PERCEPTION IS REALITY
This page is for me, and my random thoughts and rumblings. I use this as a time capsule to work out shit going on in my own head... These entries reflect important moments or realizations I've had over my time as an adult. Read at your own risk. More so than anything this is me working my own shit out on a screen. This blog may be updated, deleted, and changed, it's a work and progress, like me.
I am a poser.
While I wear all black and did write and direct some of the SAW films, at heart, I am a great big faker... as so eloquently pointed out by someone on social media a few weeks back. After hearing me speak on a panel regarding Immersive Theatre, they suggested I was just a “...white dude nerd creative… who wants to come across as dangerous”.
She isn’t wrong…I am a white dude…I am a nerd…and yes, part of my job is pretending to be dangerous.
If you were to peek behind my curtain I’m about as vanilla as they come.
I’m a dad with a dad bod (and by dad bod I mean obese), I have two fluffy dogs, I even have a white picket fence that surrounds my house. I am kind’a lame…
That said, I also just directed a movie where I cut out someone's tongue, and then later strangled someone with an umbilical cord.
…pretending to be dangerous is how I made my career.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind.
Two weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak at a summit in San Francisco along with my two partners and co-creators of the The Tension Experience, Gordon Bijelonic and Clint Sears.
If you have been following my exploits then you will understand my love and admiration for the art of immersive storytelling.
Look back at my film career, you can easily see the influence of immersive theatre dating back to my film REPO! The Genetic Opera / The Devil's Carnival, and the traveling road show that followed.
I didn’t want to just make movies… I wanted to create experiences… A way for the viewer to interact with the narrative and make it their own.
We turned these movies into… well, batshit crazy traveling sideshows.
The movie became secondary to the experience. It was about the audience. It was about giving them something they couldn’t get at home… something that couldn’t be downloaded, or shared. Dress up, let your hair down, and interact with the film with your fellow denizens.
These Roadshows led to my love of immersive storytelling, and eventually my sabbatical where I traveled the globe consuming as much Immersive content as humanly possible.
What I loved most about this art was the feeling it was able to elicit inside of me…
I didn’t understand the language or rules… unlike conventional theatre, I had no frame of reference… it made the impact on what was happening around me rawer… more - - real.
When I go see a movie, I understand the formula… A movie theater. A projector. Popcorn. But when I went to an immersive show like BLACKOUT for the first time, I had no frame of reference… While I knew it was staged, it felt authentic… my reactions were raw.
I remember my first BLACKOUT show... A bright spotlight was shined in my eyes... I was blinded and could only hear the drone of white static.
"Take your pants off..." said a disembodied voice.
I remember the surge of adrenaline and fear that swept through my body... Never in a million years would I ever drop trou in front of close friends, let alone complete strangers. Yet, in this moment, in this space I did... Why? Not because they asked, but because I wanted to see if I could. Could I break through my own insecurities and do something I considered... taboo...
I did... and while the act was minimal, the memory is something I still think about today. Why? Because hearing it said out loud sounds so ludicrous, so insane, it makes no sense I would ever even consider such an action... Yet there I was... in some dark theatre in downtown LA with my pants around my ankles... A confession? It was a powerful moment.
In the years that passed since my Blackout Experience, I have heard others tell about their adventures, all but sure their recounts have gained a little something extra each and every time told...
As a storyteller, I strive for the ability to imprint onto an audience member. Do something that will stay with them, make them think, feel, and -- dare I go so far as to say -- change?
I wanted to explore my own Blackout experience... I truly felt empowered in that one moment, asked to step outside my comfort zone and do something... dangerous.
My first attempt at directing Immersive content was in 2014 when icon Emilie Autumn hired me to direct her performance for the VAN’s WARPPED TOUR.
Our idea was to perform a music concert through the use of immersive theatre. The audience unlocked the music and songs. Nothing happened without them… Unless the audience interacted with the singers there would be no show.
Imagine being at this outdoor music festival, and instead of watching a stage show, you were on the ground inches from the musicians interacting with them personally.
We brought in actors, and costumers, and production designers and took a rock and roll show and turned it into something far more powerful.
Imagine finding a note, instructing you to go to the lead singer of the band. You hand her the note, and she pulls you into a tent... and she performs one of her biggest hits JUST for YOU!!!
It was a life changing experience... Not only for me as the director, but for the audience who was brought inside Emilie's strange, beautiful world.
