Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Another Tension Experience Update (& Meta-ish Thoughts)

Yesterday something pretty amazing happened within the world of The Tension Experience and I wanted to write about it even though it didn't happen to me. To me, this event represented a significant step forward in the [whatever-this-experience-is] because it did NOT happen in Los Angeles.

Early evening central time, Tension started broadcasting on Periscope from an unknown park. It took everyone awhile to figure out where this park was located, because it wasn't local to LA - most of the time the ones in LA they are able to figure out quickly, because the bulk of the participants live there, and the videos usually zoom in on a landmark or sign identifying the place. This video began with a close up of a photograph of this statue - which is in Kansas City. I should also mention that the video was addressed to a specific participant "M." M., like me, is located in the midwest, actually fairly close to Kansas City. As the broadcast went on, we saw a path through a park and eventually a letter drop inside a cement block. We ALSO saw The Tension Experience logon to the broadcast and demand that whoever was filming stop immediately - indicating that this was NOT sanctioned by them. Curiouser and curiouser..

Not in Los Angeles!
What followed over the next 12 hours was nothing short of amazing, and took me back 15 years to - you guessed it - Cloudmakers. Because this wasn't about a bunch of people in the same city working to attend the same event or solving the same puzzle or trying to get to the same location, it was a bunch of people all over the country working to get one thing accomplished TOGETHER. One of the truly revolutionary things about The Beast back in 2001 was that it required a hivemind and we didn't have much of an infrastructure for one yet - we had the internet obviously, but no social media in the sense that we have today, no built-in community for solving it. We formed our own group and we were just one of many working on it. There was no central forum set up for us and (unless I'm forgetting something) absolutely no contact with the puppetmasters, only in-game characters through occasional phone calls and emails. No guidance. Difficult puzzles were put out into the world, puzzles that very, very few individual humans had the capabilities to solve, but groups of hundreds or thousands stood a chance and DID solve. The game required teamwork. Last night, The Tension Experience did as well, even if it wasn't intentional at first.

Cloudmakers Yahoo Group - next time I need to view messages in this group, sort by date...
The problem that caused the need for teamwork was that it turned out to not be as simple as M. simply getting into a car and getting to the location - he was in the middle of a family event, and his circumstances just weren't going to allow for it. A second Periscope video suggested using Uber, and several people on the forums offered to pay for one, but the problem was not transportation. At first, it seemed like, because this was something intended for M. and only M., we weren't going to see the letter at all - a third Periscope indicated the letter was now unavailable and "some clues weren't meant to be found," but shortly afterward M. received a phone call. He was given a 24 hour deadline to pick up these documents, and as a group we set to work helping him solve the problem.

I offered to pick them up and deliver them to M. as a last resort - I live 6.5 hours away, but I also have the luxury of...what's that thing...oh right - SUMMER. I mean, I have a trip that's two days away and a show that techs next week in Texas but a road trip for a secret immersive experience/game/cult/thing-I-can't-explain? Why the hell not. I live for things I can't explain. Let me be clear here - this was only to provide a courier service (albeit a long one) between the location of the letter and wherever I could hand deliver it to him, and only because it appeared I might be the second closest to the letter and I had the resources to do it.

But another participant had a better idea. Michael posted on craigslist and on reddit, hoping to find a brave person willing to do something that sounded nuts for some compensation, and he got a few bites. This is the part where I went to bed, so everything that happened next, happened after dark, and I read about it the next morning.

Would you respond?
Apparently a guy (I will now refer to him as Reddit Guy) made the trip to the park and retrieved the letter. He didn't Periscope the journey as we'd hoped but he DID get it. However, when he got there, there was someone waiting for him - a person described as "a very old man, in a suit, smoking a cigarette." Smoking Man asked Reddit Guy what he was doing there, and wouldn't leave him alone, and followed him back to his car after Reddit Guy retrieved the letter. Reddit Guy, terrified, asked Michael "what the f--k did you get me into??"

Oh, Reddit Guy. I am so insanely jealous of you right now! Here's why.

You HAD the uncanny experience that pulled you out of the meta - I live for finding that and probably never will. Because of who I am and what I do I always look for seams and see behind curtains into how things are made, it's second nature, because I also make theatre. It's honestly made it VERY difficult to see and enjoy any theatre at all in the past 15 or so years. Every once in awhile - very rarely - I get to experience something that pulls me out of my self and into its own world. Otherwise, my own brain doesn't shut up. I look at the details, the lights, the set, how it's built, what's going on backstage (and yes, I am still looking at Tension through the lens of it being theatre, so find the analogies to those things where you can). I need something truly special to keep me from doing that. My first visit at "Sleep No More" DID THAT, and it was intoxicating - second and third did not, it had worn off, and I saw the mechanics. My one visit to "Then She Fell" did, and I'm hesitant to go back, because it was such a perfect experience that I'm not sure I want to remember it any other way.

And I get that you did not ask for this, you're amazing for having taken this on last night and we're all so grateful that you did. I hope that this didn't terrify you to a point that you're scarred for life and can't see it as some sort of bizarre adventure, or even get involved now that you've heard this exists.

None of that is a slight on any of those shows I've seen or experiences I've had - my brain works serious overtime, and it's not an easy thing to get me to lose the rational thinking that knows when something is scenery versus actual real living room on stage. On the other hand, I get completely absorbed in books all the time. Part of why I'm drawn to Tension and to finding or creating experiences like this is because I'm curious to see what *does* manage to do this, if anything. I'm fascinated by the experiences people have at "haunts" and am considering going to Heretic this fall (if I can get tickets), just to see if my reactions actually line up with what I think they'd be. When I was in LA and had my Echo Park adventure, I was definitely *partially* pulled out of myself and into the right headspace for the rest of the afternoon and evening, but most of me was still able to rationalize that I was not in fact being followed. It was a weird place to be, part of me freaking out, and part of me saying "you're an idiot, why the hell are you freaking out?"

