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My Year of Walking Through Darkness: Part 2

3 Nov

Birth: check. Death: check. And now onto the business of living. Confused? Read Part 1.

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3. The Rope (October 2016)

hqdefault-2It’s increasingly common to see “horror” experiences on nearly a year-round basis, but the best work tends to be saved for October. Amidst these high expectations and as a follow-up to last year’s debut, this year’s “signature” show did not disappoint, despite having scant resemblance to anything that had come before it.

The Rope seemed intent on changing up many of the fixtures found at earlier experiences. First, they managed to deliver many of their personal, solitary experiences in the context of a larger group of six. I thought that the intimate nature of the experience would be compromised by the group dynamic, but it was mostly intact. Second, and more interestingly, this was the first production that truly led with story. Previous productions had narratives & themes, but felt more impressionistic, open-ended, and rawly experiential. By contrast, The Rope had characters, backstories, plot lines, settings, literal setpieces, and other trappings that one would typically expect from “theater.” Before you go off thinking that they were getting all Tennessee Williams on us though, where it got interesting is that the show was also a game.

After an introductory scene, we were each given a separate mission to locate somebody in the story world and perform some action. We would receive special items as a result of completing tasks, and were directed to periodically check in with a sage character for more guidance. The various character encounters had interactive components that sometimes required choices that seemed to alter the outcome of the overall story. In the final scene, all of the guests were reunited as a group and shared our tokens with a final character who provided closure and parting wisdom about both our individual and collective experiences.

The production design was more ambitious and varied than in prior productions and provided an appropriately surreal backdrop to this journey to a fantasy time & place. And as would be expected, everything was tinged with a dark intensity that never allowed you to completely feel at ease, in a good way. This was October after all.

All in all, it was an enjoyable and unexpected way to spend an evening. The various experiments: group experiences, game mechanics, stronger storylines all felt well-considered and were more successful than not. However, in embracing a more traditional framework, they took on some of the heavy lifting that goes with it. In an impressionistic, solitary experience, a good portion of the show ends up happening inside your own head. There isn’t really a good way to tell a story halfway, and it felt like there were some troubling loose ends. Afterward, I had a conversation with one of my fellow seekers that started with him saying aloud to no-one in particular, perhaps just the building in which we had just spent the last hour, “Does anybody else here feel just a little bit frustrated?”

There were spurts of story, teases of backstory, vapor trails of character arc, that just-woken-from dream sense that you kind of get what’s going on, and the dawning realization that you don’t. That hunger for a full meal not just a succession of artful plates. I wanted to know more about everything I had heard and everyone I had met, and I had the sinking feeling that I wouldn’t, or worse that there was nothing left to know.

2. Fear Is What We Learned Here (October 2015)

film-leader-21I can remember it so clearly. Parking my car on the unfamiliar suburban street near an address that I had only been provided in the past day. Walking alone up a dark path, carefully following the provided directions to choose the right path at appropriate landmarks, and finally approaching the figure wearing a black robe, standing silently. Waiting for me. And thinking to myself, “Now what?!”

Fear Is What We Learned Here was a fresh installment in the type of solitary, extreme horror experience pioneered by BLACKOUT. It mixed a dark minimalist sensibility with clever low-tech effects and artful touches in a way that was beautiful, disorienting, exhilarating, and unexpected. All of this was executed with a homegrown sensibility that felt raw and unpredictable, and even a bit dangerous in a way that most productions can never achieve. It was the show I felt luckiest to have experienced in 2015, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It exceeded many of my expectations of what I could want from this type of show, and helped set a new standard of what I would want to experience in the future.

So why wasn’t it #1?

1. Shoshin (May 2016)

hqdefaultAfter Parturition‘s relatively disappointing follow-up to Fear‘s dark splendor, I was wary of Shoshin. From what scant information that was shared beforehand, it seemed to be an immersive theater show about Zen Buddhism. Huh? Exactly. Should I sit this one out? Have these guys gone off the rails? Did I have them all wrong? Was Fear a lucky hit? But it was May; October was months away, and I could hear the darkness calling.

I found myself in the same neck of the woods that I had been to for Fear, and some of the setups were familiar. Show up to an address, don a robe hanging from a tree, and wait to see what happens. I flowed into a 90-minute mostly outdoor walking journey staged in plain sight in the green areas of a suburban community. I was fascinated to see the tropes of extreme horror seamlessly applied to an introspective odyssey of self-discovery and reflection that was challenging but gentle, strict but instructive. In the same way, that we have discovered that we must ultimately be alone in order to truly face that which we fear, Shoshin draws a similar parallel of intensity and gravity to the lifelong process of an individual’s search for meaning.

