Tripping the Ecto Fantastic

“Come close,” said a red jacketed usher, looming above us as she stood in the doorway of the van that will serve as our theatre. “I have a little speech to give.”

After my emotional trip to the Studio at the Vault Festival earlier that afternoon I was back, this time in one of their vehicle venues - parked at the end of Leake Street.

I was a little annoyed when I saw how close it was.

After trying and failing to get an answer out of the Vault Festival twitter feed as to how much time I should allow to get myself from a show in the Studio to a show in a vehicle venue, I could now see that time was zero seconds.

The check in point is literally just outside the main doors.

Thanks @VAULTfestival. You’re doing great work there not allowing yourself to get distracted from all that praise retweeting by indulging in a touch of customer service. Really super. Well done.

We do as the usher says, gathering close together - just as much to protect our shivering figures again the cold as to hear about our fate.

There weren’t many of us. Three sets of couples, and me.

“Once you come in,” red jacket continues now that we were suitably huddled. “You’ll be given a short opportunity to leave. But once the lights are off, that’s it. You’re stuck.”

A woman standing near me giggled nervously and her companion for the evening smirks. I’d already clocked the pair of them as out on a first date. She’s into tarot cards and healing. He’s trying to pretend that he doesn’t find that incredibly off-putting.

“If you really don’t like it,” says red jacket, “take your headphones off, and it will draw to a close naturally.”

Suitabley terrified, we were ushered into the back of the van.

A long table covered in a white tablecloth greeted us. Hanging above were dim lights, and bells, both hanging low. And either side - two rows of comfy chairs. With headphones.

“If you’re sitting on the right, take the headphones from over your right shoulder. If on the left, your left shoulder,” ordered the red jacket from the door.

After a little confusion about getting my left sorted from my right, I managed to pick the right (that is… left) headphones.

Further left and right disentanglement followed, matching up the big painted L and R on the phones themselves to my corresponding L and R ears.

“Can you hear me?” came the faint voice of the usher once we’d all managed this challenging feat.

We nodded.

She clapped. “Can you hear that?”

We nodded again. We could. Just about.

“Alright.”

And with that she left, shut the door, and plunged us into darkness.

From the other side of the van I heard a door open, and someone coming in. Footsteps clomped around behind me. I had the remind myself there was nothing behind me other than the solid wall of the van.

An unseen voice instructed us to place our hands on the table. I did as I was told, setting my palms flat against the rough cloth. We were taking part in a séance, calling on the departed souls of our loved ones. We must not remove our hands from the table. That was very important. Or the spirits might break free.

I wasn’t overly fussed about that.

Or calling about the spirits of my loved ones, to be honest.

Any spirit would do me.

I’ve been hankering after meeting a theatre ghost for years. And if this was my time to finally get my ghoul on, there, inside a dark van parked on the end of Leake Street… well I wasn’t about to complain if the ectoplasm dripping on my shoulder belonged to a stranger.

I blinked in the darkness. It didn’t seem to make any difference.

I experimented. Closing my eyes, and then opening them again.

A few feet away, I spotted the glimmer of a light.

Someone had forgotten to turn their phone off.

A second later it disappeared.

The blackness took over.

The voices in my ear grew more frantic. Something was going wrong.

I clamped my hands down hard on the table. It was a touch too far away. My arms ached from being stretched out so long.

I wriggled forward, until my knees crashed against the solid block that was the table. It was really uncomfortable sitting like that. My muscles ached. I needed to move my arms, shake them out, but I didn’t dare.

My heart was hammering.

It was so cold. I hadn't taken my coat or shall off, but the freezing air had seeped under my skin.

I wanted to take my headphones off. I wanted to wrap my shawl tighter around my shoulders. But I couldn’t lift my fingers from the table.

My hands began to tremble.

Was it the cold, or terror? I knew it was all rubbish. No one was there. It was just a recording.

If only it weren’t so dark…

The trembling became a shudder. It wasn’t my hands. It was the table. It was rising up, taking my hands with it.

