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Headlands Gamble Is an Immersive Weekend Getaway for Two

Experiences

Jessica Lachenal | January 17, 2018
The company First Person Travel combines a curated narrative adventure with romantic sightseeing all around California’s Marin County.
(N.b.: Mild spoilers for Headlands Gamble follow.)

On paper, Headlands Gamble seems impossible. It’s a fully curated immersive experience for two, carried out over an entire weekend, complete with actors, props, site-specific installations, and a plot that would feel right at home in any pulp noir fiction. With so many moving parts, Headlands Gamble seems like a working lesson in Murphy’s Law. How could anyone find order in this apparent chaos? What does that order look like? What would anyone even call it?

Enter Gabe Smedresman’s First Person Travel, the “immersed-narrative travel agency” behind the production. Alongside a crew of actors, production assistants, and stage managers, Smedresman has curated an unforgettable experience for two in the Marin Headlands just outside San Francisco.

Touching on the clockwork-like precision of such a production, Michael Garcia, First Person Travel’s Immersive Experience Producer, says, “There’s an enormous apparatus behind the scenes working to make sure each traveler has an experience that is not only fun and personalized but also lifts the typical risks and responsibilities of travel from their shoulders, allowing them to focus more deeply on the experiences and the company of their travel companion. It’s extremely satisfying to me when our travelers are delighted and surprised by all the amazing little details of this show.”

True to the “travel agency” vibe their name evokes, First Person Travel combines the novelty of exploring a tourist destination with the most exciting parts of immersive experiences — and as any experience designer can tell you, this alchemy begins with a good story.

Headlands Gamble places guests in the role of detectives investigating the disappearance of a prize racehorse, Talisman. Over the course of the weekend, they’ll be invited to question potential suspects, each of whom has his or her own secrets, while searching for clues in a variety of eminently picturesque locations around Marin.

Scriptwriter Satya Bhabha, who wrote Headlands Gamble’s story, has compared the experience to being a detective in Twin Peaks. As guests delve further into each character’s background and motivations, the darker everything seems to become. The search for a missing racehorse turns slowly into something just a bit more sinister.

But this isn’t to say that Headlands Gamble is all noir and intrigue. It’s also an opportunity to explore a part of the Bay Area that has garnered a reputation for being a bit… quirkier than its surrounding area. When guests aren’t cross-examining suspects or exploring potential crime scenes, they’re invited to just be tourists for a while. There are all sorts of shops, restaurants, and destinations sprinkled throughout the experience, and guests are encouraged to spend time checking them out.

Moreover, the experience is deliberately designed to be a romantic weekend getaway. Trip packages include features such as a “one-bedroom at a cozy seaside hotel” (or an idyllic ranch, if you spring for the top-tier experience), meals and drinks included. On top of that, upon arrival, guests are greeted with a picnic basket of wine and chocolates, along with an invitation to watch the sunset from a nearby beach. Granted, these things could absolutely be shared between (very, very good) friends, but the undercurrent of romance threads its way through much of the weekend.

It’s difficult to pin down just what Headlands Gamble is. Is it immersive theater? Is it a vacation? Is it just for tourists, or is it for everybody? Garcia answered all of these questions by sharing a comment from a guest: “One of our travelers told us that his Headlands Gamble adventure was an experience of ‘complete transcendence of form,’” he says. “I really think that’s what the show is about. We’re doing our best to transcend the forms of a vacation or a night at the theater, but we’re also trying, at a deeper level, to allow the audience — our travelers — to transcend the forms that make up their lives.”

Going further, Garcia explains that his own practice regarding immersive experiences centers on the surprise and unexpectedness that comes with stumbling on these things in the wild — something that lies very close to the heart of First Person Travel’s work. “My best work is created for the unsuspecting participant,” he says. “I truly love events and artwork that appear in unexpected places; these moments of surprise create liminal spaces, cracks in the tectonic armor of the mundane, through which transcendence can seep in like groundwater. That’s what I love about the Gamble: it’s a cascade of delightful surprises that feels real, safe, and personal.”

Headlands Gamble may not fit neatly into a genre, and, truth be told, it doesn’t need to. Transcending form is part and parcel of immersive experiences. As long as we’re thinking of Headlands Gamble as an ambitious, impossible-seeming, yet altogether surprising and wonderful experience, why shouldn’t it defy genre as well?

Jessica Lachenal is a writer, editor, and immersive experience designer. Her writing and art have been featured in No Proscenium, The Mary Sue, SFist, The Advocate, The Bold Italic, Model View Culture, an indoor forest, the streets of downtown Oakland, a selection of basements in San Francisco, the San Francisco Bay Bridge, and elsewhere. Find her at jessicalachenal.com.

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