The format of the show was a procession through various stations and activities, some of which were entirely self-guided and without any performers. I did not feel rushed at any point and considering it was springtime in Southern California, it was mostly a pleasant, if not slightly peculiar way to spend some much-needed time outdoors. The final scene occurred indoors where I was an audience of one to an intense keyboard and vocal performance that was absolutely stunning. It was oddly cathartic — I occasionally return to that moment, and how unique it has been in my experiences.

On one hand, it would be easy to fault Shoshin for a reliance on other ideas — in this case, the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, from which it borrows liberally for much of its script. But the genius of Shoshin lies in how it brought those abstract theoretical ideas to life and made them interactive and compelling. I actually came away wanting to learn more about meditation, something that probably would have never happened if I had just tried reading the book.

Above all, this was my favorite show because of how absolutely different it was from Fear. It would have been easy for them to keep phoning it in and delivering dark, solitary, horrifying experiences, and I’d probably keep going to them. But Shoshin was a gutsy gamble that almost seemed designed to fail. Instead, the result was spectacularly transcendent. It not only broadens what can be achievable in a context of darkness and intensity, but elevates the potential of immersive theater across the board.

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Thank you to Screenshot Productions for your tireless ambition and fearless experimentation.

Ever seeking light, I look forward to whatever comes next.

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My Year of Walking Through Darkness: Part 1

27 Oct

I was born, actualized, terrified, seeking, and died all in one year. Just not in that order.

In the past 12 months, I’ve participated in five experiences produced by Screenshot Productions, a prolific newcomer to the immersive theater scene. I’m a terrible person for not having blogged about any of their shows until now, so I’m trying something different — a retrospective ranking of their shows to date and a crack at collectively evaluating them as an evolving body of work.

i-601-waiver-devil-in-detailsFirst, some overall context. Los Angeles continues to be one of the best places to experience what can be loosely described as extreme haunted attractions. Unlike traditional haunted houses which are designed to accommodate hundreds if not thousands of guests per hour, these experiences are designed for smaller groups, and sometimes just individuals. They frequently require you to sign a personal liability waiver that allows them to break down traditional barriers by permitting them to touch you and generally subject you to more bodily intense treatment than would ever be allowed at most theme park events or family-friendly/amateur offerings. I’ve written about some of them before, and when they’re executed well, they can be uniquely thrilling and impactful experiences. I’m not going to beat around the bush, Blackout: elements was life-changing.

Last Fall, as “the season” was approaching, I was fortunate to have been given a tip to follow the Instagram page @whatwelearnedhere. This began a series of email exchanges that culminated in my favorite haunt experience of 2015, amidst a crowded and talented field (Alone, Wicked Lit, LA Haunted Hayride, to name a few outstanding options.)

What happened next was delightfully unexpected. In the subsequent year, I experienced four more productions from this tireless and ambitious group and was charmed, mystified, thrilled, and provoked by their work. Moreover, it became increasingly difficult to generically classify their shows as “haunted” or “horror” or “scary” although aesthetically, they continued to be strongly informed by those sensibilities. Instead, through a medium of intense one-on-one interactions in a milieu of dreadful uncertainty, I found myself absorbing philosophical teachings and having mild therapeutic breakthroughs. Hardly your typical haunted house.

That said, I occasionally came away feeling that they hadn’t quite hit the mark, even as their efforts have greatly expanded the scope of what is achievable with immersive theater. In every show, I feel like I see something I’ve never seen before, even if the execution is not perfect. And that’s why I keep coming back.

So, from least favorite to most favorite in my extremely personal opinion, here is what we learned in the past year.

stock-footage-leader-countdown-recorded-on-get-old-film-projection-bad-projector5. Parturition (January 2016)
This was their second show. On one hand it was the much-anticipated follow-up to their Fall 2015 experience which took everybody by surprise. After the true horror of the Christmas season, and the subsequent nationwide cultural hangover that is January — the announcement of a new show was a beacon of hope, even if it seemed to have been pulled together in a shockingly short period of time.

Parturition, a fancy word for giving birth, promised to be a show about being born. And they had introduced a new twist, after purchasing the ticket, you had the option of electing whether you wanted to do the experience in the nude, as in “naked as the day you were born.” Guests would participate one at a time, and there was also a small questionnaire with somewhat personal questions that set an expectation that each experience might be personalized.

