Sunday, September 25, 2016

Immersive Adventures in Los Angeles: TENSION: ASCENSION, and mirrors held up to ourselves

"This is a mirror being held up to a person. It's an art installation. It's a living, breathing thing that you interact with. And it will only be unlocked based on how far you're willing to go."
- Darren Lynn Bouseman

"None of you understand. I'm not locked up in here with you. You're locked up in here with me."
- Rorschach

Two quotes that, combined, encapsulate my experience on Friday night at The Tension Experience: Ascension.

This is going to take some explaining, and it's going to get personal.

Recently I had a surreal conversation with a friend from high school who made a confession to me that took me completely by surprise. A confession that he could have made twenty years ago when it mattered, but now comes twenty years too late and no longer DOES matter beyond fond memories and ego stroking and reflections on how stupid we all are at that age, how limited our perspectives on our selves and others really can be. After the confession he also said that he wished we were closer friends now, and that we were more regularly in touch now. I thought to myself, dude, we are 40. Not 80. Unless someone isn't telling me something - and that happens regularly, so it's a distinct possibility - there is no reason why we can't be closer friends now, and be more regularly in touch now. But shortly after attempting to do this it became clear to me that he wanted to discuss high school, and sit in the past, and think about those times and those memories, not talk about the 20 years since, or what's going on today.

Normally I would not write something personal about someone else publicly, but in this case I'm 99% certain he is not going to read it, because he isn't interested in who I am. He's interested in who he WAS.

Moments like these highlight a profound difference in how I interact with people and it hits me like a fresh ton of bricks every damn time. People do make me uncomfortable. Please don't read into what I'm about to say that they don't. But I think in many ways that I often make THEM more uncomfortable than they make me.

I engage with the world as myself all of the time. This causes pain and stress because it's difficult for me to move from the role of Megan the Wife to Megan the Designer to Megan the Professor to Megan the.....whatever. I'm not any of those things, I am Megan. And I'm in the process of trying to put up Big Beautiful Walls in my brain between these parts of myself so that I can partition different selves off from one another and interact in more productive ways with people. But in the meantime, it can be difficult. I hide my feelings to the extent that I feel an adult should hide her feelings and I am able to do so, but that's it. I will react to things, truthfully, painfully, joyfully. loudly, quietly, tearfully. When people I care about hurt, I hurt for them. I cry when talking about the situation of women's health care in Texas because it's important, it's THAT important to me, and that's the right response to things that are important. I also can frequently get emotional when talking passionately about anything or anyone I love. It can be really freaking annoying to be in the middle of a conversation with someone and have to stop and say "no my eyes just leak water like that for no reason."

So when it comes to that mirror that Tension put in front of me, I don't know that it reflected back to me what the creators intended, but it did reflect something back. This past summer, the mirror showed me that the words "friendship" and "community" have different meanings to me than they do to others, and moving forward I need to remember that next time I engage fully in an online world. Who I am does not read well over 1's and 0's. My intentions have repeatedly been misconstrued and I am not blaming anyone for that except myself - I'm in Rome, not doing what the Romans do. And I've been here for nearly 40 years, still not doing it.

More accurately, I'm in Minnesota, doing what a New Hampshirite/Texan hybrid does. And there's no translator microbe on the planet that will help with that. Shortly after moving last year, I was actually having small moments of panic where I would repeat entire conversations to people and ask them to tell me what they meant. Because Minnesotans don't say what they mean. And I was assuming they did, because I do.

* * *

When others say that they are looking for the experience found in "The Game," the 1997 Fincher film, I think what they are saying is they are looking for a cool experience. And what I am saying is I'm looking for a real experience. A better comparison is to John Fowles's The Magus, which many believe was ripped off by "The Game." If you are familiar with "The Game" and not with The Magus, just stop reading this right now and go read that, because there is something wrong with you.

(Incidentally, while trying to come up with a thank you gift for the creators of Tension, I came across a signed first edition hardcover of The Magus. $1600. No, I did not buy it, but DAMN.)

It's been a very long time since I read the book, but the difference is in the level of reality the protagonist believes he is in. I don't care about spoiling a book that's 50something years old so...there is a point in The Magus where a character who committed suicide in the beginning of the book, before any of the crazy shit hit the fan, before "the game" starts at all, steps out of a car in front of her ex-boyfriend, the protagonist. It's messed up. Beyond messed up. The game that the protagonist endures in that book causes him to fall in love, to believe he's saving lives, to really live and to feel in the moment. What he is put through in that book creates real emotions, real reactions, not theatrics and acting.

