A Night at the Theatre Macabre
Theatre Macabre is the most unique and ambitious show being offered in the Los Angeles area this 2018 haunt season. It offers up a world that demands to be explored – or it will not reveal its secrets. Patrons enter in small groups and must find out for themselves whatever stories the evening may contain.
Mike: Two years ago, we reviewed The Tension Experience: Ascension by opening up with this line: “Wonder what that odd crashing sound you heard in the background of your life was this weekend? That was the sound of every theatrical norm in the city of Los Angeles being destroyed.” As Los Angeles keeps building upon the rubble of those “norms” over those two years, The Tension Experience Creators (Darren Bousman, Clint Sears, and Gordon Bijelonic) have returned to again, smash what we think we know and can achieve with theatre, to the ground. Theatre Macabre is the newest show from this trio of trepidation and they’ve taken what they’ve known, learned, and liked over the last couple of years, put it through a meat grinder, and created a show that has all of those elements. This is a HUGE push forward for the Los Angeles immersive theatre scene.
Russell: Indeed, the format is by far the most intriguing aspect of the show before you step into the building. To be clear, there is a theater you will enter at one point, but that is not where the “show” unfolds. Actually, I think it is best to enter with the idea that you have not even purchased a ticket to a show. Your ticket entitles you to the privilege of exploring a unique, flawed, melodramatic, and incredibly intriguing world. There is a theater, and there are performers, but there is so much more.
Mike: As soon as you hear the rules of the theatre, you know this is something that will be unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before. The same general rules apply to this show as to other immersive shows such as: “don’t touch the actors, although they may touch you”, “do not open any closed doors”, etc. In most shows, they’ll also have rules such as “do not wander off alone” and/or “do not speak unless spoken to”. Both of those rules are still in the rubble of the smashed theatrical norm. Within Theatre Macabre, you are encouraged to wander, explore, and to talk to anyone and everyone you possibly can. You see, by interacting with the colorful characters within the walls of Theatre Macabre, you are doing things, saying things, and making decisions as to what your path will be in the show. You are not on a set path and a simple “yes” or “no” will alter your future. Think of this as an instant gratification butterfly effect.
Russell: So, how does this work? You enter a building in downtown Los Angeles and you cross paths with people who work, play, and maybe even live there. How you choose to greet these people and interact with them, determines what will happen during your time within the walls of that world. Not wanting to spoil any specifics, I will reveal that I found myself searching for specific people who it was recommended I meet to gain information. I whispered codes phrases to employees of the Theatre. I demanded explanations as to the well being of a performer I thought may need medical help. I was slipped notes with clues as to who might be able to tell me the truth behind the sinister-appearing managerial staff of Theatre Macabre. At each turn, I felt awkward and fumbled my way through a specific quest I decided to go on. And… it was wonderful. My own awkwardness and doubt in what I was doing heightened my sense of vulnerability and my level of excitement. This was high stakes emotional poker I was playing, and the consequences were deeply disturbing. The highlight may have been a simple, emotional scene as I rested on a bed with a young woman who told me the story of her family. Ten minutes later a different character stunned me by revealing the truth behind the scenario she had described to me. It was shocking and saddening and thrilling all in the same moment.
Mike: This is a show that will get you out of your shell. You will have a better time if you do talk to as many people as you can. You will never know what is around each corner or where each conversation may lead you. I, also, was given secret phrases to tell people, which led to a few things that made me giggle with evil delight.
There is so much here to explore and so much you won’t see. I went on a walk with a specific character that took me up a flight of stairs and past other areas. Knowing there’s multiple floors and additional scenes on these floors just makes me all the more curious as to how to get there.
Russell: I definitely wound up on a specific path… with a specific goal I was trying to reach. To be honest, I failed in achieving what I set out to do and, in the end, I watched something very painful happen as a result of my failure. I am confident if I had achieved my goal, the outcome would have been much different. THAT’S the beauty of Theatre Macabre. The possibilities feel endless. Good or bad, my actions created the story line I was witnessing.
Mike: It’s interesting you say that because I did not feel like I was on a path…and I mean that as a compliment. The people I met and choices I made it seem like such a free flow show. It felt like it was real and that these people were real. It didn’t feel like a pre-planned structure. I’m sure there are paths, otherwise there would be anarchy in there, but the fact I didn’t feel like there was shows just how good these actors are and how good the writing is.
Russell: I agree the cast is incredibly strong and adept at adjusting moment by moment to what the patrons are doing. As patrons, though, you do have to approach this as something you participate in, not just witness, if you want to get the most bang for your buck.
As intriguing and wonderful as this universe is to explore, I understand this show is not for everyone. I know some people would not enjoy the amount of effort it takes to makes this a worthy experience. YOU have to engage, YOU have to pay attention to details, YOU have to be the protagonist in your own story to some degree. This show will not come to you easily. If you decide not to engage with the cast, you will see a fascinating world come to life around you. Indeed, there is a strange narrative that seems to drive the overall event and at times you will end up being instructed to join others so certain information can be shared by all. But, the rewards of purchasing a ticket to this event rest within your ability to speak to any character you find willing to talk to you. Those interactions offer clues to a bigger world of political intrigue, big money, show biz shenanigans, and manipulation of lives, maybe even the trafficking of human souls. Theatre Macabre can be a dark and dangerous place, if that’s where your conversations lead.
