Tag Archives: immersive theatre

Orlando’s Brave New Republic

23 Jun

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.

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.

Shhh, There’s a Speakeasy Coming to San Francisco!

7 Oct

No, not that one. Nope, not that one either. This one’s the real deal, and it’s opening in January 2014, but I might be able to get you a sneak preview!

A couple weeks ago, I was wrapping up a meeting with an associate at Cafe La Boheme in San Francisco, a suitably appropriate place to evaluate various plans for making the world a more entertaining place. At the end of the meeting, he asked me what I was doing the following night, and proceeded to give me a silver pocketwatch with a dog tag conspicuously attached to its chain. He said, “Call the number on the dog tag, they’ll tell you what to do.”

Once I got home, I called the number and received further instructions on where to show up and what to say when I got there. The following evening, we left the nighttime streets of 21st Century San Francisco, walked through the doors of a nondescript building, right into the year 1923 and the world of The Speakeasy.

The Speakeasy will be a work of immersive theatre. Like many newly-minted terms in art, technology, culture, etc., it’s both challenging and somewhat pointless to attempt to concretely define immersive theatre because every new show seems to expand the scope of what it can encompass. Generally though, it refers to a theatrical experience which “breaks the fourth wall,” which is a fancy term for saying that the conceptual, invisible barrier that typically separates the audience from the players is understood to be nonexistent. In short, when you come to an immersive theatre show, you should expect to find yourself onstage. I am personally very interested in this concept, because it employs many of the storytelling sensibilities that are found in the world of themed entertainment and theme parks. If you think of a theme park as a giant work of immersive theatre, then you can start to get a sense of the exciting possibilities for both of these types of entertainment.

Back to 1923. I can’t really tell you what went on in there, but it was a lot of fun. It might have involved classic cocktails and casino games. If you’re curious though, the theatre company that is producing the show had a successful Kickstarter campaign that will give you a flavor of what they’re creating without spoiling any surprises. As I mentioned, The Speakeasy will not be open to the public until January 2014. However, in the interim, they are running exclusive previews on Friday nights to test out ideas, generate buzz, and engage potential supporters. These aren’t actual performances, but if you’re interested in the bleeding-edge of the local theatre scene, it’s a great opportunity to meet the creators and producers and get involved in the early stages of a very unique experience. If you would like to attend a preview, please contact me and I’ll see if I can let you borrow the pocketwatch for a night.

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