“Signals” Lets Us Play The SCP Way — The EOI Review

Title for Signals Immersive Show

It is my first day here as an administrator. I thought it would be easy, a simple job where I help coordinate the security and containment of a research lab. But no one told me there would be internal politics. Or missing doctors. Or a man with the head of a fish. No one told me what the signals of this job actually mean.

What have I gotten myself into?

Signals is the newest creation from the Los Angeles-based immersive company Last Call Theatre that centers on the idea of “SCP.” SCP stands for “Secure, Contain and Protect” and relates to a fictional secret society called The Foundation and its goals of securing and containing intruders from alternate dimensions and protecting Earth and humanity. SCP has been an internet-based collaborative sci-fi horror project since 2007, a project that is open to anyone who wishes to add to its existence. Last Call’s choice to bring the idea of this project into an immersive experience is a great one as the concept of containing alien beings has great potential.

It is The Foundation, in fact, that starts the audience’s experience with the show. Once a guest buys a ticket, they are contacted by The Foundation over email and given a series of questions that separate them into various job groups–Security, Scientific, Admin and a final group whose name I won’t divulge here because there’s a lovely joke hidden within it. These job groups determine where audience members begin their journey and, to some extent, what sort of adventures they might have within the show.

The live experience is framed as the audience being interjected into facility 00013 at the beginning of a time-loop that will last two hours (the length of the show.) Guests are to spend their first day on the job trying to understand what happened there and why the time loop exists. Again, this is a good idea to way to set audiences up to dig into the various characters and plots within the experience.

In many ways, the show succeeds in what is is trying to do. There are multiple human members of the lab and multiple contained entities from elsewhere that audiences can interact with throughout. Each of the characters (human and otherwise) have their own agendas, goals and relationships with other characters that audiences can ferret out and either exploit or hide, depending on the audience’s choice. Characters can and do alter their attitudes and choices depending on the actions and conversations audiences give them.

Best of all, the show is humorous, a little creepy and quite fun if you jump into it with both feet. The cast, whether alien or human, maintained their characters very well. The contained Baba Yaga (played with seductive malice by Charnie Rose Dondrea) and the deeply creepy Plague Doctor (Jason Pollak under an appropriate mask) were standouts for the contained outsiders, while the entire Admin team of characters (Mikey Takla, Evan Wank, Riley Cole and Haven Schneider) were wonderful in whatever they did, be it divisive, secretive or simply naive. The strongest aspect of the show, by far, was the interactions I had with characters again and again throughout.

But there are aspects to the show that were less successful for me. Last Call Theatre did a show a few years ago called Ascend that used the same general set-up for audiences of giving them a starting group frame-work and then letting them run free within a space filled with characters. Both that show and Signals promised that audience choices could significantly alter the end of the plot. Ascend fulfilled that promise with the entire pantheon of gods altering each show thanks to its audience’s choice. In Signal, the potential for a different ending felt less possible because of the time loop bookending the narrative. No matter what choices audiences make, the show must end with a time loop and that, unfortunately, made my choices (and those of the audience around me) seem far less important or relevant. While I understand the idea of using a time-loop to narratively lock the show to its time length, it also led to a show whose ending felt weak.

The other aspect of Signals that interfered with my enjoyment of the show came from the various quests that audience members were given. First, there seemed to be an imbalance between the number of guests and the number of quests. I saw multiple people repeat quests that had been given to other people/groups before, which again diminished the narrative impact of each quest. For instance, at one point I was given a memo and told to take it to the security head and make sure that he saw it because this memo was supposedly new information. When I reached the security officer, however, I spotted the exact same memo on his desk already. Obviously the information I had could not be new if he already had it–and that largely derailed my interest in pursuing that particular plot. If a show is going to depend almost completely on audience members following quests given by characters, the show needs to make sure that audience members believe their quests are unique and important. This show did not strike that balance correctly during the performance I attended.

Signals is overall a fun dive into the ideas of immersive theatre and audience agency. For the Hollywood Fringe Festival (which this show is part of,) offering a lighter immersive experience that lets audience members play in an immersive space for a few hours is never a bad choice. Setting the story within the SCP universe is also a fun idea as it gives audience members a chance to peek at a thriving internet collaborative narrative in a unique, new way. There are pieces of the show that feel slightly unfocused or incomplete for me and I would love to see a finished, polished version of this show in the future. But the version that exists here was one that I enjoyed as I experienced it. So if it sounds like something you might enjoy, I suggest you go join The Foundation today. Who knows what you might meet once you do?