We're now all waiting for the news of the letter getting to M. and finding out its contents. This whole entire thing - being in a location so far from Los Angeles, bringing together everyone & requiring teamwork, the ingenious use of craigslist and reddit to find someone willing to do the legwork, involving and completely unexpectedly scaring the daylights out of Reddit Guy when he arrived in person at the site - completely brilliant and unexpected. Bravo, Tension.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Day WE Shook the Capitol

June 25, 2013 - The day I posted 76 times on Facebook over the course of 7 hours from the same seat in the Texas senate gallery. I took my seat sometime around 5pm and there came a point where they locked the doors - if I got up to pee, get water, eat, I wouldn't be allowed back in. That, of course, was nothing compared to what Wendy Davis was going through. She had been on her feet the entire day, filibustering SB5 (which later became known as HB2). This bill ushered in some of the most draconian, restrictive measures to abortion access in the entire country, and the gallery was full of women wearing orange who were there to support Davis in her efforts.

She just had to talk until midnight.

Filibusters in Texas are more of an ordeal than elsewhere. More rules to follow. More difficult. This wasn't a case of Davis opening up the phone book and reading until the clock ran out. She had to stay on her feet, on topic, without assistance, without leaning on her desk, without......

The rest of Texas would like you to think we accomplished nothing that night. The filibuster failed, the bill passed, it was just spectacle, "just theatre," Davis was a one hit wonder. And every single one of us that was there, three years later, still feels so connected to that day and are still so energized to fight. One result of that night was the mobilization of democrats in Texas - not an easy feat. Another was to get people across the country to wake up to the TRAP laws that weren't just happening in Texas but which were soon to happen - and which are now happening - in every state.

I was sitting just above where Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst was standing, over his left shoulder. I was facing Davis as she spoke most of the time. What I can tell you (especially for those who think this was "just theatre") is that this was the most riveting 7 hours of storytelling of my entire life. There was NEVER a moment when I was bored, NEVER a second not spent on the edge of my seat. We knew the stakes, they were high, and in the years since Texas has since seen an increase in the number of self-induced abortions, the number of women crossing into Mexico to obtain care, and of course the closure of over half the state's clinics.

I don't really have a huge social media presence - I leave that up to Travis. But that night friends were FOLLOWING my facebook page, refreshing it for new content. It was an amazing feeling.


At one point I posted that protesters (outside the gallery) were in need of food - and my high school drama teacher in New Hampshire ordered pizzas.


The filibuster eventually fell apart and other Democrats in the room began attempting to run out the clock. I was so anxious, counting down minutes that were left as they tried desperately to cram the vote in.

I was in that seat when Leticia Van de Putte spoke the words that turned us from restrained gallery audience members into stars of the show - the Unruly Mob, as we were called the next day. "At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be heard over the male colleagues in the room?" It was our permission to be outraged. And then WE ran the clock out, by screaming until past midnight.

At that point my laptop was dead and I was posting via my phone - I had messages coming in that just said "LOUDER." These were from Austin but also OUTSIDE Austin - friends of mine were watching the filibuster live on TV, and were cheering us on, telling us to be louder, drown out the vote that was now attempting to take place.

I got home after midnight, after the state troopers were called in to remove us. When I got home, Travis told me that the bill had passed. What I didn't know until a few hours later was that the protesters who were NOT in the gallery had stayed, and the senate had stayed, debating the bill and whether or not the vote had taken place, and the conclusion was eventually reached that it hadn't happened before midnight. For a brief period of time, we fought and we won.

I had thank you messages on facebook the next day from people who had been watching my feed.



On Monday the Supreme Court is expected to rule on Whole Women's Health v. Hellerstedt, which is a direct result of the bill that eventually, unfortunately, passed. Pay attention, because this one is important. If the court deadlocks on it, my understanding is it confirms the lower court's ruling and the law stands - we want 5-3. I think in the last three years that so much has happened nationwide, Texas is no longer the worst state in the country in terms of abortion laws and access to women's healthcare. How much worse is it going to get?

In the meantime I can't forget why Texas is an especially difficult situation for bills like these. Its sheer size means that driving times to the few clinics that remain are long, and those clinics are located mainly in the larger cities, which are centralized - giving people who live on the border fewer options. The relative availability of an abortion for a woman depends heavily on where she lives, how much money she has, what kind of job she has, whether she has children already. I knew that for me, the law was not going to prevent me from receiving the care I needed, should I ever need it. I had resources, and options, and money, and I lived in Austin. That is NOT the case for most Texans.

When we left the capitol that night we knew that this was eventually going to the Supreme Court. And the day of that decision is almost here.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Immersive Adventures in Los Angeles Part 3 - "The Day Shall Declare It"

On Friday of my Los Angeles trip, I went to see Wilderness's immersive theatre production "The Day Shall Declare It." I'd heard many, many, many positive reviews and recommendations of this show and my expectations were fairly high. I'd also bought the "Tennessee" ticket, which was billed as only for the adventurous (whatever that means - to go see any immersive theatre you have to be a LITTLE adventurous). Because I'd heard my friend Mike's podcast reviewing the show before I got on a plane (he co-hosts My Haunt Life with Russell Eaton) I knew that I'd basically "bought" a one-on-one. I'm perfectly fine with that.

