Spring's rebirth may be in the air, but across San Francisco this week, much of the city is pondering death.
That’s the focus of Reimagine End of Life, a weeklong exploration of a subject many regard with sadness and abject dread. The festival, running April 16–22, encompasses 175 unique events that range from a panel on how to ensure your last wishes are honored to a grief-themed comedy showcase — all designed to encourage conversation and diminish the stigmas that surround life’s end.
Serving as one of Reimagine’s centerpieces is Second Chance — a two-hour immersive experience in which groups of ten are given the opportunity to face their own death. Taking place in the multi-story Mission District workspace The Laundry, the show utilizes elements like virtual reality, lighting design, acrobats, and live music as a means of allowing participants to experience death and, as a hopeful result, to live life more fully.
Second Chance producers Scott Shigeoka, Roxanna Shohadaee, and Melinda Lauw each bring different backgrounds to the project while collectively sharing a passion for immersive experiences.
Shigeoka can trace his interest back to a treehouse he and his father built in a mango tree where, as a child, he used to act out elaborate stories. Shohadaee turned down a full ride at Vanderbilt to study astronomy in pursuit of the arts, which included a four-year stint working for Burning Man. Lauw is one of the co-founders of Whisperlodge — an immersive sensory spa that taps into the concept of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), in which pleasure is derived from certain visual, auditory, and tactile stimuli.
The popularity of immersive experiences, a catch-all term for productions that circumvent theater’s fourth wall and require participants to actively engage in the performance, continues to rise. From landmark productions like New York City’s Sleep No More to a number of seasonal haunted houses (or “haunts”) that occur in Los Angeles each fall, the public’s appetite for interactive theater appears to be insatiable. While by nature immersive experiences are best enjoyed without knowing too much beforehand, the producers of Second Chance insist that no one who buys a ticket should be scared of what they’ll encounter.
“It's not about shock,” Shigeoka says. “It's not about triggering anyone. It's not meant to be provocative in that sense.” He notes that each performance of Second Chance provides access to counselors and death doulas for anyone who may require them.
After purchasing a ticket, participants are asked to fill out a short survey, which is used to help tailor the experience to each person. Upon entering, attendees are guided for the duration of the performance, which includes elements like writing a eulogy and drinking tea served from cups made with human ashes.
Shigeoka recognizes that some people are wary of facing their own death, but he believes embracing that vulnerability is the first step on the journey he and his co-creators have curated.
“There's always that moment where you're really nervous or scared to take a leap into the unknown,” he acknowledges, “but when you do it, oftentimes you look back and see that you were nervous or afraid because it was a moment of growth.”
Co-creator Roxanna Shohadaee points to the stories from survivors of near-death experiences, which the Second Chance team actively solicited in the early stages of creating the production.
“Across the board, their feedback was that they lived more fully following their experiences,” she notes.
While Shigeoka understands that, for some, more passive Reimagine offerings like poetry readings and film screenings may be the ideal fit, he’s proud that the festival is providing a chance for those who crave immersion to engage with a subject so often relegated to the shadows of our consciousness.
“This is a conversation, these questions around life and death, that hopefully all of San Francisco will be having through Reimagine. We definitely see Second Chance as part of a broader effort, but we're really excited to provide an opportunity for those who really want to be a part of an immersive experience where they're given a platform to explore and to go as deep as they want.”
'Second Chance' runs April 20–22 at The Laundry (3359 26th St., San Francisco). Tickets are $77; scholarships available. Details here.