Below is an interview with Evan Neiden of the Candle House Collective, discussing the genesis and the mission of the company as well as their first immersive alternate reality experience, lastcandlearx. As this experience will not be remounted, please do not worry about spoilers.
“These candles are all the souls on earth. Would you like to see yours?”
“There’s nothing quite so human as storytelling. It goes as far back as we do. The stories of the Maggid of Dubnov, the Brothers Grimm, and the work of Penina Schram. Musing, almost ritualistic storytelling that is far more meaningful heard than read.” We tell or listen to them as a means by which to understand our surroundings, and Candle House Collective created a meaningful experience in which audience and characters alike ended up searching for understanding in their own way.
Haunting was lucky enough to sit down with creator, Evan Neiden, to discuss the Candle House Collective and their first immersive experience, lastcandlearx.
“To be alone is not always to be lonely.”
Founded by Evan Neiden, Candle House Collective currently includes the incredibly talented Jonathan Connolly and John Ertman as part of their team. Neiden explains, “The Collective’s mission is to engage participants with personal and innovative methods of immersive storytelling, with a focus on intimate, customized experiences. aim to create unique, interactive environments that make up the difference between the real and the imaginary, exploring the liminal relationship between humanity and storytelling.” And that’s exactly what lastcandlearx achieved.
What was lastcandlearx? Well, in Neiden’s own words, “lastcandlearx might best be described as a sentient radio drama with a memory of and unique relationship with each person who tuned in.” The narrative itself centered on “contact with a psychiatric patient known only as Apprentice, as well as interaction with certain employees of the facility to which he was charged–Kerzenhaus Psychiatric Hospital. Punctuating participants’ investigation of the Hospital’s obscure intentions were phone calls from Apprentice, in which he conveyed fragments of a fractured fairy tale and endeavored to understand those who took the time to listen.”
From the start, the “arx” (alternate reality experience) suffix affixed to their title keyed participants into what they should expect. Neiden explains how this format influenced lastcandlearx: “[This experience] was an entirely remote, experimental fusion of immersive theatre and alternate reality game, transpiring over phone calls, emails, and instant messaging.” Thus, this experience provided a personalized, intimate, and inclusive immersive experience for people across the entire world to be engaged from the comfort of their own homes.
“Perhaps that’s why you like my fairy tales…”
With a vibrant community, the Los Angeles immersive community quickly found themselves engaged—and Neiden couldn’t be happier. “The usual suspects of LA immersive work were an utterly fabulous audience in that they are notoriously adventurous and had expectations we endeavored to subvert.” But Neiden and the rest of the team were localized to Chicago (and now reside on the East Coast), and openly welcomed a world-wide audience—this was their plan from the start. “From its conception, lastcandlearx was intended to be an entirely remote experience… We wanted to create something that could be accessed and experienced by anyone in the country, regardless of experience with, or proximity to, the enormous concentration of immersive work on the West (and East) coast.”
“What’s the good of more life if it isn’t lived to its fullest?”
With such a tailored experience, each participant was given the agency to engage to their level of comfort. For those who wanted a deeper, more community-based experience, a slack forum provided a connection to Kerzenhaus Psychiatric Hospital for those to explore a different side to the story—but for those who wanted to experience Apprentice’s story alone, they could purely via the phone calls and Instagram interactions from Apprentice. “The experience was entirely individual at its core,” Neiden says. “Each participant was as crucial to the cultivation of the narrative as they chose to be, affecting the experience on a personal level and/or en masse. A significant amount of trust on both sides goes into work like this, and without any sort of tiered ticketing system, we had faith that our participants would observe and demonstrate their preferred level of engagement for which we could then create and adjust on a far more personal level. We provided each individual with an equally realized foundation upon which to understand the world we had created, and then gave them the agency to explore it.”
Equally as significant as the story itself, are the circumstances under which it is told. “Apprentice and the Hospital were two sides of the same coin, with one constantly offering contextual significance to the other. This two-path narrative was meant to challenge realism with surrealism and vice versa, though we never confined either quality to either side for too long.”
“Can you define what you’re searching for?”
As the narrative adapted to the audience and their choices, some elements were pre-determined while others were not. Neiden explains, “In terms of what might have been: we always knew – as Simon did – that Apprentice might meet his end as a result of the experiment. However, as in the experiment, this wasn’t set in stone from the beginning – the participants’ actions and relationships with characters bore significant weight.” Heartbreakingly, Neiden admits, “Apprentice’s death was not a goal on our part – simply a result of the variables at play.”
“Is every act of kindness rewarded with an act of evil?”
With a growing audience and lengthy calls, the magnitude must have been taxing. As the experience continued, some of the more intricate phone calls shifted to Soundcloud files, a brilliant move as audiences were already connected to Apprentice while removing the need for multiple individual calls. Neiden explains this change: “While the decision to present some sections of the story as SoundCloud files was a partially practical one, it was also meant to decrease the sense of control given to the audience at the start. As the inevitability of the conclusion was solidified, the participants’ agency over where the story was going began to decay. After a certain point, there was nowhere to go but forward.”
“Empathy is in short supply these days.”
With so many distinct calls to make, audience choices, and connections formed, Haunting assumed it was a massive undertaking to organize all this information. But Neiden explains that these connections were not all recorded, but rather were remembered. “Aside from a spreadsheet to record logistical information, most interaction elements were either handwritten or simply remembered. The nature of the experience allowed us to really get to know our audience members so, after a while, we were able to relate to them more authentically, knowing and remembering each for who they were to our Collective and our characters.” This is the beauty of immersive theater; while the narrative may have been fictitious, the connections were real.
“Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it?”
Of course, no interview would be complete without discussing the iconic voice of Apprentice. “I wanted to create a voice that didn’t sound beautiful. A voice that had to be gotten used to, that was difficult to accept but even harder to forget. I wanted Apprentice to live in the emotion of the story he told, and raw emotion is an ugly kind of beautiful.” It’s hard to think of an experience without Apprentice, but with his death in this experience, it’s unlikely we’ll hear from him again. Neiden does leave us with one glimmer of hope: “I think I can say this: a storyteller never forgets his first audience…”
“Don’t be afraid. It’s hard to remember the present.”
With a strong and memorable start for Candle House Collective, what’s next for this innovative and blossoming company. “I think it’s safe to say that this is only the beginning for Candle House Collective. Our next experience promises in many ways to be much more intimate than lastcandlearx, as well as somewhat more momentary…”
“Given enough time, a candle can start a wildfire.”
Neiden concludes by discussing his love of stories and the power behind them. “We use stories to construct or escape our realities, or to bring the realities of others crashing down. Ultimately, however, they teach us to actively understand who and what and where we are. I want each of my stories to ask questions of my audience that they feel they don’t have the time or the right to ask themselves, and I want the experiences that surround them to be a space in which folks can explore these questions amidst the intimacy and surrealism of humanity.”
We think you succeeded in this goal, Evan.
Please visit candlehousecollective.com for more information.