Actor Joe Seely was helping designer Chris Weisbart move some equipment out of Machine Project, the alt art space on Alvarado, one day last month when a girl walked by and commented on how sad she was that Machine was moving out.

Seely decided not to tell her Machine hadn't moved. “If I had thought she was from the Westside, for instance, I would have told her,” he says. “But I could tell she was from this neighborhood.” And wouldn't she be surprised when she came by and found that Machine had turned into a bodega that leads to haunted caves that opens up to reveal a staircase that leads to a mystery theater?

Machine transforms its space almost every year. The last transformation in Spring 2012, the transdimensional hallway, served as the set for a fantastic interactive play by writer-director-performer Asher Hartman. The hallway had trap doors, false windows and walls that angled. It played with your head. Before that artist-turned-architect Nate Page pushed the storefront window far back into the space and build a raised platform in front of it. In 2010, artist Josh Beckman built a shipwrecked ship inside Machine. It looked like the floor boards were the waves into which the wreck had half sunk.

The best thing about these transformation projects is that they level the playing field a little bit. While Machine is an inviting space that's open to its neighbors, it's like any other specific artist-run venue. It has its own vibe, its own regulars and can feel insular. In the Alvarado Caves, which opened to the public tonight this week, no one knows any more about it than anyone else, unless, of course, they worked on the project, which a fair number of people did.

Mark Allen, the artist and organizer who runs Machine, had been thinking about doing a haunted house around Halloween. Weisbart, who used to be the senior media technologist at the National History Museum and has taught workshops on media tactics and haunted house secrets at Machine, drew up a plan for a haunted storefront. He went to Scare L.A., the first annual haunted house convention at downtown's convention center, looking for ideas and recruits. He met haunted house enthusiast Sierra there, and she has worked along with the fifteen core volunteers and twenty-some others on the project since Machine temporarily closed down in early September. A Pasadena Art Alliance grant, plus a fundraising campaign run by Allen and Elizabeth Cline, provided the funding.

Each room in the transformed space includes surprises — there are bugs and women with monster eyes on some of the hair dye boxes in the front store, and magic mirrors in the grimy bathroom you pass through on your way to the caves. The caves are full of effects, experiments in optics, two-way mirrors, smoke machines. A trap door may or may not be closed before performances, and then open slowly when the eighteen-seat theater beneath the caves is ready for guests. Performances include concerts and readings.

“The theater wasn't built for any specific person. It was just built for other people,” says Weisbart.

Inside the Mystery Theater; Credit: Laure Joliet

Inside the Mystery Theater; Credit: Laure Joliet

The climb down into the theater is precarious. Initially designed by Joe Seely to look like an 18th century setting, it has clamshell lights that give the raised stage a soft look, curtains found by Andy Daley (“magic Andy,” Seely calls him), the volunteer theater fabricator who helped install the stage and donated some of the more delicate light fixtures. The seats came from the old Globe Theater downtown.

A week ago, during a one night preview, Ezra Buchla played the violin, sitting in a chair at stage left, looking very emotional and old-fashioned in torn black pants and with a lock of hair that kept falling over his eyes. Visitors who made it down the stairs found themselves onstage framed by a cave opening, facing the audience.

Early in the night, when Weisbart and others were still running around with power tools, this didn't seem so strange. Later, as the theater seats filled, people who found themselves onstage became confused, and would try to find another way in, wandering around back stage for a minute or two. Soon, the audience started clapping each time someone successfully made it from the back of the stage into a chair. And then, of course, certain new arrivals who realized the clapping was for them would take the opportunity to strut or spin, turning individual entrances into impromptu performances.

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