6-pack of Coors Light and is about to yak. It then combined my daughter’s “classic” smile from this picture with the content smile of my son from the first picture to create the “perfect” photo. Except, it’s not perfect, it’s unsettling, because the moment captured by this Auto-Awesome picture NEVER HAPPENED in reality. The algorithm cleverly merged the two pictures with the “best” smiles, and it’s basically impossible to detect the modification. Now before I launch into total rant mode, please note that I understand:

  • Auto Awesome did not delete my original photos
  • Auto Awesome can be turned off
  • Auto Awesome photos can be deleted
  • You can replicate and exceed the results of Auto-Awesome on your own
  • I have free will
  • Google does not force you to use this feature
  • It’s a free world (online . . . mostly)
  • Don’t be evil

080312-total-recallI am fascinated with the concept of the plasticity of memory. Beyond that, I am obsessed with the pursuit of capturing and articulating my truest sense of an experience, and in denial of its ultimate futility. The idea that repeated viewings of an Auto-Awesome picture have the potential to alter  your memory of what actually happened is personally horrifying to me.

It also concerns me that as a culture, we not only have the capability to recreate our past, but that it can be automatically done for us, and have it be considered “awesome.” I know it’s all in fun, and it’s probably just another R&D project run amok, but I still think that the implications of playing fast and loose with “what really happened” are worthy of reflection. Social media already provides us with a powerful platform to reinvent ourselves and to present a crafted fantasy identity to the world for passive consumption. I understand that these types of services do not force you to make misrepresentations, but they provide the always-available and tempting option to tease the truth into something more, and to craft our online identity into the ideal that we have failed to achieve in meatspace. There is nothing inherently wrong with putting on a good show — we generally don’t show up to a social event in reality without having made some attempt to look our best. However, we still retain the intent and the creativity to design and execute those decisions in front of real people. “Auto” removes the intent, “Awesome” removes the creativity, and the internet removes the meaningful context. Combined with the force multiplier of social networking, it’s the death of reality by a billion tiny cuts.

Finally, aside from the statement that it makes about what is “worth remembering,” or that an algorithm can be trusted to make that decision for you, this type of technology has the potential to rob us of the nuance and beauty that we were trying to capture in the first place. Because if you think about it, once you turn your back on reality, what else is there?

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