Although I have ranked this fifth, I don’t necessarily think it was a bad show, but it nevertheless fell short for me. It felt like a series of beats that were loosely strung together, and none of them felt fully realized. It did not seem that any of the information that I had provided had actually been used to personalize the experience, which felt like both a missed opportunity and a failed expectation. In the climactic scene, you meet “your mother” in what is a tender counterpoint to the chaos and sensory overload of the preceding scenes. This was an atypically soothing and intimate exchange with a performer, not some cheap, disingenuous bait-and-switch to a horrific last laugh. As special as this scene was though, I still felt that it didn’t achieve its full potential. The experience ended, in what would evolve as a signature closing beat to many of their shows, with a precious moment of silent reflection before re-entering the normal world where I was no longer a newborn.

I left the experience with mixed feelings. I felt like they had rushed to pull this together and it showed. However, it was the first time I’d seen the tropes of horror and extreme experiences applied to a non-horror narrative. For me, it blew open a door that we’ve been sitting outside for the last few years. And through it, I could see a vast space to explore.

hqdefault4. Bardo Thodol (September 2016)
This was their fourth show, and the pragmatist in me couldn’t help noticing how close it was to what should really be their signature show of the year in October. I was concerned that like Parturition, it might have been rushed.

Bardo Thodol is the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a Buddhist text. From the typically cursory information provided beforehand,  I understood that this show would concern my recent passage into the afterlife after dying. Whether intentional or not, it could be seen as a bookend of sorts to Parturition. Like Parturition, I received a questionnaire beforehand, but this one was much more incisive and personal, and the responses demanded thought and reflection. I was also directed to download some  audio files and have them ready for playback for the experience itself, without listening to them beforehand — a delicious exercise in self-restraint. I’m a huge fan of engaging the experience before it actually begins, so all was good so far.

The experience itself began on a crowded city street, outside a nondescript building where the email instructions directed me to close my eyes and begin listening to the provided audio files. Once I was directed inside, the show proper began, and the first 2/3 of it featured some of the most intense moments I’d experienced in any production to date. Loud, disorienting, intimate, chaotic. I was dead after all and in transition. For the final 1/3, the mood shifted and I had a very personal interview with a bodiless voice about the information I had provided in my questionnaire. The dialogue was conducted in a reflective context — a look back at key points in my life. Even though I had recently provided the information, the preceding scenes allowed me to re-engage it in an unexpected and powerful context.

That said, I have ranked it fourth for a reason. Generally speaking, production design is not the strongest feature of any of these shows. In some cases, they are able to successfully use a minimalist asethetic as a cleverly-integrated design constraint. In this show though, it was a bit too ragged and ultimately felt distracting and unfinished. Also, much of the script appeared to be pulled from Bardo Thodol itself or similarly-themed philosophical texts and thus lacked in story and felt a bit forced and ultimately difficult to engage. What should have been a powerfully resonant experience felt somewhat cluttered and diluted with filler. The highs were high and the lows were low, and overall there was more that worked here than at Parturition.

Read the rest of the countdown in Part 2.

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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.

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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.

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.

Life After Blackout

13 Nov

gogos_vacationSome people go to Hawaii on vacation to enjoy a little R&R in a beautiful setting. Others prefer a staycation where they can catch up on hobbies or just get back in touch with the simple pleasures of home. Me, I head down to LA for three successive nights of immersive horror theater. At least, that’s what I did in October.

It’s probably no surprise at this point that I enjoy haunted houses, but I have my limits. I think they’re great fun if I happen to be in the area, but I typically don’t drop everything in my life to go out of my way to obsessively check them out. As it turned out though, I heard about a few productions that got my attention. Delusion: Masque of Mortality bills itself as interactive horror theatre in which you find yourself a participant in events surrounding a mysterious plague. The Purge: Fear The Night is a guided experience through “six floors and 70,000 square feet of horror theater,” based on the movie The Purge. But it was BLACKOUT: elements that actually did make me drop everything in my life and plan a trip to LA.

My daughter was guest-editor of this post

My 3 y/o daughter guest edited this post

NON SPOILER ALERT: I’m hardly going to tell you anything about Blackout. If you want to know what happens in this show, then go see it. I realize that as of the date of this post, this is probably only possible unless you live in Chicago, but there’s always next year.

You’re probably wondering why I would bother to review a show without providing any details. It’s real simple: Blackout succeeds on a level and to a degree that is perpetually sought and rarely achieved in the production of immersive experiences. Period.

