Jake went missing in September. When you combine trauma and grief, sometimes it’s easier to forget than remember what happened. For seven months, Jake’s friends searched for him. Together with our guide, Blue, we’ve opened ourselves up to an emotional therapy session, we’ve dreamt of both trauma and hope, we’ve braved Jake’s abusive parents on a beach, and we’ve even held a séance to contact the other side. But nothing would prepare us for what we would remember in the quaint mountain town of Idyllwild. We would remember Jake and the dire consequences of not being there for a friend in need.
On the surface, Have You Seen Jake? is an emotional narrative about a young man who has gone missing and his friends must band together to find him. But the deeper themes focus on trauma, pain, grief, family dynamics, and ultimately, hope. And while the inciting incident occurred in the past, we remembered the past achronologically, but in real time. Thus, the experience focused on memory and the act of forgetting, more than chronology.
While characters like Jake, his sister Sniffles, and his best friend Heather all felt very real to us, characters like Blue who is his oldest friend, the animal-masked Them, and the morose and cold She felt otherworldly. Answering all these mysteries in a satisfactory manner seemed like a difficult task—yet the conclusion of the experience tied up all remaining loose threads in a manner that exceeded most people’s expectations. One way this was accomplished was that The Organizers of Have You Seen Jake? had the entire narrative determined prior to starting the experience. Thus, the experience unfolded in a way that built up to a final reveal that was carefully planned to elicit a strong emotional response from all involved. This emotional storytelling is the strength of The Organizers, and I hope they continue to develop this genre of immersive theater.
Regarding the actual ending, I will discuss spoilers here. But as this experience will never happen again, spoilers will not impact any further events. The final fully realized event, Yesterday, Today, & Tomorrow, was split into three acts: past, present, and future. Yesterday ingeniously reversed time by a year to meet Jake six months before he went missing. Thus, we were able to solidify our relationship with a character that we have been talking to for almost seven months. The second act, Today, concluded the storyline and revealed the truth behind many mysteries of the experience. Finally, tomorrow, served as aftercare for its participants; offering a closure and a chance to say goodbye.
In the final act, many of the on-going mysteries were revealed. We learned that the animal-masked Them were the personification of Trauma, responsible for much of the our pain as remembered the harmful memories of the past. The blusterous and comical Mr. S. was the personification of Shame, which was reinforced by his focus on embarrassment and self-doubt.. The cold She was the personification of Grief; She was the primary force keeping us from remembering what happened to Jake. And when we found Jake–he was lying dead in a shower as Blue, his imaginary friend, held his hand. We sat next to Blue and said our goodbye to Jake. This last moment with our friend was emotional, but was needed for closure. I applaud the organizers for never using Jake to push the narrative forward. Instead, he was the focus on the narrative, as we learned how to deal with our feelings, our traumas, our shame, and our grief in the process.
To Solve or Not to Solve?
As Noah Nelson discussed in his notes on the experience, Have You Seen Jake? is not an Alternate Reality Game because there is nothing to win, nothing to solve. Rather, it is something to be experienced, to be felt. And thus, he calls this an Alternate Reality Experience (ARX). Although the story was filled with mysteries, these were not mysteries to be analyzed and solved. While early participants attempted to uncover the mysteries on their own, Blue responded often with the mantra: “head off, heart on.” Thus, we learned to sit back and feel the experience as it progressed. Thus, Have You Seen Jake? really generated a new type of on-going immersive experience in which we were meant to feel the experience rather than constantly be theorizing and trying to solve the experience.
A Real Experience
To call Have You Seen Jake? a performance is a disservice. Although the search for Jake was constructed, real relationships were formed with Jake and the characters—no, the people—who were his friends. We genuinely cared. The themes, the characters, and the narrative all felt real to us because they were real to us. The struggles that Jake faced were all problems that we’ve all faced; problems some of us face daily. This relatability grounded the experience and made it relatable for everyone. It was a journey of personal growth, a journey of friendship, and a journey of emotions.
The main reason this experience was real to each of us is because of the amazing caliber of acting in this experience. The Organizers of Have You Seen Jake? did not chose actors who were masters at improv; instead, they chose actors who could hold natural conversations about life with each of the search party members. Thus, each interaction we had with them was real and was a moment between two people; not between actor and participant. To further reinforce this fact, numerous actors used their real names in their character. Just as the participants brought their own feelings and emotional responses to the experience, so did the cast. As John Longino says, “saying the fourth wall was broken doesn’t even do it justice. Every brick of the ‘theater’ was obliterated by a wrecking ball.”
