The whole concept of interactive theater -- essentially, a performance that unfolds with audience members interacting with performers, and the lines between them sometimes becoming so thin it's impossible to see -- is not entirely a new one in LA: Delusion, which at this point has become a Fall staple that sells out immediately after dates are announced, is a special-effects-filled show with the audience occasionally performing a task or dragged out of a group, only to appear later in an unexpected location. The recent The Day Shall Declare It sort of operated as moving theater-in-the-round, with a bar operated by performers as its centerpiece and final destination.
But no show in LA has had the full immersion of genre-definers like Sleep No More, which puts patrons in masks to make them anonymous before breaking them up from their groups, or London's Secret Cinema, which literally recreates entire movie sets and scenes with the audience able to interact with characters (for instance, they recently made a full-sized set of Tatooine for an Empire Strikes Back-themed show -- and you could have drinks with Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru in their sand-hut.
The Tension Experience, the organizers explain to me in one of the the first rooms participants will see -- what appears to be an old-age home's living room, with puzzles, senior citizens who stare at you for minutes on, and notes hidden in mirrors and furtively passed by caregivers -- was set up to be a more psychological version of this immersion. In fact, long before the public performances, they were setting up the story with a series of insider-y mind-fucks: phone numbers hidden in messages from the writers led participants to psych tests, where they sat across from an interviewer who asked them deep secrets (these questions, including everything from "do you think animals can feel" to "how often do you masturbate," have made their way into both online questionnaires and the show itself).
"Movies used to be an escape and TV used to be an escape," says producer Gordon Bijelonic, sitting on a vintage couch in the "waiting room." "I say used to because there was a time we would go to the movie theaters, would not take our phones with us. Today you're watching the movie but you're not present. You're watching it but you're responding to emails. You're watching the movie but you're responding to your Facebook posts. But what I love about this [immersive theater experience] is that you really do disappear in a fantasy. You are fully immersed for two hours. You need to be present."
That means cell phones (and, really, any sense of your personal possessions) are literally taken away at the beginning of the show, you'll likely be split up from the people you came in with -- and the full commitment to that personal experience is key for both the performers and the attendees.