L.A.'s Immersive Theater Scene Is Getting Really Weird And Beautiful
Immersive entertainment is, plainly, weird. It's far more interactive than watching a film or traditional play, and can often be unsettling. Actors can touch you, they know stuff about you, and you may find yourself exploring unknown settings on foot or alone. In New York, they have Sleep No More, Then She Fell and Grand Paradise. Here, it seems like our immersive experiences are a bit more underground, often anchored around Halloween. For instance, The Tension Experience—which begins by solving a puzzle on its website here—will soon net you creepy phone calls from someone that sounds like they're using a horror movie voice modifier. Eventually, you'll be interacting on a forum, communicating with people who talk of being invited to orientations where hoods are put over their heads or sent on missions to find people in parks. But not all of these productions are scary—some of them are particularly relaxing.
Tucked into the busy Halloween season, Fear Is What We Learned Here stood out among haunt aficionados for its beauty. While we were too busy being vomited on by naked people and crawling around an old warehouse to make the La Mirada-based haunt, it became clear that productions from these minds were not to be missed if you're the type of person that enjoys immersive theater.
Since Fear, co-creator Nicholas Sherwin has gone off on his own with a few other pieces under the name of Screenshot Productions. In January, we attended Parturition—a play about being born—at Zombie Joe's in North Hollywood. And lately, we've become fully engaged in their two latest pieces: Shoshin and Das Gericht.
Das Gericht is jarring, and does not care about your personal comfort or if you have a day job. In English, it means "the court." It takes place in many parts and multiple chapters, and it begins with a simple text message.
"You don't know what you signed up for, but it's too late now. I'm a friend, but there are those out there now privy to your existence who aren't.
I am told that this person will call me just after midnight in a few days. I am asked to verify that I have received this message by texting back a word of significance. I text back one of my cat's names, "MacGuffin."
When I answer the phone, a man asks me a series of confusing questions about privacy. They inform me that there will be agents coming to my house soon. He will be among them, and I will know it's him because he will be wearing a certain necklace. He will break away from the agents and hide something in my home that I must later find. For now, I should wait to hear next by mail.
Several days later, a small envelope sealed with red wax arrives. I am accused of a vague crime, and agents are coming—just as my mysterious ally promised—to my home. The letter states I should be prepared to receive them at some point over a 10-day period between the hours of 5 a.m. and 8 a.m.
Immediately, I am irritated. What is this? Scary Comcast? I have to be at work at 9 a.m. This is annoying. I follow the letter's instructions by going to a specific website, which includes my full name in the URL, to verify I have received it. My mysterious friend texts me again to tell me they will attempt to warn me the night before they come.
My meeting has yet to occur. The ten-day period doesn't start for another two days. It's already on my mind a lot, however. Where will I put my animals when they arrive? Will I get up in time? This seems to be the point: an unsettling element of discomfort is now imbued into my life, and curiosity is currently reigning over prudence and practicality. But if I was contemplating calling the whole thing off, Shoshin changed my mind.
"Shoshin" is a term used in Zen Buddhism, meaning "a beginner's mind." To our Western sensibilities, that might seem like a negative, but it's not. A beginner's mind is open, empty, and eager, with no preconceived notions. It is the desired state of mind.
Shoshin as a play was 90 minutes of guided meditation, and it began by finding an olive tree in La Mirada from which a small candle is hung. Each audience member, if it's accurate to call them that, was given a specific time at which they must arrive at the tree. Mine was 1 a.m. on Sunday morning. All I knew going into it is that when I arrived, I was to take off my socks and shoes and leave them at the base of the tree, don a red robe hanging there, and wait.
What ensued was like an ASMR video in real life. I was picked up by a man in a truck and taken to a tea ceremony where he prepared matcha tea, which we both drank. I then walked along a winding candlelit path through a park, stopping at various stations along the way. At each, there as a task for me to complete. I sampled food, chose various artifacts that appealed to me, and wrote a personal question on a piece of paper with a quill pen. This question I folded and slipped into a small, muslin bag and carried with me as one of my artifacts throughout my journey. At various points, I was given headphones to listen to recordings and music. One particularly stunning scene unfolded when I met another person in a red cloak. He took me to a tent and inside was a pond that seemed shallow, but it was impossible to tell in the dark. The pond contained a series of circular stones, which I could use as a path to go further into the tent. This is where I listened to a recording about how intrusive thoughts were like waves, and if I was not bothered by them, they would slowly calm. My journey ended with another cup of tea, this time with a woman who talked to me about my intentions, questions and chosen artifacts. I was also treated to a performance from the supremely talented musician Charles Jones.
If haunts are the extreme negative end of immersion, then productions like Shoshin are their opposite. And if this sort of thing appeals to you, might we make a few suggestions?
Screenshot Productions offers numerous shows throughout the year, including the ongoing Das Gericht. Membership runs $250 a year, and will include access to Das Gericht as well as Screenshot's standalone productions.
The Day Shall Declare It, an immersive theater and dance piece from Wilderness, runs now through June 19 at Imperial Arts Studios in the Arts District. The space also has a speakeasy-style bar. Tickets are $25-75.
There are also several interactive plays occurring during Hollywood Fringe Fest, A Lesser Studio's fully immersive Apartment 8 and Shine On's The Truth, in which the story will unfold as you take a walking tour around Hollywood. Tickets are $17 or pay-what-you-can upon approval, and $12, respectively.
Immersive entertainment options in L.A. are also available via the podcast and site dedicated to them, Noah Nelson's No Proscenium.