Signals has 8 more performances including tonight and through June 26. More information on the show can be found here. You can get your $30 tickets here.


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THOM PAIN Cracks Our Facade — The EOI Review

Josh Randall as the star of Thom Pain (based on nothing)

Inside this garage, the walls seem very close and the available space very small. But it’s not the stuff here that invades my space, nor is it the other people trapped here with me. It’s the man in front of me. His name is Thom Pain and he is angry.

 

The anger inherent in Josh Randall's performance

When Josh Randall announced he was performing an immersive production of Will Eno’s Pulitzer Prize finalist play, Thom Pain (based on nothing,) I was intrigued. Randall is, after all, the creator of the classic New York immersive-horror production Blackout. Now he was choosing to do a intimate, one-man production with himself as the star. I had to see the outcome for myself.

I am so glad I did so, for I have not been able to stop thinking about the production. Randall has created an experience with this production that made me uncomfortable, worried, disconnected and uncertain. And I loved every minute of it.

Thom Pain (based on nothing) offers audiences a man who is desperately obsessed with connection. He wants to bridge the gap between himself and someone else. Anyone else. And yet, his approach shows us he is either incapable or actively resisting the very connections he wishes to make.

Randall takes that play and eradicates the distance between the main character and the audience. We now find this angry, hopeless man in an equally angry garage-turned-studio apartment that’s barely big enough for him alone. Yet now we are also there, a dozen of us at once. It’s practically impossible for him to fail to connect when we are all right there, two feet from his rapid-fire questions.

The sadness inherent in Josh Randall's performance.

It’s a fascinating choice because it places the audience in a confused state. In the performance I saw, audience members were constantly uncertain whether they should (or even could) answer questions directed at them. Sometimes they tried. More often they started to answer and then stopped themselves. They kept trying to communicate and failing to do so.

That is the beauty of this production. Randall has taken a show about the desire and failure to gain meaning through communication and literally shoved it in our faces. He transfers the pain, confusion and uncertainty of the main character into our own heads as well. And the more uncomfortable we become, the harder it is to keep trying to listen and to understand the poor soul in front of us. Such a great, great choice.

Josh Randall’s Thom Pain (based on nothing) expertly places a mirror to the off-kilter times we are experiencing. He deftly slips on the skin of a broken, hopeless man in a performance that kept me equally riveted and squeamish. His portrayal of someone lost, angry and hopeless is like the wound in our society’s side, forever oozing blood. It remains one of the best times I have had feeling terrible.

Thom Pain (based on nothing) has one more weekend of shows, March 24-27. More information about the show can be found here.


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“Dragon Show” Spins Its Magic Around Us — The EOI Review

visual of the poster for the show Dragon Show

As I follow an unusual individual through the stars, I glance at those around me. We have been called here because we are not just what we believe we are. We are something more. Something stranger. As we reach our destination, I realize something even more bizarre awaits us. With eyes full of wonder, I enter the heart of the dragon show.

Traveling through the stars...

Dragon Show is a fairy tale immersive experience — literally. It is the tale of your journey to meet the last dragon and the fae creatures tasked with keeping it alive, safe and fed.  The newest live immersive experience from Spy Brunch, LLC (makers of shows like Safehouse ’77, The Pod and the online ARG Sherwood & Nottingham,Dragon Show offers its audience a chance to escape the current world’s ongoing pressures by taking a magical journey to a faraway realm.

Dragon Show was written and directed by Katelyn Schiller (who also performs in an awesome, fascinating way that I don’t wish to spoil in this review.) The experience gives its audience the gift of believing in magic for an hour or two. It crafts a story about loss, grief and hope, designed to inspire its audience as they return to their own world. Like all good fairy tales, the narrative moves between emotions with ease. It is both charming and sad. It is both lovely and dark. It is the tale of the last dragon and the realm where its last moments dwell.

Full Dragon Show Poster Image

And what a realm Dragon Show offers. It’s a place filled with artifacts both large and small, items and props beautifully realized by the production’s design team. Every set piece works elegantly together, with special notice given to Cam Sampson’s work on a strawberry (yes, literally one piece of fruit) and Shoshanna Ruth Green’s impeccable miniature garden. The design creates a cohesive sense of hand-crafted, loving detail throughout that made it a visual joy to explore.

