Disclaimer: Below is a full-spoiler recollection with review elements of the author’s experience during Candle House Collective’s latest remote mobile experience, Crossed Wires.
Many alternate reality experiences (ARX) have come to rely on phone calls as a storytelling device, but none have used this medium to tell a narrative that, despite its relative consistency amongst participants, is so unique and personal on an individual level. Crossed Wires, the latest offering from Candle House Collective, managed to imbue itself with a sense of agency that is often missing in modern immersive theatre, while maintaining a powerful, desperate undercurrent of the futility of death. This three-day remote-experience was always meant to be story with one ending, a train with one stop, but we were able to determine the shape of that story, using our own personal journeys to knit ourselves into the fabric of this remarkable reality.
We never have to be too human, just human enough.
My story begins with a text, an introduction of sorts from Operator, voiced with abject gentleness by Candle House creator Evan Neiden. A flurry of messages back and forth overnight culminates in a phone call the following day, where Operator offers to tell me what I recall as the final story from Last Candle ARX, the Collective’s stunning debut. In it, he describes an endless house, completely filled with candles, representing the souls of everyone on earth. A man (in Last Candle, you were this character in the story) tries to steal himself just a few more moments, a few more drops of oil, but can never escape his own destiny, leaving behind him the question of whether his life long quest for justice was fruitless. A simple analogy for the human condition and the inexorable march of time, Neiden’s retelling, and the smooth, welcoming cadence of his voice set the emotional tone of Crossed Wires so delicately that I nearly disregard it until much later.
In retrospect, this story betrayed the inevitable fate of the three “Connections” that Operator was selecting for me: three human souls, somehow lost and looking for someone, anyone, to reach out to. Their fates were already sealed; this wasn’t going to be about rescuing anyone, it was about the strength of the bond I will develop with them as their candles were about to blow out.
First Connection: EXCIEO
Haven’t you wondered where all those words go?
My first real “connection” in Crossed Wires is the one that requires the farthest reach; Operator sends me specific instructions, which eventually find me alone in a pitch-black room save for a sputtering candle in front of me. I write the name of someone I’ve lost and the name of someone who’s hurt me on a crisp paper in front of me, sending a photograph to Operator for confirmation. He sends me back a recording and I sit in the widening dark, listening to the dulcet tones of The Summoner, Harrison O’Callaghan, as he walks me through the final steps of a ritual to raise the voice of the dead.
Excieo also starts with a text: an alarming, disjointed series of words that read like the splayed thoughts of someone who’s been wandering for a very long time. My phone rings and again I hear Neiden’s voice, barely recognizable now from the comforting one I’d come to expect from his past performances, gasping onto the line. He’s aggressive at first, frightening, repeating the name of the one who hurt me over and over, jarring me into an uncomfortable space from the safety of my own home. Slowly, he seems to regulate somewhat, and I begin to realize that I’m talking to a victim—a dead man who’s lost someone he loves, even though that same love is the one who hurt him, who banished him to this unknowable place. I begin to sense that I need to help him move on. He hurt me, but he said he loved me, he says. That isn’t love, I tell him. I say it again and again. It isn’t love. It’s control.
We keep getting disconnected—calls from beyond being spotty, as it were—and he’ll return to texting me, a series of blurry photos slowly coming into focus. I know I won’t want to see the final picture—I can see the black and white tiles, the outline of a body, and what looks like blood more clearly every time my phone pings—but I need to help him remember. I steel myself to help him move past the plane he’s trapped in so that by the last time he calls, I’m ready. I’m listening, I tell him. It isn’t your fault that he hurt you, and it isn’t your fault that you loved him anyway.
He asks me about the person I lost, and the one who hurt me, and he tells me that they’re also trapped between the worlds now, just like him, but if I cross their names off the dimly lit paper that still sits next to the candle at my desk, they can move on, I can move on, and so can his lost soul. For the one I lost, he says I held on too tight to them—he’s right. As for the one who hurt me, he asks if I can forgive them, and I say I don’t know, but he’s helped me to shift the pain further away.
The call goes silent for the last time and I receive one final message—the photo of my Summoned friend, dead on the kitchen floor where he’d been preparing a meal for his abuser and lover. He said he’d love him until the day he died, and that stuck with him, even as he lay bleeding. It sticks with me too, as Operator messages again, telling me the Summoned is gone, and I helped him find his way. Control isn’t love. You helped him understand, and he moved on.
And so, my first connection ends, bittersweet. I sit in the dark, listening to the air pulse in and out of my lungs, thinking about how something as simple as listening can create a bridge to move on from. My act of listening to him, helping him understand, set him free. Just human enough, I think, as I blow my candle out.
Second Connection: Collect Call
Running away is worse than being caught.
