It was the second night of the Dusk Till Dawn music festival in downtown Los Angeles, and the fuzzed-out drone of Moon Duo was washing over the crowd. The Jesus and Mary Chain had played the same stage the night before, and later in the evening She Wants Revenge would close the whole thing out. But I was busy watching a mysterious woman with a green scarf dance her way through the crowd.
I’d been searching for her ever since I stumbled upon a bank of rotary phones ringing near the venue’s entrance. “Find the woman with the green scarf,” a voice on the phone said, and she would send me off on a journey of personal discovery. I just needed to tell her a secret phrase to start things off: “Out of the eater, something to eat.”
As a music festival, Dusk Till Dawn was straightforward: a two-day celebration of dark wave and goth bands, put together by the team behind the similarly minded Los Angeles club Cloak & Dagger. But alongside performances from the likes of HEALTH and KMFDM, a series of immersive theater pieces were tucked into the nooks and crannies of The Globe and The Tower Theaters. Festivals including installations and art projects to entertain concertgoers is nothing new, but Dusk Till Dawn took a different approach: integrating an immersive story experience with live actors that could allow anyone to suddenly find themselves wrapped in their own immersive adventure.
“We had just celebrated our one-year anniversary, and I was imagining what the second year anniversary would look like,” Cloak & Dagger club co-founder Adam Bravin tells me over the phone. Bravin is a DJ and producer — one-half of the band She Wants Revenge — and immersive theater elements have always been part of the club’s unique vibe. “We wanted to add something that people could see, if they paid attention,” he says, “and something that people who are into immersive theater could sign up for, and have the one-on-one experiences as well.”
A narrative scavenger hunt led audiences back and forth across the venues
At the festival, that came down to a trio of different experiences, created by immersive playwright and director Annie Lesser. “Rain” took place in a decaying concrete access tunnel just off The Globe Theatre’s basement dance floor, with a video projection screen creating the illusion of being inside a decrepit building while rain poured outside. Individual audience members joined a mysterious man (actor Terence Leclere) to discuss themes of identity and rebirth. In another piece, “Separate,” groups of three were escorted into a private room above the Tower Theatre. Once there, another performer led the participants through a trust exercise where they were asked to share personal fears, before being split apart — with one audience member locked away in a darkened closet, left to wonder if the other two audience members were discussing their personal secrets behind their back.
It was all tied together by a sort of narrative scavenger hunt. After answering those ringing rotary phones, festivalgoers would be directed to the woman with the green scarf (Dasha Kittredge), and several other small scenes spread out across both venues. The larger arc wasn’t so much a traditional three-act structure as much as a thematic riff on the concept of self-realization, with each stop on the journey touching upon different emotional beats, asking participants to reflect on their own feelings about love, loss, and family. In one scene, a character (Katelyn Schiller) helped audience members explore a series of drawers said to hold the memories of some unnamed individual; in another, a statue in the middle of the Tower Theatre (Keight Leighn) came alive to whisk audience members away into the bowels of the venue.
Experiencing the scenes in the context of a larger, free-wheeling event added a marked sense of urgency and wonder. It’s hard to overstate the visceral thrill of playing a scene opposite an actor in the middle of a dancing crowd, or being pulled into a secret chamber for a close, one-on-one encounter while a band wails away somewhere in the distance. It made the entire festival feel like a living story world — like Sleep No More, but with bands — where surprises lurked around every corner.
The club has a rather strict “all-black everything” clothing policy
“When I was first talking to them about what I would want to do with the festival, I had two concepts based on the color black,” Lesser tells me. (The Cloak & Dagger club is known for a rather strict “all-black everything” clothing policy.) “Black is the absence of light, which means that there's the potential for anything,” she says. The other was that black also represents the absorption of all the colors on the spectrum. “So moving from potential, to — hopefully, by the end of the festival — the full absorption of experience, and the chance to have yourself be changed.”
Lesser also created the first immersive experiences that were staged at the weekly Cloak & Dagger club, where the combination of interactive storytelling and nightlife have been crucial in crafting its overall mystique. On a given night, there’s the requisite dancing and hanging out with like-minded friends. But the club also thrives on a shared sense of mystery: the idea that mysterious things might be happening just out of view. That vibe attracts an audience eager to dive into a story or immersive world — not that anyone will actually talk about them. The club is known for requiring a certain level of discretion, and while members will offer vague references to indoctrination ceremonies and 1AM rituals, that’s about all you’ll really get. (People aren’t even allowed to discuss how they obtain one of the club’s membership cards in the first place.) Taken together, the various elements lend an almost cinematic air to the club, and guests may find actors like Leclere simply hanging out in a booth, writing poetry for guests, or offering up some other personalized interaction that’s unlocked with a code phrase.
Cloak & Dagger’s execution is particularly effective, but merging music with immersive entertainment isn’t entirely new. Lesser points to larger music festivals like Coachella or Electric Daisy Carnival that have incorporated hidden speakeasy bars, scavenger hunts, or other immersive installations. (The Verge hosted our own immersive space dedicated to technology at last year’s Panorama music festival.) But many of those instances focus on exhibits, rather than bringing audiences and actors together as part of a meaningful narrative or theme. “I feel like a lot of festivals are trying to do more immersive stuff, but they're just brushing the surface,” she explains. “Having a music festival have its own story really feels like something that makes it stand out.”
“A lot of festivals are trying to do more immersive stuff, but they're just brushing the surface.”
The concept is stretching beyond just clubs and festivals. The restaurant Black Rabbit Rose opened earlier this year in Los Angeles, incorporating live magic as part of its offerings, while a troupe called Drunken Devil puts on horror-themed dining experiences featuring live actors. On the other side of the spectrum, the pop-up Scum and Villainy lets Star Wars fans step into a re-creation of the infamous Mos Eisley Cantina, with guests regularly showing up in costume to grab drinks.
Mapping storytelling and interactive elements onto traditional nightlife activities can add an intriguing new dimension, but as with any medium, it comes down to the execution of the artists and storytellers at work — otherwise, you’ve got little more than a gimmick. It’s one thing to have some fun one-off experiences between watching bands; it’s another to be engaged emotionally, and find yourself roving the dark halls of a turn-of-the-century theater looking for mysterious characters, on a secret mission that only you know about.
That was the sensation I had at the start of my evening, when I finally reached the woman with the green scarf. I tapped her on the shoulder, and said I’d been sent to find her. I whispered the secret phrase as the crowd danced and shimmied all around us.
She smiled. “I have something for you.”