When I say I want what's real, that is the feeling I'm talking about.
When I had my first encounter with Hecate, there was a part of me that fell in love a little.

Repeatedly over the past several months I've had real emotions and been laughed at for it. That's fine, it's not the first time and won't be the last. I've had people who've known me since breakfast commenting with authority on what I can and can't handle. Lovely. I have listened (read) and listened (read, because it's the internet, not actual physically present conversation) to participants having difficulties with other participants, to participants having difficulties with creators, and even to creators having difficulties with participants, and I've tried to step through several of those problems in different ways, hopefully with empathy and logic at the same time. Those conversations meant something to me, though I'm not really sure if that was reciprocated.

One of the major touchstones that the creators have come back to repeatedly with the themes of Tension is the subject of presence in an age of digital communications and social media. And from my experience, there is so much to unpack there. I remember the June Echo Park dead drop distinctly, and coming back to Terami's house afterward to find that she had been on Twitter when my Periscope went up, and she'd seen the whole thing. I sat down and told her about it, my phone on vibrate (because it's never on) in my purse. And at some point the conversation shifted from that to books to art to pottery, and she said one of the most beautiful things I'd ever heard, I'm going to get it wrong (sorry Terami) - that pottery was the "recording of a gesture." Which brought tears to my eyes, still does. And we talked and talked and talked for maybe two or three hours about art, and life, over tea, with Steve the cat.

And then I realized my phone was vibrating.
I had a TON of messages. People wanting to know where I was. Why I hadn't logged on to Slack after the Tension dead drop. Why hadn't I logged on to the forums. Tension wanting to know why I hadn't gone to the forums to share things. Friends wanting to know if Tension had thrown me in the back of a van after the park. I was so frustrated that I spent the rest of the evening  passive-aggressively asking for people's permission to leave my computer or phone and go do a thing somewhere else (yes, I do learn a few Minnesotan tricks).

Later in the summer I had an unfortunate moment where I called the creators of Tension out for something publicly on the forums. I deeply regretted doing it, but I have to admit that even months later I'm not entirely sure what other reaction they had expected me to have to what they were doing, given the claims of feeling like they "know" me. Regardless, I apologized, and then got really emotional. But I wanted to turn it into something positive, so I tried to channel the emotions that I was feeling into some sort of positive change for myself and went back to the forums as supportive enthusiastic Megan, even though inside I was tearing myself apart every day. That's one thing that no one has ever really understood about the years of work I've put into myself: I haven't gotten "better," I've just gotten better at pretending that things are fine. I've gotten better at making others comfortable. I have never managed to figure out how to actually be kinder to myself.

* * *

There are Ascension spoilers going forward, you have been warned.

Some things about immersive/interactive theatre are set up for me to fail. Ascension places you in a group of 8-9 people and I knew none of the people with whom I was seeing it - they all knew each other. I was the only "Apostle of the Beginning" in my group, one of the players from the summer. It started off beautifully, when I had the most agency. My favorite moments were in one of the earliest rooms where I interacted with several different actors, including Emilie Autumn, and because I am me, tried to engage personally with them, and to some extent succeeded. Except there was one member of my group who just kept saying "what are you doing? what is she saying? why are you talking to her? what does this mean? how does he know your name?" I snapped at that guy a few times, came very close to explaining to him that in New Hampshire we don't talk to each other and I prefer it that way. Engage with the work, not with ME. Engage with the characters, with the actors, not with ME. I can NOT be the most interesting thing in this room to you, dude. If that's the case just give me the $125 you spent on this ticket, because that's what it's going to cost for me to put up with your annoying questions.

Next room, there was a moment where I thought I saw how screwed I was. As has been discussed I am not good with being told what to do. And when I get angry in a situation where I need to shut up and be compliant, I do with with a lot of rage in my eyes that I don't consciously put there. The man in the next room, I think, saw that, and he locked eyes with me and said something like "just give in, trust me." Those words have meaning to me, and impact.

Next room, drill sergeant guy spends a LOT of time an inch from my face, yelling at me. I think moreso than the others, though they probably felt the same. And it was probably, again, that I was locking eyes with him and not backing down. And the more he yelled at me, the more I locked eyes, and the more he yelled...and again, I thought, I'm so screwed. Because this was playing directly on ME and things specific to me, reactions I specifically have. And I thought, was this going to be 2 hours of THIS, until I broke and cried? How long would that be? Most people give up before they get me to that point.

