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My Tension Experience, Part 1

Exploring Extreme Immersive Theatre

In this special two-part series, designer Megan Reilly talks about her participation in an innovative piece of horror immersive theatre that has stretched "performance" across live events, phone calls, secret meetings, and interactions with characters over several months. The first part of The Tension Experience ran from February 2016 until September 7 (or so we've been led to believe); the second part called “Ascension,” open to the general public, opened in Los Angeles on September 8, 2016.

Did you ever watch the 1997 film The Game and wish that someone could create a similar experience for you? Believe it or not, some of us did. There are artists and companies out there that explore this to different extents. Since February of this year, many people in the Los Angeles area and beyond have been participating in The Tension Experience. It has found a passionate “audience” willing to allow it into their lives in exchange for being immersed in a narrative that never stops.

My own involvement in Tension began in early April, when the website opened. Prior to April, a few participants in the LA area had in-person experiences with performers, and many wrote about these online. The narrative revolved around a cult known as the Oracular Order of Anoch (OOA) and mysteries surrounding people involved. In April the OOA offered online registration. Part of this involved a lengthy questionnaire. Essentially, to partake in Tension, you had to give up personal information.

two people at a library table
A participant secretly meets with an OOA member in the library. Photo via Facebook.

Tension promised from the start that we would each be experiencing a tailored narrative. They would be watching how we reacted to events, and altering their responses going forward.

Many people consider Tension to be an Alternate Reality Game, but for me it’s closer to immersive theatre. In the beginning there were puzzles, but they weren’t challenging. One of the things that has interested me about Tension from the start is that they billed themselves on Facebook as “performance art.” They’ve also employed live events and actors, and the forums themselves are grounds for performances from fictional characters as well as participants who are acting “in-character.” Tension promised from the start that we would each be experiencing a tailored narrative. They would be watching how we reacted to events, and altering their responses going forward. Many participants began communicating with characters, even becoming part of the story themselves, and none of us have had identical experiences. I watched fascinated as people began receiving phone calls or invitations to events. I was unsure of how much I’d be able to participate, not being in LA, until I received a phone call in which a robotic voice referred to me as “the girl in the Sleep No More mask” and informed me that my time was coming.

In June I flew to LA for work reasons. I also alerted Tension to my presence, and had almost two days taken over by an adventure created for me. Saturday I was sent on a scavenger hunt, looking for a hidden black envelope in Echo Park. The envelope contained information essential to the narrative, and I’d been chosen to retrieve it. I livestreamed my search on Periscope (standard practice for people involved in Tension), thus creating a “performance” that is still available online. My phone rang while I was in the park; Tension was concerned because I hadn’t found the envelope yet. Given that one of the stated goals of this experience is to get under our skins, it was only by making it clear that they were actually there that I was really unsettled—had they simply told me later that they’d been there, I wouldn’t have believed them. At the end of the video, a motorcycle is heard driving by, and moments later a message from Tension appears that says they just passed me and would see me soon. And yes, for the rest of the evening, I was looking over my shoulder.

Just like with a stage show, as long as I believed in the moment, the reality of the situation didn’t matter.

woman opening an envelope
A participant discovers her path. Photo via Facebook.

Monday’s adventure was more traditionally “theatrical” in that it involved a “scene” with a performer. It also played directly with my fear of interactivity and vulnerability in performance. A secret meeting was scheduled at a bar by a character with whom I had been talking and in whom I had become emotionally invested. The man was someone who had previously been involved in the cult, and wanted to tell me his story, but also insisted I do several things for him. The entire meeting made me very uncomfortable because I get extremely self-conscious when asked to perform, or pretend to be anything other than myself. I did the best I could, but one thing I couldn’t do was talk the bartender into joining the cult. That crossed a bizarre line of consent in my head, where another person was unknowingly being involved in this weird performance that had invaded my life. Tension’s response later came from the character who had set up the meeting; he told me that had I talked with the bartender, I would have met him. If you had done this thing we told you to do, you would have gotten this thing you wanted. Don’t worry, there will be future opportunities. I was devastated.

Again, one of the goals of this performance is to get inside the audiences’ heads. We never really know what’s real and what isn’t. What may appear to be nonconsensual or out-of-bounds to me (involving the bartender) could have been planned in advance. Just like with a stage show, as long as I believed in the moment, the reality of the situation didn’t matter. What was presented as a “missed opportunity” that upset me was likely a ploy to make sure I did what I was told next time. Another goal of getting into the audiences’ heads is to prolong the experience. The show doesn’t have to run all day as long as the audience believes that, on some level, it does. By demonstrating that they were physically in the park with me, I began to doubt my own certainty that they weren’t following me elsewhere. The added effects of multiple experiences like this over time blurs the line between reality and performance.

Since June I have been back in Minnesota and have watched as the Tension narrative has gotten darker. One night, one of the participants was involved in the murder of a character in the story. A war is brewing. An angry god is coming. And all of this is building up to Ascension, the final site-specific immersive production that runs in LA this fall. My ticket is for September 23, and I’ll be back to tell you how my story ends.


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