All you know about Blackout is: you need to sign a waiver before entering, it takes place in the dark, you must do as you’re told when prompted, there’s a safe word in case it gets too intense, and you must walk through alone. Is your imagination working yet? Mine was. From the moment I purchased the ticket, my mind was filled with questions. What the hell happens in there? What are they going to make me do? Does anyone use the safe word? Am I up for this? Can’t we just have a nice dinner somewhere and tell everybody we went?

The secret of being a good producer

The secret of being a good producer

I was experiencing a level of anticipation that most producers either 1) would enter into some Faustian bargain in order to consistently engender in their customers, or 2) are completely unaware of how significant this is to the overall experience and are probably in the wrong line of work. This was not a temporary state of mind either. Having bought my tickets about one month in advance, these thoughts crossed my mind with alarming frequency. Moreover, the show enjoys a certain notoriety; I have a friend who works in the haunted attraction industry — this guy scares people for a living — and he won’t see the show. So by the time I got in line, I was pretty worked up and more than a little nervous.

Unfortunately, this is where the details stop. I’m not even going to tell you about the line, except to say that in its own way, it’s part of the experience. I had waited for weeks, but those last minutes and seconds were an elasticity of dread. It’s maybe up there with riding Space Mountain for the first time as a kid. But different. Very different.

tumblr_m4n6fbTBra1r0gxhgo1_1280Fast forward about 30 minutes. I emerge, running, out of the dark, out of the building and onto the same sidewalk in downtown LA that I had lately and nervously ambled along on my way in. My eyes scan for something familiar; I see the people I befriended in line. I see my wife. We all breathlessly exchange snippets of experience, but it’s not really a time for words, and we all arrive at that conclusion at about the same time. I feel the crisply soothing autumn air on my skin now that I’m outdoors again. I’m soaking in the vibe of people milling on the fringes of this nondescript corner of downtown LA. I can hear and feel my heart beating; it seems to be returning to a more normal pace, but it’s not in a hurry. And neither is the rest of me. I’m alert. I’m aware of this strange, animal feeling where I can experience the world in five or more senses, and calmly it alights on my understanding. This feeling — it’s the feeling of being alive. Not the “oh my god that was so scary, I’m so glad to be alive” feeling. Quite the opposite: I realized that I hadn’t had that much fun in a long time.

Blackout is a visceral, emotionally turbulent, raw experience. It’s also not for everyone. But the feeling that I had after experiencing it, IS for everyone. If extreme haunted houses (note: criminally reductionist label) that have a safe word aren’t your thing, I get that. However, Blackout made me realize that I don’t get that feeling en0ugh, and I don’t necessarily need to go to Blackout to get it. Feeling alive is what being alive is all about. Making people feel alive, or feel, respond, think, react is an achievable goal for any experience designer. Whether they realize it or not, that’s what your guest wants when they come to check out your production.

brain-on-fireAs we made our way through the city, back to the car, out in public, it became very clear that there was US and then there was everybody else around us. We moved through the crowds in this glowing bubble that only we could see. We just had this incredible experience that lit our brains on fire, and nobody else had any idea as they went about their evening. There was no judgment or condescension on our part, but we felt different and special. And that feeling was important and persisted for the rest of the night, and for several days afterward. In fact, I can still conjure that feeling and remember what it’s like to feel my senses rip into the texture of life, and for that I’m both grateful for the experience and inspired to create something that can have that kind of effect.

Coffee, Beer, Zombies, and the Future of Immersive Entertainment

30 Oct

Unfortunately, it couldn’t be all play, all the time in Atlanta. We had a full day of work ahead of us to set the record straight on a few items.

Does Octane deserve to be considered one of the nation’s best coffee establishments? Yes. Especially when paired with a popover from the adjoining Little Tart Bakeshop in the Grant Park location.

Will Rosebud provide a superlative experience for the discerning brunch enthusiast? We started with fried cheese grits with smoked cheddar and pepper jelly. Need I go on?

Can Porter Beer Bar live up to its reputation as one of Atlanta’s best destinations for enjoying a wide variety of amazing beer? Early results are extremely promising, but from a due diligence standpoint, we feel that it would be imprudent to end our investigation prematurely.

Atlanta is a flexible concept

“Atlanta” is a flexible concept

Refreshed and recharged, and in gratitude to Atlanta’s gracious hospitality, we thought it was only right that we do our part to assist them with their zombie problem. Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse promises an interesting variant on the standard haunted attraction. Unlike NetherWorld, which was incongruously located a few blocks from suburban strip malls, AZA is convincingly nestled in the woods off a deserted stretch of highway. The attraction is built on and around the grounds of a deserted motel and it didn’t take much effort to believe that zombies might be nearby.