That moment I knew I wanted to shift my focus to immersive content, and more importantly, bring it into a world I knew and loved… horror.
When Tension was launched, we had but one goal. Tell a suspenseful narrative that bleeds into the participant's real world. We knew that if we could take our narrative, and intertwine that with your everyday life, then the buy-in would be greater than anything we had done prior.
I ended up writing a 30 page "treatment" of what I wanted and called my best friend Clint Sears..
"Wanna help me build a world?" I asked...
Gordon Bijelonic, our producer had one mandate. ‘This shit is safe, or we ain't doing it…”
If you were to explain Tension at a dinner party to a group of blue hairs, we might sound like a carnival run by the Marquis de Sade. Emotional torture, sadism, sexuality, simulated violence, blah, blah, blah… However, if you were to come behind the scenes and see the pieces of the clock, the mundaneness of what we do is overpowering. 95% paperwork, legal, and insurance… 5% creative.
But in that 5% is where the magic of our experiences lie. The ability, to for a moment think, "Wait… this shit has fallen off the rails. Something isn’t right…" The uncertainty.
That was the world I wanted us to play in... The UNCERTAINTY of what was real... where was the fourth wall? Did it even exist?
I love Disney's Space Mountain... Why? It's dark as fuck and you cannot see the tracks... Now, it's Disney, so in the back of my mind, I'm like "okay... I'm safe..." But, I NEVER had any fucking clue what was coming next, I couldn't see it...
Creating this project, we all knew and understood this was not for everyone. I remember the venomous hate I received upon the release of SAW II. Critics calling it trash, exploitative, and pure rubbish. Nothing made me happier than polarizing the masses. My favorite bands, books, and movies are revered by some and despised by others.
I'm totally okay with things not being everyone's cup of tea.
Looking back on my career, the film REPO! The Genetic Opera stirred venomous outrage by the masses, yet embraced and turned cult by the fans.
I don't think any of us were ready for the reaction that Tension received. We received more glowing endorsements and praise from mainstream press than ANY of my past films or previous projects. Not to mention, created a rapid and dedicated fanbase in this process. The reactions from the press and audience became a drug.
Tension was launched, followed by Lust, and just last year we wrapped our third Immersive production as a company, Theatre Macabre.
Throughout the entire process of these shows, we had our fair share of critics and skeptics, but what I found most concerning that the lionshare of negativity was coming from within the community of creators. We are playing in dark waters and expected the occasional naysayers however, for the most part, the reaction to these shows were powerful. Powerful love, and powerful hate. My partner Clint hates that I lean into the word hate… But the reality of what we do toys in emotions. Any emotion as long as it’s elicited by the art is okay by me.
As a company, we came out of the door swinging. Go big, or go home. When we launched, none of us had ever done anything like this. Truth be told, we were figuring it out as we went, and learning encylopedias as we went.
Being invited into this summit was a big deal for us. We were to be surrounded by kings and queens of this industry. Giant Spoon, Magic Leap, Mycotoo, Meow Wolf… Let alone pioneers in the immersive space such as the co-creators of the Jejune Institute, The Speakeasy Society, fuck The Godfather of ARG’s himself was there.
The number of names on the list of attendees that we as creators looked up to, and found inspiration from, was insane and honestly intimidating.
The three of us were overjoyed, and quite frankly terrified about being in the same room as all of these people. I am more starstruck by some of these ad guys (advertising), than I am of movie stars.
Our panel was on the final evening, and we were one of the last ones to speak.
At this point in my career, talking to large groups is nothing new. But in the minutes before we were called to the stage I felt queasy and nervous as fuck.
Throughout the summit I had a few random people approach me and alert me towards their concern on what we as a company are doing…
I was sitting by myself a woman I had never met approached me (below is paraphrased)…”Is it true you instructed one of your participants to run in traffic during an ARG event.” I looked up…”huh?” She smiled warmly, “I don’t think you are helping the immersive community with your dangerous stunts.” With that, she walked away…
A few hours later a guy walked up to me and casually says…"My roommate did Tension, said one of your actors hid in his apartment and then rushed out and bagged him while he was asleep! That’s awesome.”
Neither of those events happened.
The traffic incident for example. A half truth. Two scenarios.