I had been given a mysterious key and ended up with a thing in my hands as a result. This thing (I don't want to give details here) ended up being a trick that didn't work, but the way that I read it was that it was a trick INTENDED for me to not work. And I even mentally filled in the blanks, I really thought I'd fucked up, I'd broken things, and then thought no, they did this to me to make me think I did. And, again, I thought - I'm screwed. They're playing directly on me, my fears of messing things up, of missing out on things.

After that, though, my sense of alienation from the rest of my group set in because I saw just how much I was Other. I wanted to engage with this piece of art deeply and seriously, and I think they wanted Legends of the Hidden Temple. They wanted a puzzle box to figure out and I wanted catharsis.

There's another thing that deeply informs my experience of Ascension that I can't really get into here, but suffice to say that I know very, very well how to endure pain and discomfort in order to get through an experience. There isn't a part of me that questions whether I will safeword out of something like this due to physical distress. It has to be psychological. There comes a point in this where you are made to drink something. I was the last person in my group to drink, and heard the reactions from everyone before me. At that point I knew, I just had to do it. It was an ordeal, and that was all. But in that moment, I'm no longer in the moment. I'm completely in my head, putting up the defense mechanisms necessary to do this thing, accomplish this task, and get through it. Right after that there was something we had to eat that was being sold to us as "flesh" of some kind, and the girl three people down from me didn't want to eat meat. I felt bad for her, and wanted to say to her, just do it, it isn't meat, it's going to be fine. Of course I didn't know what it was, still really don't, and don't really care. It wasn't a live caterpillar, that's what was important to me. But again, I don't think I was mentally and emotionally where they wanted me to be - I was with her, wanting to help her.

Regarding the Rorschach quote - at one point I was handed a cup and told they needed a sample. The man then turned his back on me. And I didn't know what to do. I asked him if he really wanted me to pee, not because I was uncomfortable for myself but because I was uncomfortable for him, and for the people backstage I knew were watching. I was willing to do it. I'm not locked up in here with you. You're locked up in here with me.

And, at the end, when I was being sacrificed to Anoch for the cult, I couldn't see but I could hear the cries of people trying to save me. I could hear their voices. And I could tell that they didn't believe I was really dead/dying/hurt/in danger. And again, I thought back to The Magus, and my brain starts going...what do I have to do to make them FEEL those very real feelings? Not to act like they're feeling them, but really to feel them?

And what do I have to do to make myself feel them?

I still don't know the answer to that question.

* * *

Afterwards in a bar over drinks one of my friends said "yeah, Megan, what you're looking for is out there - it's called snuff." I know he was joking but part of him wasn't, and it was an exaggeration of the truth, but the experience that I'm thinking of does not exist.

So. What scares me?
At one point I was seated in front of a camera and told to say my goodbyes to the world. In that room a man was standing facing the corner. Was he there because someone knew of my panic attack during the final scene of Blair Witch Project in the middle of the movie theatre in 1999?

I think what I've concluded from this is that, surprisingly, shockingly, what scares others simply doesn't scare me. I don't know why. And maybe people *are* only interested in playing pretend, and going along with something, and I come along and ruin their fun by pointing out when things are obviously fake. It goes back to a first day in grad school when we had to go around and talk about ourselves, name one thing that scared us, and they got to me and my answer was "climate change." And the room kind of just died. Because they didn't mean FOR REAL. They meant for fun.

So what the mirror has shown me, Tension, is that what I am is still outside of others' comfort zones. And I still don't really know what to do with that. I don't know if that makes me an impossible audience member/participant or not. Maybe I just need to come to some terms with that and keep going.

Let's set one thing straight here: I did not hate the show.
And I really, really dislike grapevine gossip.
I would really, respectfully, like to ask everyone associated with Tension - creators, participants, everyone - to talk TO me and not about me.
Other things transpired last night that made yesterday a very difficult day, and finding out that there was a rumor going around that I "hated" the show and had "very negative reactions" to it was upsetting.
My oldest friend's father died. I've known him since I was three. I have a vivid memory of my friend and her mom holding each other at my mom's funeral nearly 30 years ago, and I can't be there to do that for her.
On top of that, another friend tried to kill me with Bernie Sanders laser beams in his eyes because I have not bought into a carefully constructed narrative about Hillary Clinton that I've been sold for twenty years.  Because I'm not fucking stupid. And another friend told me that my dreams were impossible and I should give up. (cue Locke, in his wheelchair, screaming "DON'T TELL ME WHAT I CAN AND CAN'T DO!")
If you can't take the time to have a conversation with me about the show, then don't bother having a conversation about my reaction to it. I have put a lot of time and love into this, and effort in pushing it out to communities beyond the haunt community. I believe wholeheartedly and enthusiastically in this work and still do. That hasn't wavered one bit. This is really, truly a case of "it's not YOU it's ME." YOU are locked in here with ME. Just like I have been for 39.9 years.
If my reaction and opinion matters it has to matter in conversation with me. I am allowed, as a human being, someone who has had no sleep, who has been stuck at an airport with a demon horse from hell, someone who had a two-Relpax migraine yesterday AND all of the above stuff happen, to vent emotionally to people.
If you are one of those people to whom I vented emotionally, you're right, I should have been more discerning in my choice of friends. That is a thing I need to work on and have needed to work on for awhile. I have poor judgement when it comes to moments when I'm tired and emotional and passionate about something, and there's a person who is asking me "so what did you think?????????" I own that mistake. There is no need to go running back to someone to report on what I said.