Mike: I also want to point out that there is a show aspect to this all. You will actually be watching a show on a stage during your visit. This is where Theatre Macabre gets its name. You will see a very dark and… macabre …side show of sorts on stage. You’ll see singing, dancing, and more. This was a good break from whatever you may have seen, heard, or participated in up until that point. There was also a band, Mambo Diabolico, that was performing live when there weren’t performers on stage.
Russell: Actually, while watching the “show within the show” is where my own quest really took flight. Something I saw in that room led me to chase down an actor and find out more about them. It feels weird even trying to express how those moments unfolded. I sought out a character, other characters encouraged me to find that person, even if they might be hiding. When I found them, I had to convince them my intentions were honest. I wasn’t an audience member, I was someone – a character? – existing inside the world of Theatre Macabre. That thrill of actually being part of the experience is where the gold lies within this creation.
It cannot be stressed enough how ambitious this piece is, how groundbreaking this achievement truly appears. The creative team has created a new tier of interactive entertainment. For that, they are to be applauded.
Mike: Ambitious is an understatement. To have that many people inside, actors and multiple time slots of patrons, to run as smoothly as it seems is a massive undertaking. While the production design can feel sparse at times (due to the vastness of the spaces in the building), it doesn’t take away from what you get with your ticket. You get personalization at a level that hasn’t been seen in Los Angeles before. This personalization is for EVERYONE, not just people who have been following along, or celebrities, or VIPS, or friends of the cast, etc. Did we mention that the ticket price includes alcohol as well?
Russell: We attended shows on opening night. There were definite kinks yet to be worked out. The ending of my show seemed abrupt, rushed, and slightly incongruent with what I had experienced during my time inside. At one point, I was specifically told I was going to have to face someone and divulge specific information I had learned during my stay. I was filled with dread and excitement at the prospect of that conversation – and it never happened. Another character offered me, what seemed to be a choice… that then led nowhere. Those types of things are partially inherent to an event where the patrons get to freely explore. Was I disappointed? Maybe, a little. That disappointment comes from how fascinating everything else was, though. Hopefully as the run continues, the flow will appear smoother as patrons interact with one character after another.
Mike: Something similar happened to me as well. I was told I would get something for a future visit, but I guess the wording that was told to me was a bit off. Again, it was opening night and everyone is still finding their way and their voice. Assuming the same thing happens that happened with Ascension, Theatre Macabre will morph and evolve with every show. I’m excited to return and see what may have changed from opening night.
Russell: The ticket price is steep. My show lasted just under ninety minutes. Do I feel I got the value of that ticket price? Yes, I do. However, I am also understanding that the reason the ticket price is so high is due to the sheer audacious ambition on display here. This is not an attempt to tell you a story, even though multiple stories are told each time a group enters this event. This is an effort to create an entire world that a patron has a surprising amount of freedom to move around in and – most importantly – to affect by taking whatever actions they choose. This is – by far – the single most “open world” event that Los Angeles has seen to date. Proper credit must be given to the creators behind Theatre Macabre for the guts to push every single limitation patrons may have about what exactly “live theater” is today.
What about you? Should you by a ticket? After reading this, if you feel you are willing to be adventurous, bold enough to approach an odd acting stranger, or someone who seems to be working but might have a moment to spare to tell you a story… if you are THAT type of person, I recommend you give Theatre Macabre a chance. One thing is for sure, you will walk away with a unique story to tell.
If you are only comfortable being told a story, to witness something and take it in passively, then Theatre Macabre may not be a good fit for your sensibilities. Each individual must make that call for themselves.
Mike: Even though YOU will make YOUR specific show better by being engaging, you will still have a great show if you don’t try and talk to every actor. You can be passive and still have a great show, but if you’re being adventurous, you may get to see or hear other secrets of the Theatre.
I mentioned earlier that this is being created and put on by the people behind The Tension Experience. This show does not happen within the Tension Universe, so you do not need to know the last two years of backstory. All of the characters inside are new to all of us. We learn about them inside and have no previous knowledge of them. However, there are some things that carry on from Tension to this. The biggest thing is to BE PRESENT. Look around. Be bold. Pay attention. Look for hidden things and secrets. I can’t stress this enough. Some of the things that happened to me happened because I randomly saw something in the corner of a room…a corner in which there was not a focus on.
Russell: As a fan of immersive experiences, perhaps the biggest compliment I can give is to say I want this world to continue, to grow and evolve. This is a world I would love to be able to visit again in a couple of months… maybe again a few months after that. An ongoing experiment like this is worthy of a long life. I wish the Theatre Macabre a long run. May the blood-stained curtain never truly go down.