My first thought upon entering the space was - do all immersive shows have to take place in the same time period? Are we just able to source props/sets/costumes quickly and easily, and create those environments more readily than others? Maybe I'm being unfair, I just felt like I'd walked straight into "Sleep No More: Depression Era." The space where this show is performed is REALLY small, and you walk right through it when you first enter - and walk all the way to the bar at the back, where you can spend time mingling and drinking, and, if you bought the Tennessee, eventually being approached by a guy saying that you're the one he's been looking for. Five years since I saw my first immersive theatre and I still get ridiculously anxious and panicky at this, and I think I just turned to my friends and said "oh crap, gotta go." The man came over, put his arm around me, took my drink and set it down, and led me back to the front of the building.
"The Day Shall Declare It" - photo: Maurice Moore
I won't go into details of what happened then, but I did have a private scene with one of the actors in which I was given a token. I will say that mine took place inside a bathtub, and I was wearing heels, so I hope I didn't grip the actor's hands and wrists too tightly when he helped me step in and out. I was absolutely convinced I was going to fall. Also, don't wear heels to immersive theatre.

Once the play itself begins, the audience is moved along from location to location, and actors perform scenes or pieces of scenes from different plays. The first one I recognized, because it was one of the first plays I designed in San Francisco back in 2002 - "Moony's Kid Don't Cry." Personally, what I had been expecting in this show was that instead of watching the heat, desperation, sensuality, violence, passion of a Tennessee Williams play from 20-30' back from the proscenium, I would be in the room with them, and that's exactly what I got. The "interaction" with the audience was pretty much made up of them occasionally addressing lines to us, occasionally touching or caressing, and occasionally moving us out of the way. This is not a play to see for the interaction or the one-on-one attention - see it in order to experience the intensity of Tennessee Williams, six inches from your face.

The first scene and last scene were stunning - I wish the ones in the middle had been as compelling. I wish I had understood why one scene in particular was there at all. It wasn't until after the play that I saw the program notes about the play exploring issues of labor and work. Did it? I'm not sure. I was seeing other things.

For a tiny, tiny space, they used it INCREDIBLY well. The audience was contained in different quarters of it at any given moment, and others were masked off with pieces of scenery, sheets, or fabric, allowing scene changes to occur behind them. Set design was beautiful, intricate - lighting was so simple and I actually spent some time just looking at the lights themselves to see what they were using.

The physical contact and intimacy though, had me thinking. It was gentle and non-intrusive, and I thought very cleverly used to move people from place to place while still making them feel as though an intimate connection had been made. In some areas of life we have developed a sort of culture where touching another person isn't ok, and I understand to an extent. We've also named a whole host of things that might make a person uncomfortable or upset as things that can't be done. Yet, immersive theatre constantly asks us to do them anyway. At my second "Sleep No More" performance, I remember Hecate turning around and grabbing me by the throat (whether she actually DID this or not, I have no idea - that is how I remembered it at the time, but it's an intense situation, and I fully admit I might be adding more drama to it than there was). I remember having the thought "this is ok for me, but for some it's not...I wonder if she is aware when it's not?" Physical contact from strangers always makes me a bit uncomfortable, but it's part of the package with these experiences. That's not to say that everyone who is deeply upset by someone grabbing their throat should rethink that, but I wonder what we would see if we really interrogated the things we think "trigger" us on that level. We would probably see that we're able to handle much more than we think.

I push through this every time I'm faced with any kind of immersive or interactive theatre or experience. At Day Shall Declare, I was horribly uncomfortable, having this private interaction that was pretty damn intimate. If someone is going to be that close to me, or speak into my ear like that, they'd better be filling specific roles in my life or they are more likely to get punched. But I push through that because I can, because I'm stronger than that, because I don't want my own fears and anxieties to prevent me from experiencing art.

And art - a lot of really, really good art - asks us to risk. Since I spent time with Josh Meyer this weekend I was also thinking about "Biography of Physical Sensations," which, my god, I think would have to come with ALL the "trigger warnings" in the entire universe if we did it today. Anytime I hear about a piece of theatre or experience that gets intimate or "extreme," I wonder how it compares to the weirdness of THAT. Certain smells still take me right back to it, and suddenly Matt Hislope is setting my foot on fire all over again. I don't know how many people the show upset but what I do remember is the unexpected sense of community that formed because every audience was going through this experience TOGETHER. It wasn't something endured alone. Sure, not everyone had the same level of intensity of experience, but just watching each other go through them really created a bond within each audience that was remarkable.

For me, the first time that I really pushed through the absolute terror of "audience interaction" was at my first "Sleep No More" visit, and the experience was transcendent.

Obviously, sometimes we risk too much for too little. Sometimes it isn't worth it. Sometimes, people are assholes, or exploitative. Sometimes the art is real bad. But we don't get to know ahead of time which experiences are the awful ones and which are the transcendent. And most of them won't be either - most of them will probably be "just ok." I want to be in a place where the chance of the transcendent experience is worth the possibility of the worst - or the likelihood of the mundane.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Immersive Adventures in Los Angeles Part 2 - THE TENSION EXPERIENCE, CONT.

Sunday morning I had a message that said I was going to be getting an address for a meeting on Monday. This came from Aleister, who has been in touch with me regularly throughout the time I've been part of the OOA. Sunday night several participants I met through The Tension Experience (we really have formed a community of friends through this) met at the Santa Monica Pier after dark. For me it was my first time meeting any of them face to face.

We were in silly moods. Something called The Tension Experience sometimes seems to require a Release experience as well, and I think this was what that was. We were taking pictures, posting to Facebook, laughing, making fun of the people who were after us, who we had been warned were dangerous. And in the middle of that, my cell phone rang - No Caller ID. Everyone went completely silent.

I think Lauren spoke first and said "answer it! we're all here!" I just had NOT expected my phone to ring at that moment, surrounded by these people. I answered it and a voice on the other end whispered "Tomorrow....8pm...." before hanging up. So, that was definitely a change from the person who had called me so much on Saturday.