Even more wonderful are the actors that inhabit this space. Often playing multiple parts, every actor in this show felt perfectly suited for their roles. The largest praise goes to the fairy characters we spend the most time with throughout the show, so much so that I want to call them out specifically. Reed Sights compellingly captures the transformation from innocence to understanding. Shoshanna Ruth Green’s elegance expertly covers her worry over the future. Steve Bradford amused me constantly with his character’s unshakeable belief in his education while Sam Chan’s attempts to keep the true purpose of the audience’s visit going as planned were nothing short of wonderful to watch. Mady Durbin’s sad, lost nobility came through perfectly, especially during the show’s climax. Finally, Nerea Durhart gives this show a performance that ranks as the best I have seen her create. She generates exactly the correct balance of shyness and excitement within her character’s personality. She responds without missing a beat to audience interaction, even when questioned directly about secrets within the narrative. She hints at a deep backstory with just a few words. It’s a wonderful performance in a wonderful cast.

The cast of Dragon Show
Shoshanna Ruth Green, Nerea Durhart, Sam Chan and Steve Bradford

Other elements of Dragon Show work equally well but I am intentionally not writing about the specifics of the elements here. This show works best when audience members are not too aware of what’s coming. Instead, I want to applaud Weston Gaylord’s dynamic additions and the artistry, performance and design of the show’s finale in a general sense. It is my hope that audiences come to this show and learn for themselves the specifics of the above elements.

Indeed, I hope everyone comes to see Dragon Show. As we reach what may finally be the edge of the pandemic, a COVID-safe, outdoor experience feels like a great idea in general Dragon Show takes that idea and combines whimsy, delight, dragons and fae into a bright and engrossing experience that I enjoyed immensely.

Dragon Show continues Fridays and Saturdays through February 19, two shows nightly at 7:00 P.M. and 9:00 P.M. Each show runs approximately 75 minutes. The show has very specific COVID guidelines on their show page.

Tickets are $75/person and can be bought here.


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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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Lovers Anonymous Proves to be Deeply Personal — The EOI Review

The Logo for the Amet Community

They are calling me again. I’ve found myself tasked with absolute control over two different women’s lives. I get to decide what happens to their entire future existence in one instant. It’s a weighty decision on my shoulders and right now, I only know one thing:

I don’t see any good answer.

Terence Abernathy, the strange founder of the Amet Community

As the pandemic rolls on, immersive creators continue to experiment with new ways to deliver stories. Candle House Collective created an entire program for such experiments with their FireStarter Initiative. This initiative allows new creators to offer narratives through the CHC site that can give audiences something new and exciting to enjoy.

Recently, the FireStarter Initiative brought audiences the show Lovers Anonymous. This show centers around a strange little place call “Amet”. There’s even a wonderfully retro introduction video created by Amet’s founder, Terence Abernathy. It explains Amet and that you are here because you are an American who has volunteered to help its society. But so many questions remain. Is Amet a city? A cult? A self-governing collective that somehow carved out part of Alaska?

The phrase that proves Love is a mental sickness in Amet.

Even stranger, check out the above image from that intro video. In Amet, “Love” is a sign of mental illness and that’s where you come into play. Since Americans do not recognize love as dangerous, we are better suited to decide the fate of two women who have fallen in love. To make that decision, the audience member will get to speak to both of them individually and together.

Lovers Anonymous echoes many of Candle House Collective’s previous audio-only immersive experiences. Candle House Collective specializes in over-the-phone immersive theatrical performances. They put audience members into slightly different realities with people who feel familiar and circumstances that feel terrifyingly unique. Lovers Anonymous thematically fits very well into that sort of show idea.

At the same time, the show also branches into its own territory in several ways. This experience uses multiple forms of technology beyond just audio. It includes audio, text, video calls and even PowerPoint presentations shared from various computers. Each type of technology matches the narrative moment where it appears perfectly. The emotional Lilli wants to see you as she chats while the cerebral Chantal prefers to organize her thoughts beforehand. I have seen literally dozens of various virtual remote shows in the last 16 months and I was still pleased and surprised by this show. Lovers Anonymous really understands how to use technology in a way most immersive shows fail to grasp.

The two women whose lives you are going to determine.

What caught me the most off-guard, however, was how upset this show made me emotionally–in all the right ways. Because of the distancing aspect of technology, most virtual shows have a hard time creating truly deep emotional investment in their audience. It takes just the right combination of story, performance and understanding of how people interact over technology to bridge that gap. Lovers Anonymous reaches right through its technological lines and ripped my heart from my chest.

Its two main women felt entirely real. They each had desires and fears, wants and worries, and I understood it all. It made the decision I ultimately had to make one that hurt almost as much as decisions I have made in my own life. Two entirely fictional characters asked me to choose their future and it broke my heart to do so. Lovers Anonymous is that good a show.