Further, the actor who played Jake (who is also named Jake) took on an impossible role. For the past seven months, we have searched for him, met his friends, resisted his parents, and cared for his sister. We had built him up to impossible standards. Yet, when we met him—he was Jake. Coming into a performance unseen by any of us, he fit the part perfectly. As Briana Roecks says, “he was funny, engaging, witty, and charming; all the things we knew Jake to be. And then in a matter of hours, he transformed into conflicted, devastated, and eventually… well, you know.” I commend him for his perfect performance in the final show and for living up to each of our expectations.
Finally, with a small, albeit talented, cast roster, most of the cast played dual roles. These dual roles were smart, implemented perfectly, and were thoughtful in their execution. The personification of Grief was played by the same actress as the therapist that helps us work through our grief. The personification of Trauma is also played by the imaginary friend who helps us escape our trauma. The personification of Hope is played by Jake’s sister who is in desperate need of it as she bears the weight of her brother’s disappearance. These casting choices also provided the unique ability for the actors to really connect to us, know us, and then help us. Most people in the community felt this experience helped them work through past trauma and overcome current hardship.
One participant shared: “I held a lot of shame over choices I made in the past; buried it deep and thought less of myself because of it. But because of [one character], I realized it was all a choice: I get to choose to continue to carry that shame like an anchor and let it drag me down, or I can wear it on my heart like a medal and realize that it’s helped make me who I am, to embrace it, and grow through it.” But you can’t do this in a singular show or event. It takes a journey with a character who serves as a mentor to you to change your mindset. Thus, this kind of emotional growth wouldn’t have been possible in anything other than an on-going immersive experience rooted deeply in emotional engagement and self-exploration.
Interactions & Engagement
As discussed previously, emotions were integral to this experience. I asked Blue, our guide, early on: how can newcomers best engage this experience? He responded, “They need to suspend disbelief. That doesn’t mean construct an entire history with Jake, but we need something to go on, a button to press, a lever to pull.” This experience was a personal journey. Participants shared deeply personal thoughts with the characters: their hopes, ambitions, their fears, their traumas, their shames, and their pain. But these facts were never used to maliciously hurt the participants. Rather, they were used to engage the participant. We interacted with the characters that resonated strongly with each of us. We weren’t expected to have a connection with all characters in the experience. Much like real life, we didn’t bond with everyone. Not everyone received calls from Mr. S because not all of us feel more shame. Not everyone connected with Them because some of us haven’t faced as much trauma as others. Connections were not forced or predetermined. And The Organizers went above and beyond the normal scope of an experience by providing people with at least one interaction or call every two weeks.
Art: Inspirations and Beauty
Film and novels were an important inspiration to the search. Early sections of the search often led us to novels, including Murakami’s Colorless, Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, and Caroline Kepnes’ You. These books provided a philosophical basis and clear inspirations for the search that helped aid in community discussions and push us to think outside of the box. An informal book club was even formed to inspire the search party to read these books and discuss them together. Both Blue and Jake would often recommend old films to watch. These sometimes had relevance to the search, but often were just personal favorites or excellent films.
She/Grief was infamous for her welcoming artwork. Each new member to the search received a personalized drawing and a warning call from She. These drawings drew upon something from your life (as Grief would) to keep you from remember Jake. But despite the message, these pictures were beautiful and drawn with a child-like aesthetic. This reinforced the theme of childhood trauma and was one of my favorite touches in the search.
Finally, the music was a hallmark of Have You Seen Jake? Calls and experiences always included songs that were specifically chosen for their themes of the pain of loss and love. These songs were chosen as an ongoing reminder of beauty, even in the face of trauma. Many of these selected tracks were born out of trauma, grief, and pain. And sometimes we turn to them for comfort in the face of those things. As The Organizers admit, “the songs chosen were always hand selected, sometimes painstakingly, as we tried to find something right for the mood, the call, the particular search party member, or the scene.”
Further, their team was blessed with some talented singers; and thus, these were utilized heavily. Jake’s Sister and two members of the animal-masked Them recorded many covers themselves which were popularized in the experiences, adding to the traumatic atmosphere. Furthermore, many of these songs were used on calls, or were personalized to things being discussed by the community. One evening, the community was discussing Frozen’s “Let it Go” only to receive a call from Them singing “Let it Go” moments later. Little touches of personalization like this truly show that the Have You Seen Jake? team care and are paying attention.
