There are many interpretations of what happens after we die. It’s a subject that many have explored creatively since the dawn of time.
For Spectacular Disaster Factory, the wife-husband team of Kirsten Hageleit and Aaron Vanek, this subject matter was touched upon in their Hollywood Fringe Fest show, One Last Thing Before You Go, where the topic of death and the feelings we hold onto in the afterlife was explored in a short, yet powerful play. For their expansion show titled GIVE UP THE GHOST, the audience is taken further into the afterlife for an 80-minute span of time and given more of a chance to explore the world they occupy. Unfortunately, the show lacked the power and strength that its predecessor had due to the uneven performances given in the vignettes offered, a poorly organized onboarding experience, and – arguably – the length of the experience itself.
There is an audio file that gets sent out prior to the show but if you are like me and have auditory processing issues or just don’t have a free moment to listen to the file, the rules of engagement for the show do get repeated a couple of times prior to us restless spirits being turned loose into the actual church. At a certain point, it becomes a bit too repetitive but, for anyone unfamiliar with what it means to engage in an immersive world, sometimes repetition isn’t entirely a bad thing. Aside from the rule breakdown, there is not much in the way of the onboarding process that the team provides to help the audience start the immersion process into their world. This makes it difficult, especially for new people unfamiliar with the realm of immersive, to fully accept the reality that they are about to explore in and, ultimately, strikes the tone for what the event may entail.
After the general introduction has been given to participants explaining the rules once more to help get settled into what is the Other Side, the audience is free to wander and take part in vignette scenes that are held in the giant church. These vignettes cover a wide variety of serious subjects such as domestic violence, parental abuse, murder, drug addiction, and more. In a thoughtful touch from the Spectacular Disaster Factory team, there is a trigger warning card provided that will give a breakdown of what each color represents thematically, giving the audience the full option to skip out on subject matters that might do more harm than good. The audience also has the option of just roaming around the church, making sure not to go through any closed doors, but encouraged to go through any that are open. This may lead to interactions with some fairly silly Ghost Hunters or allow them to play around with some college students engaging in Ouija Board shenanigans. Either way, the choices are left entirely up to the audience, which did garner some mixed results.
The color-coded vignettes themselves were definitely a bit mixed. While the subject matter that they handled was oftentimes serious, it was hard not to feel the limits of the actors in the scenes, especially when they were waiting for you to make a choice for them rather than allow your words to guide them into a decision. In one particular scene, there was a woman who had just died in a car crash that I went back and forth with to help her decide what she should do. We kept going back and forth until essentially the scene felt like it had come to a standstill. It felt like the scene wouldn’t move on unless I made the choice for her and it almost felt like the only way to conclude the scene was to make that decision for her. It was at that moment that I felt I was testing the limits of how much our actual choices impacted the scenes themselves. Other scenes didn’t have as much of a problem, with our words and actions impacting how the story itself changed. In terms of performances, a lot of them were delivered in a rather heavy-handed fashion, with some of warranting a much more subtle performance. But to see the earnestness of the actors was definitely a highlight because you could tell that they were all in for whatever we could throw at them (within reason).
The most amusing part of the show for me was when audience members got to roam around and explore the church. It is in this exploration that we are able to test our limits as “ghosts” and also helps to integrate confused newcomers to immersive into this sandbox environment. In one such instance, as I was walking down the stairs, I saw that there were two individuals who were utilizing a contraption that made an annoying ringing sound. This was to signify that ghosts were around them. Of course, there would be ghost hunters in a seemingly abandoned church. This provided an opportunity to tease these ghost hunters, which basically confirmed my theory that I would be an obnoxious poltergeist of a ghost if such a thing would ever happen to me. Another moment that I thought worked was being able to tease a group of college students who were obviously playing around with an Ouija Board, which never goes well for anyone. During this particular open-ended vignette, I had way too much fun knocking around a flashlight and spelling out text speak on the board. However, the one downside to both of the scenarios mentioned above was that it could only amuse a person for so long until they needed to move along to the next thing.
When it came time for us to have our hearts weighed to decide which side we were on, I thought it was a clever nod to Egyptian mythos to determine the character of one’s soul. It was decided that my heart resided on the Mercy side of things, which then was used to decide what our ending scene was. While the ending scene itself was a great way to settle us back into the reality of things, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there was no Ferryman to lead us out the doors once we were escorted out of our ending scene. It took us a moment of standing there wondering what we should do next before a black-cloaked figure told us we could walk out. That moment served as a final endnote to what had seemed to feel like an underwhelming experience.
In analyzing what I’ve written above, I do wonder if the show would be received better if the time was cut down a little bit more. There were moments where a couple of my associates and I felt the lull in between scenes, especially when we had over-exhausted the side adventures with the Ghost Hunters and Ouija Board users and were left waiting to figure out what else there was we could do. If the show time cut down to 60 minutes, I wonder if it would feel less drawn out given what there is to be explored as well as the sandbox style free-range environment.
While their previous show One Last Thing Before I Go is still arguably one of my favorite immersive shows in recent years, GIVE UP THE GHOST loses the charm and thematic impact that its predecessor had. Don’t get me wrong. There’s still a lot good to be found in the show itself, but the unevenness of the vignettes, the onboarding process, and the confusion as to what tone the team was trying to go for brings down this ambitious project.
The production will have a limited run on Friday nights: September 27 (preview), October 4, 11, 18, 25, and November 1, 8, 15. Each night has two 90-minute shows at 8 pm and 10 pm. For further information on GIVE UP THE GHOST, please visit aaronvanek.com/ghost. Tickets are $50 on preview night and will be $80 for general after preview. Tickets can be purchased here. To get 20% off of tickets, please use the special code CONJURING.