The Whispers in the Willows

In a sprawling, old house just south of Koreatown, a new immersive theater piece unfolds.

A mere 18 audience members at a time are invited to have dinner with the Willows, a peculiar family so full of dark secrets and thinly veiled resentments it’s a wonder they manage to share a ZIP code let alone one roof.

Guests actually do eat with the family—the meal includes cheese, charcuterie, bread and vegan potato soup.

Yet the heart of the play lies in the family’s lurid history and why they’ve selected you, of all people, to sit at their table.

The Willows comes via Justin Fix and his company, Just Fix It Productions.

For the last two Halloweens, Fix and his team have presented Creep LA, a theatrical and interactive haunted house where audience members mingle in dimly lit lounges and navigate surreal labyrinths filled with unsettling tableaus. Notably, while guests may not touch the actors, the actors may touch them.
The Willows is more subtle, however. It’s a gothic horror play that invites the audience to step inside and play themselves.

The Willows begins at an unassuming street corner near Arlington Avenue and 12th Street, where guests wait for their ride to the party. It arrives in the form of an SUV, and a humorless host demands guests enter silently, fasten their seat belts and place a black blindfold over their eyes.

After a few misleading twists and turns, the SUV arrives at The Willows’ home. It is not particularly far from the meeting point, but the ride is an added measure of privacy, as the house is otherwise home to a real-life family.

According to Fix, he and his team looked at several properties before choosing The Willows’ home. It’s gorgeous and stately, set back from the road, and the front doors open to reveal hardwood floors and an imposing staircase.

As guests climb out of the SUV, they meet Uncle Ricky, who is just arriving with groceries.

He introduces dinner guests to the rest of the family, which includes angsty teen sister Angela, frenetic cousin Conrad, Lindsey the butler and Deirdre the maid. Guests who head to the parlor for a glass of wine may encounter Claudia, a tragically young widow who seems to run on liquor and gossip.

All seem afraid of the stern matriarch of the family, Rosemary Willows, who will later assume the head of the dinner table. Yet by the time dinner is served, it has become clear that there is something pernicious at work and that none of the Willows are being entirely honest with their guests.

Throughout the evening, the family spills their dark secrets, but slowly. It’s a low whisper as a wine glass is refilled, or an innuendo nearly lost with the passing of the salt.

It’s a poem tucked beneath a seemingly innocuous tray of cookies. There is no need to rummage through drawers or remove paintings from the walls, but being observant of things within eyesight may reveal additional clues.

In this manner, the narrative is like an iceberg: there’s a little on the surface and there’s a whole lot more underneath.

Certain audience members may be pulled aside individually or in groups of two or three for private scenes.

While all of it may very well build to a single, cohesive story, no one guest will be able to experience all of it in one showing. Think of it like watching a TV program, but actually being a character instead of a viewer.

If you’re part of the A story, that’s what you see. If you’re part of the B story, you’re on a different track. If you talk to characters from the A story, you may get the details, but you won’t get the experience.

So if you want the entire story weaving through The Willows, you’re forced to buy multiple tickets on different nights, or to talk to your fellow dinner guests.

“We wanted to create conversation and connectivity among strangers,” Fix said. “We really wanted people to feel like they had these true, personalized, intimate moments with our characters and for them then to put together their own narrative or to ask their own questions to gain further insight into the true dynamics of this family.”

This can seem as though it puts a lot of pressure on the cast. Instead of simply reading the lines they’ve memorized, they’re forced to improvise with audience members who may ask a variety of questions.

Yet each one of them was more than able to hold a conversation with even the most inquisitive guest.

It’s more impressive still when Fix admits that the actors only had five days of full rehearsals before their first performance.

“Los Angeles has an abundance of [actors] who are vying for opportunities to play and perform and being in a very commercial and film-driven city, I feel like L.A. is a tough city to do theater in,” Fix said. “I think that’s maybe this new way of experiencing theater … has shifted things a bit. We’ve really started to see the growth and expansion of immersive theater, but at the end of the day, it’s really just true theater.”

The Willows will host dinner on sporadic nights up until September, when Just Fix It will turn its eyes to Halloween.

If the demand for more showings is there, The Willows will return in 2018, though perhaps not always to Los Angeles.

“We could pop this show up anywhere as long as there was a house that had the requirements.”

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