Voices from the Fringe: Erik Blair, Writer/Director of ‘Internal’

Making its world premiere at this year’s Hollywood Fringe is INTERNAL, a new piece from They Played Productions, creators of last year’s God: the Apologies Tour and 2016’s horror musical Nothing Bad.

INTERNAL’s writer/director, Erik Blair, was kind enough to give Better Lemons a sneak preview of this intriguing new production and how it fits in with the Fringe.

Better Lemons: Tell us a bit about the genesis of Internal.
Erik Blair: One of the ongoing ideas behind They Played Productions is to examine horror stories from new and different angles. That's what made us launch as a company with a werewolf rock musical and do a multi-chapter modern immersive version of Frankenstein over a 15-month period.

We continue to be really interested in looking at how horror stories are told and seeing how we can transform them in a modern setting or through a new lens.

Internal came from the idea that zombie stories are always about the shambling (or rushing) horde swarming around a group of people. We wanted to find a new way to tell the story — for one person, using specific technological ideas, and on the streets of Hollywood. We couldn't be more excited about how it's coming out!

BL: Briefly, what’s the show about?
EB: The show is about a growing viral zombie threat that is happening in real- time. It's a show built for one audience at a time as they traverse the streets around Vine and Santa Monica. As audience members walk, they will experience a story that is happening directly to them.

The goal is to find a way to terrify audiences by weaving a personal story in the midst of the busy Friday nights of Hollywood.

BL: What are the immersive aspects?
EB: This is one of the most exciting aspects of the show for us. We're going to try to immerse audiences directly into a story that is tailored to each audience member — while they are walking around outside.

We're going to use technology to place the audience member directly in the role of someone living through the early stages of a zombie apocalypse while still letting them experience the street they are walking on at the same time. We're going to add actors to the experience who are completely relevant to the story — and yet if others walk by, they wouldn't even look twice. It's a combination of clever storytelling and using the street itself as part of the story.

BL: What can audiences expect when they attend the show?
EB: They can expect to have a full story with a beginning, middle and absolutely terrifying end. They will find that the show places them directly where they are in real-space, even as the story they are experiencing is something mysterious, terrible and dark. This is not a kids story in any way — it's very much a horror tale.

BL: What makes Internal a good fit for the Hollywood Fringe?
EB: The Hollywood Fringe Festival is about trying things out that can't be done easily elsewhere. This is a true experiment for us as we try to find a simple but compelling way to flip the zombie story around. It might be too much for audiences — or too little.

And that's what makes it so interesting to us as a concept and also makes it a perfect fit for the festival. Hollywood Fringe has always embraced productions that expand how people think about theatrical experiences, and we fit that idea of expansion perfectly this year.

Erik Blair

Erik Blair

BL: Is anyone in the show that people will recognize from past Fringes?
EB: We're excited to have two new actors for this year, as well as one veteran, Adam Briggs, who is very excited to be back once again.

BL: How many Fringes have you participated in?
EB: I've been a participant in Fringe since 2016 as an actor/stage manager and They Played Productions has had a production that we have written, directed and produced since 2017. So this is HFF number four for us.

BL: What keeps you coming back?
EB: The sheer creativity of the festival is a tremendous draw for us. Last year, They Played Productions even launched our own sponsored award because we love the vast and unique takes on stories, theater and performance that we see every year. Even if we had a year that we didn't bring a production, I'd still be running around the festival and seeing everything I can manage to get to during the month. We just love HFF all around.

BL: What other shows are you interested in seeing at the Fringe?
EB: Everything immersive (as that's our focus these days). But a more accurate question would be what I'm not interested in — and the answer is very, very little.

I long ago learned that my favorite shows every year are those that I go see spontaneously and randomly. These days, I simply select the shows that I can up front, watch those shows that request to be considered for our awards....and then I just choose things that sound interesting at the moment.

Really, there's no wrong thing to go see in a festival full of such incredible talent and passion.

Internal will be performed on Friday nights from June 7 to 28 at the Hollywood Fringe. Audiences begin their experience at the corner of Santa Monica and Vine. traveling north to Sunset and back south to Vine. This performance requires audience members to be able to traverse that distance at a walking pace.

Ticketing and further information can be found on the Fringe site.

