A 'Saw' Maestro Takes Theater to "Trippy" Places With Immersive 'Theatre Macabre'

Theatre Macabre - Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Katherine Hegarty

Darren Lynn Bousman, the filmmaker behind several episodes of the hit horror franchise and a Neil Patrick Harris birthday surprise, pushes the envelope with his new L.A. stage show, debuting Oct. 11, one of several immersive productions leading up to Halloween.

Even in Los Angeles' ever-expanding immersive theater scene, it's hard to find a show that grants its audience more than limited agency. Though often highly interactive, most shows barrel along without significant input from their viewers. That's why Theatre Macabre, a fresh offering from filmmaker Darren Lynn Bousman (Saws II, III and IV) opening Oct. 11, is so ambitious. It promises guests a series of choices that morph the narrative as they're made, using a spiderweb of a script that employs about 40 characters and exceeds 400 pages.  

Theatre Macabre is based on Paris' Theatre du Grand-Guignol, which launched in 1897 and specialized in grotesque shows that explored society's darkest taboos. Audience members vomited, fainted, averted their eyes and still came back for more. "This was torture porn before torture porn was a thing; it was the original Saw film," Bousman says. "Protesters tried to shut down the Grand-Guignol and all that did was make the theater more popular."

Bousman's desire to create immersive theater began after seeing Punchdrunk's Sleep No More and Jon Braver's interactive play, Delusion, in Los Angeles.

"[In Delusion], I could be someone I wasn't for an hour and get away from the bullshit I'm dealing with every day," Bousman said. "I wasn't watching an adventure, I was doing it." At the time, Bousman had become frustrated by how long it took to get an indie film off the ground, from securing financing and the right cast to actually making the film and getting it released. "It's like the Wild West in immersive theater right now, and we're able to see a narrative and characters and connect with audiences immediately."

In 2016, along with producer Gordon Bijelonic and writer Clint Sears, Bousman launched The Tension Experience, a story surrounding an ancient cult that was actively recruiting new members. It began as an Alternate Reality Game (ARG), in which players unfolded pieces of the narrative via online interactions and phone calls with characters. Sometimes characters would even arrange one-on-one meetings with players. The ARG culminated in a two-and-a-half-hour show in a Boyle Heights warehouse. In 2017, the team debuted the similar, but sexier, Lust Experience.

Guests at Bousman's productions have included Neil Patrick Harris, American Horror Story's Evan Peters and Emma Roberts, and Anthony and Joe Russo. The Russo brothers liked Tension so much that they're currently putting together a permanent version of the show in Las Vegas.

Harris — a noted immersive enthusiast who co-produced Delusion in 2012 — was so fascinated by Tension that his husband hired Bousman's team to craft an ARG for his 45th birthday. The game began in the morning, with a magician character knocking on Harris' door and telling him his birthday would be filled with choices that would affect the day's events. In one instance, Harris was having lunch with friends when the other customers in the restaurant all stood up and pointed to a door. Behind that door, yet another character gave Harris the option to perform something — be it a magic trick or a song — for the restaurant. Harris declined, but said he found himself constantly wondering how his every move was affecting the story.

"What was a seemingly confident decision turned incredibly insecure as I was sitting there looking around at a restaurant filled with people who were clearly hired to be part of the experience, but I had chosen not to engage with them. I couldn't eat without thinking: 'If I had performed for them, what would have happened?'" Harris recalls. "That's what [Bousman] does so well. He takes it to an emotional place so that you're questioning whether this experience has gone off the rails in some way. And I think once you're in that position, you can tell some really effective stories. As a producer of these kinds of things, I think it's hard to get people to that place — to suspend disbelief — and he does it in a really trippy way."

Theatre Macabre takes place in a multistory building in Los Angeles (address to be revealed only to ticket holders). Inside are over 25 separate spaces, including rooms where performances occur — Richard Elfman's Mambo Diabolico will appear on select dates — and operational bars.

Ten guests at a time will be set on their own, unique track based on how they interact early on in the evening with various characters. These 10 tracks further bifurcate with choices the guest makes. "You can be a hero or a villain, or a sleuth or a treasure hunter. For example, there's a moment where a character will walk up to you and say, 'Put this cyanide in [another character's] drink,'" Bousman says. "If you put the cyanide in her drink, that character dies right there and she's out of the narrative. If you don't do that, she survives and is integrated into the end. There are 10 people making all these decisions; it's a madhouse."

Bousman estimates a person could see the two-hour show up to 13 times without repeating an experience, simply by getting on a different track or making opposite choices.

Stage Frights: L.A.'s Pre-Halloween Immersive Theater Scene

Theatre Macabre opens Oct. 11 through Nov. 4. Tickets are $150 (includes drinks).

Creep L.A.: Awake transforms a sweeping industrial space into a waking nightmare, where intimate, eerie and occasionally moving scenes emerge then vanish into an ever-present fog. Guests have included Chrissy Teigen, John Legend, Jen Atkin, Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Taylor Lautner, Lance Bass, Nolan Gould, Lizzy Caplan and Liza Koshy. Through Nov. 4 at ROW DTLA. Tickets are $89. 

Delusion: The Blue Blade plunges groups of eight into an interactive sci-fi adventure, in which they must track a rogue professor through time to recover a precious artifact that has the power to manipulate space and time. Past guests have included Kristen Bell, Seth Green, Nathan Fillion and Neil Patrick Harris. Select dates through Dec. 16 at a secret location in Mid-Wilshire. Tickets are $95.

E3W Productions' In Another Room casts groups of just four at a time as paranormal explorers, who must delve into the past tragedies and paranormal happenings of a Culver City home (address revealed only to ticket holders). This is something of a sequel to their 2017 debut, which was attended by Allan McLeod and Brandon Scott. Select dates Oct. 19-Nov. 11. Tickets are $65. 

The Tragedie of MacBeth is a site-specific production of Shakespeare's MacBeth, directed by Ken Sabberton and staged throughout multiple areas of downtown's Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles. Saturdays and Sundays, Oct. 20-Nov. 3. Tickets start at $39. 

Unbound Productions' Wicked Lit will move its audience through Altadena's Mountain View Mausoleum, where two terrifying tales will unfold around them: Charles Dickens' The Chimes: A Goblin Story and Ernest Rhys' Teig O'Kane and the Corpse. Select dates through Nov. 10. Tickets start at $30.

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.