Harrison Dangate of Empyrean Incorporated writes to you in regards to your position at the company. He wishes to meet to discuss your professional and personal development, in person, at 10:15pm. I am giddy.
Where Your Eyes Don’t Go was proposed as part of the SUDS Summer Season. It’s the sort of program that includes improvised dinners, original monologues, so-called anti-theatre, and wordless movement pieces. It is typically the most varied and innovative programming the Dramatic Society produces all year. As a thus untried example of live action role-playing in The Cellar, Where Your Eyes Don’t Go is no exception.
Harrison Dangate has actually written to me.
And the invitation is wonderful. It is emblazoned with the company letterhead and suitably straddles the tension between being an object of fiction, and formally advising that you wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothing – inviting you to the office, and inviting you to a show. It is ominously stern, closing: “Under no circumstances are you to attempt to enter the building until instructed.”
From the moment I opened it the giddiness didn’t leave me. Walking alone down Science Road ahead of my appointment, I felt like I was headed to a meeting with the actual boss and also monsters.
The beautifully architectural face of Jim Fishwick, director-cum-Empyrean CEO, establishes the scene with a minute-long introductory video. There’s something wrong in the basement. You love the basement! Go to the basement. Promotion or something. There is a lot of textbook background static and video drop outs and inaudible lines – clichés, all. Only now they’re very exciting because they are happening to you.
You are handed a torch, given a safe word, and plunged into total darkness.
I have spent a lot of time in The Cellar. It is by no means a large space, and I have seen it endlessly reconfigured, but I have never felt lost within it as I did last night. “The architectural skeleton of The Cellar lends itself very easily to a maze environment,” Fishwick says, “We had a rough plan of where the characters would be, but we designed the bulk of the maze organically as we were building it.”
The digital soundscape is a special kind of terrifyingly jaunty. The diegetic noise is always just out of reach, and borrows from all the worst kinds of haunting: footsteps follow you down corridors, there is giggling far away, things go bump, the space naturally creaks, occasionally somebody screams.The threat of ambush is in the blood of the architecture. Narrow passages and right-angle corners ensure that there is no way of moving safely through the basement. Doors lock, walls move, exits disappear. Good. Scary. Brilliant.
The production values are pretty great, in part thanks to how weak and narrow the torch is, your only respite from the pressing dark. The finish on every interesting surface is thorough, and while a few of the larger set pieces aren’t detailed to the same extent, there is so much to see, and so little time to see it, that you can hardly dwell on imperfections. You know (hope) that The Visitor isn’t going to crawl down from the roof, so you don’t notice that the walls don’t reach the ceilings.
The space is, as advertised, part Portal, part Doctor Who and part Lovecraft – the Frankenstinian assembly is confused but, when your objective is to negotiate a maze, that confusion is disorienting and frightening. It is a world populated by morbid Victorian secretaries, disconcertingly white scientists, and probably/possibly helpful/hindering eccentrics. In any other show, it would be fair game to criticise the blatant degree to which it poaches tropes from its acknowledged inspiration. Here, though, it doesn’t matter that the villain is lifted directly from the TARDIS Hall of Fame, because, rather than chasing David Tennant on the telly in a heavy-handed Moffat script, she is chasing me.
To their credit, every performer remained in-character throughout, which is not easy given the extent of autonomy that the audience has in this production, particularly given that my main coping mechanism is to be a loud dick. To manage the genuine fear of being in the space I tried to interact with the characters loudly enough that someone else in the room might laugh and shatter the terrifying illusory world. Nobody did. The illusion is thorough.
Fishwick assures me that I am not the worst audience member that they have had: “a couple of people who’ve played the game have responded to the scary situation by trying to be meta and talking smart to remove themselves from the world. But we always suck them back in.”
And it’s easy to appreciate why. Moving through the space, you have barrels of agency. Characters are interactive and polite, without being totally flaccid. While there are beautiful moments, like The Secretary’s sudden, desperate clutching, I wish there had been more of those conscious, character-driven spooks.
Like Lovecraft, Fishwick appreciates that the scariest monsters are imagined. When the characters seem as scared as the participant, it creates a tension more potent than actual glimpses of The (unavoidably corporeal) Visitor. That said, what was meant to be mute fear occasionally came across as not having answers. Coolly changing the subject is less unsettling than darting eyes and discrete beckons for quiet.
The show takes precisely ten minutes and the running time is impeccably regulated. Apparently, when people take either too much or too little time to move through the maze, the cast intervenes. If they did intervene, I never noticed it. Access to the end game is apparently only possible after five minutes, with side-missions requiring 17 digit codes available for the precocious, or over-hasty. Those who ran were chased, those who meandered are haunted.
This was one of the core mechanics of the exercise, as Fishwick explains, “it’s intended to be as immersive an experience as possible for the audience members, allowing them free choice and a somewhat open world throughout.” You control where your eyes don’t go. Your feeble source of light amplifies every nervous tremor, projected and amplified on far walls that conclude deathly corridors.
Right up to its final moments, Where Your Eyes Don’t Go stays true to its brief. The game ends when you are tapped on the shoulder. The lights come up, and a cock-headed cast applauds, grinning ear to ear. The disconcerting gesture implies a further, different threat, to the conquered, darkened maze. Its a feeling of disarming uncertainty worth protracting; right up until the audience leaves the space. While it was nice to be greeted by Fishwick, maze mastermind and purveyor of fine scares, and the auxiliary cast in the foyer, it perverted a brilliant feeling.
So, at times, the project might feel a bit rough-hewn, but Where Your Eyes Don’t Go definitely manages to indulge the powerful thirst for immersion that is characteristically the domain of screens and controllers and Skyrim and Warcraft. This feeling, realised in the flesh, is incredible. It ruins the ability to properly disbelieve, and electrifies the experience beyond what is possible within the constraints of a normal performer/audience dynamic. It is, everything else aside, staggering fun.
Nobody talks about this show without interjecting over others; eyes are wide; everybody trembles a little; you foam at the mouth. It is a special experiment and a tremendous success, which hopefully – in symphony with the spectacular popularity of the burgeoning Zedtown, the mainstream and serious immersive preamble to Sport for Jove’s recent production of The Crucible, and a retired German destroyer being converted into a Battlestar Galactica LARP – suggests the mainstream adoption of a new, very special kind of live entertainment.
This is one of the most exciting and original pursuits staged in The Cellar that I have ever seen. I am thrilled to hear whispers of plans for O-Week. I hope the Jetpack Collective continues to build more brilliant worlds. I will play every time. I am a child again. More! Yes! Woo!