For those who don’t frequent this type of entertainment, the haunted attraction industry is all grown up and embraces more than what we endearingly referred to as a “haunted house” back in the day. There are a growing number of variants on the theme of scaring people for fun and profit, including haunted mazes, haunted trails, scare zones, haunted hayrides, etc. Many attractions aggregate and even mashup several of these styles to make sure that you don’t get too comfortable. AZA provides three attractions which can be generally described as 1) haunted house/haunted trail mashup, 2) haunted maze + paintball and 3) haunted house/immersive theatre.

cdc-zombie-posterOut of respect for the organizers, I won’t give up any spoilers, but I will share some general impressions. Admission can be purchased on a per attraction basis. I was here from California and was in the middle of nowhere, GA. I was going to all three.

Although the attractions can be visited on a standalone basis, some of the employees had specific ideas on the order in which to experience them if you were seeing more than one. They were essentially imposing a meta-level of story and emotional engagement that hadn’t actually been accounted for in the overall design of the attraction. The best part is: different people had different opinions on the ideal order, and they were pretty passionate about their individual assessments. It was like having a personal team of horror sommeliers. More importantly, it was unscripted proof that the tendency to find story in our lives is central to the human experience. It also echoed my thoughts on the very personalized reactions that one can expect from immersive experiences.

Unlike many haunted attractions, which are essentially self-directed (i.e., here’s the entrance, proceed to the exit,) each of these attractions had a guided component. While the most memorable features of many attractions are the live performers, the level of interactivity is typically low and unidirectional: they scare, you scream, keep moving. The guides and performers at AZA added a sense of theatricality and interactivity which enhanced the the overall immersive quality of the experience. The first attraction we chose was called “The Curse,” and it took advantage of the ample, wild surroundings by using parts of the neighboring forest as the set. There was a backstory and a mystery to the attraction, and we were recruited as investigators and addressed directly by the guides and performers. Although I saw room for improvement, I was certainly entertained.

All in a day's work

The blogger in the line of duty

For me, the main attraction, and the reason I found myself in Conley, GA deferring my important research of Atlanta’s brewpubs, was the “Zombie Shoot.” We were provided with a semi-automatic AirSoft gun (essentially paintball, but using specialized BBs instead of paintballs) and protective headgear, and were told, “Aim for the head or the chest. Keep firing until they go down.” Pretty much the exact opposite of your standard preshow advisement, “Keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.” Also, in case it’s not totally clear, you’re firing at real people, I mean zombies, not cardboard cut-outs or animatronics. Did it work? Mostly. Was it fun? Definitely.

Maybe King Lear actually IS the future of haunted attractions

Maybe Shakespeare actually IS the future of haunted attractions

The final attraction was called “?” and I think it’s telling that it might have been my favorite even though on its surface, it seemed to be a standard haunted house. Why? Story. It was the most theatrical of the three and featured the most interesting and inventive story, while still remaining focused on trying to scare you out of the building. Granted, we’re not talking Shakespeare, but it was a refreshing and successful variant on what could have been an uninspired production.

The production value in these attractions was not award-winning, and the storytelling was not expert, but I’m still glad I checked them out. It was all produced with a lot of heart, and everybody from the people selling the tickets to the performers and guides and zombies seemed to be having a good time and wanted to make sure that we were too. By providing three very different, hybridized attractions, it was clear that the creators were willing to take some risks and try out some new ideas, which will always impress me more than playing it safe.

Crossing the line from a one-way performance to an interactive experience can immediately raise many expectations that are potentially difficult to meet. The biggest challenge becomes the reconciliation between the audience’s sense of agency and the practical and aesthetic parameters of structured entertainment. It’s a tricky balancing act between living an experience and playing along. To choose an extreme yet practical example from this show, being provided with a gun and an opportunity to fend off assailants is real and pulls you right into the experience. However, remaining cognizant of where you can and can’t shoot can temporarily pull you out. It trades the steady equilibrium of an evenly immersive but passive experience for one which attempts to balance instances of deep immersion within a more structured rules-based framework. The resulting dynamics suggest a hybrid with gaming, sports, and other experiences that would otherwise seem at odds with what (in this case) is essentially theater. Personally, I think that finding a satisfying balance in these intersecting sensibilities is a challenge worth taking on, and that we’re hopefully just scratching the surface of the types of experiences we can expect to enjoy in the future.

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