Voices from the Hollywood Fringe 2018: Lola Kelly and Sterling Powers of ‘The Witnessing'

Making its world premiere at the 2018 Hollywood Fringe is The Witnessing, an immersive, multisensory theatrical experience that explores a shocking paranormal experience. As described on the Fringe site:

"Unexplained phone calls, disembodied voices, moving objects and heart-stopping apparitions plagued the Davidsons' Utah home from 2008 to 2010. Desperate for an explanation, they called upon the renowned Daugherty Paranormal Research Center to help solve the mystery behind the strange disturbances."

Director Lola Kelly and writer Sterling Powers were kind enough to answer some questions about the paranormal thriller.

What was the inspiration behind “The Witnessing”? How was it developed?

Sterling Powers: I met (the Davidsons) while hiking in Utah in the summer of 2016. I was so fascinated with their story — mainly because they don't believe in ghosts, and yet they had all of these strange things happen in their home that no one could explain. The story was originally about (Mrs. Davidson's) experiences specifically, but [sound designer] Rolfe Kent was much more interested in the investigation aspect of it, so we decided to develop that instead.

After more than a year of research — gathering data, news clippings, conducting multiple interviews, writing, rewriting, and assuring everyone that we wouldn't use their real names — I finally handed the script over to Rolfe, Lola, and [producer] Savannah Wheeler.

What is the show about? What will audiences be experiencing?

Powers: This is a lecture given by the skeptical researchers who were investigating the disturbances in the Davidson home. Audience members will hear stories, see slides, listen to audio recordings, and handle some pretty spooky artifacts.

Lola Kelly: The show is based on two real paranormal experts whose mission is to debunk the mysteries of the world through science, and the story is about what happens when they (and we) face things that can't be explained. The audience will experience a condensed and enlivened version of one of their actual lectures.

What makes the piece immersive? How does the audience participate?

Powers: The Witnessing breaks the fourth wall without forcing people to participate, which I think is important for a truly bone-chilling experience. In order to feel and enjoy the thrill of fear, you have to first feel safe. Attending a lecture is inherently participatory and somewhat bland, even if you don't ask any questions.

You know that the panel members are talking to you; you know that you chose to be there. It's not like a Halloween haunted house, where you walk in expecting a teenager with a mask and chainsaw to startle you. This isn't about jumps, or cheap thrills — this is about making you question your own ideas about what's real or even possible. I want people to walk out and wonder if their own home might be haunted — even if they never considered it before.

Kelly: To me, immersive theater abandons the old proscenium model and allows audience to step into real or spectacular worlds, which our play certainly does. Our show isn't the most participatory because it's based on a real life model that is presentational (a lecture), but audiences will have direct address and will be able to handle, feel, smell, hear and question in a wonderful way.

What are the skillsets of the talent involved?

Kelly: Galen Howard is a really singular performer with decades of experience in film and theater. His take on the real-life assistant is as grounded as it is eerie. He's recently appeared in the immersive hit The Willows. Jason Paul Field plays our Dr. Daugherty and Field brings an intensity, magnetism and commitment to research that matches the real guy. He's a classically trained Carnegie Mellon graduate and played Humphrey Bogart in The Blank's Something Truly Monstrous and a lead in Martin McDonagh's The Lonesome West at the Ruskin.

Given the time restrictions of Fringe, how will the logistics be handled?

Kelly: With gusto! We have a small cast but a lot of artifacts and tech to bring in so we'll be keeping it to the essentials and creating a game plan for the most efficient load in and out. Obstacles always give way to creativity. We'll also be allowing the audience who arrive early to observe some of the set up if they are curious to take a closer look at the paranormal artifacts we'll be setting out.

Is this the company's First Fringe production?

Kelly: Yes.

What makes the show an ideal fit for the Fringe?

Kelly: It is the sort of experimental and intimate new work that thrives at the festival. It's concise and exciting.

Since the Fringe is collaborative, are there any other shows you'd like to give a shout out to?

Kelly: One Last Thing Before You Go, which is also playing at Thymele Arts.

The Witnessing plays May 31, June 15 and 16 and June 21, 22 and 23 at various times at Thymele Arts, 5481 Santa Monica Blvd. It is recommended for ages 18+ and is not for the faint of heart. More information and tickets can be found on the Fringe site.

