The velvet hood was removed, and everyone stood there, filling my field of vision.
Standing before me, taking my hands in hers, Addison spoke the words that sank like a depth charge, and upon reaching the center of my soul, detonated.
* * *
Two weeks after my visit to “The Tension Experience,” my mind obsessively drifted back to the enigmatic warehouse and the strange denizens of the O.O.A. Institute.
Who were these people? How did they end up at the O.O.A.? How did Addison Barrow, a young woman apparently kidnapped by the organization, somehow become its leader? Or had she? And what of all these other young women – the so-called “Handlers” — who were being held there against their will?
And why was I thinking about these characters as people, when I knew they were actors?
This piece of immersive theater had been so perfectly executed, with astonishingly talented actors, so skillfully directed, written with such panache, that it still felt real long after I had escaped its physical grasp. Indeed, I was so taken by the experience that I wrote about it. Yet, I was infected with a desire to uncover its mysteries and a primal masculine impulse to go back and save one of the Handlers.
So I returned…and the O.O.A. was waiting for me.
As the creaky metal door opened, a Handler named Susan (Stephanie Hyden) stood there. I gently squeezed her wrist, gazed in her desperate green eyes, and gave her a reassuring nod. I was going to get her out of here.
Moments later, I was alone in a room with Addison Barrow (Sabrina Kern). Despite being five inches shorter than me, she commanded the room with her penetrating blue eyes and a fierce energy that would’ve sent Genghis Kahn running for Mommy.
“So, Lawrence, why did you come back?”
“I think I misjudged my last visit, and …”
“To save me? To save them? Forget it. And stay the f*** out of my way.”
My heart sank. They knew why I was there. How could they possibly know? Did they really know all about me? This creepy organization reminded me of SPECTRE.
There was one small consolation. Later, Susan and I were alone in a room. She hugged me and whispered, “thank you.” She knew I wanted to try.
This time through, I had to fight off the amorous groping of receptionist Mary-Lynn (Mary Stanley); earned the respect of the bellowing Brit (Damien Gerard) by passing his psychological tests; answered the probing questions of Gale the processing lady (Toni Perrota), while being eyed suspiciously by the woman (Melinda DeKay) who processed me on my first visit. Other sad-eyed handlers (Erika Quintana, Shannon Estabrook) cast incredulous glances at me, obviously thinking I was nuts to return.
Then the O.O.A. pulled a coup de grace that illustrated the transformative power of immersive theater.
Addison led me into a room, my head under a velvet hood. Once removed, I found myself in a room lit only by an eerie red light. Standing before me was the entire cast, filling my field of vision, some thirty people, all of whom I’d encountered during my visits. Taking my hands in hers, Addison spoke:
“Lawrence, you have used your voice to spread our word, and because of you, many others have entered through our doors. You wrote, ‘Just like in the movie The Game, all of the actors were here for me.’’ So, what are YOU here for?”
The depth charge Addison dropped in that moment found the center of my soul, and detonated.
She literally stole my breath away. All these people, these brilliant actors, these artists had not just thanked me – for something THEY did – but thanked me for the thing I’ve built my entire life around:
I’ve forced some two million words on audiences, across multiple media, over the past 25 years. Yet in this moment, those 800 words mattered.
I do not know how I kept my emotions in check, because I felt the sobs – of joy, of relief, of acknowledgement – about to burst forth. I choked out the answer to Addison’s question: “I’m here for all of you” — to champion them and the incredible experience I was having with them.
As I wrote in an earlier article about my second visit, this was a moment of dramatic catharsis the Greeks could only dream of. Not bad for a “haunted house.” Nor would audiences experience such a thing in the garbage Broadway shows that win the Tony Award these days.
* * *
There was one more thing that happened, though. It’s something I couldn’t bring myself to write about a year ago.
During the sacrifice ritual, Susan was handed the ceremonial knife to remove the sensory organs of the “willing sacrifice.” Unable to bring herself to commit the act, she instead jammed the knife into her throat, and collapsed on stage, dead. I was in shock. The room was cleared. I stumbled out in a heartbroken daze.
“The Tension Experience” broke me – handing me an extraordinary moment of transcendence, only to undermine it by executing the woman I’d returned to save.
Wracked with remorse, I managed a third visit. It lasted just long enough for me to discover that the OOA was a façade, created by a shadowy organization called the OSDM for the sole purpose of gathering emotionally responsive data for its own nefarious ends.
Addison wasn’t Addison.She was a brainwashed actress named Sabrina Kern, and she was starting to remember who she was. I spent ten futile minutes convincing another Handler (Sam Takao) that she had been kidnapped and brainwashed, only to watch her melt into a nervous breakdown as I was thrown out.
Most participants were invited back for one final “show,” captured by one participant on his iPhone. This will give readers the most comprehensive view of the world of The Tension Experience. By now the lines between reality and immersive theater had blurred beyond recognition. Susan was there, alive. So were other Handlers that were reported to have died.
It didn’t end well, although Sabrina managed to escape the bloodbath. The rest of us escaped with unforgettable memories of a landmark piece of American theater.
At least, I’m pretty sure it was theater. I mean, I’m 98 percent certain it was.
It’s just that the late-night mysterious phone calls never happened before any of this. Nor the sinister, anonymous online admonishments telling me, “you can’t save them all”.
I’m sure everything will be fine …
Coming up next: “The Lust Experience” launches and everything…is not fine.
Lawrence Meyers is a crisis communications consultant, financial writer and former television writer. He has written over 24 hours and produced 60 hours of episodic television. He is also an award-winning playwright, having authored “Porn Rock” in 2016 and “Dark Arts” in 2017. “Dark Arts” is the first-ever play to have an immersive prologue and epilogue, bookending a traditional proscenium show. Contact him at TVWritersRoom@gmail.com