1. An ARG event. We had an ACTOR - pretending to be a Participant. There was a periscope. Looking like a participant followed an actor, and crossed a street, and numerous sidewalks. The community was outraged. Cut to a week later, that same participant is revealed to be an actor. But for those viewing, it looked, and appeared dangerous. (behind the scenes we had people following and posted at various points such as alleyways, to ensure both actors safety.) but, viewing it, at home, we wanted the Participants to feel it had fallen off tracks. THIS WAS A COORDINATED EVENT WITH A PLANT, with numerous people, including myself watching out for safety, during the entire broadcast.
2. Another ARG event. We had a seminar like gathering. The event ended, and the Participants headed back home after chatting for a bit outside the venue. They saw one of our actors across the street. A handful of our Participant's took chase, seeking a better vantage point. Our philosophy has always been real world rules apply to the ARG as it relates to safety. Regardless, we broke character once we were made aware of one participant running across the street. (something no one suggested she do.)
While none of us liked breaking the illusion, but we broke the game numerous times, AS US course correcting anything we perceived as dangerous. We would call people directly each and every time a narrative pathway began to push them in a direction we were unable to control.
Remember that childhood game “telephone”? Someone says a phrase, then it's passed from person to person until the final participant stands up and repeats the phrase back to the room...Yeah, I was a dick playing that game.
"The crow flies at midnight" is whispered to me, and I would immediately change it to "Pork and Beans taste good on pancakes."
As I've grown older, I've noticed a lot of adulthood is a game of telephone. Stories told around a dinner table have a way of morphing and changingto the point where what actually happened is morphed into something that never happened, nor something that we would ever permit to happen.
Throughout the three days leading up to our talk, more and more people approached me to discuss ethical concerns with what we were doing.
“Is it true you force people to get naked?”, “Did you really keep a participant in the trunk for 3 hours while driving them into the desert”?, "Is your safeword REALLY Coward?"
Ugh… this is what I wanted…I wanted these type of horrified reactions… it was sensational, and heated, and… hearing it said out loud - - sad. A lot of what was being repeated was a game of telephone.
As a creator, at what point do I step in and correct it? At what point do I say, "nah, that actually didn't happen like that"? And, if I do begin correcting, at what point do I stop?
Part of the draw of shows like ours is the mystery. Should I really be out there course correcting every story or antidote told? Listening to some of the things I have heard is a MILLLLLLLION times cooler than anything we ever did, or could even pull off... I'm cool letting it simmer, and letting these fictions become fact.
My own tensions grew as we approached the stage…I set out to blur the lines of what was real and what wasn’t. By the temperature at this summit the majority of our legacy would be based on a series of constructs and falsities... I wanted to scream.
When the panel ended and we left the stage, my phone began dinging almost immediately…Social media was erupting in rage and condemnation with the work we were doing…
"Super uncomfortable with the line that @the_tension_exp is walking.”
“I think the experience feeds off shame.”
“Are these guys fucking serious? This isn’t art, this is crap.”
“Did the producer just brag that he paid his actors $100 per show"
"Tension Experience needs to answer to this"
"Blurring reality by making people do unsafe things that you’ve controlled is a bad, bad design practice"
Numerous tweets, Instagram, and Facebook posts all pretty negative. Most concerned about our lackadaisical approach to safety. Most were venemous. Worse, these reactions were coming from the very peers we so desperately wanted to impress.
Worse to me than the online tweets, and social media updates, were the sideway glances from those attending. I don't know what I was expecting... maybe this on me for having a script in my head and then watching it catch fire and burn.
One of the more vocal critics created one of the most artistic and pivotal immersive experiences / ARG ever created in this space, and they are literally campaigning on how dangerous we were…
As we took our seats, eyes diverted, and heads lowered as we walked by… People were pissed. Clint looked at me…” We are in trouble…” he whispered.
The only mandate Gordon, our producer gave us when we launched was safety.
Everything had to be above board. We all had gone to such pain staking efforts to ensure that EVERY single thing was ironclad...
Buildings had to be zoned in correct fashion. Fire permits, police walkthroughs, numerous policies of insurances... thinking about the list makes me want to puke...
Tension almost didn't open. We had so many meetings with the city, and fire marshalls, that our project seemed like it was stuck in an endless loop of burecratic catch 22. But that was mandate from Gordon, saftey or "shit ain't opening."
Suddenly, these creators were vocally putting out there in the universe how "dangerous' we were. Part of me wishes I had a thick skin… could tell you I didn’t care… or just hold my head up high and pretend that others opinions of me or my art did not matter… But, they did matter. And these weren’t just other peoples opinions… these people were the driving force of the community, and in an instant some of the biggest minds in our field sounded off like a chorus throughout the twitterverse calling for our head.
