That Time I Walked Five Miles To See A Show

4 Dec

Cover-photo-2The truth is, I only had a dim idea of where I was going or what to expect. A couple of days earlier, I received an email from “The Society” inviting me to observe some of its members engaging in their spiritual practices “within the hideaway of nature itself.” The email connected me to a short form, which among other questions asked if I would be available and bodily capable for a reasonably long hike early on Saturday morning. That Friday, I received a follow-up email with detailed instructions on where and when to show up, and what to do once I got there, noting that this particular time was unique to me, presumably to ensure a more reflective and individualized experience.

The show was called Babalon, and I was marginally familiar with The Society as a group that mounted some shows in LA’s dynamic immersive theater scene a couple of years ago, and was often mentioned along with other shows with a horror/haunted theme. However, as I’ve noted elsewhere, some of the techniques that have been refined in horror-themed shows have cross-pollinated into immersive shows across a variety of themes: small group or solo experiences, “secret” venues, personalized interactions with cast — all contributing an experiential intensity that may be unrelated to fear.

So there I was Saturday morning, packing a water bottle, an energy bar, applying sunscreen, and reviewing the pages of photo references and detailed instructions so that I could . . . go to a show.

The trailhead was busy; it was after all a beautiful summer morning in Los Angeles. I savored the dissonance of attending an event alongside a sizable group of people, who were actually not attending the same event as me, or at least I didn’t think they were. In fact, it was not possible to know with any certainty.

1*ikqerD72SYzS4EHf85GdSAHowever, as is common with hiking trails, once my journey was underway, I soon found myself quite alone, save for the occasional courtesies to passed and passers-by. As I walked, I wondered: were they heading to/from my destination? Were they in the know? Initiated? Transformed? Enlightened? Before I knew it, without a single performer or setpiece that I could confidently identify, I was very much in a show that was possibly entirely in my own head.

The instructions advised that it would be about 2.5 miles and about 50 minutes to reach my destination. As I had committed the location of the trailhead to memory, I didn’t burden myself with any hard copies of the actual trail map. So, when I reached some unexpected forks in the path, I used my best judgment and hoped that I had chosen correctly — which seemed appropriately metaphorical for an experience about a group of seekers who have returned to nature to discover a more enlightened path.

MVIMG_20190727_100431As I approached the destination about an hour later, it took me some time to locate the “guide” who I had been directed to find. She was quite literally off the beaten path, although in retrospect I realize that I had completely missed some subtle waypoint clues that had been hidden in plain sight. I had arrived, hot, sweaty, wondering if I had brought enough water, and with my curiosity and sense of accomplishment quite intact.

The first moments of any performance are critical. At this point, you and the show’s performers and creators must quickly reach an unspoken accord to suspend disbelief and go on a journey together. In immersive theater, the stakes can be even higher, because audience members need to literally enter the story and stay in it in order for it to work. It can be a big ask, and even the most willing of participants may “fall out” of the moment, or simply never fully arrive.

So it was a clever set-up that the guide presented herself as a down-to-earth, relatively grounded individual, who had left her unfulfilling corporate job to help The Society with their public image. It was a relatable, contemporary backstory that was a good fit for Los Angeles in 2019. It seemed entirely possible that I had actually been invited to a semi-clandestine gathering of an eccentric group in the middle of the woods, who had chosen to make a public display of their beliefs for all to see.

00000IMG_00000_BURST20190727102726933_COVERThe guide shared some standard house rules: observe, don’t interfere, etc., and noted that I could stay and watch as long as I wanted from a variety of vantage points. What I found waiting for me was a group of women, frolicking in a creek-bed, consumed by a flow of hypnotic dancing and chanting, and dressed in airy attire that varied between ritualistic and fairylike. If you’ve ever seen the movie Picnic at Hanging Rock, a personal favorite (the original Peter Weir masterpiece, not the deplorable Amazon Prime debacle) then you’d have a decent approximation of what was unfolding.

I meandered and watched and listened and sought to tease out some sense or pattern to the endlessly unfolding ceremony. It was maybe more anthropology than theater, and with no clear start or finish, my eventual disengagement from any expectation of an outcome was its own reward. It was like a waking dream, an explosion of the sublime on the outskirts of the profane. When I had observed to my seeking soul’s content, I began the 2.5 mile journey back. Along the way, I  had a lot of time to think about what I had done, seen, and was doing. The show was over (I think.) But I was still in the show.

Screen Shot 2019-11-17 at 9.51.09 AMIn addition to being intrigued by the potential of its storyline, I thought about how this show fit into the broader world of experience design. I reflected on the interplay between what had been directly produced as part of the show, what had been incidentally provided as part of the public location, and what I had personally brought to the experience. If I had merely seen the same “content” at a “normal” venue, would I have been affected as deeply? Of course the answer is no, and of course this isn’t news, because context differentiates themed entertainment and immersive theater from many other entertainment experiences.

Most immersive experiences, no matter how diverse, share a simple but common framework of:

  • guest arrives
  • show starts
  • guest becomes part of the show
  • show ends
  • guest leaves

blurringthelines1This works really well for shows of all shapes and sizes, and in most cases, each of the bullet-points above, except for “the show,” are generally taken for granted. But Babalon exploded and blurred the lines between each of these phases. When did I really arrive? When did the show start? When did it end? This already sent my mind wandering in all kinds of wonderful directions, but what really struck me was how the five miles of walking factored into all of this, and how that might have been Babalon’s true stroke of brilliance.

Babalon embedded the actual show at the centerpoint of a hike: a meta-experience that served the functional requirement of providing access to the show, while also serving as a powerful metaphor for the theme of personal journey. It was the duration of the hike though that made me realize that merely attending the show required me to make a meaningful personal investment as a guest and unexpectedly enhanced the overall experience.

c201412-312-life-on-demand-illustration-acad7ea7We increasingly live in an on-demand world, especially with regard to entertainment options. We can see, hear, listen, read almost anything we want, whenever we want, wherever we want. That was not the world I was born into, and I’m not that old. My kids may never know the thrill of scouring the imports bin at a music store for an elusive B-side. Or the triumph of finding that out-of-print novel at the 4th used book store visited that day. Or driving an extra ten miles to that one video rental store that has the trippy arthouse films. Even live entertainment has been similarly streamlined. No more camping outside the record store to be first in line to get a coveted concert ticket. You can call me a foolish romantic, but there are tracks, books, flicks, and tix in my past that mean all that much more to me because of what I needed to do to get them.

I don’t mourn the march of progress, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t celebrate the opportunities to slip between the cracks. As creators, we should not shy away from asking more from our audiences. And as audiences, we should be looking for ways to put more of ourselves into the shows. If a creator can inspire me to literally or figuratively go the extra mile, and if my effort translates to a more personally meaningful experience, then I’m ready to show up.

 

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