I bit the inside of my mouth, telling myself over and over that it was okay. 

Noises clanged around us. It was so loud. My fingers twitched as they begged to cover my ears.  

Louder and louder until I couldn't take a second longer... 

The table shook violently as it sank back down to the floor.

The awful clanging stopped.

Something was moving around the room again.

Something… not human.  

And then… and then the lights flickered back on. A faint glow, inching itself brighter until we were left blinking at each other across the table.

The pair on the first date had their hands stowed in their laps. They grinned at each other sheepishly. Those two will go far.

The couple that disobeys together, stays together after all.

The door crashed open. “Everyone out!” ordered red jacket.

We scuttled out of the van, our heads bowed. No one wanted to meet each other’s eyes, lest we reveal how scared we were.

Safely back in Waterloo and juddering off home on the tube, I checked my phone.

I’d tried to take a photo of the inside of the van, but my photo roll was completely empty. It jumped straight from the graffiti of Leake Street to the shadowy outside of the van. There was nothing to show for my time inside.

Now, either that’s just my crappy phone or...

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Pottering about

People who have anxiety shouldn’t have to go to immersive theatre.

People who have anxiety shouldn’t do theatre marathons.

When the Vault Festival released their line-up earlier in the year I was a just a tad concerned about the number of spaces they were taking over, but also a little thrilled. Nine venues that were relevant to the rules of this challenge. Nine venues that need to be burst through within a single festival. Nine venues that include: Unit 9.

I didn’t understand the significance of this space at first.

It was just one in a long list of venues that I needed to get to.

That was until the very moment when I sorted my massive spreadsheet of Vault shows by venue and spotted something: every single show taking place in Unit 9 was immersive.

Every. Single. One.

Because, and forgive me if you already know this, Unit 9 is an immersive theatre space. That’s what it’s there for. That’s its thing.

If I was going to complete this marathon, I was going to need to get my immersion on.

After releasing a plaintive cry out over Twitter, the no-nonsense @Weez sorted through the options and leant me her analysis of the situation. Something for which I will forever be grateful for.

The Archive of Educated Hearts it was.

Ticket booked!

After the gentle charm of the Puppet Theatre Barge earlier than afternoon, I wasn’t quite sure I was ready to be thrown into the anxiety-inducing world of immersive theatre.

When I got to Waterloo, I headed straight for the nearest Cafe Nero for a restorative hot chocolate and toasted tea cake.

Yes, it may be rather pre-emptive to be having my restorative sugar-dose before the show, but who knew if I would actually survive to eat carbs again!

And yes, I’d already had a hot chocolate that afternoon on the barge, but I’d got a taste for it by then. I wanted that warming feeling in my belly once more.

Teacake consumed, I had to admit that I had done as my preparation as could possibly be expected, and I made my way over to Leake Street.

I’d been there before. Back when the Vaults first opened and everyone was buzzing with excitement about this brand new venue. But since then, my internal map has grown a little faded and I had to look up the “Finding Us” information on the e-ticket. A little vague on first read, but I put my faith in the instructions and soon I was making my way down the “first set of stairs you come to” and found myself in the heavily graffitied tunnel that is home to the Vaults.

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Bag checked, I headed inside.

Oh good. There was a map up on the wall.

I scanned it: Cavern, Pit, Forge. All places that I’ll be visiting over the next few weeks.

But no Unit 9.

I looked over at the chalk boards displaying all the start times of the shows that day.

No The Archive of Educated Hearts.

Had I imagined the entire thing?

Have my dreams of going to the theatre now extended into my waking hours?

Was Unit 9 nothing more than a nightmare dreamt up by my anxiety? I sure hoped so.

But I thought I better double check all the same.

“Hi. Where’s Unit 9?” I asked at box office. “I don’t see it on the map.”

“Are you seeing one of the immersive pieces?”

I cringed. “Yes.”

“Is it Séance?”