Gordon looked back at Clint and I. He winked, "It's fine."
The final panel of the evening was the one I was most looking forward to…it was from a woman representing one of the biggest Immersive companies currently working…. I am hugely appreciative of the work her company does, but more importantly, I had numerous hilarious drinks and discussions with the panelist giving the keynote. She had great energy and I was legit excited to hear her talk. I wouldn't call us friends, but over the course of the summit, we became friendly. She had an infectious presence.
Well…until… Her keynote shifted to us…
Maybe three minutes of her twenty-minute presentation was focused on The Lust Experience. I don’t remember her exact words, but it was something along the lines of…“I went to The Lust Experience, and they told me to get naked or I was kicked out of their event and would lose my money.”
I wish there was a word to explain the collective groan and gasps heard echoing from the audience. My stomach dropped…I looked at Clint... he shook his head.
"Oh, and their safeword is... Coward."
At this point, I either wanted to laugh, cry or vomit… maybe all three. There was no set up in her story… no context… no lead-in, or explanation…
Had I not been to The Lust Experience, and heard that, I would have groaned, too…
It all sounded like we were a bunch of horny dudes being... weird.
Some context, all of our experiences are 21 and up… Everyone who enters is an adult… Everyone who steps through our doors signs a two page waiver warning them of what to expect inside, including yes, nudity.
In the days leading up to the LUST event, numerous warnings are put out on all social media regarding the adult nature of the event.
When tickets were purchased an entire section before securing tickets warned about the content of the show. And of the adult nature of it.
In the case of LUST, the waiver was emailed 48 hours in advance of arrival just to prevent any “gotcha” moments with content. Also, it was paramount that Participants weren't rushed into quickly signing something they couldn't, or didn't have a chance to read. (which so often happens in immersive shows)
“Get naked… or you’re done, and we're taking your money”? Characters asked some Participants to remove articles of clothing, but no one was kicked out of Lust, and a fair amount of the people elected to stay clothed. In fact, the majority of people who did the event remained fully dressed.
There was much more to this story than "take your clothes off…" She was on a very specific "track", or storyline. (a 31 page one on one involving numerous actors and environments, as well as a whole narrative through-line setting up the situation, and reason for the character requesting nudity…)
No one had to do anything, ever, and ONLY 2 things got you kicked out of Lust:
1. Touching an actor.
2. Being drunk and disorderly.
As a participant, we encourage freewill and encourage you to do what thou wilt in a safe space. The entire through line of Lust was “power”. Are you the one with it? Or the one seeking it? We put the audience in numerous sexual situations and they had free will to either comply or not… In turn, giving the audience the power to step outside of themselves and be someone else in a "safe" space, or... not. Or just say "no" completely and follow that wherever it may lead..
Hearing the woman's experience, phrased like this, in this light, made me ill.
I saw online someone labeled us the "bad boys" of immersive theatre... I can live with…but being "bad" boys… that’s something entirely different.
Her framing of this moment made me feel dirty, and the entire show feel... cheap.
Literally, moments before this speaker was on stage, she and I were joking, and I was doing magic tricks for her… Now, she’s talking about our show, and we sound like some dirty old men, issuing perverse ultimatums.
Worse, there are 250 of my peers in this audience judging us…
In the middle of her keynote, another alert. These experiences are gross and dangerous.
"It's obvious from their panel, they do not care about their actors." Wait... WHAT?!
Then... "Wait, are they boasting about how little they pay their actors?"
This one killed me. Not care about actors? What they were referring to is Gordon, our producer mentioned in the panel that actors in our show aren't doing it for money... "They make a hundred, bucks." However, before that he spoke about his billionare friends, and how he wants to appeal to them, and do custom experiences tailored for them. So combining those two thoughts... Gordon has billionare friends, and our company is only paing $100 per show, in turn makes us not care about our actors... One thought had nothing to do with the other. Gordon's friends aren't paying for The Experiences. Any other comments that were made that came across as desperanging towards actors is unfortunate. I owe all of my success to my cast, and would do anything in the world for them. When Tension ended, I was hired to direct a movie, ST. AGATHA. My only madate to the producers of the film were... "The leads are all coming from Tension..." Luckily, I was able to cast 5 of the leads of Tension, as the leads of Agatha. I will bring as many as possible to whatever I film next as well. They
As an artist, I understand $100 is not a lot, but we have a favored nations thing on our experiences, everyone makes the same. We typically employ 50 - 60 actors per show. Plus stage crew. Plus security. Any given night we have 70 plus people on payroll. So, unfortunately, no, they aren't retiring off this, but to suggest we do not care is outrageous, and just... sad and utterly untrue.
