It's 9:30 on a warm summer night and I'm standing at the corner of Olympic and Fourth Street in Koreatown. There's a shadowy figure down the sidewalk, lit by a lantern. I greet him and am met with a monotonal “Name?” He checks me off a list and tells me to join a small group of strangers standing nearby. Moments later, a passenger van pulls up and we are blindfolded and told not to speak. During our short journey, we receive instructions for our dinner with The Willows, an immersive theatrical experience running through July.
As we pull up to a spooky 1912 house, we remove our blindfolds and are greeted by the silhouette of Lindsey the butler, eerily framed by a window in the front door. As we approach, Uncle Ricky arrives behind us, carrying a bag of groceries. He apologizes for his tardiness and warmly welcomes us in. Pop songs from the 1920s fill the air as Lindsey guides us toward the parlor where Claudia, a recent widow, serves wine. The mentally challenged Conrad and his kissing cousin Angela join in as we learn the purpose of our gathering: to honor Claudia's late husband, Jonathan, who died under mysterious circumstances.
“I've always thought that human beings are scarier than vampires or werewolves,” creator Justin Fix says. In addition to The Willows, his company, Just Fix It Productions, also presents CreepLA and Slaughter Summer, Halloween-themed immersive shows. “Over the past few years [there] has been a surge of shows kind of popping up. We can attribute that to escape rooms, originally. Our fan base goes back to gamers, VR, augmented reality. They love to participate,” he says of the mostly millennial audience.
The cast assumes we're old friends of the deceased, and I somehow feel compelled to hide the fact that I have no idea who Jonathan is, lest I insult them or, worse, am deemed an interloper and dealt with accordingly. When asked, Uncle Ricky jokes that he “works in ladies undergarments” but is scarce on details. It seems we're expected to interact with the cast, but maybe it makes them work overtime, improvising answers based on backstory prep.
“It's a drastically different experience as an actor, with someone who's interrupting you with questions all the time,” offers Dasha Kittredge (Angela), who works with three different L.A.-based immersive theater companies. “It's more difficult as an actor if someone is engaging so much they wind up making the show about themselves.”
Before dinner we gather in the foyer to greet the stern matron of the house, Rosemary Willows, an intimidating figure descending the grand staircase. She invites us to join her in the dining room, where we feast on cheese and fruit as conversation again turns to Jonathan, prompting disagreements and reprisals from Mrs. Willows. After dinner, she leads a parlor game in which participants mimic a series of meaningless gestures. It seems harmless enough, but woe unto those who make a mistake.
As the show moves into the homestretch, audience members are paired for dancing in the parlor, then blindfolded and led to a new partner. Seconds later the music fades or doesn't; it's hard to remember as confusion reigns. A wave of voices washes over the room as participants are blindly led amid hissing and whispering: “You should be a better husband,” “You don't spend enough time with your children,” “Your career goals are outside your grasp.” That last one may or may not have been uttered, but it's impressive how the comments seem so specific to real-life anxieties yet broad enough to fit many.
“What VR is doing for film and TV, we are doing for theater and space. People want to engage a little differently nowadays,” Fix says. “We're always wanting more, more, more, now, now, now.”
Kittredge attributes it to that insidious catchall, the internet. “Everyone is on their computers. They're not immersed in the world anymore. They're immersed in their screens,” she says. “I think people are really craving real shit in front of them really happening. It makes them feel alive again.”
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