It’s Alive: The Creation of The Creation — The EOI Review

The cast of It's Alive: The Frankenstein Immersive Experience

I am deep in the bowels of a mausoleum, my eyes locked behind a blindfold and my gloved hands shoved deep inside something squishy and very wet. (Is it intestines? The chest cavity?) I strain to figure out what the noises in front of me might mean. (Is that ripping skin? Is that a bunsen burner turning on?) All I know for certain is that I am lost in the memories of the true creator of all of this, Mary Shelley. And I fear there is much more horror yet to come for it’s alive.

Chanel Castaneda as Mary Shelley

It’s Alive advertises itself as a “Frankenstein intimate immersive experience.” That description is both accurate and a vast understatement for one of my favorite experiences this Halloween. It’s Alive is far more than a Frankenstein story. It is the story of how Frankenstein came to be. It is the story of why Mary Shelley felt compelled to write about a mad scientist and his poor creation. Best of all, it is a fantastic immersive experience with so many characters and storylines that multiple viewings still won’t catch everything.

It’s Alive begins at the moment Mary Shelley learns of her husband’s death from a boating accident. Because of plague fears at the time, Percy Shelley’s body is cremated. All Mary Shelley receives to bury is Percy’s heart which refused to burn. With that startling piece of emotional imagery in her hands, (more startling still because it’s an actual historical fact,) Mary begins to mourn.

But it’s far more than her husband she grieves for, and It’s Alive delves into the full weight of both Mary and Percy’s histories. Audiences break apart and weave together as they traverse the massive Mountain View Mausoleum, interacting with everyone involved in the creation of Frankenstein. Mary’s sisters whisk individual members off to have a private scene in the darkness. A pair of the audience digs up body parts by a grave outside. A handful spies on Dr. Polidori professing his love to a married woman. For two hours, the show weaves its audience in and out of moments of these peoples’ lives in a way that feels like a combination of ghost story and gothic ballet. By its completion, each audience member will understand exactly why Mary’s tears fall so deeply at yet another moment of grief.

It’s Alive Cast at the Mountain View Mausoleum

It’s Alive works on every level possible. The writing (from John Armstrong and Devon Armstrong) perfectly combines the style of Shelley and Byron’s poetry and Mary’s novel. And yet, it remains very accessible for modern audiences thanks to director Devon Armstrong’s very smart staging and choices for when to have characters directly interact with audiences. Moreover, a show like this requires exceptional choreographing of its audience so that each member gets a full experience with no wasted time. The first version of this show at the Heritage Center in Los Angeles did this well; this version has perfected that timing into an art form. I was brought through nearly every corner and floor of the mausoleum and never did I feel like I was waiting for anything or anyone.

Dr. Frankenstein (Robert Schaefer) summons you.

The cast of It’s Alive also does a stellar job throughout, with every actor working in top form to bring these historical figures to life. Chanel Castañeda effortlessly shifts between the true happiness of Mary in love to the heart-wrenching grief of her loss and captures both perfectly. Jahnavi Alyssa’s portrayal of Claire Clairemont displayed raw grief in such a visceral way it is spellbinding. The deeply sad story of Harriet Shelley (Percy’s first wife) gets an equally (and wonderfully) sad evisceration from Rachel Levy. Alec Gaylord as Percy and James Fowler as Byron capture the egocentrism of those poets and their male-centric “free love” attitudes so well it made me angry at them. Lulu Royce’s version of Fanny was the living embodiment of lost innocence and nearly impossible to watch. Even the one fictional character roaming this performance, Dr. Frankenstein himself, was horrifically presented by Robert Schaefer in a wonderfully dark, twisted persona that drags people off to do monstrous things.

Percy Shelley (Alec Gaylord)

It’s Alive is the perfect example of great immersive theater. It brings a well-crafted and well-executed show to a wonderful location. It imbues the production with a talented cast that knows how to draw their audience ever deeper into their tale. One can hope that shows like these might even become a holiday tradition, for you could do no better for a Halloween night than fall into this exploration of the truth behind the fiction of Frankenstein. For as many of the characters here say, without these people and the life they gave Mary Shelley, the creation would never have been born.

It’s Alive has four more shows this weekend, but only the Saturday at 9PM show has tickets remaining. Tickets are $60 and can be found here. Contact the organizers for any waiting list if you want to try another slot.


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‘Rio Records’ Flows Through Space and Time – EOI Review

Rio Records is an online immersive production about the LA River.

