After speaking to dead people, flying a jet liner and putting people into a coma, Amy Johnson and Nathan Alexander are ready for their next challenge.
For the past few years, the Melbourne-based couple, who run Realscape Productions, have travelled across the Nullarbor with a cluster of sea containers, ready to send a shiver down audience’s spines through their hugely popular Darkfield shows — Séance, Flight and Coma.
Although they take delight in terrifying thousands of people, they pair are actually surprisingly flighty themselves.
“I hate being scared, but I enjoy the reactions of other people though,” Alexander laughs.
“It is really hard to scare people well, and rather than jump scares, the shows are very Black Mirror-ish and the idea it could actually happen is quite suspenseful.
“We allow people’s imaginations to take over, and it is way more fun to scare people that way.”
Using binaural 360-degree sound, complete darkness and a variety of sensory effects, where each participant is situated at the centre of intense, evolving narratives, the Darkfield shows have established a reputation for rattling those with even the most fearless temperaments.
Based off the notion that loss of vision heightens the other senses and makes them more vulnerable to manipulation, audiences are immersed in the dark.
The total loss of vision causes other senses to heighten, fixating on every movement and sound, which Alexander says is the “biggest trick” of what unfolds.
“It does sound like everything that is happening is realistic and with the addition of the dark and the fact you can’t see anything, your brain starts playing tricks on you,” he says.
“If you turn lights off and use a bit of a sense of where a sound is coming from, you can lose your place.”
Johnson jumps in: “By taking away your vision, you are taking away your brain’s ability to fact check and there is no way to gauge what is reality or just the sound.”
That deprivation of the senses leads many to question what is unfolding, so much so that in one of their shows, many people swear they see someone run past them but in fact, nobody is there.
“It’s important every show does make people feel something and Darkfield has tapped into people’s anxieties,” Johnson says.
“It’s really interesting though in that it isn’t really scary for everybody. For example, if you are scared of flying, Flight could be scary for you, but if you aren’t it could just be a strange and interesting experience.
“We always enjoy hearing the conversations when people come out.”
After first meeting in Britain, in 2017 the pair were living in Canada when they decided to move to Johnson’s native Australia.
With Brit Alexander working in theatre production, he was starting to toy with ideas for shows he could stage once in Melbourne, and stumbled across the idea of speaking with the dead.
“I had said I wanted to try and put on a show about a séance and soon after I was flicking through Facebook and saw a review for a show being staged in London that was a séance in a shipping container,” Alexander says.
Stopping in London on their move, they purchased tickets to the production and were entranced.
Soon after, they contacted the creators David Rosenberg and Glen Neath to see if they would agree to have them put on the shows in Australia.
Four years later, they continue to help both produce and put on the shows here. They have now become so successful that the number of people who have stepped inside the sea containers across Australia has now overtaken that of any other country.
Now, their latest show, Eulogy, continues to play off our anxieties by not only plunging us into darkness, but allowing a “choose your own adventure” style of narrative.
Set to have its Australian premiere at Perth’s Fringe World Festival next month, the story takes place inside a hotel and sees audience members seated in a laundry cage, before being taken on a journey throughout the building.
But the biggest difference this time around is that each participant can decide how the story progresses. It means every person could have a different experience depending on their answers.
“For a while David and Glen have been wanting to do voice recognition and with every show they want to add an extra layer to what is already there,” Alexander explains.
“We are already established enough for people to know they are going into a shipping container and will have headphones on and it will be in dark so now it is about what other things can we add to it that people aren’t really expecting.
“We did that with Flight by setting it on a plane and with Coma by weaving in smells and right from the start, people said they wanted something tailored for them.
“With technology and the way it is going now, it is a natural progression and so we wanted to bring a taste of a ‘choose your own adventure’.”
For the faint of heart, the pair reassure prospective participants that despite what they may have heard, they will likely make it through the experience relatively unscathed.
“I think if people are really claustrophobic it can be very stressful but apart from that most people are actually OK,” Johnson says.
“It’s usually just scarier going in because you have preconceived notions from other people doing it.”
But have they ever witnessed any spectacular meltdowns from people who couldn’t quite handle the pressure?
“We used to but not so much now,” Alexander laughs.
“When we first started a lot of people thought we were actually presenting a real séance and we did once have someone climb across a table and crawl over people in a race to get out.”
“We do make sure we brief people before the show though and make sure that they understand they are going into a dark shipping container,” Johnson adds.
“If they don’t know that, that’s not the nicest surprise.”
With immersive theatre a recent arrival on our shores, the pair say getting to lead the charge has been an exhilarating experience.
“We brought something no one had seen or done before and that was really exciting,” Johnson says.
“A few years ago no one was really even using the word immersive and all of a sudden it is the buzz word.”
The uptake has been so successful, in Perth, more than 30,000 people have attended one of their shows since 2018.
“We love presenting the shows in Perth because we get such a great response,” Johnson says.
“The audiences there, particularly at Fringe, embrace the opportunity and run with it.”
On top of Perth being the first place they will be premiering Eulogy in Australia, this Fringe World will also see all four Darkfield shows staged in the same place at once, the first time that has ever happened around the world.
For those of us yet to take the jump and allow the couple to mess with our heart rates, what would they suggest to newcomers?
“I would say to do Séance first because there is more magic to it if you don’t know how the shows work,” Johnson says.
Even for those who have been before, they say a second showing guarantees to throw up some new surprises.
“The first time most people go they are scared or preoccupied trying to understand what is happening so then you can miss things and lose some of the enjoyment,” Alexander says.
“There’s actually one detail in Flight that is included for people to deliberately miss and it is a great talking point.
“So I’d definitely recommend going again because once you know what the shows are about, you can get way more out of them.”
Séance, Flight, Coma and Eulogy will run from January 14 – February 13 at The Woodside Pleasure Garden and the Perth Cultural Centre as part of the Fringe World Festival. Tickets from fringeworld.com.au.