For the past two years, CreepLA has been one of my favorite immersive experiences. Whether I’m in a bar surrounded by characters with hidden pasts and dark secrets, or in a small intimate closet being interrogated by a man who does not speak English, CreepLA always finds the perfect way to make me feel uneasy. They don’t rely on typical scares; instead they create an atmosphere to make the audience wonder what’s hidden deeper. It’s this sense of dread of the unknown that is their specialty. So, when Justin Fix, the creator of CreepLA, hinted at a new year-round immersive theater experience entitled The Willows, I was more than excited. I sat down with Justin Fix, the creator of this new experience, Daniel Montgomery, the artistic director and writer, and Fiona Rene, the performance director and artistic director, to discuss the new project from the minds that brought you CreepLA.
The Willows is a modern twist on a murder mystery evening. Inspired by movies like Clue, this event invites you to an intimate evening with a group of strangers. Over the course of two hours, a mystery unfolds around you. Fix wants the experience to be fun, interactive, and have the joy of discovery. Rene expands, “In past experiences, we had more of a focus on themes; this event will have more of a focus on narrative than ever before.” Fix continues, “For the past two years, we have pushed thousands through CreepLA. With The Willows, we want it to feel smaller, more personal.” He hopes this will ultimately become a location to celebrate birthdays, a date night destination, or a hangout for groups.
A 1918 Mansion
To envelope you in this narrative, they have found an incredible ten-thousand square foot mansion. Built in 1918, this mansion itself will become a character. Montgomery’s excitement shows in his voice. “This mansion is well lived in; whenever you buy an old home, it has a ton of character; there’s definitely an energy you feel.” This location was a huge inspiration for them when writing The Willows.
“It’s really great to create a story based upon the space which you fill,” Fix tells me. “We are bringing in a lot of ambient lighting, candles, and an amazing grand table. But the furniture of the rooms and in the halls provides much more than we could pull off.” He tells me a family of six has lived there since 1988, providing it with the character we will see. There’s something magical about using a space that has its own identity already, instead of trying to create one through set design. “We really want guests to feel transported, and immersed, in a fully realized environment.”
A Strange Family
After entering this mansion, guests will meet The Willows, a family of seven and a butler that appear as if time stopped for them. “You’re entering a very specific, and very strange environment.” The narrative is set in modern times, but the family itself has their own time period. Rene describes it as a modern throw-back. This anachronistic environment is sure to instill a feeling of unease and weirdness to the audience, but remains relatable. The house really helps with that, because it feels lived in and home-like.
The Willows have invited you to a celebration. Throughout your time, you will discover why they’re celebrating—and more importantly, how they celebrate. We were told to keep this mystery for now, but this part has specifically interested us.
Psychological, Not Scary
What kind of story will this be? Rene assures us this won’t be a horror story, but rather, a mystery. This experience will be perfect for anyone who is too scared to attend normal horror events. Montgomery states, “I’m excited for our CreepLA fans to check this out, but I’m also excited for a new audience to experience it as well.”
Since the narrative focuses on a family, one of the main themes will be of purpose and roles that you play. As with any family, the story dynamic will change tones depending on your interactions. Montgomery describes it as “bizarre, uncomfortable, and sometimes very comfortable.”
Similar to CreepLA, they want to focus on themes of uncertainty, secrecy, and what lies beneath the surface. These elements will be used to drive the narrative and help the audience understand the characters, instead of being used to facilitate a scare. “Some audiences don’t want blood and guts, and we understand that. We are focusing more on psychological depth and relationships between characters. If we can deliver that to our audience, then we’ve done our job.”
They also inform us that although it will be strange and eerie, it won’t be campy and it won’t be extreme. They want to create an experience that can serve as an introduction to what immersive theater can be. Rene concludes, “While there is a darkness in The Willows, we want this to ultimately be an enjoyable celebration.” To us, this sounds like a fun, albeit odd, celebration with a strange family.
Explore or Follow
For two hours, guests will immerse themselves within this mansion and interact with The Willows Family. But will it have a sandbox style like The Speakeasy in San Francisco where you can roam at will, or will it follow the style of Delusion where you are led from room to room by a character?
“Well, it’s a little bit of both,” Montgomery laughs. “There is a story to follow; you will be led through the narrative by characters. So, it is an interactive play.” But while you may start together, you will be taken away to interact with characters and brought back to the group. Rene explains, “You will have one-on-ones, two-on-ones, and even three-on-ones.” This is an intimate experience after all. “We want to break away from the linear structure and see different sides of the story.” Thus, guests will have elements where they are confined to the structure of the narrative, but there will be some beautiful moments of freedom and exploration where they can uncover secrets on their own.
Fix describes it as a house party, “If you want to have a drink in the lounge, then go have a drink in the lounge. If you want to hang out in the kitchen, then grab a bite to eat there. Each room will offer unique ways to interact and give different insights into this family.” Fix understands that participants will approach this show with different personalities, and he’s ready to engage people with all levels of experience and levels of comfort interacting with character. He explains, “We want to have the right balance to involve all groups of people without putting anyone on the spot. But fortune will favor the bold, so if you want to better get to know a character, those opportunities will be there.”
As this is a year-round event, guests will have many opportunities to return. And with every experience, you will see different sides of the story. Fix says, “While there is one overall narrative, six or seven side tracks can be followed.” Also, your experience will change based on smaller subtleties, like if you’re standing at the back or the front or if you take the stairs or the elevator. It will also change based on more prominent decisions, like responding to a conversation in a different way or asking a certain question.
Rene continues, “Everyone will have an element of personalization, and in that, you create your own story. There’s so many ways to see and experience the show—and that plays into repeatability.” Each actor will assume the role of their character, so they are able to adjust their dialogue based on what the audience is saying to them. This will allow for unique and often surprising interactions that are constantly evolving and changing.
Food & Drink
CreepLA had a heavy focus on a lounge atmosphere prior to a linear experience. However, Fix does states that The Willows “is not based around that kind of atmosphere.” There will be drinks and food written into the show. “If you are the type of person that enjoys a glass of wine, or the type of person to have a bourbon on the rocks—those opportunities are there for you. And if you don’t drink at all, there are options for you as well.” While this is an all-inclusive evening, the show is less focused on trying to earn money from you via up-charges, and more focused on telling a damn good story.
While we know that this is a narrative-driven two-hour experience in a gorgeous mansion with a bizarre family, we really don’t know much more than that. And Fix plans on keeping it that way. “We want an element of mystery before you show up, and we want that feeling to continue throughout the evening.” With the success of CreepLA in the past, I am more than excited for The Willows. It will also be nice to have an event that I can fit into my schedule, rather than struggle to fit it in before I miss it. I look forward to learning more about The Willows Family and celebrating with them, even if they celebrate in a strange manner.
For more information, check out The Willows.