No, not talking about our famous, magic book tunnel.
The thing I like about reading is going to other worlds, being inside other heads, being other people. It’s exactly what I used to like about acting; you’re in a time/space continuum that is not your own. Movies have always failed me in this regard, because I’m way too conscious of the fact that I’m just sitting there, watching other folks do things. I’m not really involved. Reading is not limited like that, specifically because you have to picture all of it in your head. You can be motionless, but you are quite active. This places you much deeper into that world than if you were just watching a movie on a screen – ditto TV, ditto live theater – except….
If it sounds intimidating, just think about the ways you’ve already brushed up against immersive or interactive theater. Certain rides at Disneyland, or the Halloween mazes at Knott’s Scary Farm or Universal Studios (or in your cousin’s backyard?) where you physically move through a different world – they are not far off the mark. What about video games with a story? Have you tried an escape room yet? Even closer to the mark, as you actually have agency. In a sense, these are forms of immersive theater, and they have more in common with reading than with passive television watching. (Not that I don’t love TV as much as the next blob.) They are like walking through a book. True, the physicality is less with reading – and you can’t usually change a book’s story – but you absolutely cannot read if you are not actively engaged with your material. You know that experience when you re-read the same sentence 5 or 6 times simply because your mind is elsewhere? The book stops right there at that sentence until you get your mental shit together. If you’re Netflixing, that’s not a problem – the thing just keeps going, whether or not you’re paying attention.
Immersive theater almost always requires you. It is a 3-legged race. The theater folks put one leg in the sack, and you put one of yours in, and you lurch drunkenly towards the finish line, for better or for worse.
It’s Hollywood Fringe Festival season, so I got a press pass and checked out a few of these variations on interactive theater. If you’re a reader (you are, obvi) and if you like coming into the space of The Last Bookstore, looking around, feeling the space, touching things (gently), then you are the right kind of person for interactive theater.
There are a wide variety of approaches to immersion, and each of the 5 shows I saw was a little different.
Fallen Stars at the Charity Sale In Fallen Stars, (directed by founder of the San Pedro HP Lovecraft Film Festival in San Pedro Aaron Vanek, whom we last saw as a pile of viscera at Wondercon) the audience becomes browsers at a charity yard sale. The physical objects on sale (they change every show, provided by the audience – if you see a dog bed, that’s mine) are represented by actors who play the roles of the objects and tell their story. This one is adapted from a well-known Nordic larp. (If you weren’t aware, the Nords larp like mad, and not just with swords and elf ears – it’s a really big deal up there.) If you buy an object (with fake money you’re given), that actor leaves the stage, and you keep the object. So, you interact with the person running the sale, and then you change the show by removing someone from it. This is oddly affecting, as you can get to know an object/character, and then they’re just silenced. If you happen to see the show with folks who don’t realize the ways they could wreck it – half your cast will be gone within the first 10 minutes, and you’ll never know anything about those objects/characters. This can be frustrating as a show, but there’s also something very real about it: as in, “death” is sudden, permanent and inconvenient. Of course this one is Nordic.
The Video Games This is a fun show with characters from beloved video games. They exist in the same world, a la Wreck-It Ralph, and compete Hunger Games-style. The audience votes on who wins or loses the various matchups: Donkey Kong vs Link, Jigglypuff vs Master Chief and so on. Between scenes – featuring tons of stage combat – the characters schmooze with the audience as a matter of survival: more popularity = more votes. In the end, there can be only one. The voting is done in a variety of ways, including Twitter hashtagging of the characters and waving glowing, colored wands.
John Stamos is My Baby Daddy/Rainbow Brite Power Naps In John Stamos/Rainbow Brite, two distinct but related shorts, we become members of a test marketing group and then party-goers. This was probably the best executed of all the shows I saw, in terms of clarity, acting, and writing. The audience does not really affect this show, existing mostly as background players, but you’re definitely inside its world. Between the snacks/bevs, I actually had to fetch tissue for a crying character, and took a super-fun party selfie with a total stranger. Who turned out to be the director of…
Sweet Dreams: The Prologue – No theater for this one; I had to show up at a parking lot. The listed venue was “van”. Great. I don’t want to be too specific with Sweet Dreams, because I don’t want to spoil anything. You don’t have much agency here – in fact, I was confused as to how much I was expected to participate – but I think confusion is part of its intent. Also, it’s literally just a prologue. The full show will happen in LA next Halloween season. If you’re lucky, you might catch these guys at Midsummer Scream, which we’ve mentioned recently. (See? Every once in awhile, we actually know what we’re doing.) You are in it, part of it, addressed directly, touched, moved around – but totally lost. This was by far the riskiest for the cast – and for you? Hm. Just keep your head on a swivel. Good luck.
The Rise and Fall of Dracula This is an ambitious show that incorporates dance and creepy atmospheres with the acting. You’re standing inches away from the actors during some intense moments, like in Sweet Dreams, and there is a level of dangerous intimacy. To illustrate how intimate (though not so much dangerous) during a moment of… let’s just say transformation, a hairpin actually flew off the head of Dracula herself (yes, a female Dracula) and of all the places in the room it could have fallen, it fell into someone’s hand – mine. That’s intimate. (And purely accidental. I think.) Also as in John Stamos/Rainbow Brite, you are offered food. Now, being in an evil castle, I was not foolish enough to actually eat the food. I took a few grapes from the tray and slid them surreptitiously into my pocket — cuz I’ve seen Pan’s Labyrinth, duh. You won’t make any decisions that affect the show, but you might end up waltzing with a vampire.
For all their charms, television, movies and even live theater can be completely passive activities. Sometimes, that’s why we love them. Sometimes, that passivity is deadening. Reading, on the other hand, is not passive. There are degrees of engagement, no doubt, but by its nature, reading requires constant interpretation and visualization of the words on the page. Even if you are doing it while chilling in a hammock on your fifth Mai Tai, as long as you’re tracking those words across the page and picturing them in your mind, you are doing something. Immersive theater does not allow you to kip out and snooze in the back row. Again, there may be degrees of engagement, but if you stick your leg in the sack and aren’t paying attention, you’re headed for a face-plant. Yeah, it could be risky, but the most satisfying endeavors always are.
You can go to Hollywood Fringe thru the end of June. These shows are worth your time, but there are a ton of others, immersive and otherwise.
For all things immersive, you’ll want to follow Noah Nelson and his No Proscenium podcast and blog. He’s a cool dude who knows every corner of the scene. And special thanks to my pal and D&G contributor Cindy Marie Jenkins, who put me in touch with Noah.
And you know… maybe we’re working on something for the store right now. Maybe.
What do you think? Immersive theater at The Last Bookstore?
I heard from Aaron Vanek (Fallen Stars), and my dog bed made its mark. Actor Anna Dawahare (who played a vintage blouse in my show) played “Dog Mat” (remember? the objects at the sale are the characters of the show.) Dog Mat is “…stolen from a store by a homeless man who had a dog named June, and June loved the bed, but one day June was gone, and the man slept on the mat, but it wasn’t the same, he wasn’t happy, and one day the police took him away (“like a dogcatcher for people,” [Dog Mat] said). They also took the mat and donated it. She (Dog Mat) wanted to be with a dog again, and was hoping to get bought and not go to the dumpster. She looked forward to something good happening.
As we left after the show, Anna walked back to her car past a homeless camp on Cole St., just blocks away from the theater. The audience member who bought the dog mat gave it to a (real) homeless man. With a dog.”