“BEVIN! I haven’t seen you since high school. How are the kids?” an impeccably well-dressed man next to the punch bowl says to me, a ‘WOODCHUCKS HIGH SCHOOL REUNION’ banner and balloon-filled room behind him.
My name isn’t Bevin, I don’t have any kids -- and this isn’t my high school reunion.
In fact, this isn’t a real reunion, it’s an immersive theater event put on by producer Leland Frankel, and I don’t even know which of the people in this room are actors (yet), and who are the other “audience members.” The lines are blurred even more by the fact that we’re given a fake name and a superlative and are encouraged to improv along with everyone else as the night unfolds.
I’m “most likely to become famous.” I used to be a competitive ballroom dancer at USC, so I whip up a story about how I got on dancing with the stars, broke up with my high school paramour, and got married to the host of the show and had five kids. I’m getting pretty comfortable talking about how to pronounce my fake name (like ‘Devin’ with a B’) and updating people on my fake spouse and kids that people are asking me about -- and then I get a question I can’t answer.
“So, are you going to apologize for what you did to me in high school?”
But before I can answer, the “alumni” who used to run student council take the stage, beckoning everyone away from the drinks and the check-in table and the photobooth to the dance floor for the opening fight song.
By this point, storylines have started to unfold around me as the actors start to stir up drama, making fun of a clear loner standing in the back. As the fight song diminishes, the guy in the blue suit who confronted me comes up to me again.
“So, are you going to apologize, Bevin?”
“I don’t even remember what you’re talking about,” I say, choosing the safe route instead of coming up with some fiction.
“I can’t believe it -- did I even matter to you at all?” But before he can elaborate, a tall blond girl comes over and introduces her date, another woman wearing glasses. After introductions, drama ensues because she wasn’t out in high school -- and had actually dated the guy in the blue suit, bringing up feelings of whether or not he “turned her gay” which sparked a confrontation. All around me, different storylines are playing out, and it’s my choice which groups to follow and which characters to interact with.
The complex interactions only begin to escalate from there. As actors drunkenly grab me and pull me to the photobooth to take an (incredibly!! awkward!!) photo, people start running around looking for two members of our reunion who have “disappeared” ...maybe together? They did have a flirtation in high school chemistry class...
Then comes the slideshow, which includes photos of us, the audience members, taken from our own Facebook pages. In the middle of the slideshow, an actor stumbles out, half-naked from a closet, where he was hooking up with someone else.
The hot mess escalates into an all-out confrontation with tears, a fake fight, and then all of us rallying together to sing the fight song, getting over our differences in a surprisingly heartfelt way.
As I sang a fake fight song with people playing fake high school friends, swaying with our arms around one another, the emotion felt surprisingly real, a strange bond formed with a room full of people who didn’t go to my high school but almost felt like I could have.
The Emotional Punch of Immersive Theater
The reason why theater has survived the golden age of television is in part because of its visceral immediacy: the actors are performing in front of you, the story an intimate experience that is only happening to those in the theater that night. It’s the same reason why we go to live concerts in stadiums filled to the brim with people. The immediacy, the community, the unique experience.
Immersive theater is no different, but what takes the experience to the next level is how you become part of the experience, shaping the story and participating in the world around you. A good immersive theater event will draw you in, and make you forget the world outside of your experience and challenge you to look at your environments in a completely different way.
I went to a show called ‘Unreal City’ as part of the 2018 Hollywood Fringe, put on by 2 Cents Theatre Company. The show took place in a post-apocalyptic city -- the streets of Hollywood. Our tour guides led us around the city, through an empty school, and around the streets and asked us to see the world through their narrative.
The most poignant moment, however, is when we walked by a homeless person’s tent on the sidewalk. As the character we were following led us by, the tent opened and a man jumped out at us. Naturally, the four other people I was in the group with jumped, ready to run away -- but the man beckoned us to come inside his tent, and we realized he was part of the immersive experience. Inside his tent was extraordinary set dressing, with lanterns and drawings.
As the story unfolded, he was revealed to be our ally, and helped us in our journey after telling a heartbreaking story about how the ruler of Unreal City had cast him aside and how he had survived. It was an intimate, beautiful character portrayal, and as a guard from Unreal City came by to arrest him, we had to sing and pretend everything was fine to distract him. His monologue brought tears to my eyes, and I realized the higher value in having us empathize and spend time with this character. Not only were we seeing the world through his eyes, but we felt like we were on his side, fighting with him.
We’ve learned to ignore the tents on the sidewalks, to quicken our pace when we walk by homeless people. We’re warned of the dangers of homeless encampments, and in the process forget that there are people inside those tents, with complicated lives and stories.
The real power of Immersive Theater is fostering empathy, even as it’s wrapped up in metaphor.
When I chatted with Leland, the producer of Welcome Back, Woodchucks, he tapped into the same mindset in how he approaches running his theater company, and the challenges of immersive:
“As much as it feels like a cliche to discuss, we live in an extremely disconnected world. What audiences--especially young audiences--want are unique, intimate experiences… Different people participate in different ways. Take Welcome Back, Woodchucks, for example. Maybe one person dives right in with the full force of their enthusiasm; they shed their skin and become a character in the show. But maybe someone else feels more comfortable nursing a cocktail by the bar. Maybe they hate the fact that performers expect them to take part in a conversation, or follow instructions, when they prefer sitting back and watching passively. Obviously, you cannot be engage 100% of the crowd 100% of the time - not just with immersive theatre, but with any art. However, when you create immersive art, the fact that audience expectations are much broader than with other forms of media -- or even other forms of theatre -- creates a uniquely complex challenge.”
from welcome back, woodchucks
Finding Immersive Theater Events in Los Angeles
Tracking down immersive theater in this city isn’t easy, but as soon as I started talking about the shows I was going to, everyone seemed to have a recommendation for a show or company I hadn’t heard of.
An actress friend told me to go see the immersive rendition of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and I encountered an experience like no other: producer Graham Wetterhahn and his team had built a mini mental institution, complete with a nurse’s station you could break into before the show and a secret passageway you had to find via secret clues hidden around the stage before the show began. There were themed drinks, and everyone was given a hospital gown before we entered the location.
As we danced with the actors and our fellow patients during the infamous party scene during the show, I was kind of blown away by how special these events were. Why didn’t everyone know about all the immersive theater events going on in Los Angeles?
The first few places you can start are No Proscenium, a guide to everything immersive. In addition, the Hollywood Fringe Festival (the 2019 festival opens June 12th) is a great way to see a ton of immersive theater in a short amount of time. Tickets sell out quick, so get them early.
Still, so many immersive theater events go under the radar since these types of events don’t really have a marketing budget, which is why it’s a bit of a struggle to find these gems.
Whether you’re attending a fake high school reunion, trying to steal meds from Nurse Ratchet in a mental institution, or seeing Hollywood boulevard in a new way, we hope that you find the immersive theater events that change and challenge you.
Welcome Back, Woodchucks was created by Leland Frankel and Jonny Perl, Immersive Design was by Sara Beil. The show was produced by Leland Frankel, Jonny Perl, KJ Knies, and Sara Beil.
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