In The Dark

On Wednesday night, Elly and I spent the evening acquainting ourselves with an experience that I can only describe as mantis shrimp-worshipping, neo-religious cult indoctrination meets the Escape Room. We’re still confused – just as confused as you are reading the previous sentence – and that’s a terribly good thing.

The Metanoia Theatre’s latest interactive theatre show, In The Dark, is at once confronting, engaging, and perplexing. Elly thought I had brought her to an actual cult meeting. This was not an unreasonable assumption – when we went through the doors of the Mechanics Institute in Brunswick, we were immediately welcomed by four very friendly people wearing identical white polo shirts emblazoned with a mantis shrimp totemic symbol.

Our facilitators – played by actors Christian Taylor, Sonja Bishopp, Ruby Hughes and Patrick Considine – are members of the Fellowship of the Aquara, here to guide us through the evening’s “Renewal Ceremony”. Its mysterious founding father, Poseidon Maelström BFA (played by Tim Phillips), is as present as he is absent – various muted screens around the performance’s main room play film recordings of a zen-like Poseidon talking to the camera throughout the show.

Video by Iris Gaillard, Georgia Symons and Tim Phillips

For the next hour we partake in activities that include self-esteem bolstering exercises, meditative .mp3s with The Little Book of Calm-style narration, plastic garlic crushers, Louis the mantis shrimp, scrounging around in a darkened “maze”, ping pong balls, crab dancing, and group-chanting a ceremonial verse. The Fellowship of the Aquara lead us through all of this in the name of obtaining the three desirable qualities of the mystical mantis shrimp – strength, beauty, energy – that we are promised will fill the void most human beings feel on a regular basis by virtue of existing.

It’s a classic cult trope – what the show’s director Iris Gaillard terms “the commodification of wellbeing.” Gaillard is currently investigating ritual and ceremony as modes of performance. Having trained as an actor, director and set designer in Paris and recently graduated from the VCA, she has been collaborating with emerging playwrights to produce experimental live art and site-specific works since moving to Melbourne in 2011.

In the case of In The Dark, Gaillard wanted to “confront my own scepticism towards religion and beliefs and try not to be biased,” and to “create a full experience, not just a show, a space that would allow people to exercise their critical mind, speak up […] and stand up for what they believe.”

“It is as equally fun as it is confusing. It is like walking into a weird motivational seminar. It is not just a show but a full experience: you’ll be taken into a journey and will be offered to wake up from it.”

Video by Iris Gaillard, Georgia Symons and Tim Phillips

The creators wanted to provoke discussion, and construct points of genuine engagement. In The Dark’s writer and game designer Georgia Symons works at the Escape Room and completed her Master’s at the VCA, and her childhood formed the basis of inspiration for this piece.

“I was religious when I was younger,” says Symons, “and I used to go to a youth group every week. Twice a year, they would hold these game events called ‘In the Dark’. They were my favourite time of year. The youth group leaders would all dress up as figures from the Bible, and there would be some biblical puzzle to solve. Then we would all have to run in and out of this maze that they set up looking for clued to figure out the solution to this biblical (and always very moral) problem.

“As I grew up, I then lost my faith. Looking back, those dark mazes full of hidden delights and dangers seemed like a pretty apt metaphor for trying to negotiate a relationship with faith. So I wanted to use that as a starting point for the work.”

Looking back, those dark mazes full of hidden delights and dangers seemed like a pretty apt metaphor for trying to negotiate a relationship with faith. So I wanted to use that as a starting point for the work.

The evening’s maze eventually detours into internal dissidence, and that’s when In The Dark really becomes provocative. It cuts through the more playful aspects of the performance and becomes quite confrontational. Confrontation is something almost everyone I know struggles with but somehow, in the setting that Gaillard and Symons have orchestrated, us audience members find our voices, and everyone starts talking about how they feel with a brazen lack of fear. We’re no longer just playing along for the joke’s sake – something much more real is going on here.

Of course, there’s a parodic element throughout, but this just makes participating more fun, more of a game – until it isn’t, and then there’s something more to be learned, something more to be understood.

And what is that exactly? You’ll have to attend and decide for yourself. As for us, we’re still a bit in the dark about what it was that we underwent – and we’ll be thinking about that for quite a while yet.

 

In The Dark is running until Sunday 17 May at the Metanoia Theatre at the Mechanics Institute in Brunswick. You can buy tickets here.

Photo credit: All images by Elly Freer.