Everything about Lovers Anonymous compels for me. Its design is impeccable. Its use of technology works superbly. Teagen Earley and LaKecia Harris bring such real life to their main women couple of Lilli and Chantal that I honestly wished they were real so I could keep talking to them for years to come. Marvin Bell brought a different but equally real energy as Chantal’s father who had a real bone to pick with America for very good reasons. Sar Cohen and William Youmans brought the strangeness of Amet to life so quickly and efficiently that I also wished Amet was real because I would definitely want to visit and understand what the heck was really going on there. In fact, I hope the creators contemplate bringing that community back for another, different tale. I would love to learn more about the place that hates love.

Lovers Anonymous shows exactly how compelling immersive can be even across technology. It shows that with planning and a true understanding of how we access the modern world, even the technological barrier cannot stop real moments of interaction between characters and audience. The greatest compliment I can give is that I hope Lovers Anonymous returns once more so that other audience members can experience it.

Equally, I hope Candle House Collective continues to use its FireStarter Initiative to bring new creators and experiences to the world. If Lovers Anonymous is what that initiative can help create, I hope they keep starting fires for a long time to come.

Candle House Collective is busy working on their new shows. You can learn more about their company and join their mailing list here.  


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Brassroots District Gets Genuinely Funky — The EOI Review

Logo of the Brassroots District from their album cover.

I stand backstage with the Brassroots District band, holding a ‘band beer’ given to me by their lead guitarist. Normally, I’d be thrilled to have that level of access to a musical group. I’m very uncomfortable thanks to the fight happening between the group’s two lead singers. I may be experiencing a great funk band’s last night together, here in the summer of 1973.

The band producer gives a sarcastic peace sign to you.

Brassroots District: Live in the Lot Summer ’73 offers an unusual hybrid in the realm of live immersive productions. It’s a combination of a real funk concert performed by the Brassroots District band and an interactive narrative about one crucial evening in the band’s history during the summer of 1973.

Audience members become part of the band’s crowd during a parking lot concert before Sly and the Family Stone do a gig. While the band performs, tensions between band members rise to the surface as a producer arrives with his offers of fame.

Copper Jones, one of the lead singers of the band, waves hello to his fans.

Brassroots District: Live in the Lot Summer ’73 offers its audience an immersive experience accessible to almost anyone. Members engage with the story if they wish by interacting with band members, publicists, the producer, a choreographer and even groupies. They can even get a VIP ticket that includes access to the band’s backstage. That backstage area offers more intimate discussion with the characters and unique scenes with actors and audience.

Conversely, an audience member can choose to just come and enjoy one hell of a good 1970’s funk band concert. They can dress up in 1970’s style and spend 90 minutes grooving to music that absolutely sounds like it should have come from that time frame. 


Brassroots District: Live in the Lot Summer ’73 is, quite simply, brilliant. The combination of fantastic music and engaging story works perfectly. During the performance I attended, I engaged with actors and band members throughout. I spotted other audience members doing the same. But I also watched in glee as a ton of individuals who clearly were alive the first time 1973 enjoyed a nostalgia trip. They danced and laughed while wearing outfits that might have been sitting in closets for 50 years. Their enjoyment proves the success of this show.

Ursa Major, the other band lead singer, sings with the dulcet tones of an angel.

Brassroots District: Live in the Lot Summer ’73 works on every level. From the music to the performances, this show creates a synthesis of joy and togetherness. It is the perfect counterpoint to the isolation of the last 16 months and a reminder that humanity is at its best when we come together in happiness and love. If that sounds like I’ve fallen under the old spell of peace, love and joy then great–blame the band. Brassroots District: Live in the Lot is the kind of show that will give anyone that good a time.

Brassroots District: Live in the Lot Summer ’73 has three remaining shows this weekend (Sat at 4 and 7PM and Sun at 7PM.) Tickets are $55 for general admission and $197 for the VIP Backstage Experience for 2 (which from personal experience I highly recommend.) Tickets can be found here.


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Darkfield Radio Enters Your Ears and Invades Your Mind – EOI Review

Featured Image for Darkfield Radio

I sit in a chair in my home with one thought running through my head: I am terrified. There are visitors here that I did not invite and I would love for them to be gone. But I can hear one of them talking to my roommate and the other one is whispering right in my ear and they have no intention of departing. Not while I’m still alive, anyway. Darkfield Radio has done it again.