I may be sitting in front of my computer in the real world, but in my mind I am lost in a story that flows through space and time and centers on a medicinal recipe turned into a massive corporation fortune. Rio Records is definitely a trip to be on…

… and yours will be entirely different.

This immersive experience focuses on the LA River.
All Images Courtesy Rio Reveals

In our current crisis era, those of us who love and/or create immersive entertainment have lost one of the great elements of the art. We can’t physically experience things. We can’t find ourselves in unique locations or strange circumstances in the same way as before. Multiple companies have attempted to recreate that sense of ‘being somewhere’ with greater or lesser success. Based on my journey through 13Exp’s newest creation, Rio Records accomplishes what few shows I’ve seen recently have done. It transports me to somewhere else.

On a purely technical level, the show works as many other remote interactive and immersive shows do. Audience members use the internet in two ways during the 80-minute show, through a custom-built interactive opening site and through a later Zoom call. Cell phones can also be part of the experience. Both live and pre-recorded elements add to the narrative each audience member enjoys.

On the design side, the show represents the work of over 70 artists that creates a tapestry focusing on the past, present and future of the LA River.  Over 700+ minutes of content has been created, allowing a show that has multiple different story paths that weave in and out of each other. It’s a design that hopes audiences will return more than once to the experience as each trip they can follow an entirely different path through the show. Rio Records also adds a civic-minded element through raising both awareness and funds to help revitalize the LA River in the near future.

In the experience, however, Rio Records explodes beyond its setup. It becomes something far, far more interesting.

Over 70 artists collaborated on the show.

My particular journey focused on an indigenous medical recipe stolen from a housekeeper by her employer. That employer then turned that recipe into a fortune, none of which was shared with the person it was stolen from or her family. I was treated to multiple forms of entertainment including comic books, live phone calls, hacked messages, recorded video and live streaming moments. The variation and approach of the artists towards the subject matter excited me and occasionally moved me emotionally.

The show allows each audience member to choose their path forward multiple times during the show, with each choice leading to a different outcome in terms of both art and narrative. For some audience members, this sheer open nature may be intimidating or confusing. But I chose to follow the request of the LA River (yes, she is an actual character in the show) and let the experience flow over me. Whenever I had the chance to make a choice, I made it instinctively and let the story build in its own time. By letting myself simply enjoy each moment as it came, I quickly lost my sense of being in my own home and watching through a computer screen. Instead, I found myself in an almost heightened state, relishing each element for its own sake and as it added to the story. I highly recommend other audience members approaching the show in the same manner.

Unfortunately, the show does not succeed on all fronts. In its final segment, audience members join a Zoom call that happens narratively in the future. I understand the goal of this segment, which is to suggest both challenges and potential solutions for the LA River as we move through the 21st century. The execution of this goal feels problematic. First, the audience is asked for their input in choosing appropriate solutions for the river. We get too little time and information about those solutions to give that input. Second, brief snippets of narrative conflict (such as someone who might have a conflict of interest) feel like they should be able to be explored but cannot be because the show is nearly over. This end segment feels rushed and tacked onto the experience in order to recognize the real importance of the LA River to Los Angeles as a whole. While the idea may be noble, this segment could easily have been an entire show on its own and probably would work far better as one. Instead it drags down the beautiful flow of the rest of the show into a strange, confusing end.

Rio Records is a show that I sincerely hope people turn out to experience in its final weekend. Beautiful and elegant in so many ways, Rio Records offers a respite from shows that lock us behind our screens. If you let it wash over you, the show can float you into a story you choose from moment to moment. It can connect you to the incredible work of current artists and to stories based on the history of one of Los Angeles’ important elements. I recommend this experience as something different and strange and absolutely worth your evening.

Rio Records has four more performances through this Sunday, February 7. Tickets run from $25-40 and can be found here.


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Confusing Space: Mystic Ventures Collective’s Don’t Follow The Lights Review

There’s a classic bit of folklore that talks about wandering too far into the forest on the wrong sort of night. One wrong move, the lore says, and you might just find yourself taken by the fae. You can end up lost in the darkness of their realm for anywhere from one night to forever. Only the luckiest humans find their way back. Don’t Follow The Lights Review Mystic Ventures Collective

I’m about to find out for myself. Because this time, they’ve taken me.

Ali Hass as “Harvest”

Don’t Follow The Lights is Mystic Ventures Collective’s newest online immersive sandbox show about one unlucky night in the realm of the faeries. It starts with a fun premise. The audience members have done the opposite of the show’s title and it’s up to them to figure out a way home. Through exploring the realm, interacting with its denizens and figuring out proper offerings for each faerie leader, audiences have a chance to succeed in finding their way home.