After my communion with the Summoned, Operator reaches out again the following day, this time connecting me to Andy Miller, a death row inmate facing his last day on Earth. Jonathan Connolly’s performance as Andy is as brutal as a lightning bolt—a conversation with a ghost is eerie, but a conversation with someone who is preparing to become one is beyond comparison. Andy is nervous and friendly, almost congenial, thankful to have someone to talk to as his time slowly runs out. I find myself instantly empathetic towards him; a credit to Neiden’s adaptive writing and Connolly’s heartfelt portrayal coupled with the sad realization that this man is reaching out in this desperate hour to me, a stranger, because he has no one else.
As I sit in my car, my phone pressed to my ear, Andy says Operator told him to ask me about the person I’d lost that I mentioned during Excieo, demonstrating another wonderful connective thread that permeates the experience. They just faded away, I say, and suddenly it’s Andy’s turn to empathize with me. It’s worse to have someone fade than be lost, he says. I write it down. The truth of it haunts me.
He tells me an abridged version of his life story: his mother died when he was 14, his strongest memory of the experience was her repeating over and over I don’t want to die. Then he met Julia, who brought him to life when his father began to beat him. Julia had sad eyes, he says, after I describe the color of mine to him. He loved her so much, but she’s gone now.
He tried to earn money for Julia and himself by dealing drugs and caught a six-year sentence for it, but Julia stayed with him. She stayed with him and visited often until she coughed up blood in the visiting room—her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease had worsened, and she couldn’t afford treatment—they put her in a hospice and the prison wouldn’t let him out to see her before she died. Andy knew he had to get out.
He saw Officer Jennings in the hallway as he attempted to escape and, although he was told later that she died when he tackled her and her head hit the ground, he knows that he strangled her, he just doesn’t know why. The way she coughed reminded him of Julia, struggling to breathe through her illness.
When it was over, he just sat there, he couldn’t move, couldn’t escape even though the way was clear. He couldn’t choose. Andy is sobbing now, asking himself why, why did he do this, and why, once he’d done this terrible thing, couldn’t he make a choice on how to proceed? He waited there, by the body, until he was caught and eventually tried and transferred to Death Row. Any choice but staying by the body and he would have gotten a life sentence, not death, but he didn’t choose. He couldn’t.
In that first week after his new sentence he got a call from Julia. All he could make out was I don’t wanna die. He whispers this to me, broken. She was getting the better end of the deal, he says, she was leaving, she wasn’t the one getting left behind. It’s been eight years since that call, she must be dead by now, but he doesn’t really know. He’s just been here, alone, waiting to die. Andy Miller the murderer, they call him, but he wants me to know that he’s more than that, more than this cautionary tale of doing desperately wrong things for love.
Andy asks me to help him make some final choices for his last day, how to spend the time he has left. I suggest a book to read, Ender’s Game, and I tell him to go outside and just exist in the world, breathe the air, and be. His voice is still shaking but he says he’ll take my suggestions, Carpe Diem, as it were. His time is running out and I don’t know that I’ve comforted him, how could I have said anything to prepare him for what’s to come, but he thanks me for listening. The way he says goodbye sounds so lonely, so final, that I remain in my over-hot car for some time after the call ends, staring off into the middle distance as series of tears that I can’t quite place roll down my cheeks.
Third Connection: Now N’ Later
An experiment excuses suffering. Games do not.
My next connection somehow manages to take a darker turn than the previous two, if that’s possible. I’m patched into a two-way PA system to Maxwell Sanford, a prisoner in some kind of Saw-esque cage, cuffed by the wrist to a wall with no knowledge of how he got there. He begs me to help get him free, and I already know I’ll have to suggest he break his own thumb to slip out of the handcuffs. His voice is a mix of desperation tinged with self-righteousness, expertly delivered by actor Jack Drummond.
As suddenly as I’ve been connected to him the feed appears to short out and Maxwell’s voice is replaced with a woman’s, Olivia Bailey, played with grim determination by Natalie Welber. She tells me the clock is ticking for Maxwell, there’s kerosene all over the floor around him, and he’ll have 30 minutes, perhaps with my help, to escape, if that’s what I choose for him.
She begins to describe a series of poisoning incidents: 1959, Freemont, California—A doctor received 4 months in jail and a five thousand dollar fine for handing out poisoned candy on Halloween. 1964, Detroit—A couple received no charges for handing out bubble gum soaked in lye. Also in 1964, the Chicago Tylenol Murders—Cyanide capsules slipped into harmless over the counter pain medication with no suspects ever charged.
She fast forwards us to 2018 in a gated community where Maxwell lives. She says that he didn’t care for the low-income children that would trick or treat in his neighborhood for Halloween. He poisoned a series of Now and Later candies with cyanide, and now Olivia’s son is dead. She’s put Maxwell here because no one else will bring him to justice, and I’m going to help choose his fate. My stomach drops.
When I’m reconnected to Maxwell I ask him about what Olivia’s alleged and he flatly denies it, incredulous. I realize I’m meant to not only choose Maxwell’s eventual fate, but to choose whom I’m to believe. By now Maxwell has painfully wrestled himself out of the cuffs and is faced with two doors. Per Olivia, I know that he’ll lose an appendage if he takes the left one and face deep tissue damage that will affect his quality of life forever on the right.