And if you are some guy who decides after 20 years to tell me that 20 years ago you loved me, don't follow it up with talk about how you wish we were more in touch and closer now. I am here now. And when I say I am willing to be friends I am ALL IN. But I'm not interested in who we were then. Or in what songs by The Cure you thought were the most awesomenest. I'm interested in You. Me. This moment. Here. Now. The recording of a gesture while the clay is still wet, not the dusty thing sitting on my bookshelf half-forgotten that I made before I knew what art and life even were.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Shifting of the gaze.

On Tuesdays I have my students bring in images they find compelling, and we discuss each one of them in turn and why - attempting to keep the discussion to elements of design, or the storytelling that might be going on in the image. (Thanks, Laura Eckelman, for this exercise!) Sometimes that can be difficult - why THIS IMAGE, not the movie it's advertising or the book that it's from or the memories it evokes, but the image we are looking at on this paper. It's also challenging to get students in both a digital world AND an increasingly environmentally conscious one to work with actual paper. I love that Mac students are as aware as they are and as enthusiastic about making change, but it can be a challenge for art and design classes where resources are consumed.

Recently one student brought in this image:

I don't actually know the story behind this image, where it's from, who to attribute it to, and I will be happy to do that if someone can tell me. The discussion that it sparked was interesting though, and has had me thinking on several different tangents since that day about this culture we find ourselves in, the direction of our "gaze" and what that means.

Given that I know nothing about the image I'm about to make all sorts of egregious mistakes and my art history friends will start shaking their heads at me and petitioning to take my MFA away, but here goes. What I'm seeing when I look at this is either a Greek or Roman or Renaissance-like statue, or one intended to be taken as such, which is supposed to depict a woman perhaps dancing, uninhibited, unaware of her self. The gaze through which we are seeing this is not her own but the artist's, presumably male, but the point is that it's someone else's. Through the addition of the cell phone the gaze turns inwards - now, instead of dancing or being uninhibited, she is extremely self-aware. She is watching herself, photographing herself, possibly even not dancing but arranging her hair to get the perfect selfie. We aren't really looking at this through someone else's gaze anymore but seeing her simultaneously through another's and through her own.

And here's where there is a cultural shift that I can't quite reconcile. To many, this shift is seen as a positive thing - instead of being trapped by the presumably male gaze, she is now admiring herself. And I get that, I really do. However I wonder if we are too quick to equate the motivations behind the sculpting of the human body during these periods with the obsession we have today with objectifying the female body. Not all art depicting nudity is the same, it's not all bad, it's not all objectifying, and it's not all done through a leering male gaze. Much of it was a celebration of the beauty of the human body.

At the same time I wonder if we are too quick to defend the selfie culture. I don't really have a problem with selfies, though I frequently have a hard time understanding the need to take them (other people take much better photographs of you than you do if you hold the camera out at arm's length, you know). I've seen defenses of it that talk about wanting to see people post positive images of themselves, which is great, that's much better than the swirling negativity I live with inside my head vis a vis myself on a daily basis. It could be said that a selfie celebrates the self in a way that Renaissance art celebrated the human body. But how much do we really need to celebrate OURSELVES?
I don't think it's unknown, but good try.
The above quote is on a sign that hangs behind the counter at the art supply store near my house. It's within walking distance which means I spend too much time and too much money there, and see this quote far too often, and each time I do I think the same thing - what if life just isn't about yourself at all? Forget finding yourself, creating yourself, celebrating yourself. We are wrapped up in so many issues today that revolve around the self and we forget just how privileged we are to even be able to think about those issues. We are so wrapped up in celebrating ourselves that we even have a tendency to vilify anyone who wants to celebrate another person - see: the male gaze regarding the above statue. I'm not talking about sexual harassment and women learning to take catcalling as somehow a "compliment" - that's gross and ridiculous, and obviously unwelcome. But we even have two presidential candidates that exemplify this - one who has spent her life in the service of others, and one who has spent his life in the service of himself, and she is being cast as the villain.

