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Written By:

Ed Fortune
Ivan Caric of

Ivan Caric is the Founder and Creative Director of Lemon Difficult,  a critically acclaimed immersive experience company that blends immersive theatre, overnight historic stay vacations, narrative puzzles and fine dining into something rather unique. We caught up with him to find out more about the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired event, The Key of Dreams…

STARBURST: How would you pitch The Key of Dreams to someone who really likes scary movies?

Ivan Caric: We don’t have jump-scares, but if you relish creeping dread, that growing realisation that things aren’t quite right and that they might spiral and get out of control, then you’ll be right at home. The concept of apophenia, the idea that everything is connected, from a thrown-away phrase to a carved gargoyle on the wall, and the growing realisation of how it fits together, is part of what I love in scary movies. Discovering the stories that happened at the house, why and where. Also, how the characters currently in the house relate to them, and what their goals are, and more importantly what will you do to affect these stories, that’s the magic of what we’re hoping people will experience. One of the touchstones for our experience is a M.R. James quote that I particularly like:

If any of [my stories] succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained.

Where did the idea for Lemon Difficult and The Key of Dreams come from?

After the lockdown horror of the past few years, a key part of what I wanted to do was to create joy and connections. To capture that spark of joy you get when you make an intuitive leap or a link. This could be the solution to a puzzle, or more likely when you link motives, people, places and objects together and finding that “Oh, I understand what that means now!” moment. Through simple systems, actors, diegetic props, soundscapes, an incredible location and great writing, I wanted to create an experience that feels hospitable and genuinely delights people and has no right way to experience it.

The experiences we produce are truly unique. We cheerfully embrace multiple genres, including immersive theatre, roleplaying, escape rooms, puzzles, and gourmet dining. As it is an overnight experience, there is time to soak up the atmosphere of the incredible 17th-century manor house and grounds. Guests have time to build relationships with the characters and the other guests in a way that you simply can’t do in other immersive shows. They can explore interlinked narratives, solve puzzles, learn about the characters in the house, and discover the growing horror of the things that have happened, all the while being gently drawn further and further in until, by the end, they’re as bought into the setting and the events as the characters themselves.

It’s a lovely venue; what is the site selection process?

We spent a long time looking at venues, most of which would have worked fine, each with its own advantages, but Treowen felt special straight away. It has a curious liminal quality, it is old and grand, but still feel curiously homely. It hasn’t been modernised, so you feel like you could be in the past. The oak panelled walls and Morris papered walls would have been identical fifty or a hundred years ago. At night, it is even more unworldly; the lights are dim, the floors and doors creak, and with the darkness encroaching around you, there is a feeling that you could be in a strange dream, that the walls between the waking world and the sleeping ones are thin and who knows what you might experience.

How different is The Key of Dreams from The Locksmith’s Dream?

We’ve learned a lot from The Locksmith’s Dream – in fact, it’s still running. However, one of the things we wanted to explore that the audience loved was their agency and their relationships with the characters. We have a couple of unique advantages in that we have a really high actor-to-guest ratio – 1 to 4 – which means that you really get to know the characters and develop strong opinions one way or the other. Secondly, we have time; the audience spends 24 hours in this amazing house (which is a character all of its own) with these strange characters, you will break bread with them, debate and argue with them, cajole them, scold them even. All of this means that when you make a decision to help them, trick them, or even betray them, it actually means something because you know them, and you have an idea of how your actions will affect them.

Why did you decide to start running events like this?

I worked in large telecom corporations for nearly twenty years; it is as dull as it sounds! Sadly, my dad died at the end of 2020 during lockdown, and like lots of people did, I reevaluated what I was doing, decided to pack in my job and try to create something that brings a bit of joy into the world. Gaming – board gaming, TTRPGs, and, of course, computer games – literature, weird fiction and theatre have been a source of comfort, joy and connection for me throughout my life. I began wondering if combining these in unusual and unexpected ways would help me create something a little magical.

Are immersive experiences the future of theatre?

‘Immersive’ is a much-overused word at the moment, which means that the word is a bit of a vague and shifting term. Does it mean that the audience has agency, that they are in a world that they can wander around, or one in which the inhabitants acknowledge their presence? There’s value in all of these, and they can be delightful in their own way. I don’t think that immersive experiences are the future as such, although we certainly will see many, many more and more of these sorts of experiences, I personally love art with a strong authorial voice; whether I agree or disagree with it, I want to feel that what I’m watching, reading or experiencing has something to say, an opinion or a position that I can care about one way or the other. This can be harder with an immersive experience where there is strong audience agency, where often it is a collaborative experience. In this case, your experience is mediated by what the other audience members do, which can be amazing, or less so. This is one of the things that we are experimenting with to make sure that audience members can act to enhance the experience for themselves and others through their actions without having to be reliant on it.

What’s the most important thing you should consider before signing up for The Key of Dreams?

Just come; you’ll have a great time! One of the unique aspects is that it’s designed to cater to a range of different audiences, from immersive theatre buffs to people who love stories, puzzles, and roleplaying. There is genuinely no right way to experience it. But it is quite an active experience. You’ll get more out of it by travelling around the house and grounds, so decent footwear is a must!

What is your favourite part of the production?

The show structure follows a similar path to many weird fiction stories. Everything is mostly normal when the guests arrive; ‘investigation’ leads to hints of weirdness; this is confirmed in the ‘descent’, which is followed by a section we call ‘the door opens’. This is when the full strangeness of the experience will be realised This is followed by the ‘aftermath’ the next day, a sort of a moral hangover and realisation of the consequence of their actions. I think my favourite part is ‘the door opens’; by this time, the guests will hopefully be fully bought into the world and be acting on instinct rather than pure calculation.

What other works would you like to adapt?

Daniel Knauf’s tragically cut-short Carnivale TV series would be a fabulous setting for an audience to experience: a creepy 1920s carnival with stories to interact with, games to play, and difficult moral decisions to make. So, if Daniel is reading this, I’d love to talk!

The second thing we’d love to do (and bear with me on this one) is a Lovecraftian Wind in the Willows, designed for families. The kids get to do creepy folk horror stuff outside, and the adults do proper occult investigations inside – while perhaps sipping a cocktail or two – and the two converge at the culmination of the experience. Cults led by Ratty, Mole, and Badger!

What’s next for you?
After the first three shows, I intend to sleep for a month. After I wake up, there are more Key of Dreams shows to plan, a shorter experience based on it to design – the idea being to be run it in a large city – an epistolary weird fiction subscription in the KoD world, and a collaboration on a boxed narrative puzzle experience with a fabulously talented and well-known game designer based in the states.

Doctor Who or Doctor No?
Doctor Who without a moment’s hesitation!

Dragons or Deathstars?
Deathstars, it’s the future, you know!

Truth or Beauty?
Truth is Beauty even if it sends you mad

Booking for THE KEY OF DREAMS and THE LOCKSMITH’S KEY can be found here.


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