There’s so little time.
I tell him to go left and wait for him to scream.
It eventually comes as his leg is clamped into a bear trap. The sound is horrible, and I question if I’ve made the right choice briefly, but I don’t have time to dwell on it before Olivia is back on the line.
She says there’s one more door between Maxwell and freedom, and all I have to do to get him out is give him the code: 1114. My other choice, of course, is to deny him, and leave him to burn when the kerosene is ignited. Justice or kindness, she says.
She reconnects me to Maxwell and I hesitate as he implores me to help him open the last door. What if he did kill Olivia’s son? Shouldn’t he be punished? I turn it over once, twice. No, this is vengeance, not justice. I give him the code. He says I did the right thing and tears himself out of the house.
Olivia clicks back on, angry and disappointed. She thought I’d have chosen differently, but no matter, she never planned to get out of this alive—she’ll burn the house down and herself and the body of her son with it. She hangs up and I’m left with the ashy weight of my decisions, knowing that it was me, and not the truth of the matter, that may have set a murderer free.
Continuation: Collect Call
Death moves. If you’re lucky, like most people, you never see it coming.
My connections finished, I receive one final call from Operator the next day. He says this is a bit unusual, but one of my connections has requested to speak to me again. I accept the call. It’s Andy. It’s almost time.
He says he took all my suggestions, attempting to be cheerful but he sounds so scared. I don’t have time to marvel at the care Neiden and Candle House have taken to adapt this conversation completely to my responses in our previous call—I am far too emotional, feeling utterly unable to help comfort Andy.
He can’t stop thinking about what he could have done instead of all this. The choices he could have made that would have kept him with Julia, kept him alive. He is so grateful for my limited company that it pains me, and he asks me not to forget him.
Of course, I won’t, I start to say, but then a guard’s voice echoes in the distance, telling Andy it’s time. Tell me how you’ll remember me, he begs. I am sputtering out unfinished words and I can hear him being dragged from the phone. He starts to scream, and I squeeze my eyes shut as his last words echo on the line, fading away like his lost love.
I don’t wanna die. I don’t wanna die.
Operator calls one final time to review my “experience.” He says I can ask him one question, it’s something I’m never adept at in the moment, so I ask him how he is, and if he likes his job. He’s not sure, but he remarks how strange it is to hear all these stories go by and have no bearing on them; he’s detached from it all.
The main purpose of this call is to give me “outgoing messages”, the final moments before the death of each of the souls I’ve been speak to these past few days.
Olivia held her son’s body and told him about a beautiful memory she had of him walking for the first time. She couldn’t remember anything else in that moment as the house burned around her.
Maxwell lived for three months after I helped him escape, never coping well with physical and mental health assistance for his missing limb. Nothing was enough. He was found surrounded by Now and Later wrappers, dead by poison. His last text to his wife read: “I think she was right.”
Andy’s last message was more of the same, Operator said. This made me sadder than the rest somehow—I think he would have liked to be braver, in the end.
My Summoned lost soul: in the seconds before he died, he’d told his boyfriend he didn’t love him anymore. This was the missing piece of the story that the young man couldn’t remember when we spoke and I know now that I helped him remember that, in that last moment, he knew that control wasn’t love, too.
In the end we are all survived by the ghosts in the machine, Operator says, and one day he’ll record my outgoing message too, so for both his and my sake, he hopes I’ll make it a good one.
He says goodbye and I whisper it back as the line goes dead. The whole of the experience thrums like a dial tone through my being. I am electrified, transparent, and heartbroken, and overall, I feel a piece of each of these characters seared upon my senses.
Sometimes answers lie at the other end of crossed wires and sometimes they don’t. But you won’t know unless you pick up.
Crossed Wires achieved over three days what some grander remote immersive experiences fail to do in months: establish and maintain a genuine emotional connection between participant and performer. I found myself constantly thinking about the Lost Soul, Maxwell, Olivia, and Andy; their rage and sorrow and indignity coursing through me like static as I listened. Running like a thick current through all of this was the creative mind of Evan Neiden—his talent for storytelling and emotional engagement is simply unmatchable.
Candle House Collective’s sophomore outing is an extremely hopeful sign of things to come. The delicate blend of believable drama and the slightest tinge of horror makes their productions accessible on a broad scale to the immersive and theatre community as a whole. I left this experience with a greater understand of my own purpose—a remarkable feat for a series of phone calls.
As I move on reluctantly from this experience, I can’t help but see Crossed Wires as a perfect metaphor for both the burden and necessity of choice. No matter what, a decision will always await you, be it simple of complex, and we mustn’t shy away from the responsibility of making one. Somewhere out there, a phone is still ringing, an Operator is still waiting to connect us; all we have to do is answer the call.