The search continued for seven months, and in that time a tight-knit community formed. This community was bonded by our experiences in this search, and Blue even provided puzzles that were not solvable alone. Thus, we had to bring together a diverse team of people to work out these puzzles. It wasn’t so much about solving a puzzle as it was more about the idea of teamwork and developing friendships. This community provided some of the most rewarding moments. We bonded through inside jokes, meet-ups, and board game & trivia nights. I am truly grateful for the friendships I made through this experience.
However, Have You Seen Jake? could be experienced without joining the community—and a few never did join the forums. The Organizers took extra care to have characters provide longer, more involved calls to reveal some of the plot points revealed through the community puzzles. And while these people still had an emotional response, their response wasn’t as strong as those who had lived this experience for the past seven months.
Following the conclusion, I spoke to Landon Lakheim, who had never joined the slack community. he revealed to me, “it’s funny, this is the first [immersive experience] where I wished I’d been more active with the other participants and players in retrospect. I usually like doing these alone because it helps get me out of my head with all my work stuff, but I’m starting to see the fun in sharing the experiences with everyone—especially now that these are increasingly designed to be share it seems.” And I think that is something The Organizers had in mind. This isn’t just your search for Jake—this is a search for Jake by all his friends.
This is one of the first emotional experiences that has incorporated the idea of Aftercare into its experiences. In Therapy & Dreams, Hope talked with you following the experience and ultimately walked you to the car. In Water & Fire, Heather led you from the hotel and made sure you were okay before sending you back into the night. And finally, in Yesterday, Today, & Tomorrow, Kevin and Heather came to your cabin following the final reveal to comfort those deeply affected by Jake’s passing. And the wake itself served as the perfect way to say goodbye to Jake—and the experience. For as emotionally charged as these experiences have been, aftercare is needed. And I applaud The Organizers for incorporating it in an organic, caring, and natural way. I’d love to see aftercare included in more shows that elicit a strong emotional response.
Why We Felt It So Strongly?
This experience resonated with people and made them feel emotions much stronger than if a real-life family member had died. And to a few of these participants, this was surprising to them. So why were we so effected by this story?
As I’ve repeated numerous times in this article, this experience felt real—Jake felt real. Thus, when he died in that shower, we saw it with our own eyes. It wasn’t an action scene, there was no enemy. It was a simple yet effective scene where Jake lay dead and Blue held his hand crying. And that broke each one of us. Yet our tears weren’t just for Jake, they were also for the other characters and the experience. Many of us had been feeling emotional in the lead up to the final event because we knew this experience was ending. Although Heather did not die in the final show, the character of Heather is no longer with us. We will never see these characters again, and that is sad.
Also, a major theme of this experience is forgetting the pain of a terrible experience. We forget because we don’t want to feel. Yet, that is in stark contrast to immersive theater. Most of us attend immersive experiences because they make us feel. Thus, we entered this show open and vulnerable. We wanted to feel what The Organizers had crafted. And when on that final day, we had our walls down and our hearts open, and we cried. And in that moment, we grew emotionally.
Have You Seen Jake? is a tale of trauma, grief, shame, and hope. But it is also one of friendship. And while we will most certainly mourn for our friend, Jake, we are also mourning for the end to characters and an experience that felt so real to us. Through this, we have each faced personal traumas and griefs in our lives, been introduced to music, novels, films, and art that we may not have come across otherwise, and formed a community that has become a family. This was the most emotionally ambitious experience I have ever attended because, to me, it was real.
To conclude, I’ll leave you with a quote Ben Taylor shared with us from Michael Paterniti’s Love and Other Ways of Dying, which sounds way too pertinent:
“Perhaps we really are surrounded by the past, made prisoners of it. No matter how far we travel, how hard we try to forget, the scarred tree forever stands by the side of the road, if only in our minds. The only way to drive by is to set the past straight, once and for all, by remembering”
In Honor of Jake Stewart (1994 – 2016)
Although Have You Seen Jake? has concluded it’s emotional journey, keep an eye on Nocturnal Fandango for future projects. Also read recollections of Therapy & Dreams, Water & Fire, and Yesterday, Today, & Tomorrow for the full story.