Suddenly, I am in a courtroom.
A judge is presiding. She is solicitous, but brooks no nonsense. Her English is good, though I can’t place her accent.
She greets me by my name.
She says I have been accused of a “peculiar crime.”
A prosecutor faces me. He has a pointed beard, and when he talks the beard moves up and down in short chopping motions, like he is gardening with a spade.
He knows my name, too, and now he is talking to me in that smarmy, faux-friendly way that lawyers use to talk to witnesses before they start to do their business. I can tell he isn’t friendly at all.
The judge makes me swear to tell the truth.
I am, it seems, on trial.
And while the proceedings are pressing forward, I am on my laptop at home in San Francisco, occupying a window in a Zoom screen.
I am a 69-year-old journalist. This is my first experience with immersive theater, and I am in deep.
Subscribe to our weekly arts & culture newsletter
Immersive theater is a newish industry. Famous immersive productions like New York’s “Sleep No More” (2011 to 2020, reopening Oct. 2021) and “Then She Fell” (2012 to 2020, closed after 4,444 performances) brought audiences into the performance, giving them the freedom to wander through rooms in a physical space, each room its own set, and interact with actors found there.
Part exploration, part improv, the defining characteristic is that the audience is not a passive observer letting the performance wash over them, but is part of the production and empowered to braid the threads of narrative, twisting the story in new and unscripted directions.
Those famed productions are but two of many different immersive experiences that run the gamut from haunted houses to escape rooms to interactive performances, most organized in physical spaces. The pandemic shut down most of that, but immersive art, like so many other types of art, found a way to migrate from IRL to URL.
In 2019, I spent two wild days at Burning Man shadowing Ty Eckley, a Houston-based burner who, for the preceding dozen years, had given out awards for artistic excellence. He said that Burning Man was the “Olympics for creative people.”
I liked that concept, and I wrote a long piece about Eckley. Even though my work was finished and out in the world, I didn’t feel I was finished exploring Burning Man. I planned to return in 2020, but the pandemic made it clear that I would not be riding my third-hand orange boneshaker of a bike, spokes threaded with blinking LED lights, across the playa in the midst of the throbbing night.
The Burning Man Project said it was going to offer a virtual experience in 2020, but I had no idea how that could work.
Zoom could plausibly connect a dozen isolated colleagues for a work session or even provide a safe haven for a conversation — riddled with awkward interruptions and even more awkward silences — among the scattered members of my family, but how could it possibly provide a medium for an event notoriously built on the serendipity of human connection?
There was no way, but I decided, half-heartedly, to give it a try.
I wandered around the “SparkleVerse” — one of the universes joined into the “Multiverse” — and dropped into gatherings with cool names but where the conversations were even more awkward than on a family Zoom.
I was about to write it off altogether when I was asked if I would be interested in a “very special personalized experience.”
I had to fill out a form. It was bland, and I don’t remember much about it other than that, along the way, I mentioned that I have a touch of claustrophobia.
The next day, I received a ticket to something called “The Sandworm.”
The prosecutor ’s name is Mr. Pink. He tries to suck up to me. He compliments my last name and makes a quick, odd joke.
But the joking passes quickly. He demands to know my whereabouts on March 19, a Wednesday.
I venture that I was walking my dog in San Francisco. Pink doesn’t contradict me but notes that it was raining and reminds me that when the wind and rain blew up, I had to take cover. I found shelter in a nearby train park, as did everybody else caught in the sudden weather.
The train park was “very crowded.” Pink says the word “crowded” as if it had quotation marks around it, and he dips the dagger of his beard for added emphasis.
He then reveals that my every action had been captured on security cameras.
According to him, I had proceeded beneath an underpass and emerged onto the train platform, where people dripping from the surprise downpour were packed shoulder to shoulder, cheek to jowl.
Pink asks, “Do you pride yourself on being a selfish man?”
I answer truthfully enough, “I don’t pride myself on that at all.”
Pink asks where I would be found, “on a scale from 1 to 10, 10 being the most selfish?”
I say, “Probably an 8, but I don’t pride myself on it.”
“That’s a solid 80% selfish,” he says. Pink smirks to show that he has gotten what he wants.
“The Sandworm” was conceived by Richard Thomas — he goes by Ricky — and Tanner Wells.
Thomas, 30, is from South Africa. He is a surfer, a cook, a baker and a musician. He plays the didgeridoo. Pre-COVID, he was spending part of the year in South Africa and the rest of the year in Europe and the United States. He was organizing and helping with music festivals and large events — “doing a multitude of different things, a lot of catering as a chef and some management roles, and then more recently doing production and organizing.”
In 2015, he was with two friends from the U.S. at AfrikaBurn, one of hundreds of Burning Man events held around the world. All through the event, the friends kept comparing AfrikaBurn to Burning Man saying, “Oh, if this was at Burning Man, it would be three times bigger, and it would be breathing fire from every angle,” and by the end of the week, Thomas says, “I’m just like, man, I should go to this thing.”