Tomorrow (Monday) came, and I heard nothing from anyone for most of the day. I was having dinner with one of my oldest, closest friends when I got another message from Aleister with only a zip code, directing me to be IN that zip code at 8:00. The zip was in Valley Village. Shortly after that message came another, this time Aleister telling me that he had intended to meet me himself but that Gatekeeper III was awake and suspicious, and he was sending someone in his place. I was saddened by this as I've talked a lot with Aleister and was looking forward to seeing him specifically. I had something I wanted to talk to him about...

Just before I went to dinner, another OOA apostle (and fellow beach goer from Sunday night) Melissa contacted me. I had given her the documents that were in the envelopes at Echo Park because one of them had a whole bunch of "redacted" text - crossed out extensively with sharpie marker. Melissa has access to forensic lab technology, and she had found what that text said. She believed it was pretty huge and would have a huge impact. We talked about it and decided that I would take it to Aleister that night, and that we would sit on it in the meantime. However, when Aleister decided not to meet me, I got nervous. I messaged him, asked him if he and I could still have a chat at least. While driving up to Valley Village, I had the maybe not-so-bright idea to Periscope my request to the rest of Tension. I found the World's Worst Starbucks and sat there with the World's Worst Chai, and got on Periscope. I just asked anyone watching it to try to get in touch with Aleister and let him know that I needed to talk to him that night. It worked because in minutes we were talking. Well, first, I had a couple of other non-Tension people contacting me trying to make sure I was ok, so I had to make sure they understood that I was fine and what was going on. Aleister wanted to know what I needed, but at that moment, my phone rang.

This was NOT a "No Caller ID" number but it was also not a number my phone recognized. I answered it, and it was Jake - another fellow OOA apostle who also had a scheduled Aleister meeting that night. He immediately began speaking and it was clear that he was actually *reading* a text to me, and that he wasn't going to be taking any questions on this. He sped through it, and the gist of it was that he had been involved with the Tension Experience from the beginning, and he was sorry. He told me that the meeting was at the Foxfire Room. He advised me to not attend the meeting I was about to attend. He advised me not to drink what they put in front of me. Which, you know, I wouldn't be doing if I wasn't attending the meeting per his advice. But ok. Go with it. He hangs up and I get in my car.

Aleister still wants to know what I need and I tell him I'm on my way to this meeting, Jake has warned me not to go, and that I wanted to talk to him after. But he was pretty insistent that I tell him *what* it was about now, so I asked, "did you mean for me to find that text?" "Nothing is random," he replied. He told me to tell the person I was meeting "what needs telling," and to Periscope after the meeting. It was really weird, and open ended.

I walked into this bar - which, as it turns out, is a bar that was in Magnolia, but all I saw was "seedy strip mall bar where Megan does not belong." There are a million and one reasons why everything that happened in the next 20 minutes had me extremely uncomfortable, and I don't think any of them were intentional. And I also don't think they should be discussed in this particular blog post but in a part 3 of the weekend (this weekend had many parts). What I can say is - the environment put me ill at ease, walking in alone,  looking around for someone I didn't know and feeling REALLY conspicuous and just wanting to turn around and leave...I made myself push through this because I wanted this adventure more than anything. But it wasn't easy. I was approached by a man ("what did he look like?" "like a man." "like an old man? used car salesman man?" "I don't know. a normal man. not fat. not thin. just normal. he wore a shirt. he was a man.") who asked if I was Megan.

(Those of you who know me well - Travis, Becky & Stacy if you're reading, Erica - sit down and cringe with me through this next part, because I know you know that this was NOT something that I would be ok enduring.)

The Man told me to go to the bar and get a drink, and rejoin him at the corner table in two minutes.
I told him I was fine and didn't need a drink. This wasn't because of the "do not drink" warning Jake gave me earlier, but because I didn't want a drink. But he just looked at me, and repeated himself and so, fine. HOMEWORK: I need a list of drinks one orders in a bar such as this that I might be ok actually drinking, just in case I'm ever in this bizarre situation ever, ever again. 

I got my drink (the worst amaretto sour I've ever had) and sat down. Then I stood up and sat down again, closer to the Man, because I couldn't hear him very well from across the table. He asked me why I was there, but I didn't feel like I was giving any correct answer - "why are you here?" "because I was supposed to meet someone else here, and he told me to meet you instead." "why are you here?" "because someone I trust sent me here." "why are you here." I have no idea. Why don't you tell me. Or give me the script.

Now, the rest of this - I'm not certain what order it happened in. I'll break it out into bullet points, and you can move those into whatever order makes the most sense to you.
  • He got a shot of tequila and put it in front of me, told me to drink. I said no. He said he wasn't going to talk until I did. I asked why. He said he didn't trust me. I started to ask about the correlation between me drinking this and trust but he asked why would I not drink? "Because it's 2016, I'm a woman, and I'm not stupid." He insisted, no drinking, no talking. Fine. Hey, free tequila. I didn't honestly for one minute believe something was wrong with the drink. I drank. It was way better than my amaretto sour and calmed me down a bit.
  • He wanted to know what I thought of the OOA - the group we were all involved in. I was honest. I decided in my head that Aleister trusts this man, told me to tell him "what needs telling," so I tried to. I said I belived they were a dangerous cult. I said I was there trying to figure things out, trying to learn what was going on. I said I had some information. "Information?" he said. Yes, I had information that described cult-like practices of the OOA. Then, for some reason, he told me to go over to the bartender and get her to sign up. This made NO sense to me - why would I make the bartender sign up for something I thought was dangerous? Also, that was beyond the limits of what I was willing to do, because it involved someone who wasn't involved, as far as I knew in the moment. Again, more on this, my gut reaction to it, the reasoning behind it, in a future installment. He told me to do it one more time and to be honest I'm getting pretty tired of this guy telling me what to do. I flat out refused, and told him I was not going to do it.
  • He told me he wanted to tell me his story but first I had to do something for him. He pulled an envelope out of his pocket and told me to call the number on the back of the envelope. When either a person answered or voice mail picked up, I was to open the envelope and read the contents, then hang up. Of course - OF COURSE - I dialed the wrong number. Because this is my life. Thankfully no one answered. I called the RIGHT number and got Sean's voice mail - Sean being ANOTHER of the OOA apostles and friends I've met. Sean was nice enough to transcribe it for me: "Sean, I have some crazy information about who and what the OOA really is. When you look back, it was always there. They are trying to gather up all of our vulnerabilities, and they know yours. Sean, I am looking at a file of you right now. The things in here… I need you to listen. They have marked you. They are going to– ((END OF VOICEMAIL))" Having done that, he told me his story about getting involved with the OOA, about how the OOA uses people in the entertainment industry, about how they are dangerous and I should leave.
  • Oh - and at some point, for some reason during this he decided I had to change seats. He wanted me to sit with my back to the rest of the bar. Guess what? I didn't want to! But I did because I was tired. Like I said, nothing, NOTHING about this experience didn't push every goddamn Megan-button that exists.
  • And then suddenly, he decided the meeting was over. He seemed to see someone beyond my shoulder - I turned around, he yelled at me not to. Told me I had to leave. I said "ok...so...are we done?" He said yes. I left. Drove home.
Phone rings on the drive home. "Hi Sean, let me call you back and explain when I get home."

