Above: An unfortunate staff member becomes fused with an oracular mask in Signals, an immersive theatre production set at a facility specializing in interdimensional travel.
Currently running as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, Signals is an interactive play with an intriguing science fiction premise: the audience plays new recruits training in a facility, stuck in a time loop, where actions endlessly repeat in a two-hour cycle, where the only variations are due to the intervention of the trainees doing their jobs. Assigned to different departments, each with their own tasks, audience members interact with staff members and inmates, who reveal contradictory stories about what goes on behind the scenes at the facility. Sorting fact from fiction can be a frustrating experience for those who prefer their stories clearly laid out; however, those who accept the challenge will find their efforts rewarded with an engrossing experience as they ferret out details leading to an action-packed climax.
Essentially a mystery in a science fiction setting, Signals bears some similarities to interactive plays such as Delusion and Bite. Like the former, Signals is very plot-oriented, moving toward a dramatic conclusion; however, the story unfolds in a non-linear fashion, with an emphasis on face-to-face conversations between characters and audience members, as in Bite. In fact, Signals is even more of a free-roaming experience: in Bite and other productions at the Count’s Den, the audience is at least encouraged to follow certain characters to certain rooms for particular bits of business; in Signals, after the initial tasks are assigned, participants can go wherever they want, regardless of whether it is part of their job description (though if you get lost, the characters will set you back on track).
The result is a greater sense of agency – a freedom to explore and dig up secrets instead of being lead around by the nose and having vital information revealed to you. It can be a bit of an intimidating experience, but even if you’re not the world’s greatest detective, you are part of a team, whose combined efforts should be enough to make some progress chipping away at the wall of secrecy.
Signals Immersive Theatre Review: The Setup
After purchasing your tickets, you get a confirmation email containing a link to a questionnaire; your answers determine which department (Research, Security, etc.) you are assigned to upon your arrival at Site 00013, which specializes in interdimensional travel, which has led to some peculiar discoveries. The facility is run by The Foundation, whose motto is Secure, Contain, Protect – or SCP for short, which is also their designation for the specimens (prisoners, really) they house on site. Held in secure containers, these include the Plague Doctor, the witch Baba Yaga, and Mr. Fish (a man with the head of a fish).
Depending on your department, you will be instructed to interview one of these characters and report back. Each has a story to tell, which may reveal hidden details about the staff and the nature of the Foundation. Some of their accusations are pretty wild accusations (and you may be warned not to trust them), but at least some of what they say may turn out to be true. Without giving too much away, it is safe to say that Site 00013 is not a beacon of impartial scientific research; there are more than a few skeletons in the closet, which you will unearth if you are diligent.
Signals Immersive Theatre Review: The Experience
As new recruits, the audience’s alleged job description is to study documents, initiate experiments, and report results; however, what you learn will soon inspire you to follow the evidentiary trail wherever it leads.
After completing your initial inquiry, you report back to your department head. The information you have retrieved will prompt further inquiry, but in order to fill in all the blanks, you may end up interviewing other prisoners, not just the one you were assigned. This could lead to retracing ground covered by the other departments, so one option is to split from your assigned group and form a new group with one member from each department so that you can pool information. This can be useful because some of the revealed information seems rather innocuous and, in isolation, not particularly useful, which can be frustrating until you have assembled enough pieces so that at least the broad outline of the puzzle becomes apparent.
Even if you do not team up with other departments, it is a good idea to keep your ears open for any progress they are making. There are some clues (such as a bar code that links to an audio file) which provoke some fairly high-profile reactions which will be visible to everyone, so there’s no sense searching for the clue after seeing the result.
Unfortunately, not every clue pays off. During our training session, an initial conversation with Mr. Fish revealed a list of names, one of which had been redacted. A closer look under bright light revealed the hidden name, suggesting it was an important clue, but as far as we could tell, it wound up being a red herring that never led to anything.
One avenue of inquiry will remain fruitless: new recruits (meaning you) are advised not to mention the temporal loop to the staff – who, being trapped in it, are completely unaware of it; questions on this topic will only cause confusion. And you will have questions, because some clues seem redundant, as if the characters had, for example, written the same notes more than once.