"Westworld" Open Worlds & The Future of Theater

By Dylan Southard

Is it commonplace, a fact of human existence, to look to the future with absolutely equal parts terror and exhilaration? Like, does it always exist at polar opposites? Like, was there ever a time when people looked to the future with only half-hearted interest and lukewarm emotional investment? Because if there ever was such a time, it ain't now. When it comes to the collective journey we're all on, people have strong opinions about where we're headed.
Don't worry. This sentence right here will be the first and last time the word "politics" is written. Not getting into it. Because also, remember, it swings both ways. For the last two years, I've been fortunate enough to work at a virtual reality company which means I'm rubbing up against some bonkers technology. Every so often I get to peek behind the curtain to see the brain-meltingly cool machines that will make us stronger and drive our cars and heal our brains and open up worlds of pure imagination. All of which is true. These things can and will do that. They just might be doing it against the backdrop of a full-scale apocalyptic hellscape. Like I said, terror and exhilaration.
Stunningly, shockingly, against all odds, theater has found itself a part of this conversation. I firmly believe that we have already seen the two most important theatrical productions of the early 21st century in Hamilton and Sleep No More and the latter, in particular, speaks to the way theatre fits into the current zeitgeist. Because nowadays, no one wants to sit back. We're too scared, too excited. We all want to play the game to game the system; script our own journey and control our own future. Everyone is the storyteller now. Everybody wants to rule the world.
This is more or less why virtual reality sits at the crux of this whole terror/exhilaration tennis match. Because virtual reality offers a super fulfillment of that wish. We build these realities. We make the rules. We rule the world. Each of us do, actually, individually. But as we all go about the business of building our own individual worlds, at what point do we lose sight of each other's worlds, and then of each other?
This is also how we arrived at Westworld, a television show that offers its own take on terror/exhilaration by being fascinating/fucking obnoxious. As a former dramaturg, I can tell you this: there has never been a story that more perfectly describes dramaturgy. This is a show obsessed with its own structure, about a bunch of people whose job is story structure (and period detail), set in a place that exists solely to generate stories for the people who visit it. Good God. It's like it was born with its head up its own ass.
Westworld splits its time between a sci-fi, epic look behind the scenes of a Wild West Sleep No More and a sci-fi, epic adaptation of Six Characters In Search of an Author. And the thing all three have in common is that they make story itself the antagonist. The more we become the storytellers and the storytellers become the heroes, the more the narrative becomes our foe, an obstacle to overcome. It's the force against which we define ourselves, the system we strive to outwit and topple.
Stories need to be intelligent now. And I don't mean "intelligent" like smart (stories definitely do not need to be smart). I mean "intelligent," like conscious. They need to be able to adapt and evolve. They need to be alive. Virtual reality is alive, running through game engines hand-in-hand with artificial intelligence, and so bending and twisting and changing all the time. A play is alive too. It changes in a million ways, evolving every time it is performed, totally at the whim of the very intelligent people who have chosen, at this moment and in this place and in their way, to bring it to life.
If you're a theatre person, I don't have to tell you how gratifying it is to find our form suddenly so relevant, our experience so in demand - the complete immersion necessary when you only ever get one take and you can't restart, the live-wire dynamic between an audience and performers in a shared space, virtual or otherwise; and the stage itself as a totally self-contained, twisted version of reality. Our future suddenly looks strangely bright.
We'll see. If the present-day is teaching us anything, it's to expect the unexpected. And if the past has taught us anything, it's that it's all cyclical. Time is a flat circle. Ashes to ashes. Order to chaos and back to order. We've come back around and stories are right there in front of us once again. No frame to keep us out and keep them in. Open and wandering. Free to be whatever you'd like them to be. So close you can touch them.

Escaping and Not Escaping The Tension Experience

Circling the World of the O.O.A.

Until this year, I'd never been to any kind of haunt production. I hadn't heard of Delusion, I didn't know what My Haunt Life was, and (I'm embarrassed to say) I had never even been to Sleep No More. What about an escape room? Nope. Hadn't done that, either.

However, I have been part of live events that push beyond the proscenium of “traditional” theatre, and I love it. I've attended as well as created various types of immersive and interactive productions in several genres and forms. So, when I first heard about The Tension Experience: Ascension, I was instantly riveted.

If you're not familiar, The Tension Experience is a highly-produced, ever-changing, individually-tailored machination of tentacled performances that just released its hold on LA (at least officially, and at least for the moment). It was part theatre and part mythological rabbit hole. It was part puzzle and part interrogation. It was made up of guerrilla mind games and shifting layers of morphing storylines. It also was, and is, a complete obsession for those who stepped into its shadowy waters.

My explanation is a little vague because, well, it would take me about 27 pages to give you my initial take on what actually went down. Also, to be honest, there's a part of me that's still nervous they're tapping my phone and monitoring my email, and if I reveal too much I'll come home to find some masked guy waiting with a coil of rope and a tray of scalpels. If you want to dig into their history, scour the internet at your own risk.

