By Kathaleen Amende
Produced by Sinking Ship Creations
Off Broadway, Immersive Theater/Role-Playing
Runs through 3.30.19
125 West 126th Street (Manhattan) and 877 Empire Boulevard (Brooklyn)
by Asya Gorovits on 3.25.19
Photo courtesy of Sinking Ship Creations
BOTTOM LINE: This emotionally loaded LARP operates on the open hearts of the participants.
The small ground floor studio apartment in Harlem gets crowded quickly as twelve participants arrive for Fade, Sinking Ship Creations' newest immersive experience. The cozy space, with vintage posters on the walls and a bed dominating the room, is about to become an emotional meat grinder. They call it “The Chamber,” a surreal no-space where you never get sick, never die; there is a bathroom and always enough food. And there is little-to-no privacy and nowhere to go unless you choose to disappear forever by stepping into the Void (the door to exit the apartment).
Lovely facilitator Rita McCann gives out the name tags and notebooks filled with the descriptions of The Chamber's denizens. Characters had been assigned based on a casting survey sent out a few days earlier. But even if you don’t complete the questionnaire, a character will still be assigned to you. But why miss the chance to voice your desires and concerns? Especially if you have strong thoughts about playing a character dealing with suicidal thoughts, death of a child, or infidelity. And maybe you would prefer either to be part of a same- or different-gender couple. Then again, Fade might be just the occasion to explore some of the dusty corners of your own soul. After all, if a live-action role playing experience is well-designed and executed with care for the participants (as is the case with Fade), it provides an opportunity to step out of one's comfort zone, but in a safe space.
I played Ali, who one day appeared in The Chamber with their spouse Noor, soon after the death of their infant son. The growing estrangement, grief, slipping sense of my own identity, and possibility of feeling alive and desired again are just some of the emotional paths that I got to travel. Many characters are entangled in relationships with siblings, spouses, lovers, and friends. Love triangles grow into elaborately shaped polyhedrons as the play progresses, and fall back to pieces, unable to sustain the tension of thirteen people at each other’s throats and in each other’s pants (figuratively speaking).
According to the rules of this world, the memories of The Chamber inhabitants fade away with time. This is where the notebooks with information about every person come in handy. Not only do they give a brief dossier on everybody’s personality and relationship status, they also contain descriptions personalized to the notebook owner. Those in The Chamber can use the notebooks as a journal, a great tool to connect to one's character. In the world of this LARP, it also helps preserve memories.
The reliability of memory becomes a recurring theme in Fade. The experience begins with us waking up on Remembrance Day, an annual holiday on which we honor the departed, their Polaroid pictures displayed on the door to the Void. The memory failure, notebooks, and memos on the walls are generous world design elements, which take off the pressure of remembering who everybody is. The pages are color-coded so it’s easy to find a name in case you encounter someone and don’t quite remember what their deal is.
Each character description ends with a question to help us bond, resolve a personal issue, or move the conflict forward. These prompts jumpstart interactions and are a staple of the experience. Although some characters are more preoccupied than others with existential questions—what is the nature of The Chamber, what awaits in the Void—this is secondary to the main event. There is nothing to solve, no need to escape; Fade is all about the emotional journey. With the outlines of each relationship in place, the participants are free to color inside and outside the lines in whichever way they like.
Thanks to clever world design by author Kathaleen Amende, the flow of the experience feels organic. Rita McCann is an incredible facilitator, with her gut feeling for the right moment to escalate the drama or to step aside and let the events unfold. She leads the Chamber inhabitants into playing Never Have I Ever, getting Polaroids taken, and reading the notes about those who left us. There are snacks (hummus, chips, carrots, and apples), and the radio plays songs that go from cheerful to somber as the evening progresses. Some participants initiate group activities—a dance lesson around the bed or Margarita Mondays in the kitchen. But we don’t linger on any of these for long—the activities serve more as background to the soap opera on steroids that is constantly on the brink of implosion.
There is quite a bit of physical contact, but consent is required. If it ever gets overwhelming, participants are equipped with a sign to signal their scene partner to tone it down; there's another gesture in case one needs to step out of character. Intimate interactions are interlaced with group scenes and almost inevitably culminate in a moment when somebody gets too close to the ominous door. And because you are so intimately connected with everybody else in the room and share the circumstance of being stuck in The Chamber, you relate closely, no matter who is making the decision to leave.
I was fortunate to be in a group both fully dedicated to their characters and brave about diving deep into the emotional abyss. I wept, I laughed hysterically, I don’t think I have ever hugged and touched so many strangers in just a few hours. Even though I was emotionally sore for days after, Fade felt incredibly rewarding. The seeming simplicity of the sandbox model with minimal structuring is incredibly effective in turning your heart inside out. Fade might even be a life-altering experience.
As well thought out as the gentle (and nearly hour-long) onboarding is, I wish the “bleeding”—the reflection after—were smoother. As the ritual at The Chamber goes, we fall asleep listening to “One More Kiss, Dear,” some of us content, some still wrestling with inner dragons. When the song ends, the clapping of hands shakes away the sweet dreams and nightmares of the day we just lived together. Many burst into chatter, but I couldn’t bear another minute in the loud, stuffed room—the intensity pushed me into the Void, post-game. At this point, it was just a city street. But ever since this experience, I’m unable to look at the people around me without a strong sense of being in the same boat. Fade underscores how, on some cosmic level, we are all connected.
(Fade plays at 125 West 126th Street on March 22 and 23, and 877 Empire Boulevard in Brooklyn on March 29 and 30, 2019. The running time is approximately 3 hours with no intermission. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7. Tickets are $65 and are available at sinkingshipcreations.com.)
Fade is by Kathaleen Amende. Produced by Betsy Isaacson and Sinking Ship Creations. Executive Producers are Ryan Hart, Jason Knox, Robin A. Rothman. Art Direction by Taran Lopez.
The facilitator is Rita McCann.