The logo for Darkfield Radio

Darkfield Radio was originally created in the UK as a collection of multi-sensory audio experiences in complete darkness. Now,  creative directors and Darkfield founders Glen Neath and David Rosenberg have turned their audio narrative skills into a remote experience. Audience members download the Darkfield Radio app onto their phone, put on headphones or earbuds and the performances stream directly into their ears.

Darkfield Radio currently has three different tales that audiences can experience. Two of them (“Double” and “Visitors”) are made for two audience members to experience in the same room at the same time. The final show, “Eternal,” is designed for one person lying in their bed. Each of these tales brings a different type of horror to its audience and they are work very, very well.

Two audience members sit across from each other for Double
Maybe the person across from you isn’t themselves anymore…

“Double” begins as a discussion about the Capgras delusion, a real condition where a person believes someone close to them has been replaced by a dark, evil version. That delusion instantly becomes something to worry about given that you listen to this tale with someone you know (and presumably care about) sitting directly across from you. Have they been replaced? Are they worried that you have been? An incredible performance from Chris Brett Bailey only adds to the terror in the latter half of the narrative. He shifts the story in a subtle way and it is both thrilling and nerve-wracking at the same time.

“Eternal”, the solo show, uses the novel Dracula as inspiration for an intimate show that is all the more terrifying because you experience it lying down. The binaural audio allows Lloyd Hutchinson to get really close to you as he creates a looping narrative that is compelling, dark and nerve-wracking. I had never had goose bumps from having someone just speak to me–until this show.

Lying on your bed might be the worst decision.
Nothing wrong with lying on your bed, right?

For me, the true star of these tales is the show “Visitors.” Two audience members are asked to sit in a very specific way for this show. Then the horror begins as two visitors arrive who are different, unnerving and worst of all, persistant. Visitors is one of the most uncomfortable 20 minutes I have ever experienced and I mean that as a tremendous compliment. Sonya Seva and Greer Dale-Foulkes as the two visitors do an absolutely fantastic job in creating a tense, creepy atmosphere. They hit just the right balance between their calm demeanors and the absolute nightmare of what they want to do with you. Everything about this show works equally well. Glen Neath’s script is perfectly vague, offering just enough information to allow your own mind to fill in the rest. Neath and David Rosenberg’s direction shows they know exactly how to increase the tension throughout the tale.  The binaural audio is so expertly created I literally thought something had happened in my home that only happened in my ears. It is so good I still think it might have been real.

Darkfield Radio is a fantastic set of audio horror experiences. Each one of their shows builds tension and psychological horror in different ways and they are all very good at what they want to do. Best of all, the experiences are all performed each night which allows audiences to spend an evening lost in Darkfield’s world. Darkfied Radio offers audiences the perfect ratio of terror and discomfort for the modern age. Perhaps the best compliment I can give Darkfield Radio is this: I want them to make so many, many more of these so I can come back to their terrifying world again and again. Do yourself a favor and tune in to Darkfield Radio as quickly as you can. Just be ready to have a hard time sleeping after you do.

Darkfield Radio has ongoing performances of each of their three shows for various countries and timezones. Tickets for every country and timezone can be found here.

In the US, the shows run Tues, Thurs and Sat nights through April 29th, with two timeframes based on Eastern and Pacific timezones. Tickets run $7.50/partipant for each show. 


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Teen Spirit All Over Again: KatnipProductions’ The Sleepover Review

The Sleepover: an Immersive 90's Experience!

I’m in the back seat of my mom’s car. She asks me whether I’ve done my homework before tonight’s festivities. I tell her “Yes” with a click of my mouse. Her classic “mom-happy” voice tells me to have a good time as she drops me off. Little does she know the truth: Eye On Immersive: KatnipProductions’ The Sleepover Immersive Review

We’re gonna watch Nickelodeon. All night long. That’s what a sleepover is all about.

In the COVID world, entertainment has become something we watch through screens at an astonishing rate. Nowhere has that become more evident than in the rapid proliferation of remote immersive experiences. Some create deep dives into performing artists. Others create escape rooms with live avatars. The immersive community constantly experiments with how to bring audiences into a story while leaving them in their own homes. The Sleepover, a one-hour comedic immersive show set in the 1990’s, makes its choice with a goofy and fun escape into a more innocent past.

Jointly created by KatnipProductions and the Cricklewood Theater Company, The Sleepover casts its audience members as guests at the title event held by teenager Mikey (Jason Lalich.) With Mikey’s parents (played with lovely over-the-top gusto by Misha Reeves Bybee and Joey Bybee) heading out for a Halloween party, Mikey’s older sister Louise (Susan Louise O’Connor) gets tasked with watching over her brother and his audience friends. That’s all the setup this show needs to leap headfirst into the humor of the story.

