Behind 'The Willows': L.A.'s Buzzy New Immersive Theater Experience

Courtesy of Hatbox Photography
'The Willows'

"Really it’s about you as an audience member discovering your own narrative," says producer Justin Fix.

There isn’t really any way to spoil The Willows, an ambitious new immersive theater experience set in a sprawling mansion in the Country Club Park neighborhood of L.A.

Produced by Justin Fix and his Just Fix It Productions team, the masterminds behind the annual haunted house CreepLA — which has drawn the likes of Anna Kendrick, James Franco, Billie Lourd, and Vanessa Hudgens — The Willows couches itself within the whodunit mystery dinner theater (Clue, for instance) and the sinister family secret horror microgenre. The gang’s all here: the domineering matriarch, the developmentally disabled youngster, the lewd uncle, etc.

Fix himself drives the blindfolded audience (in a creepy white van) to the location of the show from a meeting place on a street corner.

The tension mounts upon entering the home where the 18-member audience becomes a part of “the celebration,” as it’s so nebulously put. Over the course of the ominous two-and-a-half-hour performance, the Willows family intimates that something is wrong by cornering audience members, pulling them aside or whispering in their ears. Or you can sidle up to a character and grill them — but don’t go too far, or the cast member might admonish you, or deflect the question as if you’re a journalist asking a slick, media-trained star about their personal life.

Clues are doled out seemingly at random, but with a wicked precision to keep the scenes moving along. There are few rules of engagement, but “go when you’re told to go” and “stay when you’re told to stay” seem to prevail.

Certain things could be considered giveaways — particularly the climactic moments — so without revealing too much of the plot, The Willows (like Hopscotch, Yuval Sharon’s limousine opera from 2015) has multiple storylines (the audience is split into smaller groups) that will inspire return viewings.

Fix, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, cites Punchdrunk, a London-based theatrical experience company found in 2000, and Randy Weiner, who produced Punchdrunk’s smash hit Sleep No More, as paving the way for Angelenos to get into the immersive theater experience.

Sleep No More was the second-highest-priced ticket on Broadway at the time,” says Fix, “and it was only supposed to run for nine months originally. Now, it’s been going on for six years. But there’s also been a history in Los Angeles. There was The Manor, an interactive play which ran at the Greystone Mansion for 10 summers, and [Tamara, a play that ran at the American Legion Hall for nine years from 1984 to 1993], which starred Anjelica Huston at one point.”

Fix sees The Willows as being a part of a more general evolution toward experiential consumption. “The rise of escape rooms and immersive theater, call it a trend if you want, but I think what VR is doing for film and TV, that’s what this space is doing for theater,” says Fix. “We’re captivating an audience that wouldn’t go and buy a ticket to 99-seat theater or the Pasadena Playhouse. We’re essentially tricking a younger generation to appreciate this space. But also, we have people put down their cellphones. It’s an opportunity as a society — we’re always wanting more and more, we want the extremes, we want it all — to have vulnerable, real experiences. People are craving them.”

Immersive theater is an idea that has a history in the movies. David Fincher’s The Game, starring Michael Douglas and Sean Penn, has Douglas’s character running around town trying to escape an immersive experience his brother signed him up for. Even further back, Michael Crichton’s 1973 film Westworld (remade as an HBO TV series this year) imagines an immersive Western environment with interactive robots.

The Willows doesn’t have real danger like The Game or androids like Westworld, nor does it have much of a coherent plot — viewers are each given only one piece of the puzzle. After the play ended on June 28, the night I attended, a circle formed where attendees divulged their experiences in hopes of piecing the storyline together. Some moments that seemed important also turned out to be red herrings, or unresolved plot points. It seemed like all roads led in the same direction, but there was no real resolution — a cliff with nothing to hang on.

“Really it’s about you as an audience member discovering your own narrative,” says Fix. “There are beats: There is a beginning, a middle, a finale. Everyone is fed information, but the whole show is about perspective. There is a story to The Willows, but for me to come out and say, ‘This is what happens here and here, and this is what happens after this,’ — let’s just say we’ve had about 500 people, and to me, now, there’s 500 stories.”

There is a finale, however, that one audience member each night will experience. I didn’t “win” the ending, so I can’t speak to what happens if you do, but there were whispers that the evening would continue into the night for that “lucky” attendee.

A mix of theater and screen actors, led by Melinda DeKay as the matriarch and Roy Abramsohn (Escape From Tomorrow, Weeds) as the lecherous uncle, the performers are effectively creepy. Casting director Lacy Forrest came to Just Fix It Productions after years of casting unscripted shows like The Voice and America’s Best Dance Crew. There are moments of discomfort during the proceedings, and it’s best to be loose and ready to improvise along with the characters — which might be one reason the Willows family waitstaff serves you bottomless cups of spirits and wine.

The location is no less important — in fact, it’s something of a character. The Willows takes place in the home of producer Jon Shestack (Before I Fall, Air Force One) and was furnished by Shestack’s wife, Portia Iverson, an author and veteran set designer (Valley Girl, To Live and Die in L.A.). The home has enough dank basements, long hallways and hidden passageways to feel like you may never make it out alive. It also has a lived-in quality — because Shestack and Iverson actually live there, something that affects the run dates of the show. “They grant us our dates when they don’t want to live in their home,” Fix explains. “We pop up when we can. We’ll be releasing August dates on July 15, and we’ll run through September. We’ll go dark while we get Creep back on its feet for 28 shows in October. We’ll come back for The Willows after that if the space is available.”

Fix delights in hearing audience members trade stories as he carts them away from the location. “We’re a grassroots-from-the-ground-up company,” he says of his role as the driver. “And it’s important to see who’s coming through your door. I just start buzzing when people start to compare notes. When they refer to our cast by the characters’ names, I know it’s affected people, and they’ve paid attention.”

Fix is already at work on another project with an undisclosed movie studio for Summer Slasher, which he projects will debut in Summer 2018.

Buzz has hit The Willows: Tickets are currently sold out completely, so set a reminder for the August run when it’s announced on July 15. At $125 per person for the experience, the show isn’t cheap, but the price comes with a meal, all-you-can-drink service, and an intimate, unnerving “celebration” you’ll be haunted by for weeks.