I couldn’t have fled from the Summit faster if I tried. I was horrified that the very people I came to impress were turning their nose up at us now. I was mortified that the advertising guys I so wanted to meet, and form a relationship with just witnessed our public lashing from a representive of one of the biggest immersive companies in the game.
More enraging, some of the very people on the attack now, had the EXACT same reactions to their shows, year's earlier. One in particular literally had a press outlet say almost the identical statement about them being dangerous, and unsafe, and now that creator has flipped and spun it around on our work.
I turn to Clint... "Let's go."
“Na, fuck it, we stay, and hold our head up high… We know who we are ” responds Clint.
I check my phone, another tweet.
“Hey #ids2019 flag me down at the party later for a detailed takedown of why Tension et al design practices are WRONG and TERRIBLE.”
"Put your phone down" instructs Clint. "Be present. It’s all just noise.”
In the days that followed the summit, numerous creators liked, and shared, a series of tweets furthering a slanted message of us being “unsafe…”, “ethically dangerous”, and well, “clowns.” All of the praise from press and fans didn't seem to matter to me... I was focused on my peers, fellow creators...
I wished we lived in a time where we didn’t have to justify or explain our art. I want nothing more than to throw my middle finger up and tell everyone throwing stones to “go fuck yourselves…”
But, these people tweeting had voices and wanted to be heard, and should be heard.
I’m all about shit talking and good old fashioned gossip. But my ego wasn’t ready for it to come from the creators of shows we so greatly admire. Each of these posts felt like a tiny paper cut. Each "like", each "share" felt like they were validating the false narrative being told.
Part of me wanted to respond to each and every person. But why? I let this happen by letting the fictions become fact. I loved the idea of the lore, I allowed it to become a reality. So their nonsense is on me. The perception has become reality.
Even as I type these words, I find myself asking…why the fuck do I care about all these people who want to throw stones. Simply put... I care about Immersive. I want this to continue to grow and flourish and build its audience.
The minds behind the Tension Experience are all professionals. We may “act dangerous” and put up a front, but we take safety very seriously. That said, we are humans and make mistakes. There are storylines I wished we hadn’t done. Pop-ups that maybe were in bad taste - not everything is going to fire for every person, and you know what…that’s okay. Mistakes and learning are part of this process. If there is an issue, we course correct, and learn from it.
A few have reached out to me since leaving the summit, and suggested they had hoped to learn more about us…how we work, what we do, and get to the bottom of “Is it true that once you start the ARG event there is no way to back out of it? My friend said they tried but it kept following him, and never ended."
So… now, I open to the door to questions, concerns, and dialogue. If you have something you think we should hear…tell us… firstname.lastname@example.org here is our email and I encourage you to write to us with ANY of those questions or concerns.
I will write a follow-up blog publicly answering some of your questions…and try to dispel fact from fiction.
This has been a long, and windy, word-vomit of my thoughts, and emotions… The above can be summed up in one paragraph.
Any artist or creator who thinks they have the rules figured out or knows the direct pathway for success does not.
We are all figuring it out, making mistakes, and trying our best to make an impact on our audience. The only aberration as creators that I feel we could make is to attack other creators for not having the same path, ideals, or approach as their own – or, worse, for anyone to spread gossip when it’s easy enough to get the facts from the creators of any show. We all come from different worlds, have different likes, and implement different approaches to our art. An open discussion can implement change, but throwing stones because an approach is different is counterproductive to change and art itself. What moves one, does not move all. What inspires one, does not inspire all. We are all different, unique and varied. The only statement I know to be true as an artist is, I am still growing, learning, and changing.
I left San Francisco dejected and depressed, but in the days that followed, I have found myself more motivated to do stranger and crazier shit than before.
Part of me wants to fit in and have the respect of my peers... But, fuck it... I care more about making art that continues to push the envelope and challenge the Participant to step outside of their comfort zone.
Theatre shouldn't feel safe... It should feel dangerous, wild, terrifying, motivating, and challenging, but in a secure space that lets you explore who you are, and what you can become.
Despite our differences, let’s make some cool shit this year…