“She promised she’d dance with me if I brought her a red rose…but there’s not one in this whole garden.” – Oscar Wilde

For the longest time, I felt like my only reaction to a haunt would be one of fear or laughter; however, this year I found myself testing the limits of emotions when I started engaging in immersive theater.  My first foray into immersive theater this Halloween season was with Shine On Collective, a Los Angeles-based theater group that produces original performance installations with a focus on exploring the human condition.  When I first went to Shine On Collective’s performance of FOREVER in mid-September, I had my guard up since I knew going in it would be dealing with subject matter that was extremely personal to me.  Going through that experience was eye-opening and intense but it couldn’t have prepared me for what was to come during their final show, DEVOTED.  Though this review is going to be extremely personal and sad, know this, this was one of the best immersive performances I’ve ever experienced.

DEVOTED is the last chapter in the story of Cara, a woman who desperately was seeking love and affection, in quite possibly all the wrong ways.  In FOREVER, we got a glimpse of why her need for love and attention was so strong, while also learning that her past held some dark and stormy secrets.  In DEVOTED, everything about Cara’s life bubbles to the surface, and we learn that her family, primarily her father, is to blame for the destruction of Cara’s childhood. As children, we look up to our parents for love, attention and protection.  But what does one do when that figure of authority takes advantage of us?  We see what happens firsthand when we leave the comforts of being a spectator and become the embodiment of Cara – it’s a heartbreaking journey and one that left me in tears.  Cara, we learn, has been abused by her father; a man she looked up too, admired, and loved.  He took advantage of her innocence for his own guilty pleasures and fantasies and she ends up broken and alone, searching for anyone to love her just as she is.

Being in the shoes of Cara was not what I expected to happen when I arrived at my designated time for the event.  Though I knew going in that there was going to be themes of abuse, I thought I was prepared.  I had gone through their last show with no problem so I figured this time shouldn’t be any different.  What I didn’t realize was that in my state of exhaustion (I had been going to haunts non-stop while working a full time job) I had forgotten to put my guard up and was walking into a performance with nothing to shield me against what was to come. Looking back, I’m glad that I experienced the show this way as it allowed me to face my demons and release a lot of emotions I had buried deep within myself.  In the beginning of the experience, I allowed myself to indulge in the performances and the story as it unfolded.  It wasn’t until about halfway through, when I, as Cara, was sitting across from a “psychologist” that the weight of what was happening really hit me.  It wasn’t the abuse angle that got me, which is surprising as that is something I have unfortunately experienced, but it was the relationship between father and daughter.  My father is dead, having passed away 14 years ago from a rare disease, and it’s one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.  I adored my father, looked up to him, and placed him on a pedestal only to find out that he wasn’t the man I thought he was.  My image of him has been destroyed and my disdain for him has grown over the years.  He’s dead and gone forever, and the things I wish to say to him, the questions I need answered, I’ll never find out.  Fast-forward to my experience as Cara, sitting across from a “psychologist” who asks me, “Do you love your father?” and all the anger, sadness, and pain begins to rise up in me. “Do you hate your father?” “Was your father a good man?” “What did you do to your father?” The questions come in rapid succession and I can barely hold in my tears.  These performers have no idea about my relationship with my father, it’s pure coincidence, but I can tell that they know they have hit a nerve.  It’s one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had and though it’s been weeks since that experience, I still have a hard time shaking it off.

As the performance continues on, I find myself filling Cara’s shoes quite nicely.  I feel her pain, I feel her fear, I feel her desire to escape, but most importantly I feel her desire to be loved.  I know this is all just a show, but I yearned to reach out to these actors to show them that my pain is real and I can relate to Cara in more ways than they understand.  I’m being deeply affected and I don’t know what to do.  When the subject of sexual abuse comes up, it’s horrifying and gut wrenching and brings back memories of my experience, though muted from my own desire to block things out.  As a side note, my abuse was not at the hands of my father, so my disdain towards him is not because of that.  As the show nears its climax, Cara is once again herself and I am back to being the spectator.  I’ve now witnessed the hurt and pain that she has endured from those she loves as well as the hurt and pain she has caused others.  The ending almost kills me as I push a knife deep into her stomach and release the heartache that has been haunting her for so long.  And just like that, it’s over.

As I leave, I know this has destroyed a part of me, and it’s hours before the tears finally stop for good.  I’m moved in a way I’ve never experienced from any type of haunt or theatrical performance and I can’t shake the feeling that this is one of the best things to have happened to me. Haunts make us face the monsters and creatures that lurk in horror films and urban legends, rarely having us come face to face with our own personal demons.  Cara had me face a fear that was deeply personal and I can’t thank her enough for that.  I know some of the performers were concerned that I had a negative experience, but please know, it was not that at all.  You helped me in a way that I didn’t even know I needed and I’m so grateful for that.  Overall, Shine On Collective has something incredibly special with DEVOTED.  Though their run is sold out, I would recommend that all of you keep them on your radar.  Their shows are beautiful and passionate and I feel so lucky to have been able to experience the ones that I have.  As cliche as it sound, Shine On Collective has a devoted fan within me and I can’t wait to see what they have in store for their next performance.

For more information on Shine On Collective, visit their website www.shineoncollective.com

Shannon McGrew
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