Immersive Theater: I Was Hooded, Stripped, Berated, Whipped (Loved It)

Stale scripted entertainment can't match the thrills of 'The Tension Experience.'

(The Tension Experience)

I won't pretend to be an immersive theater expert,  escape-room expert, or even a theater expert based on a few hundred previews and reviews I've had published. But I do feel my credentials as a reluctant theater critic (passed down to me through my Eastern European grandfather) at least somewhat qualify me to tell you about being willingly hooded, stripped, interrogated, whipped, yelled at, and fake-kidnapped in something called The Tension Experience.

I've grown tired of writing about regular film and theater. The format and content seldom change. These days, catching a show is even more boring than usual. That's one reason I'm actually interested in exploring the exciting performance genre of immersive theater. The Tension Experience is far from being the first to do it here in Los Angeles, though.

Running from 1984 to 1993, Tamara was an interactive play about a Jazz Age painter staged inside the masonic-style Hollywood American Legion Post 43. I went twice in high school, and marveled at my completely different experiences. The second time I took my father, who got sick from the incense in a scene involving a ritual. He said it reminded him of the stuff they'd burn in his village to mask the smell of rotting corpses. I cherish that memory.

An interactive modern-day film-noir sleuth/caper called Accomplice: Hollywood was another fun thing I did back in 2010. The franchise still thrives in New York, along with innumerable variants of interactive theater.

Immersive goes way back beyond my own memories of it, and lately, it seems it's mostly scary. Yet such is my hunger for something new that I willingly subject myself to a potentially terrifying experience for which I need to sign a waiver. The problem with writing about immersive theater, however, is there are lots of spoilers (or "reveals"), and no two experiences are exactly alike. So describing a production like The Tension Experience is not easy.

(Who wants to be first to climb into the creepy black van?)

Strange and sinister spiritual practices tend to evoke fear among the general population. In a city where cults are as ubiquitous as dispensaries and vape shops, ordinary citizens can be extra sensitive to creepy factions trying to recruit them into weird lifestyles. Playing off this fear, Tension revolves around a cryptic cult called the OOA. The two-hour experience takes the form of an indoctrination process through mind control, disturbing rituals, and the preaching of salient tenets about being present and "in the moment."

The whole thing takes place in a 45,000-square-foot warehouse located on an entire city block in the industrial outskirts of Downtown. Nobody knows exactly where it is. From the moment we all park in a generic lot somewhere in Boyle Heights, a cushy black van pulls up and a driver puts hoods on our heads before shoving us into the vehicle. For 20 minutes, we're jostled around on a bumpy Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. The driver barks random orders, frantically rustles papers, and listens to classical music. One by one, we're eventually kicked out of the van, de-hooded, and told to knock loudly on a plain white door, the same door I knocked on a few weeks before my own "experience" to interview Tension's creators: Producer Gordon Bijelonic  and writer/director Darren Lynn Bousman,  who directed the Saw sequels.

(The Tension Experience)

When Bousman approached Bijelonic almost two years ago about an immersive theater project, Bijelonic was intrigued. Shows like Sleep No More, Blackout, Alone, and dozens of others were taking the place of haunted houses around Halloween time, but Bijelonic and Bousman both saw an opportunity to stage immersive theater year-round, which they hope to do with Tension. In December, they're planning to go dark for a month and use the show's 24 different set pieces to film a movie adaptation. In the meantime, they're focusing on the live aspect of the show without getting too far into horror.

"People might come in and hate this," Bousman says. "It might be the worst thing they've ever done, but they will think about it and they will remember it."

"This is not horror-based," Bijelonic explains. "There is nothing horrific about The Tension Experience. It's called The Tension Experience because it will make you tense. It will make you uncomfortable—one hundred percent. It's designed to heighten all your senses, and to actually make you be present and in the moment."

(My "processing form." Scary immersive theater is much better under the influence of a mild tranquilizer.)

Unceremoniously thrown out of the van, I knock on the steel door. A frantic, pale, frail girl ushers me into a shabby but cozy, old-timey office waiting area. I answer peculiar questions on a processing form: "Are your fingerprints on file with any federal or local authorities?" "What is your blood type?" "Do you have any permanent foreign object in your body (gold teeth, filling, hip replacements, etc.)?" "Have you had any combat or firearms training?" "Do you have life insurance?" "Approximate estimate of liquid assets?"

Before any of us know what's happening, we're forced to disrobe and put on white plastic disposable utility coveralls. From that point forward, we aren't allowed to have any personal belongings with us the whole time, which forces us to focus on the experience.

"This was made because you have to be here," Bousman says. "You have to be present, you have to be active, you have to watch it, you have to interact with the actors, and for two hours, you can't have your cellphone. I think that's why these types of things are so great. It makes you be in the moment. And I want to be in the moment —I want to get that feeling back when I saw movies in theaters."

Next, we're all guided into an all-white processing room full of actresses of a certain age who ask very intimate, personal questions. A chorus of screams and moans echo behind closed doors. Everyone is separated. Where we all go is loosely based on the answers we've given to the intake personnel.

"I would rather do it than watch someone else do it. When you're put in the center of the story, everything is about you."

My own narrative unfolded through a labyrinthine maze of gorgeous but creepy rooms, one with nothing but clocks and another that resembled a 1950s classroom after a nuclear fallout. I was intermittently hooded, shoved, and took part in a ritual involving ammonia sticks and paraffin wax that left my hands extra-soft. Again, I don't want to give away too much. What's amazing about Tension is that it is an individual experience. The personal revelations are a big part of what makes it unique.

(Example of the weird shit strewn all over the place in "The Tension Experience")

"People might come in and hate this," Bousman says. "It might be the worst thing they've ever done, but they will think about it and they will remember it. It's making you interact in a way that you're not used to interacting. That visceral nature is going to stick with someone. It's gonna scar you, to some extent. It's going to take you out of that comfort zone that we live in most of our lives."

The dialog inTension's 400-page script, enacted by 40 to 60 actors and co-written by Clint Sears, is sophisticated, not dumbed-down. Every room has a message, whether it's commenting on our complacency and distraction, or our own mortality. No one jumps out at you jarringly like in a traditional haunted house. That doesn't make you feel like they won't. You literally have no clue what comes next.

After The Tension Experience, I realized why I've gotten so sick of writing about traditional theater. These days, I want my existence to matter as a viewer, as an audience member. I don't want to be the proverbial face in the crowd; I want to participate in the exposition and extrapolation of a story, like a newcomer in Westworld, only engaging with actors instead of androids.

Darren Bousman feels the same: "In my mind, as a storyteller, this is the future. Why would I want to be passive in an audience watching Jason Bourne or Matt Damon save the world when I can save the world myself two hours a night? I could win the girl. I could bring down the villain. I could die, and I'm the hero of my own journey. I would rather do it than watch someone else do it. When you're put in the center of the story, everything is about you."

The Tension Experience takes place Thursdays through Sundays. Cost per person is $125. The experience begins as soon as you buy a ticket, so don't be surprised if you get ryptic emails or scary messages from blocked numbers in the middle of the night.