A few weeks later, he got an invitation from a friend of a friend to work at Burning Man. According to Thomas, the gig was a “complete s— show.” It was “terribly organized, and the other guys on the team were useless,” but he did a good job and the head of the team liked him. He was hired again, and through that connection, he got involved with other festivals and events and soon he was living “out of bags.” Three weeks wouldn’t go by without him “getting on a plane to go somewhere.”
Wells, 42, grew up in North Dakota, an hour and a half from the Canadian border. He has spent most of his life traveling. He did a study-abroad in Sweden in school. After college, he worked in Costa Rica and then spent eight years in Argentina. He traveled all over Asia with a friend he made at Burning Man.
In 2016, Wells was invited to England to see an immersive theater show called “You Me Bum Bum Train.” He didn’t know what it was, but he decided to give it a try.
He attended as one of the audience, what the show called a “passenger,” and had a wild experience. “It really led me into this desire to want to do interactive, immersive theater.”
“Bum Bum” was a big show. According to Wells, there were 20 scenes in actual physical spaces and hundreds of people involved in the production. Most were volunteers. “They priced it out and … it would have been, like, $8,000 at minimum wage per guest to go through.”
The production was around for years. “They would set up in different warehouses and do the planning for like a year and do a run for six months to a year,” he says, “and then stop and then rebuild and re-create new scenes.”
Wells was very hyped after the experience. He had met Thomas at AfrikaBurn in 2014, and when he next saw Thomas, he got him excited about immersive theater as well.
At that point, Thomas was involved in organizing a large event in France, and he and Wells started to plan how they could mount an immersive theater event as part of it. They began weekly meetings to plan. Then the pandemic intervened, and it seemed like the idea was dead, but Thomas posed the question: Could they turn a physical immersive experience into an online immersive experience?
They started to game out how it could work. They had a contact at the Co-Reality Collective, self-described as “a group of international artists, engineers, philosophers, intellectuals and performers with a shared passion for creating imagination-expanding, connective and transformative-growth experiences via epic online parties.”
The collective was organizing online parties with names like “The Bodyssey” (an “epic party inside the human body”) and “Tree of Life: Roots to Rapture,” and wanted Wells and Thomas to try their immersive theater idea as part of one of these events.
Wells and Thomas did not feel ready. They had completely changed the program they had been talking about, and there were so many logistics to organize — but in July of 2020, they decided to give it a try, and it was successful. Two weeks later, they did it again.
The collective invited them to participate in the programming they were organizing for the 2020 virtual Burning Man.
Pink is in control of the courtroom. Now, he recounts what he says the camera captured.
The crowded train platform, the uncomfortably tight surroundings. My dog — a small dog — down on the concrete floor, the legs of passengers rising around her like trees.
Pink says the cameras saw a man in a wheelchair come rolling toward me. The crowd grudgingly parted to let him through. The man in the chair rolled close to me, and in doing so, rolled over my dog’s leg.
And that is when — according to Pink — the camera saw me “freak out.”
I was, Pink said, an “evil man … all alone in a tight space.”
Pink’s voice rises to a crescendo as he reports that I leapt out and kicked the poor soul in the wheelchair and sent him “flying into the tube tracks.”
Now, it is clear, I am being tried for murder.
The virtual production/experience/adventure I saw at Burning Man 2020 was performed by a group of actors in different locations, each isolated by the pandemic in their own living space but connected for collaboration via the Zoom platform.
After Burning Man, Thomas and Wells carried the show — now renamed “The Caravan” — forward on an episodic basis, as a ticketed experience. For a price, an individual goes on a personalized adventure, moving from Zoom Room to Zoom Room, each a separate theatrical experience, all shot through with interactive improv.
Every scene is a surprise.
In its advertisements, “The Caravan” pitches itself as “an hour-long, one-person-at-a-time, personalized, role-playing journey of self-discovery, where you as the guest are the center of attention throughout.”
There are roughly as many actors as participants. The production I saw had a dozen actors from six countries, performing from eight geographic locations. Over the course of the event, 10 or 12 “seekers” passed through the Zoom Rooms, interacting with the performers.
“The Caravan” encourages a participant to “push your comfort zone while delving into play, emotion, vulnerability and elevation. The more you put in, the more you will get out.”
Noah Nelson is the founder and publisher of No Proscenium, the self-styled “guide to everything immersive.” A crusty Zoom-hater, the public-media journalist is immersed in immersive entertainment. His website tracks new offerings and reviews what is being performed, and he has a broad and deep overview of the industry.
Nelson sees immersive theater as part of a huge ecosystem that is poised to explode financially. That commercial explosion was starting to happen in 2019 and early 2020, only to be muzzled by the pandemic.
According to the 2020 Immersive Entertainment Industry Annual Report, edited by Nelson and written by Ricky Brigante and Sarah A.S. Elger, the industry is a part of the “experience economy,” a term coined to describe the cultural transition from “an economy based on services to an emerging one of experiences that extends far beyond entertainment.”
