Below is an exclusive interview with Aaron Keeling, Austin Keeling, and Natalie Jones, the creative team behind E3W Productions. E3W emerged onto the immersive theatre scene in 2017 with In Another Room, a melancholic series of ghost stories contained within one home. In 2018, they returned with Bitter At The End, a gorgeous, gloomy study of the end of life and how it affects the living and the dead alike. We had the pleasure of speaking with the group about their journey so far, and what we can look forward to in the future. Scroll down for a look at an exclusive behind the scenes look at Bitter at the End and explore the intricate sets for all seven deadly sins!
In both In Another Room and Bitter at the End, you explore death and its after-effects, do you see a continuing theme between your shows? What aspects of loss and echoes of the past attract you to those themes?
When we set out to start making immersive theatre, we definitely didn’t have an overarching theme in mind. We just started with what we were most interested in and went from there. We grew up in Kansas where the houses were all super old with lots of history, and during our childhoods we experienced several spooky unexplainable things. Since then we’ve always been interested in ghosts and ghost stories and haunted houses, so it made sense to use that as a jumping off point. We had already made a feature film about a haunted house, so we were really excited to explore a similar idea in a completely new medium.
During the writing process for In Another Room it quickly became evident that while we were obviously interested in the “spook factor”s of ghosts, what we were really drawn to was the tragedy inherent in every ghost story. Ghosts linger for a reason, and soon we were writing an exploration of all the many reasons they stay.
Bitter at the End, while drastically different in terms of content, is really just an extension of the same exploration. We were still examining death, and all the things that come after it. But this time we shifted our focus from the dead to the living, to examine a different type of haunting, the ghosts we carry around with us in our daily lives.
The three of us are very much afraid of death and ghosts, and a bit of that fear helped to inspire both Bitter at the End and In Another Room. Fear, grief, loss, horror – they go hand in hand for us, and we’ve had a great time mixing them together. And while we have many more themes and avenues we’re excited to produce work in, we definitely have some more digging to do in this realm.
Regarding set design: how was it to mount a production like Bitter at the End in a space that you were unfamiliar with, as opposed to In Another Room, which was build in your home? Were there any unique challenges to remounting In Another Room in a hotel room for The Overlook Film Festival?
Both situations were extremely difficult, albeit in vastly different ways. We produced In Another Room in our own apartment, which required us to live on a hot set for a few months. We gutted every room of our home and completely redesigned them – we painted, wallpapered, and splashed blood until the place was unrecognizable. To make matters worse we blacked out every window the audience would see, which forced us to live in perpetual darkness for the duration of the show’s run. Only the kitchen and a small bathroom were left untouched. As you can imagine this required a lot of patience, and by the end of it all we were going a little stir crazy!
Changing gears from a show in our apartment to a show in a rented space was really exciting, but pretty tough at times. The biggest challenge was that it was a space that was operational during the day, so the majority of our set up and rehearsal time was spent working around the team who was based out of the location. They were amazing and very accommodating and helpful, but it was definitely a much different vibe than waking up and rolling out of your own bed to start wallpapering the wall right next to you.
Working in the rented space was also challenging because, well… Nike. Our budgets for both shows were relatively tight, but luckily building a show out of our own apartment was fairly cheap in terms of location. Renting another space was another matter entirely, but luckily we were able to make a deal with the owners as they are amazing people and we all live in the same neighborhood. Unfortunately, because we were able to get such a steep discount, we also had to agree to give up the space in case any huge corporation wanted to come in and pay a much higher rental rate for just a few days. We were perhaps a bit too confident that something like that would never happen, but then… it did.
One day while we were putting finishing touches on some of the huts, a Nike representative came in and started taking photos and measurements of everything. We were horrified. And then all of a sudden we had to refund our entire second weekend of tickets and try our best to reschedule them for the following weekend. And then after the Sunday night performances of our opening weekend we had to stay up and completely disassemble everything, storing some of the larger items in a facility on site while having to haul most of the smaller props and set dressings (and there were a lot) back to our apartment where we lived like crazy hoarders for a week. And then, after Nike’s very quick weekend event, we had the fun and terrifying challenge of setting everything back up again in 2 days – after it had taken us 2 weeks to set up initially.