The ending of the night was a bit of a downer. I get home and catch Terami up on my adventures of the evening. When I go to return Sean's call, I see that there are a bunch of messages on Facebook from Aleister. As it turned out, had I gone to talk to the bartender, she would have taken me to meet him. He said he was "heartbroken" and that it was a "missed opportunity," but that it would not be our last and we would meet next time. I was SUPER crushed at this. He reassured me that there were no wrong choices but I really felt like the discomfort I felt in the situation - my own issue - was what caused this to happen. He even tried to cheer me up with a picture of a cute animal, but it wasn't working. I hope he gets in touch again soon.

After all of that, not having really been able to ask Aleister the questions about the redacted text that I wanted to ask, not really having had a conversation with the Man about it either, the text was posted on the forums. My concern is that it being out there - Aleister having had a hand in getting it to me and encouraging it being brought to light - will have consequences for him. Possibly for me as well.

(Right now, the consequences for me appear to be in tornado form, as I was supposed to be home in Minnesota with my cats by now but instead I am stuck in Kansas City while weather happens up north. I blame the OOA. Oh yes.)





Sunday, June 12, 2016

Immersive Adventures in Los Angeles Part 1 - THE TENSION EXPERIENCE

Look at that. It's been an entire year since I last wrote. Oddly enough teaching kept me pretty busy this year, but now that it's summer hopefully I can have some adventures to write about.

This weekend I took a trip to Los Angeles for several reasons, all of which fall under some category of immersive or interactive theatre. I'm going to write about each of them, and if I'd started this last night I could have done it in order. Instead, I'm writing about The Tension Experience first, because I have a feeling that doing so with some urgency might serve me well.


The Tension Experience is, as far as I am able to tell at this point, an Alternate Reality Game fused with immersive & interactive theatre. Weird things happen, participants get contacted by characters via phone, live events occur, and we all meet up to discuss everything on forums. At this point I am not even sure how I heard about The Tension Experience. I think I read an article back in early April, and eventually found the website and joined, but I don't know where the bread crumbs started that led to any of that. I'm not going to go through my whole "tension experience" thus far - others have far better stories, given that most of the action takes place in LA, and I'm in Minnesota. I do want to write about what happened to me today though.

When I woke up this morning, I had an email that read only "do you have a car? 4pm." I wrote back yes. I didn't hear anything else for several hours, and today was the first day I was scheduled to be at a workshop with Live Action Set (more on that later). When I got to the workshop, I was told that I was unlikely to have any cell phone reception and internet was very spotty, so I knew I wasn't going to be able to stay and also be available to make whatever was going to happen at 4pm. Luckily the workshop participants were in the mood to have a less structured day than the rest of their week has been. During the conversation around 2:15 my phone miraculously rang - I had already tested the reception problem by asking Travis to call, and he went straight to voice mail, so the fact that the phone rang at ALL was lucky. Since I was sitting in a room with ACTUAL interactive theatre nerds, and many had a sense that something was going on, the room fell quiet while I answered and prepared to write down whatever I was going to be told.

Phone guy: "Megan, what part of town are you in?"

Me: "Uh - Glendale."

Phone guy: "You need to be at a computer with internet at 4:00."

*click*

My initial thought was come on, we have computers and internet in Minnesota. Give me MORE.

The interactive theatre nerds wanted DETAILS, and so I told them what little I had. Let me just say this - I was sitting in a room full of creative people who *love* making art like this. Maybe not "scary" art but art that truly involves the audience. They started positing situations.

"What if you meet them, and the first thing they say is the exact same monologue the guy said to you in your one on one last night?"
"What if the waitress at the pizza place was one of them?"
"What if you get there and they have video of today's workshop?"
"What if......" etc.

I loved it. It's one thing I really love about my life, the moments spent with other artists and people who love what they do and have the same passion to create.

I left the workshop and headed back to where I'm staying (with a friend Terami & her husband and cat Steve). I sat and waited and around 3:50 my phone rang again.

Phone guy: "Not 4. Soon."

*click*

OK. So, I'm going to sit here until "soon" happens.

I was getting a little queasy so I asked Terami if there was any peppermint tea. As we were making tea, the phone rang AGAIN.

Phone guy: "Megan. Do you have Periscope?"

Me: "Yes."

Phone guys: "I'm giving you a head start."

