The tears are spilling from her eyes, spawning rivers of smeared mascara running down her cheeks. Visibly shaking, she writes on the mirror above the sink with her lipstick: I’m so alone. My eyes drift to the small packet of powder on the counter next to a smaller hand-held mirror. I can choose to make my presence known to her, or I can stay silent – do I help this woman, or leave her to her own fate? I make my decision and reach down for her lipstick, my arm almost grazing her face. But she doesn’t notice me… because I am nothing but a ghost.
In 2018, Aaron Vanek and Kirsten Hageleit brought One Last Thing Before You Go to the Hollywood Fringe Festival. This year, they and Spectacular Disaster Factory are expanding One Last Thing into a full hour-and-a-half immersive experience entitled Give Up the Ghost. Asking difficult questions of the participants while giving them the freedom to be “perfectly human,” Give Up the Ghost is a highly interactive experience styled as a hub-and-spoke model. Groups of 20-30 people become ghosts awaiting their final resting place and are given a ticket to the Underworld. A center area acts as a hub for the wayward spirits as they are free to roam in and out of four ongoing scenes as they please. Guests can stay in this main area, or follow one of the cloaked Shadows holding different colored lanterns into more intimate scenes in which the participant’s action – or inaction – serves as a sorting process. Each of these smaller scenes offer a high amount of agency and guests can affect their own ending through their actions and corresponding ticket punches.
While the mechanics of Give Up the Ghost may seem complicated, the actual experience is simple and points to a larger question of what it means to be human for each individual. Are we creatures of mercy, or pursuers of justice, no matter the circumstance? In the more intimate scenes, participants are encouraged to interact with both the living and the dead in whatever manner they see fit within the given rules of ghostly interactions. The scenes are adrift in time and space, each standing on its own, but they all contain similar questions of morality and choice. Guests must search within themselves, asking their hearts if they should spare a life, take a life, quietly watch events unfold, or comfort the dying. Even though there are no right or wrong answers to the questions Give Up the Ghost presents, guests can see themselves leaning in a particular direction, even within the complex grey areas of the vignettes.
Other than one area in the hub dressed to be a roadside memorial, the set décor of Give Up the Ghost is minimalistic but effective, ensuring the focus of the audience is on the stories and choices rather than complex sets and intricate designs. Each segment within the experience contains just enough props and set pieces to allude to a given location. The lighting and sound effects, or sometimes lack thereof, enhance the mood of a scene, but do not interfere or overpower the actors. In a handful of scenes, video projection or sound effects highlight the gravity of the situations, while in others, the silence hangs heavy in the air. With each room come a fresh story and a new opportunity for audiences to make a difference.
Depending on how participants choose to interact in their time in the Underworld, they have the potential to see all or none of the side scenes. That being said, with the number of guests in attendance, it can become like a scavenger hunt to figure out which scenes have already been seen, which still need to be seen, and the right timing to ensure that a scene is available. At times, participants might be following a specific Shadow, jumping at the opportunity to be led to a side scene. At other times, guests might be confused as to which scenes they have already been to, accidentally seeing one twice. The colored lanterns the Shadows hold are all different, signifying different potential trigger warnings for people to avoid (a color-coded content card is available at check-in for those who request it), and to delineate the different scenes, but some are so similar in color that it can be difficult in the low lighting to make out (especially white and yellow). Toward the end of the experience, it can become a waiting game for those who wish to see all the side scenes and get their tickets punched by every Shadow.
The level of agency and freedom each participant has requires the performers to be ready for anything that comes their way. The cast members of Give Up the Ghost are all top-notch in depicting their characters’ dilemmas as well as interacting with the audience. Heidi Harrison (Justice) and Dave Perea (Mercy) succeed in their difficult jobs of introducing participants into the Underworld, explaining the dynamics and logistics of the evening, and directly asking guests morally complex questions while maintaining their characters. Charlotte Bjornblak breaks hearts as a drug addict seeking redemption; Karlie Blair is exceptional in a challenging scene which asks if it is acceptable to torture one for the benefit of millions; Daniel Weiss’ frantic riddles will have participants hypnotized; and Terence Leclere’s beautiful, lovesick wandering ghost can set guests on yet another side quest. Even the Shadows have different personalities: one slow and menacing while another skips through the halls, among others.
Give Up the Ghost poses emotional and interesting questions, giving the audience the opportunity to dig deep within themselves and come away with even more to think about. The style and audience agency highlight this idea of choice, and the actors shine in their scenes. Give Up the Ghost is a beautiful love letter to what it means to be innately human, and makes audiences want to linger in the Underworld just a little longer.
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