A new artistic medium is emerging called “immersive theater,” in which patrons become active participants in an unspooling narrative. The New York production of “Sleep No More” exploded onto the scene six years ago and has redefined theater.
Now, immersive shows have cropped up on both coasts. In New York, “Sleep No More” continues to entice audience members back for multiple visits, and is joined by “The Illuminati Ball,” in which audience members engage in various story-driven activities with cast members, as part of an initiation into “the Illuminati.”
Immediately, it was chillingly apparent I had walked into a trap.
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Third Rail Projects has launched “The Grand Paradise,” which allows audiences to follow family members or other cast members as they roam through a strangely decadent Club Med — which may contain the Fountain of Youth.
Small-scale shows are sprouting all over New York and Los Angeles, placing as few as one audience member in a location to become both voyeur and participant in a storyline that often derive from the horror or psychological thriller genres.
Annie Lesser’s bold “A(partment 8)” places one audience member in a bathroom, where a girl lies dead and bloodied in the tub. Over the ensuing few minutes, she delivers a monologue, the patron learns how she died, and how they were complicit — emotionally, if not physically — as your “relationship” with her is detailed.
Now the ante has been raised significantly. “The Tension Experience: Ascension,” from producer Producer Gordon Bijelonic, director Darren Bousman, writer Clint Sears, and production designer Derrick Hinman, offers more than mild interaction. Patrons are thrust into their world — whether they like or not.
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On Oct. 9, I was directed to a barren warehouse district in East Los Angeles, ostensibly to be introduced to the O.O.A. Institute, an organization that promises some vague form of enlightenment, but which also came with warnings not to attend unless I was truly ready to receive what it offered.
Immediately, it was chillingly apparent I had walked into a trap, and was now being processed for indoctrination into a freak show of a cult. Shortly after my arrival, a woman with desperate green eyes pulled me aside, and said with despair, “I came here for an ‘immersive experience,’ too. That was months ago. Please. Save us”.
For the next 150 minutes, I was truly inside the labyrinthine O.O.A. Institute. I had left my real world behind. All of my belongings had been taken. I was led from room to room, often with a hood over my head, each holding a challenge of some kind, a confrontation, a test to be faced, a no-win scenario to puzzle through, a spooky encounter with an unseen occult presence, or an assault on my senses — only to then have those senses removed through deprivation techniques. I became a walking adrenal gland, living through a suspense movie with me as the suddenly reluctant star.
Think David Fincher’s “The Game,” and you are on the right track.
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The goal (and theme) was to push me far out of my comfort zone, to take risks, to pay close attention to everything, and to be present and awake every moment.
The production must be a logistical nightmare to execute, yet I did not detect a single missed cue — nor would I have, given how far down the rabbit hole I’d fallen.
As for the storyline, the one within the O.O.A. itself is secondary — for it is the patron’s story, not theirs. Just like “The Game,” all of these actors were there for me, and for each patron who came to play. Like Michael Douglas’ character, there are emotionally and psychologically rewarding discoveries to be had.
For days, I reflected on the choices I had made instinctively in certain challenges. Was I really in a “no win” situation, or was that how I perceived it in the moment? Could I have made another choice at risk to myself but to help another? I felt troubled that I had “left” several young women “trapped” there, unable to help them. What did all this say about me?
This is what art is meant to do — let a dramatic structure leave an indelible mark. Make us reflect upon the personal, the emotional, and the psychological elements of ourselves, and our culture.