“No. It’s the one with the really long name.” We stared at each other. “Hang on.” I got my phone out. “Archive of Educated Hearts?” I said, as a question.

“Right,” she nodded. “If you head outside you’ll see a sign for it. Just wait there and you’ll be led over to the venue.”

I did as she said, heading back out.

I saw a sign of the studio. But nothing for Unit 9.

“Sorry, where’s the queue for Unit 9?” I asked a pink-jacketed usher.

“Are you here for one of the immersive experiences?” she asked.

I cringed again. I wish that would stop using that word.

I nodded. “Archive of the Educated Hearts,” I said.

She pointed my across the road.

“Just over there. If you talk to the lady in the pink jacket, she’ll tell you where to go.”

Passed over to my second pink-jacket of the evening, I was checked in via the medium of a tablet and then the both of us, pink-jacket and me, waited for the rest of the gang to arrive.

I was relieved to find out I wasn’t the only one confused by this system.

“Is this for Archive?”

“Are you queuing for Unit 9?”

“Do I need to give you my name now?”

But eventually we all got our names ticked off on the tablet and a third pink-jacket arrived.

“Everyone for The Archive of Educated Hearts and Escape the Jacket…” He paused dramatically. “Follow me!”

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We followed him, down the tunnel, past the graffiti artists and the photographers recording their work. Past cafes tucked into arches and anti-Brexit artwork. Past a rapper who was apparently filming a music video (“he has his lyrics on the floor,” giggled the girls in front of me who seemed to recognise him).

Then reaching for a part of the wall that looked like every other part of the wall, our personal pink-jacket opened a previously invisible door and ushered us in.

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The stark pale stones and strung up lights were a bit of a shock after the riotous colour of the tunnel. It was like being ushered into a cave.

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“If you’re here for Escape the Jacket, stand over by that wall,” called the man behind the desk. “Everyone for Archive - over there.” He pointed slightly further into the space.

Our group split into two.

Standing a few feet off, a woman in full Marlene Dietrich mode (including the top hat), escaped from another show (and possibly a jacket), smiled at us as we were led past, deep into the cavern.

We rounded a corner, and there, was our destination.

A small garden-shed.

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“You can leave your bags over there, if you like. No one else will be let in. They’re quite safe,” said a young woman wearing comfy looking dungarees and a warm scarf. “Come in, take a seat. If we’re sold out one of you will need to take the very special seat on the floor. Don’t worry, there’s a cushion.”

We ducked our heads and went in, inching our way along the walls to reach our seats.

It was a tight squeeze, but very comfortable. Postcards flittered above our heads, clipped onto twine. A desk was cramped with oddments from old watches to books to dried flowers.

And the smell… something floral and herby. Like the insides of a Miller Harris boutique. I breathed in deep.

“I’m closing the door now,” announced our dungareed host. “If you want to leave, just let me know. I’m only locking it to stop it from opening itself.”

She introduced herself (“I’m Casey”) switched on a CD player that looked like it was lifted straight from my dorm bedroom at school, laughed at the music (“spa music”), removed her coat and began to give us the housekeeping speech. All very casual. All very chill. I began to relax.

So did everyone else.

One woman even asked if the music could be turned down. “You don’t worry about that,” assured Casey. She was right, we didn’t.

We didn’t need to worry about anything.

Casey led us through the show, sometimes playing clips of people talking, sometimes showing us photos, sometimes talking herself. Everything with a warm earnestness that was a soothing balm on my anxious soul.

A men closed his eyes to listen. A woman rested her head on her partner’s shoulder and squeezed his hand tight. The lady who had asked for the music to be turned down dabbed at her eyes.

After half an hour, we were let out.

“I’m just going to give you a card from CoppaFeel,” said Casey, removing a pile of small cards with instructions on how to self-exam your breasts from the desk. “Keep one or give it to a loved one.”

I took a card, and a minute later I was disgorged back into the tunnel - with its graffiti artists, and photographers, and people queuing for shows. And I felt utterly, and totally, calm.