*click*

Exposition you need to understand what's going on here:

Last week there had been another incident of a Periscope video that showed an envelope being hidden at a park in Los Angeles. It started a race to the park to see who could find it first. I figured something similar was about to happen. The other backstory piece to this is that within the narrative of The Tension Experience itself, which centers around a mysterious group called the OOA, we were given the opportunity to ask three questions of the current "Gatekeeper" of the organization. I know. It sounds nerdy. Trust me, it somewhat makes sense, and it's a ton of fun to follow, even from Minnesota. Said Gatekeeper promised to answer two of our three questions on Saturday (today). As a group, those involved in The Tension Experience came up with a list of questions and submitted them. As of the above phone calls, we had not yet heard any answers.

And I had not really connected the fact that something was happening for me today with the arrival of those answers.

I pulled out my phone and pulled up Periscope, and there it is - a feed titled "For Megan - from III." "III" is the Gatekeeper. I watched as the video panned around a park, stopping to show a sign that read "Echo Park." The camera panned away from the sign and whoever was holding it (assuming it was III) walked down the sidewalk to a row of bushes. He had two black envelopes  in his hand, and hid them between two of those bushes.

I didn't actually watch the whole thing before I was putting my shoes on and saying "Terami, gotta go NOW, sorry, tea later!" I figured I'd have time to catch up on the video, and I had to get on the road. Once I saw the Echo Park sign, I ran out of the house, got in my rental car, and pulled up directions.

I think it took me about 25 minutes to get from Terami's house to Echo Park. When I was ALMOST there, my phone rang AGAIN. These calls always come from a "No Caller ID" number and I've started just referring to them to myself as "NCI calls." Yes, I now answer every NCI call like it's the call I've been waiting my whole life for, not like it's someone telling me which candidate to support or that I've won a free cruise.

Phone guy: "Megan. Do you even know where you're going?"

Me: "I'm headed to Echo Park. I'm trying to get there, about 5 minutes out."

*click*

Not a very talkative guy, this phone guy.

I finally arrive at the park, FINALLY find a parking space, and finally get out of my car. I had promised people I would be on Periscope, so I turned on and started livecasting my search. Let me say this again, in case it's not clear: I live in MINNESOTA. I've never been in this park in my life. I have no idea where the spot is and the park is enormous. I just start walking, and eventually notice that people are commenting on the video, telling me which way to go.

After a LOT of walking and fruitless searching, my phone rings. How many times is that now? In one day?

Phone guy: "Megan, are you lost?"

Here are some things that you might not know about what's going on here, phone guy.

1. I've never in my life driven in Los Angeles. The only city I've driven in that is worse than LA is Boston, and that's really not saying anything, because there is NO city worse than Boston. Boston is just in the pantheon of bad driving cities so we shouldn't even count it.

2. For some reason, my phone has stopped talking to me and verbally giving me directions while I drive, which is nervewracking and tends to lengthen drives because I have to keep looking at where I need to go next rather than being told. It slows me down.

3. I busted my knee pretty badly recently and I am NOT supposed to be walking LIKE THIS - frantically, quickly, not mindfully. I've been healing and I'm fine, but my knee was tired and sore.

4. There is a TON of adrenaline pumping through me and I am not thinking straight. I am also aware that I'm live on the internet, and am more than a little uncomfortable with that fact. I'm not thinking straight. AND the fact that you have repeatedly called to ask about my whereabouts tells me that you didn't drop the envelopes and leave. It tells me you are still in the park, you'd eventually see me, and I wouldn't see you. And that adds to the adrenaline.

Let me repeat that last part, because it gave me pause.

You are in the park.
I don't know why, but I honestly figured you'd dropped the envelopes and left.

So yes, I was slow getting there.

Eventually I see that Tension themselves have logged on to Periscope and are now watching me, and they start giving me hints on where to go. Then, I see that somehow Travis has logged on - how did he even know this was happening? I didn't know that when I started broadcasting on Periscope, twitter notified the world. Tension directs me to walk out of the park and back towards the street, so I do. Eventually, after several millennia have gone by, I manage to coincidentally be in the right place. And walk right past the envelopes. Tension - and everyone - start telling me to turn around. (Note to self, don't Periscope things.)

I find the envelopes, with lots of help.
I sit cross legged on the pavement and open them.
Inside are documents that answer two of our three questions.

I'm going to frame the yellowed one and put it in my office.
I spend a few minutes showing Periscope the documents before packing up to head out. And that's when a motorcycle - I think - speeds by loudly. A note pops up on Periscope from Tension that they had left, had just passed me on the bike. And that they would see me soon. And that I looked very nice today.

What was a "pause" earlier now stopped me in my tracks. I really don't like not being in control of a situation, and I was NOT in control here. Phone guy was in the park and watching me, had seen me, and I had no idea where he'd been and hadn't seen him.

Tonight, I went out to see another show with the Hollywood Fringe (more on that later). I come home to this message:

You should have never gone. They know where you are now Megan.

I do not scare easily. I'm an extremely logical person. But I had just been *actually* watched in a park. Not told I was watched and not actually watched - really, truly watched. Any other night I would have blown off this comment as nonsense, but my nerves were a bit shot.
I didn't sleep a bit. Every noise in the house and outside it kept me up all night.


Thursday, July 2, 2015

Five Things: Updates from Water by the Spoonful Tech.

I'm in tech for my last show before the big move, which happens in just over a month. I have an Austin "bucket list," though I don't know that I will get to everything on it before August 9. Eleven years here and I've never been to Barton Springs and never seen the bats on the South Congress bridge. And I'm running out of time and weekends to do these things.

I'm also thinking a lot about the things I will miss about Austin and Texas. I've lived here longer than any other city, excluding where I grew up. We aren't leaving for good - I'm already contracted for a couple of designs in Texas next year - so I know that I will be revisiting these, but here are the current top five things I'm going to miss, in absolutely no particular order.