All of this may sound confusing – and it is a little bit, at first – but ultimately the pieces do fall together in a way that provides an exciting climax (including the science fiction equivalent of a jail break) along with answers to all the questions, including how the Site 00013 came to be trapped in the time loop.
Worth noting: Your smart phone should be fully charged, so you can use it to take photos, record conversation, and and do any other note-taking that will help you keep track of information. There is also an option to access a list of the site’s staff online, which can be useful early on before you have all their names and titles straight.
Also, there is not a lot of territory to cover, but you will be on your feet for two hours, so be well rested and fed before you arrive. The show is too entertaining to be called an endurance test, but you do want to maintain a high energy level throughout, especially mentally, in order to keep up with developments – not only as they happen but as you make them happen.
Signals Immersive Theatre Review: Conclusion
Signals is one of the most truly interactive plays we have ever experienced. The narrative does not pull you along; you have to take initiative. This can be challenging, but it is worth the effort; as the saying goes, the more you put into it, the more you get out of it.
Only at the conclusion does the play resolve itself into a traditional drama, with the actors finally taking center stage and driving the action to its climax while the audience steps back to watch. Even here, your perceptions of what happens will be colored by what you have learned up to this point, as plot elements you have discovered or at least suspected finally bubble up the surface.
The denouement offers more than plot resolution. There is also a major confrontation; characters take sides to unleash or to avert disaster, and there’s even a fight scene or two (one character fancies himself an Indiana Jones type). But don’t become so enthralled that you overlook the end of the two-hour countdown; otherwise, you too could become trapped in the endless time loop.
As for production values, Signals could probably benefit from a larger venue and more elaborate science fiction props and set design. As it stands, the production does a good job of simulating the look of an available space that was adapted to its current purpose.
If you are not the most aggressive initiator and/or investigator, bring along friends to help unravel the mystery; even if you do not discover all the secrets, you will be satisfied when they are revealed at the end. If you prefer being an active participant, Signals is definitely for you. It rewards your efforts with bonus dividends that represent a huge return on your investment.
Our rating of Signals
1 – Avoid
2 – Not recommended but not all bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
Signals not only invites but almost demands interaction, which it amply rewards. The result is hugely entertaining but not quite a five-star experience, because the inherently challenging nature of the production sometimes leads to frustration, including one or two clues that lead nowhere. This misstep aside, the play is highly recommended, especially for people who prefer to be actively participating in, rather than passively herded through, their immersive theatrical productions.
Signals continues as part of the annual Hollywood Fringe Festival, with performances on June 16-17, 18, 20, 23-26. Show times vary so check at the festival website. The venue is the Shirley Dawn Dance Studio in the Thymele Arts Center at 5481 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles 90029. (Parking can be difficult so arrive early.)
Update: Encore performances have been added on July 9 at 5pm and July 16 at 1pm.
The Site Head- Mikey Takla
Stan Frumple- Evan Wank
Sybil Elliot- Riley Cole
Chris the Intern- Haven Schneider
Elizabeth Taylor- Liviera Lim
Dany Taylor- Ashley Busenlener
Joseph Joe Williams- Michael DiNardo
Dr. Eckleberg- Naomi Melville
Blaine Cunningham- Philip Saguil
Agent G.O.- Kale Hinthorn
David Smith- Alexander Panagos
Westley the Janitor- Michaela Skaribas
Plague Doctor- Jason Pollak
Baba Yaga- Charnie Rose Dondrea
Mr. Fish- Ian Melamed
*Swing- Michael Warker
Director- Alexander Whitover
Creative Lead/Producer- Jacob Zorehkey
Producers- Ashley Busenlener, Nick Griffith & Sabrina Sonner
Costume Design- Kale Hinthorn
Set Design- Keo Lacebal
Sound Design- Jason Pollak
Narrative Team: Finley Brown, Ashley Busenlener, Riley Cole, Jacob Leonard, Nick Griffith, Alexander Whitover & Jacob Zorehkey