If it sounds like a nightmare, it’s because it was. It was legitimately the worst thing that could have happened. But – we were able to take it all down for Nike in time, and get it all back up in time, and with that week off we were able to add a few adjustments to the sets that really enhanced a few moments. And the next weekend went wonderfully! We’d never wish that experience on anyone else, and of course we hope never to face it again, but we do feel that we are much stronger and more confident afterwards. Hell, if we can break down seven intricately designed huts, a funeral parlor, and a heap of gold-plated trash in a few hours and get it all back up successfully in a few days, we can overcome anything!
Coming off the Bitter at the End experience, Overlook felt like a breeze! It was so fun to load up all the production design from the In Another Room scene and drive it across the country to set it up in a hotel room. It was of course challenging to try to make everything fit in a new space in a matter of a few hours, but again… we had just gone through Nike. We’re excited to keep producing shows in new locations and facing any challenges they present head on! (but please, Karma, hook us up with something easier next time around, we’re still so tired)
Can you tell us about the multiple tracks available to participants in Bitter at the End?
The show was split into four chapters: Death, Judgement, Hell, and Heaven. The first two chapters and the final chapter were the same experience for every audience member, but chapter three provided a unique experience for each guest.
Each of the seven characters grieving Grace’s death took an audience member alone into a small ‘hut’. These huts were all uniquely designed to reflect aspects of the character, the sin they represented, and the ways in which they were dealing with their grief. After spending some time with a character in their hut, the audience member would be led out and onto a predetermined track through a selection of other huts. There was a museum (Greed), a car crash (Wrath), a barn (Lust), a bedroom (Sloth), a bar (Gluttony), a hospital garden (Envy), and an artist’s studio (Pride). Each one had it’s own look and feel, it’s own distinct lighting and sound design, and some interactive and hidden elements (like a kaleidoscopic ‘doom-hole’ behind a painting in the bar, or a wall of rapidly running clocks behind a window in the bedroom).
Each hut had three distinct scenes, so there were a total of 21 individual scenes playing out within Hell. It was pretty confusing to map out – there were tons of moving parts, with 7 scenes playing simultaneously at any given moment, and lighting effects and sound cues happening in different huts at different times. The timing for this section especially was very rigid because each scene had to end at the exact same time that every other scene was ending in order for the transition periods to work.
As an audience member you were only able to see four scenes in three huts, so seeing the show once meant that four huts and 17 scenes were not experienced at all. We had a few people see the show a second time and we made sure they got a different track so that they could see more, but no one was able to see everything that took place in Hell. It was a LOT of content crammed into a relatively short chapter, and we’re super proud of the chaotic craziness of it all.
Tell us about your world-building process. How do you conceive the space and build the sets? Do you write based on a set or build an aesthetic based on the writing?
Both of our full shows have started with a location. We are constantly coming up with ideas for immersive content (we have a huge collection of dream projects), but ultimately it comes down to finding a perfect location in order to make a show into reality. Our apartment seems like a no-brainer, but it was never something we considered when first developing In Another Room. We had dreamed up so many plot points, characters, and designs for the show, but it never seemed like a feasible endeavor until someone suggested we use our own home – it started as a joke, actually, but we quickly realized the potential right in front of us. As soon as we made that decision, the show seemed to write itself.
The same thing happened with Bitter at the End. We knew we wanted to do a show that somehow dealt with the Seven Deadly Sins, but we didn’t know what to do with the various images and ideas we’d come up with until we stumbled upon the warehouse location we ended up using. It was just two blocks away from our apartment, a place we’d walked by day after day without ever realizing that, again, the answer was right there in front of us. We started writing the script as soon as we toured the space – the location lent the story structure, and dictated the way audience members would journey through our characters’ lives.