1. Texas summers. This is actually a new love of mine and it grew slowly over the past three or four years, probably since the first time we went tubing. The summers after that have all had adventures of some sort, from a weekend spent in Utopia swimming in the Sabinal, to our trip to Marfa (including the McDonald Observatory and Balmorhea State Park), to swimming in Jacob's Well and getting BBQ at the Salt Lick in Driftwood on the way back. Whether similar experiences can be had in other states or not, these are things that are etched in my brain as being purely Texas experiences, and even thinking about them I can feel the 100 degree heat.


2. The Alamo Drafthouse. How the hell are we ever going to go the movies again? The Drafthouse is now invading many other cities but it started here, and was one of the very first "Austin" things we did back in 2004. I miss some of the recurring events that they used to have when I was in grad school (Super Happy Fun Monkey Bash, I think one was called). But the Drafthouse has ruined any other movie-going experience I could have. I will miss hearing about how Ann Richards is going to take my ass out for using a cell phone before every movie, and all the preshow clips that never included awful advertisements for whatever product.



3. BBQ. It's not just about the food, it's the entire experience of eating it in a particular place, complete with plastic covered picnic tables, a guy with a guitar playing music, lemonade made right in front of you, red plastic cups like Pizza Hut had in the 80s, paper towel racks on the walls, fly strips hanging from the ceiling, and a lack of plates. I'm combining a few different places there but you get the idea. Combine BBQ with the feeling of a not-quite-dry bathing suit under your clothes and a sunburn, and you have the perfect day.

3a. Tex-Mex. I didn't want two entries for food so I'm cheating a bit. I just hope there are decent margaritas in Minnesota, somewhere, because I know that I'm not getting decent BBQ OR Tex-Mex.

4. The Fusebox Festival. I have big dreams of bringing my future students to Austin for the Fusebox Festival *someday* (no idea when/how/if that will ever be possible). This festival really opened the world of innovative and experimental performance for me. Austin's theatre community can be quite insular at times, and having a once a year reminder of what other bleeding-edge artists were doing has been great.

5. Being around people who are REALLY invested in local politics and issues and culture. I know that other places have this, but I haven't seen it demonstrated anywhere else the way I've lived it in Austin. I don't know anyone who doesn't know how to shop and eat locally and isn't at least a little proud of doing so. I know when the Texas legislature is in session and what they are doing. I can name several state reps and senators and tell you who is awesome (and who is not). I can actually talk about ballot measures and I know who to go to for information and smart opinions on our increasing lack of affordable housing and the growing gentrification problems. And I can actually defend Texas to my non-Texas liberal friends who readily dismiss a lot of the nonsense that happens here with a "what do you expect? you live in Texas." I know that there is a much greater diversity of people living in Texas than outsiders often expect. My views on things like immigration, the need to learn to speak Spanish (I still haven't, because I'm a bad person), and what distance is appropriate to drive to receive adequate healthcare have been permanently altered because of having lived in this state.

The short list of things I will not miss: Million-dollar condos popping up everywhere, being priced out of living in Austin by people who can afford said condos, South by Fun Fun Fun City Limits, I-35, the complete utter inability of this city to pass anything that could possibly maybe someday create adequate public transportation, watching arts communities and theatres barely make ends meet because rents are skyrocketing (see said condos), driving in Texas summer in a car whose A/C doesn't work.
Oh crap, which way will have less traffic today??


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Somewhat Off-Topic Rant On Online Personal Responsibility.

 "Turn off the internet, combine all the things that you love in the world, take some time, and you might come up with something special that is lasting." - John Cameron Mitchell, Sunday night's Tony Awards


It's really hard for me to be around online culture these days and not feel that it would be better for me (my heart, soul, mind, health, well-being, creativity) if I wasn't connected at all.

This realization really started with two events last August. The first was Michael Brown's death and the subsequent events in Ferguson, MO. In the wake of that, many voices sprung up online to express anger and frustration (rightfully so) over how our country and our law enforcement handles race. I started following many of them on Twitter. The second was the GamerGate debacle that began maybe a week or two after that. Again, angry voices sprung up, and I followed some on Twitter. My investment in HB2 and the Wendy Davis filibuster in 2013 had brought a lot of online feminist voices into my Twitter feed, and GamerGate added may more. Soon, my feed was filled with a lot of anger and rage - justified in most cases - that I started emotionally responding to. I was angry ALL the time. Upset all the time. Constantly reading things, reading more things, reading comments sections, and just letting that anger and rage spiral.
 
And I made a decision. I realized that I was actually choosing to interface with the things that were causing me to feel so much anger. My consumption of these things on the internet was voluntary. Was it important? In most cases, absolutely. These were and are important conversations to have. But it was still making me miserable.

This past spring I took on many, many design projects - I did seven shows in the first five months of the year. I was also interviewing for more than one faculty position, something which, if you have never done it, can evolve VERY quickly into something that consumes a lot of time and energy. I had things to do, things to make, and I needed that energy and time, and so I started to pull myself back from these discussions. I unfollowed many (not all) of the people I was reading on Twitter. I started blocking anyone who was remotely adversarial towards me, just so that I wouldn't be distracted. I realize that may sound like I was blocking opposing viewpoints, not hearing/listening to the other side, and if that's what a person wants to believe I'm not going to stop them. I was in non-stop lighting designer mode. It didn't matter.

Some days I spent less time online than others - and most of those days were the GOOD days, the days when I was productive, creative, and happy. There are now days when my husband asks "did you see your sister's post on Facebook?" and I have to say that I haven't been on Facebook for most of the day. Those days kind of feel good.

There are other places in my life where the immersion in online culture and discussion began to feel toxic, and I started feeling the need to do exactly what John Cameron Michell said in his speech at the Tony's - take what I love, turn off the internet, and take some time. And create - whether that's a real life community of people I love, or a new design, or art, or gardening, or cooking good food.