Mikey and Louise react to their sibling rivalry.

Jason Lalich and Susan Louise O’Connor

Comedy sits at the core of this show and it works very, very well. From the opening choose-your-own-adventure video to the death-defying dare at the end, this is an immersive experience that simply wants you to have a good time. Early on, when the plan to watch television goes awry and Louise claims its because of the house’s ghost, Mikey grabs a handful of Goosebump novels because obviously they have the appropriate research for handling spirits. Later, when audiences get separated into two groups to have smaller scenes with Mikey and Louise, we learn how cool an older sister must be by definition because she has music posters on her wall or how cool Mikey is because he knows how to play the Oregon Trail video game. There’s nothing truly serious happening here and that’s the point. The Sleepover’s plot hangs on quirky, strange little moments of fun that come across as sincere because that’s exactly what nights like that are all about.

Pizza and Goosebump books: a winning 90's sleepover!

The Sleepover sets itself up as a show with a loose plot and lots of audience interactions through Zoom. For this type of show to work, you need actors who can maintain strong characters with sharp improvisational abilities. That’s where this show really shines, as I absolutely loved the two siblings Mikey and Louise. Lalich’s portrayal of Mikey reminded me so much of the earnest awkwardness of a boy trying to impress his friends. It’s a performance that works as silly, sweet and almost painfully accurate. From vocal tone to attitude to facial expression, Lalich absolutely nails that age where boys want to be men but have no idea how to get there.

Susan Louise O'Connor shows you how 'cool' Louise is.

Susan Louise O’Connor

O’Connor’s take on Louise is equally sharp. She portrays the perfect arrogance of the older sibling, convinced of her coolness based on absolutely nothing at all. Certain that she is justified in whatever vengeance she levels on her younger brother for perceived slights. Determined to pose as the sophisticated woman even as she fails to spot obvious traps laid out to bring her down. O’Connor’s performance captures her character’s reality with the ease that only comes from a brilliant performance.

Jason Lalich asks if you're coming to his sleepover as Mikey.

Jason Lalich

The Sleepover has all the pieces necessary to give audiences a great escape from today’s complicated world. It combines humor, strong improvisation and even a heartfelt emotional moments as it lets you enjoy a simpler time. This is an engaging show in every way. It’s the kind of remote immersive experience that could run for a long time when word of mouth gets around. Most of all, The Sleepover offers a very welcome respite for a weary world.

The Sleepover has extended for three shows this weekend, Oct. 23 and 24th. Tickets are $19.90 for General Admission (anywhere) and $49.90 for VIP admission that includes a 90’s goodie box (local to Los Angeles only.)

UPDATE: The Sleepover has extended again for two more performances on Nov. 6 and Nov. 7.

For more information or to get tickets, head to the event link.


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Shot To The Heart: Spectacular Disaster Company’s Temp Cupid

Temp Cupid

I am stalking a man and a woman as they enter a bedroom during a friends’ party. They start talking to each other, allowing me to sneak past the woman and focus on the man as I raise my bow and arrow. She says something cute and I fire an arrow of attraction right into the man’s chest. He reacts instantly, touching her hand as he tells her how funny she is.

I smile, too. I’m just doing my job.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be Cupid? To be in charge of helping individual humans find love and human connection in its many forms and possibilities? If you have, then Spectacular Disaster Factory’s newest immersive creation Temp Cupid might be the experience for you. Temp Cupid places audience members in the role of being exactly what the title suggests: temp workers taking on the role of cupids for the night. It’s a highly interactive experience where each cupid uses a bow and arrow to make targets either like or dislikeother people around them in an effort to give each target some type of love before the night is over. It’s a production that combines aspects of improvisation and gaming to allow audiences to determine the outcome of each character’s relationships.

Temp Cupid
Cassie (Ashley Busenlener) is about to get struck by a Temp Cupid’s arrow

It’s a rather fun idea for a show. Participants are given a bow and arrow each and instructions that no character at the party they are entering can see or hear them. When participants shoot arrows at characters, they can increase or decrease how that character feels about another character by up to three steps (in each direction.) Finally, each Cupid is tasked with helping a specific character (including a cute dossier that gives a quick rundown on each one’s wants/likes.) The new Cupids are then unleashed upon the party, free to shoot (or not shoot) anyone at any time. They can talk to each other, team up with other cupids to create a specific goal or wreak havoc by sabotaging what other cupids are trying to do. Once they’re done impacting the characters however they want, a finale plays out where the outcome of those actions gets shown to the Cupids. It’s a fairly solid concept.