Of course all the really hard work comes after that – set construction, production design, lighting and sound and props and costumes, everything that brings these stories, vivid and breathing, to life. But location came first with each of our projects, and we’ve really enjoyed world-building in this way: allowing our imaginations to run wild, and then letting the location tell us what to do with it all.
What are your priorities during an experience? Are you comfortable with an audience member missing a narrative beat if it means they have the opportunity to have a personalized and intimate moment?
We believe pretty firmly that all audience members should have an equal experience during our immersive shows. If you bought a ticket, we want you to see the same show that your fellow audience members get to see. But there are different ways of achieving that. In Another Room was our first show, so we didn’t want to overwhelm ourselves with multiple audience paths – every single audience member saw the exact same show, except for a brief moment when the audience of three was split up for a small monologue scene. We wanted audience members to experience the story in a set path, and we led them through the narrative in a purposeful and strict trajectory.
With Bitter at the End, we had quite a challenge. We wanted each audience member to experience the third chapter, Hell, as a series of unique one-on-ones. We wanted to branch out from our first production and give audiences a higher level of intimacy than we’d previously created. In doing this, we had to be conscious of balancing the multiple paths available – there were essentially seven distinct and different shows happening at once during the Hell chapter. We wanted each audience member to walk away having experienced the same level of intimacy, the same emotional resonance, and the same transportive world building, all while experiencing something nobody else in that performance would get to see. It was tough, but we were very happy with how the seven paths turned out. Everyone got to see something a little different, but ultimately they all saw the same show. This was a really exciting form of storytelling for us to explore – we loved the idea of a fractured narrative where nobody gets all the pieces. It was so exciting to hear audience members come together and discuss what they’d seen during their track, comparing what they’d experienced and combing all the parts into something much larger.
In that regard, we are definitely comfortable with some audience members missing out on specific story points, as long as they aren’t being cheated out of seeing the entire show and getting the full experience they paid for. We love the idea of customizing paths for specific audience members, but we want each person to walk away from our shows equally satisfied.
What do you want audiences to feel during your experiences? What do you want them to walk away with after an experience?
The first few immersive shows that we went to absolutely cracked our worlds wide open. All of a sudden we became aware that there was this entirely unique and breathtaking world that had been hiding just out of sight, and now that we had found it, it truly felt that anything was possible. We love sharing our work with seasoned immersive theatre lovers – we love the community that’s formed out here and the overwhelming support that so many bring to our shows… but there’s a special thrill that comes from welcoming audiences that have never done immersive theatre before, people who don’t truly know what they’re about to experience and who come out with their worlds just a little bit cracked open.
That’s something we very much want our audiences to take away from our experiences, whether it’s their first show or their 100th – the feeling of being shaken and awake, grateful to be alive and consuming art here in Los Angeles surrounded by such insane talent and boundary pushing creativity. A secret door unlocked. A dusty bulb flickering to life. The world cracked open… It’s 2018 and anything is possible – what a time to be alive.
Are you hoping to continue these small, intimate shows, or explore larger pieces? You just wrapped on filming In Another Room as a Virtual Reality experience, would you do that again? In this regard, basically: what do you see on the horizon for E3W Productions in the rest of 2018?
We’d love to continue working on small, intimate, and richly detailed productions like In Another Room and Bitter at the End, while also pushing ourselves to try projects (both big and small) that force us out of our comfort zone and allow us to explore new aspects of immersive storytelling. One of the things we find most fascinating about the immersive world is how multi-faceted and wide-reaching the medium is – we feel we’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible. With that in mind, we’re incredibly excited about the future of E3W Productions. We hope to release some of the In Another Room footage (both VR and traditional) in the coming months, and we have a number of show ideas in the works that we’re really looking forward to. In our brief time creating immersive stories, we’ve had some of the most rewarding, inspiring, and artistically fulfilling experiences of our lives. We can’t wait for what comes next, and we hope you’ll join us wherever the story takes us.