I think it's important to address a few things before I go into my review. First of all, I have been to about ten immersive experiences since mid-September which have allowed me to see many different versions of immersive haunts and performances while becoming well acquainted with many of the story beats. Which brings me to my second point which is, when I heard Darren Lynn Bousman (a director whose work I love) was doing an immersive experience I was very interested to see what he would produce. Seeing two things I love come together like this seemed like a dream come true, so what did I end up thinking?
When it comes to The Tension Experience's latest show ASCENSION, I'm in the very small minority of people who didn't like it. There may have been times when I did not take the experience seriously, but that didn't mean I went in with anything less than high hopes - I wanted to love it, I wanted to be wow'd in ways that I heard other people have, but at the end of the day, I left feeling empty, angry and unsatisfied. I know people love Tension and I don't fault anyone for that, art is subjective and we are all entitled to our opinion, so my experience may not be the same as someone else's. How certain aspects of Tension were handled has left a lot to be desired as the concept was better than the execution. With that said, I guess it's best to dive into my review of ASCENSION.
Prior to my designated time on Sunday, I was asked to fill out a form that had one question: what was my biggest fear. Soon after, I started receiving phone calls, emails and text messages from those within the OOA Institute (the name given to the cult within Tension). All of these messages and conversations centered around a key figure, Addison, who had left her family and joined the OOA Institute, eventually rising up in rank and becoming somewhat of a cult leader. I decided that if I was going to play along, I was going to do the exact opposite of what was expected of me. I was going to test them to see how they would use that to tailor the experience to me since they monitor the social media accounts of those taking part in the experience and I post often on Facebook and Twitter. Every so often, someone from the OOA would call and repeat something that I had posted on social media, which I enjoyed feeding into. You see, I wanted to play the game as I knew they would probably use what they learned about me from my reactions to create my unique experience. After all, wasn't that the whole point; to play a part in this elaborate game?
Fast-forward to Sunday and the time has come to experience ASCENSION. I'm totally ready and a bit amped up. From what I kept hearing, this was going to be the event of the year. I arrived at my designated time, got into an unmarked van, placed a hood over my head, and was then taken to an undisclosed location where I was led into a waiting room to begin my "processing". For the next 2+ hours I went through the stages of the cult initiation, and I wonder, not once, not twice, but multiple times, what in the actual fuck is going on?
You see, I did not feel like they touched on my biggest fear or the questionnaire I filled out. From what I understood about Tension, and what is posted on their website, they were "preparing me for a new way to see the world" and they wanted to "reshape your beliefs, your fears and your reality" which is interesting because none of that happened. Even though they had subject matter that they could use to their advantage, they didn't. For 2+ hours they kept asking me different variations of the same question; "Why are you here?" Given all that they should have known about me from my biggest fear, my survey, my social media presence, and how I acted the first few times they asked me that question at the actual experience, I expected more. As theater is a living, breathing thing that is constantly changing, they should have realized at some point during the 2+ hour experience that their tactic was not working and then changed course accordingly.
The issue of direction became very clear early on as during the third scene they accused me of hiding behind my computer screen. Now, it is possible that this is a standard piece of the script (obviously I only have my experience to work off of), but I assume it was directed personally at me as it is clear from my internet presence that I am a reviewer. The irony of them making this accusation is, I showed up to their experience instead of hiding behind a screen making assumptions based on people I know who have attended. It would have been an interesting point to make (and it is an interesting idea to society as a whole) except for the fact that I was actually there taking part in the event and (assuming it is part of the script) so is everyone else that attends. Whether or not it was directed at me, the whole is problematic since they can only yell at us since we are the ones who showed up, but our attendance also makes us exempt from their accusations.
Another problem I ran across was that during the second scene we were required to strip down to our undergarments and put on hazmat suits so as to release all of our worldly possessions. This would not have been an issue except that I have a larger body type and they did not have one that fit me. Now, I will say that maybe this was done on purpose to try to play on the fear or shame those with larger body sizes might have (don't worry, I did not take offense), but if not they should probably get some larger size suits to accommodate everyone. Either way, I was still allowed to continue through the rest of the experience with my group so at least I didn't miss anything.
Though it's quite apparent that I did not enjoy my experience, there are some positive things worth mentioning. The production of ASCENSION is top-notch and some of the best I've seen in all the haunts and immersive performances I've gone too. As a designer, I enjoyed seeing how the space was used to it's maximum potential. The sets were put together with careful precision so as to bring to life the inner workings of the OOA Institute and I would be remissed if I didn't say I was impressed with what I saw. Along with the incredibly detailed sets, the acting was what really brought the show together. These individuals gave themselves over to their roles perfectly and never once came close to breaking character. If there is one thing that impressed me the most about this production, it was the actors because they really embodied who their characters truly were.
On my drive home, I reflected on my experience. Though there were aspects that I enjoyed, such as the acting and set design, my overall feeling of the event was negative. There are definitely elements of this experience that extreme haunt lovers will no doubt enjoy, but nothing that justified the steep price tag. I would have gladly payed what they were asking if they had done the one thing that they advertised themselves as doing; played to my fears and lead me to enlightenment. I love being pushed to my limits and fully expected that from Tension since I had given them so much to work with. Sadly, they never seemed to touch on what I gave them; leaving me feeling bored, unfulfilled, and cheated out of money that I could have used to cover the cost of two or three other immersive experiences.
I'm not sure where Tension will go from here, but I hope they are still monitoring me and will use this review to create a better experience for their future performances. With some more scenes tailored specifically to each individual test subject and their fears, they could be at the forefront of the boutique immersive theater experience. As of right now, this is an interesting concept and I like the creative forces behind it, but if they fulfilled the promise made to the audience it would be much improved.