The other thing to remember about the selfie culture and social media in general is that we are NOT celebrating ourselves. We are celebrating a carefully curated version of ourselves. To say that who we are on Facebook is genuinely who we are in real life is a joke. We are all politicians online, all of us making sure that our "image" is what we want it to be.

Today I'm going to attempt to not think about myself beyond the necessities and practicalities. I'm not going to worry about who likes me, who doesn't like me, whether anyone finds me funny or reads what I write or likes what I post online, who respects me or my work, whether I do anything of any importance or not, what my "identity" is and if I've stayed true to it and if others have violated it. Or - whether I've been too emotional and have put off people with it - that's a big one for me. I'm just going to get my work done and try to be a good person.

I would like to be uninhibited by all of that, unaware of myself.
It really doesn't matter what I do, my cats won't respect me anyway.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Immersive Adventures in Chicago: "Learning Curve"

This is going to sound like a review, and I don't mean it to, but I need to rave about this show.

I was in Chicago from Thursday until yesterday for the 2016 ATHE conference (Association for Theatre in Higher Education) and I had put myself on the waiting list for tickets for "Learning Curve," the immersive theatre collaboration between Third Rail Projects, Albany Park Theatre Project, and the Chicago school district. It's been getting amazing reviews and its entire run has been sold out but there's an option to add yourself to the wait list for any given performance, which is what I did, and I got lucky. Actually, because the tickets were only $40, I ended up getting three because I had expected to pay over $100 (I just bought tickets to "The Grand Paradise" and they were over $100, as are tickets to "Then She Fell," and if they're not $100, tickets to "Sleep No More" are close). I found two other people two give those tickets to at the conference hoping to give someone an amazing experience. I'm the type of person who will buy everyone she knows a copy of her favorite book - Imajica - just to make sure they get a chance to read it, so now I'm also the type who will buy friends tickets to immersive theatre, in the hopes of creating new obsessions.

"Learning Curve" deals with the issues surrounding high school, both from the perspective of its students and its teachers & administrators. What makes it incredibly powerful is that it's all performed by high school students, who are incredibly vulnerable and effective, and really took me back to my own years in high school. It also helped that THIS particular school probably hadn't been renovated since I was in junior high, and it reminded me of Elm Street Junior High School before its renovation in the early 90s. Aside from metal detectors, the presence of security guards, and constant reminders that cell phones exist, nothing had really changed in the last 20 years.

I was extremely lucky to have three moments of incredible intimacy with characters - similar to "Then She Fell," the audience is on rails during this performance (though slightly less so - it's a bit more random, and the audience is larger). And as intimate as the "one-on-ones" that I've had in "Sleep No More" and "Then She Fell" were, this is key: nothing beats the "one-on-one" with yourself from 20 years ago. Aside from the angst of being in high school there was also the relationship this project had to its city and its particular school district. For me, the realities behind this - and the fact that the performance was taking place in one of the closed schools - combined with the near universal truths of being in high school, make this a far more emotional and effective piece than any other immersive I've seen up to this point.

One of the people I brought with me was David Kaye, who was a professor of mine at UNH when I was in undergrad. He had never been to an immersive theatre production before and this, I think, blew his mind. Afterward we talked with one of the students, who was really excited to learn that we were theatre professors in Chicago for a conference. He asked a ton of questions about our respective schools.

I feel like every time I see something extraordinary I say "this is the best theatre I've ever seen." And it becomes silly after awhile, so I don't know that it means anything to say that anymore. This is light years better than "Sleep No More," better than "Then She Fell." If you live ANYWHERE near Chicago or if you're going to be there before November 20, put yourself on a waitlist or twelve. There are no witches or raves or stunning scenic pieces or secrets to unlock, but the emotions it creates are real and inescapable, because we've all been through them. I'm incredibly glad that I did this, it was the highlight of a very full weekend.

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.

Edited 8/30/2016: This post has received some attention due to the Daily Beast article, "The Biggest Mindf*ck in Los Angeles." Out of sheer stupid pride I feel the need here to say that several of us figured out (with the OVERT help of Tension themselves) on July 4 that this was actually the work of a plant. This incident also sparked a discussion between myself and Steve Peters at Storyforward about the ethics of experience design (not gaming journalism) and I believe the plan is that I will be joining him on his podcast in a few weeks to talk about this.

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.)