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.
First, 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.
5. 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.
4. 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.