The thing about online discussion, even the kind that I agree with, that I would want to be a part of, is that it gets too extreme too quickly. There are so many people who refuse to consider middle ground in anything. There are subcultures of people who spend so much time in their niche that they forget the larger world bears little resemblance to the one they've created. And the discussion itself quickly turns into something that, in real life, would NOT be helpful to anyone. If we all argued out loud to each others' faces the way we do online, there would be nothing but yelling! I have yet to see anything actually get SOLVED this way, any issue resolved or moved forward, any agreement reached. I do see a lot of people going out of their way to be jerks. Why should I even bother trying to be a part of that?

This is the part where, if it were six months or a year from now, I would quote an entire long paragraph from Neal Stephenson's Seveneves. Given that this book came out only a few weeks ago, that it's long, and that those of us who read Stephenson understand that it can often take quite a bit of effort to do so, I won't do that. It's on page 641 if you're so inclined. It also serves as a great warning for people who use social media without thinking about the consequences it might have on their future selves (*looking pointedly in the direction of someone who shall remain nameless*).

Goodnight Moon
Which brings me to the more trivial part of this post - the concept of spoilers, and the online reaction to them. I'm going to use my one wildcard Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire post (I have just now decided that I get one per year) now to rant a little about personal responsibility. This is the part where, if you're reading for my thoughts on theater and art and design, you might want to stop. Generally when I start talking about Game of Thrones, I'm one heartbeat away from talking about my cats.

I started reading these books in 2002. Granted I didn't wait in real time for the first three to come out, but I definitely sat through the waits for books 4 and 5. I am as hard core of a fan as you can get without being someone who also runs 17 ASOIAF websites and has the time to read all of the boards. In the past 13 years I have passed these books onto a ridiculous number of friends and have been discussing them in depth with everyone I could. Then, the show starts, it explodes in popularity, and we are at the moment we're at in online culture.

I've seen the crap that people can pull on the internet when they REALLY want to spoil something. My husband was halfway through Half-Blood Prince when he went online TO CHECK THE TRAFFIC one day, and someone had posted a comment that said "SNAPE KILLED DUMBLEDORE." On a traffic blog/site. If people want to be jerks and ruin things, they will find a way.

However, I still fully believe that it's my responsibility - and ONLY my responsibility - to remain unspoiled. Case in point, last night was Kacy Catanzaro's qualifying run on American Ninja Warrior, something for which I've been waiting a long time. I couldn't watch it in real time so I started about an hour late, and had the internet and twitter opened on my laptop. When it became clear that some of the ANW people I followed on twitter were talking about the current broadcast, I made a CHOICE - I closed twitter down until I had watched the whole episode. I didn't scream at everyone on twitter for spoiling something that I hadn't watched yet.

For people who have read the Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) series by George R. R. Martin, the TV show is at a point where we have to make choices. The show Game of Thrones (GoT) is about to surpass the books, and in a few instances has already done so. The sixth book in the series hasn't been published but the show has caught up to the rest. Unless it comes out before next June, if I watch season 6 of the show, I will possibly be spoiling the books for myself.

My point here is, we make choices about what media we consume, but it seems like for MANY people they don't think of these as "choices." I choose to read Facebook, Twitter, Winter Is Coming, Tower of the Hand, various ASOIAF podcasts and the ASOIAF reddit board. I know that I have a weird relationship with pop culture and that could possibly explain this, but if I chose to avoid those things starting June 15, I would remain unspoiled about season 6 (and book 6) provided I didn't have friends who were jerks and went out of their way to tell me things. I can walk away from Monday morning discussions of the show. I can NOT click on Buzzfeed articles. I can unfollow people who, like me, fervently and excitedly talk about Sunday's episode on Monday. Those are all things that are within my control. As is watching featurettes like the "Inside the Episode" thing that HBO puts out - this week, one of the two showrunners for GoT let slip a possible future book spoiler. Given that they've received so much (deserved) backlash for violence and sexual violence in the show, given what they were showing in this past Sunday's episode, "The Dance with Dragons," I can completely understand why they wanted to deflect some of the criticism that was undoubtedly going to come their way by saying what they said. But, that's another post on online empathy.

Suggest to people that the consumption of social media is a choice, and they will go out of their way to prove you wrong. Most of the time the argument is that their job requires them to be online. While I can believe that there are jobs that require access to Facebook I absolutely refuse to believe that there are jobs that require you to access Facebook on the same personal account with which you talk with your friends. Some jobs require you to comb through Buzzfeed articles. I don't think those are most jobs. I don't think there are many jobs out there that require employees to follow the #gameofthrones tag on twitter or spend half their day browsing the reddit threads on the subject. I've worked in software and web development. I *still* could have stayed entirely away from these things and done my job. And that was when LOST was on - if you think the GoT online community is a big deal, you should have seen what that was like.

Is it foolproof? No. There's no guarantee in life that you won't run across complete jerks. Or even that people who aren't jerks won't accidentally spill the beans. But no one - NO ONE - has the responsibility of making sure that YOUR media consumption is tailored in any way to your specific wants or needs. The creators of the Game of Thrones show have in no way signed a contract with book readers that says they won't spoil what's not yet published. People in online communities don't have any agreement that states they will remain reasonable and civil at all times, and refrain from inflammatory discussions. We have to choose to reduce the chances that we will run into things that upset us. Or, perhaps, decide that the thing to which we are exposing ourselves is important enough to risk the consequences, and understand that even then, we aren't absolved of responsibility. I stuck around the online feminist discussion as long as I did because it's very important to me, and I believed that I *should* be aware of what was going on. I now think there are healthier, more productive ways for me to stay involved and informed.