The short version of what happened: a cult called the O.O.A. came to town. They were full of mystery and controversy, popping up all over LA for months to interview people and disperse clues. Then, if you actually bought a ticket and showed up at your appointed time, you might have a chance to learn their secrets and become part of their mission.

Unfortunately, I was broke. So I decided not to go.

That is, until a friend of mine offered to loan me the money. Where did he get the funds? I assume the O.O.A. wired them to his account, and blackmailed him into buying me a ticket for their own nefarious purposes. In any case, we secured our admissions, girded our loins, and finally arrived at the designated alleyway at our appointed time.

Shortly afterwards, the black van pulled up.

Inside the Machine

Again, I'm not going to go into great detail about what went down for the next two or three hours of my life. I can tell you that I was stripped of all my possessions (including my clothes, thank you), questioned by several different people, and put through a battery of physical, mental, and psychic tests.

In nearly no time at all, I knew I had been singled out. I was separated from the rest of the group for most of my journey. I was given tasks that pitted me against my fellow entrants, and I was rewarded with encouraging words as I passed through each new challenge. For a good stretch, it appeared they'd narrowed it all down to me and one other person.

But narrowed it down for what?

Finally, my one remaining companion (enemy?) and I were knelt down. We began a strange and frightening ceremony in total darkness. And the question was posed: which one of us was to go first? I held my breath…and they took him first. Then I was alone. For a long time. Until they came back to get me.

I suppose it was after I woke up in a room full of sand. It was after a woman whispered in my ear that she was “so jealous” of what I was about to feel. It was after they strapped me to a medical chair and someone started swabbing my arm. That's when I started to think that maybe I shouldn't have come.

I learned something that night, though: when someone tells you it's time to say your final goodbyes to everyone you know? It's hard, in that moment, to come up with the right words.

The Tension Experience site is now mostly dismantled remains.

The Experience Continues

Clearly, I'm here writing this, so I didn't wind up dead. But it was close. As often happens with cults, things didn't exactly go as planned, and by the time I managed to get out of there, I was a bit shook up—and covered in blood. So, I did the sensible thing: I decided to write about my escape, publish it for all to see, and call out the O.O.A. on their messy little slip-up.

And you know what? They heard me. The next day I received a special message from the O.O.A. Within the week, I was back at their headquarters to ‘bear witness.' To what? I could only assume it would be a very jarring finale.

It was.

While I was there to witness the final moments of the show, I saw others in attendance that I recognized from The Tension Experience forums. There were people I recognized from events like Screenshot Productions' The Rope. It was a small but highly devoted audience, and a group that was apparently very loyal to this brand of terror-driven immersive experience. Everyone gathered with a particular type of fervor and suspense that I have honestly never seen in the theatre.

The Lust Experience is the next chapter, but very little is currently known about it.

However, despite the closing of the O.O.A.'s doors, this isn't over. We already know that the next chapter of this saga will surface in the form of something entitled The Lust Experience, and after that we'll encounter The Adrenaline Experience. It's hard to say what they have in store.

I have a million questions. Some have to do with the story we know, and some have to do with the chapters to come. Some have to do with my interest as a playwright, actor, and producer: how was this thing assembled? I wonder how many more secrets will be revealed. I wonder how many locked doors will remain unopened as this experience continues to grow.

Then I wonder about the audience. For these next installments, will it be the same fervent group of devotees who adore horror and fantasy? Or will new participants emerge after hearing about the success of this first experiment? Will people be more or less comfortable facing Lust than they were facing Tension? Is this the start of a new LA institution?

As I said, the haunt scene is entirely new to me, but I can't help but think that The Tension Experience is, in many ways, the most memorable piece of theatre I've ever witnessed. It grabbed me in ways I couldn't shake, and now it continues to follow me afterwards. On the one hand, I feel like this kind of production could be the future of live theatre. On the other hand, perhaps it follows the form of the exact thing it claimed to be from the start: a small and devoted cult meant for a select few.

Only time will reveal what comes next. But if you're even the tiniest bit curious, I encourage you to visit The Lust Experience and join the list. Even if you're not a haunt-goer. Even if you're not a theatre-goer. Even if you have to bum some money from a friend down the line. Get involved with this story, because what's going on here feels big. It's a narrative that extends far beyond a 90-minute window or a 99-seat theatre. It's not just another live event. It's a living, breathing, organism. And it's waiting for you.