This is the type of experience that works well for audience members who are new to immersive shows as it does not demand much from participants other than understanding how the arrows work on the characters. That’s all a Cupid really can do to control anything within the show, since they cannot interact with anyone in any other way. For newer audience members, making the interaction simple and game-like can make this a really fun way of entering the immersive space.

Temp Cupid
Lonely Hearts Cassie (Ashley Busenlener) and Tracy (Casey Dean) find a match thanks to their Temp Cupids

For those who enjoy watching improvised interactions and are interested in seeing how changing someone’s like/dislike level will impact those interactions, this show also offers great potential fun. During my experience, I chose to partner up with other Cupids to make sure a specific couple ‘liked’ each other as much as possible. That decision meant that I followed that couple through most of the experience.  Having the chance to be a fly on the wall and watching their relationship blossom in front of me was highly entertaining—as was fighting off the sudden attempt by other cupids to sabotage the relationship I’d spent time putting together. Just as the couple was becoming invested in each other, I became invested in holding them together against all the other Cupids.

It’s not a surprise that the interaction between characters is my favorite aspect of the show. The actors involved in the production are solid across the board. Casey Dean’s portrayal of Tracy is almost unbearably cute, even when responding to arrows that make her dislike someone. Orion Schwalm’s Jack is goofy and sincere, with just enough quirkiness to make him really believable and real when someone suddenly begins to like him. Tricia Fukuhara’s depiction of Audrey is almost heartbreaking in itsawkwardness. During my experience, there was a moment where an arrow derailed a friendship she was trying very hard to make happen. Her reaction to the emotional change was so painful it made me immediately shoot her with the arrow necessary to change that back. Ashley Busenlener has the emotional range to go very dark, as evidenced by a sudden change in emotions towards another character during my trip that became the most serious moment of the night. She played that moment exactly correctly. Kristofer Buxton’s eagerness as Clark is as amusing as his coldness when persuaded to dislike someone. He turns perfectly on or off, as the cupids demand. The best performance for me is Lena Valentine. She gives her character Jo a wonderful maturity that runs through whatever emotional alterations come from the arrows. Even when arrows give her rapid emotional shifts, she somehow makes each transition both natural and truly engaging. More than once, I stopped paying attention to the ‘game’ of shooting others just to watch a scene she was part of as it played out. She’s truly compelling. The greatest positive of this production is the exceptional choices in casting and their ability to handle their characters while being impacted with constant relationship changes in real time.

Temp Cupid
Audrey (Tricia Fukuhara,) Jo (Lena Valentine) and Jack (Orion Schwalm) exchange words and cookies in the kitchen

There are other aspects of the show that are less effective for me. The setup for the experience feels overly complicated and far too long. Each character has a specific color. Attraction is coded red and repulsion coded black. So each time a Cupid wants to alter a character’s feelings toward a second character, they have to find the arrow with that second character’s color code and then remember to use red or black, depending on their choice. It’s a setup that takes fifteen minutes to explain and, at least during my experience, still had audience members asking for clarification. While a production likes this clearly needs to have the ‘rules of the game’ laid out, I think this long an onboarding seems to work against the premise of having fun playing a cupid. It comes across as a lot of effort and learning before you can actually go have fun. If the Spectacular Disaster Factory chooses to remount this show again, perhaps they can find a way to streamline the rules into something that can be explained in 5 minutes. I think that would help make it even more of a good show for entry-level immersive audiences.

 

Temp Cupid
From Left: Casey Dean, Orion Schwalm, Tricia Fukuhara, Ashley Busenlener, Lena Valentine, and Kristofer Buxton

The show also feels too long. During my stint as a cupid, I noticed several players who got either bored with the premise or simply got tired of shooting arrows and were sitting down for the last 10 minutes of the experience. This may be a case of too many players per experience slot. Or perhaps the show is simply too long. Once again, if the show is remounted I think some effort at fine-tuning this could generate an even stronger experience. Showing the impact of arrows in mid-scenes as well as at the finale might help audience members stay more connected, for instance.

Overall, Temp Cupid is a fine show, with a lot of potential for audiences to have fun. For those who enjoy seeing their actions have impact on actors, this experience offers immediate gratification as each arrow generates an immediate response. And for those looking for a show that’s light and entertaining and designed simply for some fun, this is that kind of show. The flaws that exist are mostly ones that simply slow down the experience or aren’t holding everyone’s attention as strongly as one would like—all of which could easily be overcome in a remount. Honestly, I do hope they bring this show back again. Cupids may be most common during Valentine’s Day, but Temp Cupids are needed all year long.