Or they can fail utterly, lost forever. Or they can find multiple different levels of great or terrible endings in between. The audience’s actions as a group make the final determination.

The shows uses a software program called Gather to create a faerie realm that looks like a video game from the original Nintendo Entertainment System era. Audience members move avatars throughout a map of the realm. When they get close to a character’s location of characters, they enter video chats reminiscent of Zoom with the ability to speak and hear each other. Conversations lead to secrets, clues or even solutions for what other characters need. Only through exploration and interaction can the audience find their path home.

Multiple interactive and theatre companies have started using Gather to create spaces where audiences can interact that attempt to mimic the idea of moving through a real space. The goal is to allow more fluid, dynamic conversations where audience members come and go as they wish. Don’t Follow The Lights succeeds in creating that sort of space as other shows using Gather have done.

Shelli Frey — “Decay”

However, if this all sounds like a complicated setup for an interactive online experience—it is. Any company using Gather needs to recognize that it isn’t necessarily intuitive, especially for those who didn’t grow up playing Final Fantasy or Chronotrigger. Helping audience members understand how they interact with this software—both in general and for this specific show—becomes an absolute necessity.

For the final dress rehearsal that I saw, that information wasn’t sufficient for many of the audience including myself. I saw multiple audience members blindly roaming the space, attempting to figure out what they were supposed to do or how they were supposed to interact at all. That lack of clarity impacted both how I experienced the show and what I was hearing from other audience members as it happened. I expect Mystic Ventures Collective to have made significant changes to their audience’s introduction into the show since that night. If not, such confusion may happen for other guests as well.

Joey Moore — “Raven”

That would be a shame, because there are some positives for this show as well. The actors were quite fun to play with, each of them having some clear goals that allowed for improvisation as they responded to audience members. Some of the actors were cold and aloof, such as Dana Soliman’s smart performance as “The Queen.”

Others were more unearthly, such as KC Hyland’s joyfully disruptive chaos as “Nettle.” And some were truly reminiscent of darker faerie tales, such as Shelli Frew’s whispered and torturous “Decay” and the constantly sharp hunger of Kate Martin’s “The Mermaid.” The actors deftly accomplish the spin into a realm of strange creatures and inhuman attitudes.

Kate Martin – “The Mermaid”

The general idea for the show itself works as well. Using a classic bit of folklore to weave this sort of immersive experience should be a lot of fun—and in this case, it often is quite enjoyable. Having guests work together towards an ending determined by their choices has great merit for creating a positive audience space, something we definitely need in the current isolation era.

The iteration of the show that I experienced simply needed more fine-tuning to truly shine in the way that I believe Scriptwriter and Producer Shelli Frew wants. A few tweaks (that I expect will have already happened by opening night) will go a long way in raising this show to its best version. If the audience’s choices will determine the ending, they need to have a clear idea of how to affect those choices. They need to understand the stakes, their options and at least the first stage of what they need to do to succeed.

After all, one of the impacts of making everything look like a video game is that it makes audience members want to “win.” I spent too long confused over my choices to feel like I was winning anything. Locations and characters changed as well during the experience. While this is true to the idea of a strange fae world, such changes were often hard to spot, making it even more harder to ‘solve’ the world. Some characters seemed to require specific things but were not always good at giving me clues as to what those things might be.

Worst of all, I wasted time retracing paths to figure out what I had missed, only to find that a second visit to the same character could generate different answers with the same questions. Such a reaction made it seem as though my actions were generating random outcomes, which seemed at odds with the goal of making my choices matter.

Again, I expect these hiccups to be ironed out when the show reaches its full potential. That’s the point Don’t Follow The Lights will be a show that audiences will be able to follow perfectly well. That’s the version that I wish I had experienced myself.

Don’t Follow The Lights brings a great premise to its audience. With strong acting from its entire team, the show offers audiences a fun take for the Halloween season. When their issues are solved, Mystic Ventures Collective’s show should be a great adventure for this year’s spooky season.

Don’t Follow The Lights has three more performances scheduled this weekend on 10/30 and 10/31. Tickets are $30 and the experience works best on a Google Chrome browser with a headset and microphone. Don’t Follow The Lights Review Mystic Ventures Collective Don’t Follow The Lights Review Mystic Ventures Collective Don’t Follow The Lights Review Mystic Ventures Collective 


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