The report says the immersive entertainment industry was valued at $61.8 billion in 2019.
While that number seems impossibly large, it is more understandable when broken down into the main areas or subcategories.
The largest sector by far ($52 billion) is “themed entertainment” largely theme parks — and in particular Disney — that have been offering different forms of experiential entertainment for more than 50 years. Following far behind ($5.97 billion) is the world of virtual and augmented reality, led by sales of Oculus headsets and VR content.
Haunted attractions ($1.5 billion) lured more than 37 million customers in 2019, according to the report, followed by 2,350 escape room venues ($656 million), immersive theater ($28.1 million) and experiential art museums ($28 million).
The report flags the “mysteries of immersive theater” as possibly “the next standout success of the future,” hailing the fact that a “handful of businesses begin to solidify their offerings into products that are not only driving huge revenue but also attention from major corporations and massive audiences alike.”
But while immersive theater — either in real life or virtual space — is the “sub-industry that is poised to become the next to enter the growth phase,” it also faces a significant challenge from the “intimacy paradox.”
Audiences love the small one-on-one experiences, but “creators need to find ways to bring the feeling of intimate experiences to larger groups.” Figuring how to do that is needed for projects to become commercially viable and allow creators, actors and others in the industry to make a living.
But there is a big payoff. Nelson says the media frequently talks about the “attention economy” and focuses on the competition to capture audience attention. But for him, attention is not enough. The key is real engagement, and that means both attachment and action.
He says that when an immersive experience like “The Caravan” “works, it works the kind of mojo that is very deep. It’s very sticky. A high level of attachment.”
The report’s conclusion on the future of the industry is bullish: “The destiny of the Immersive Entertainment Industry is clear. It’s filled with incredible innovation, amazing business opportunities and the most stunning variety of entertainment the world has ever seen.”
Pink finishes his presentation.
I realize that I do not have a lawyer; I will have to mount my own defense.
I do my best to explain my dog’s pain and confusion, how perhaps I might have yelled at the insensitive lout in the wheelchair, but Pink keeps interjecting commentary.
He says that I was “fantasizing,” his beard bobbing up and down as if repeatedly stabbing me in the chest, “as you always do.”
He offers his indictment: I had “evacuated this human being off the platform.”
I deny the implication. I express my indignation in haughty tones. I look to the judge for some morsel of justice.
She intervenes, but she does not come to my defense.
In light of the evidence I had given, she says, the court will reconvene tomorrow to hear more testimony. I can’t be entirely certain what the judge says next, but it sounds like she plans to hear testimony from my dog.
She thanks me, dismisses me “to my new quarters,” and in a moment, I am in a new room in a new situation, rolling with the punches.
Pink, the prosecutor, turns out to be Chad Phillips, a South African actor living in London. His mother, Lorraine Patricia Phillips, ran a casting agency and was a model. She won the Miss Western Province beauty pageant in 1974 and came in fourth in Miss South Africa, according to Phillips.
Phillips started acting as a boy and went on to study theater in London. He plays the lead in the upcoming international film “Wosaka” which tells “the story of Basil O’Connell-Jones, who after several narrow escapes as a drug dealer, enlists to fight in the Rhodesian Bush War.”
“The Caravan” is Phillips’ first experience with immersive theater, and he likes that it brings the audience onstage.
“The fourth wall, sorry, is gone,” he says. “It’s gone. You’ve completely broken it. You’re not just being watched. You are now roping them in and really connecting with them.”
The “fourth wall” in theater is a figurative wall that stands between the actors and audience. The wall is transparent to the audience but opaque to the performers who perform behind it as if they were in private space, even though they are in full sight of the audience.
Breaking the wall and bringing the audience into the production can be hard for the actor. A script with the comfort of known lines is gone. But there are benefits.
“For a performer to be challenged on the spur of the moment,” Phillips says, “it’s like golden, you know, you get the chills. That’s the feeling. That’s what you’re looking for as a performer.”
In the course of the production, Phillips played several different characters and, in those roles, he interacted with 80 to 100 individuals who participated in the interactive experience.
Phillips has an opinion about what makes for a good participant, a good “seeker.”
He identifies, “People who are accepting of change. People who are willing to give of themselves. … People [who] are just present in the moment instead of having preconceived ideas where they want something to go. That basically holds you back in life and in immersive theater.”
Phillips says, “If you let go and you just run with the moments, then you are allowing anything to happen. That’s what makes a good seeker.”
“The Caravan” is considering offering an interactive immersive show as part of virtual Burning Man in 2021; if it proceeds, details will be posted on its website at https://thecaravan.online/. Virtual Burning Man 2021 is offering Six Worlds to explore online starting Aug. 22 through Sept. 7; learn more at https://journal.burningman.org/2021/07/news/official-announcements/meet-the-virtual-worlds-2021/.
Joe Dworetzky is a second career journalist reporting for the Bay City News Foundation and Local News Matters after a 35-year career as a lawyer in Philadelphia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow his journalism at authory.com.