 

Temp Cupid closed it’s initial run on February 16th, 2020. Make sure to follow Spectacular Disaster Factory on Instagram, Facebook, and at their website for remounts and new experiences throughout the year.

 

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The Autumn Experiment’s On With the Show: A First Love Letter to Classic Halloween

I’m waiting on a street corner, watching two men in kitschy pumpkin-sack masks gallop towards me. They wear shirts that say “10” and “31,” respectively, and grip my arms tightly as we walk down the street towards our destination. I gather that we’re trick-or-treating together, but none of the houses we pass seems just “right.” That is, of course, until we reach the last one. The one with the fog gently billowing out the front drive. I see a small figure kneeling on the ground and I squint to make it out, just as I realize my guides have vanished and I’m now here alone. The figure is a child, her long dark hair over her face, a dress so white it seems to glow. She’s drawing something on a sheet of paper on the ground. I take a breath and crouch down in front of her. “My name’s Mischief, what’s yours?” I answer her and she opens her mouth in a dramatic, overdrawn cackle. It unnerves me. She stops as abruptly as she started, and continues to draw, humming to herself. “Halloween is coming,” she mumbles, her eyes dark and hollow, and I open my mouth to speak just as a set of gentle, firm hands grip me from behind and hoist me back to my feet.

Autumn experiment, on with the show
Tom Blunt and Galen Adair as 10 and 31

Witches. Three of them, their faces hidden from view, they take turns whirling me to face them. One of them dabs at my wrist with a wick soaked in perfume oil. It smells damp and sweet, like Fall. She asks me if I know about “Spook Shows,” the old take on haunted houses that challenged guests to only the bravest of guests. But it was a lie, in a sense. Nothing really scary ever happened at spook shows. They were all just a gimmick to get people to have fun. Another witch gently touches my face with a gloved hand and turns me towards her, putting a cup of warm liquid in my hand: apple cider. It’s perfect. 

She tells me that even though they weren’t truly frightening, Spook Shows were eventually outlawed due to a series of unfortunate accidents. It wasn’t until year later that a young man with fond memories of the Spook Shows of his youth decided to recreate the festive scares. He called it The Autumn Experiment. But then he met a man who claimed he wanted to invest in the idea and…well…something went very wrong.

The autumn experiment, on with the show
Stepy Kamei, Jocelyn Gajeway, and Sarah Uplinger as the Witches

The witches all begin to chant in unison, closing in on me. Something about immersive theatre’s latest and greatest, monsters coming to life, participants being carried off into the darkness. The chanting dies out as there’s a tug at my sleeve. I look down to see the Mischief again, her eyes now wide black pools. I lean down to her and she hands me a drawing. It’s The Halloween Cowboy, drawn in the loving way only a child could, but he looks very sad.

She thrusts the page into my hand. “We weren’t supposed to meet this way,” she says. She tells me he, whoever he is, just wanted to make things like they were, to bring back something people loved. But it’s ruined now. Broken. Now she doesn’t know what happens next. No one does.

The autumn experiment, on with the show
Lillith Barriel as Mischief

She tilts her head back and lets out that braying laugh again, cracking the misty air. All at once she stops and shoots her arm out towards the street I arrived from, one long finger extended. “Warn them. Warn your friends. Halloween is coming. HALLOWEEN IS COMING!” She shrieks and I swim my way back out to the street through the growing fog. 

I inhale the cool air once back on the pavement, that damp, sweet smell still lingering on my skin. If Halloween is coming, I think, glancing back over my shoulder, I’ll be the first to say hello.


Halloween 2019 came, and went, but Halloween is never over for The Autumn Experiment. The above was a recap of the first full Autumn Experiment experience, On With The Show. The show combined classic whimsy with a heavy dollop of the macabre, enough to make the overall essence of the performance ripe with nostalgia for October nights gone by. The Autumn Experiment hopes to bring back that warm and fuzzy and yes, a bit scary, feeling of Halloween’s past, one story at a time, and it’s a welcome addition to an immersive theatre landscape that can sometimes rely too often on a heavy dramatic hand.


The Autumn Experiment is the collaborative effort of Drew Rausch and Jocelyn Gajeway. Find the Autumn Experiment on Instagram and visit their website at www.theautumnexperiment.com to sign up for newsletter updates so this year round celebration of Halloween doesn’t pass you by.


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