Cinema paradiso

Need a break from the stresses of daily life? A visit to the multiplex could be the answer - but not to watch a film. Charlotte Cripps tunes in to the mind-altering potential of Meditainment
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Indy Lifestyle Online

I'm trying out a whole new cinematic experience. What's so odd about it is that, just as you're expecting to hand your cinema ticket to the usher, you're handed a coloured glow wand instead. Mine is pink. Using their wands, the audience take part in an on-screen voting system; rather than watching a film, you vote to choose your preferred path and the method of travel through an aural journey of narration and sound effects. An unseen figure at the back of the cinema counts the votes and story evolves.

I'm trying out a whole new cinematic experience. What's so odd about it is that, just as you're expecting to hand your cinema ticket to the usher, you're handed a coloured glow wand instead. Mine is pink. Using their wands, the audience take part in an on-screen voting system; rather than watching a film, you vote to choose your preferred path and the method of travel through an aural journey of narration and sound effects. An unseen figure at the back of the cinema counts the votes and story evolves.

The world's first cinema-based group meditation experience, Meditainment, is to premiere at Brighton Odeon on 10 September. Meditainment makes full use of top-notch, full surround sound normally reserved for blockbusters, and the latest digital projection technology. It can mix and match a journey for the audience in a flash of digital brilliance, take you to a summer meadow or a mountain hideaway by "flying on the wings of thought".

Whether any audience will want to throw their popcorn aside for serenity is something else: will people drop into their local cinema for a 45-minute de-stressing session that costs £7?

Richard Latham, a script writer and founder of Meditainment Ltd, is hoping to take his product on a nationwide roadshow and is currently in discussions with four big cinema chains. He says Meditainment is in no way meant to replace traditional visual cinema. "It's just another thing to do," he says.

But does it work? On entering the theatre at a preview cinema in Soho, armed with glow stick, the lights are low. The music is flotation tank meets Blair Witch Project - eerie, with ding-dong chimes. On the screen is a woman's face, although it could be an alien - with illuminated glowing eyes and mouth. A man's voice echoes all around and explains the details of the journey.

First we choose our destination: summer meadow, mountain hideaway or lost city. Three boxes flash on screen with corresponding sound effects. Members of the audience raise their wands above their shoulders to show their preferences. Mountain hideaway wins. Now we choose the method of travel: canoe (the sound of a splash), horse and carriage (scrambling horse) or hall of doors (doors opening). "Canoe is the choice of today's audience," announces the voice.

What to think about during the destination? Anything or happiness? Everyone raises their wands to happiness, because "anything" is too overwhelming. Now the meditation method: breathing or counting? Breathing wins. Now some music: ambius or minimus? Everyone laughs at minimus. Finally, the voice guide: "If you wish to have an English female as your guide, please vote now." The woman launches in to some soothing, well-articulated BBC period-drama number to demonstrate. "Or my own voice [male], vote now." (Everyone laughs.)

Now we sit back and relax. But the English female voice says to remember that we are always in control. If at any point we want to return to our awakened state, all we have to is open our eyes. We are now meant to be drifting in serenity and peace. She says this so loud that it is deafening.

Eyes closed, we let the sound effects take over - and our guide's voice. Out of the canoe and walk up a hill to a property of your own (without phone, internet or TV - you are free). Then we have to think of happiness, with the fire burning and us feeling cosy while a storm brews outside). "Try and remember any moment when you felt happiness," says the voice. "Find something that easily comes to mind. If you are finding it hard, persevere. It may be simple and ordinary. And when you have found it, replay this experience in your mind. Relive this joyful moment. Smile to yourself, if you like - don't be shy." Of course, I couldn't think of anything under so much pressure. Then she prepares us to leave the house, as if the audience will experience separation anxiety on getting back in the canoe.

There is a five-minute interval. "It's like going to watch nothing, really," says a member of the audience, Sally Ashby, an assistant documentary producer. "I fell asleep in the first half. I got out of the canoe and just couldn't face walking up that hill."

Latham says that even he thinks his scripts are rubbish sometimes. But when you get into a meditation state, that is what you understand: "The symbolism of childhood." He says he's found that however intellectual you are, the mind deals better with clichés. And clichéd Meditainment's scenarios certainly are. He is about to add in new elements to his scripts: an igloo, an oasis, a childhood garden and a space walk.

Writing the scripts is not easy; thousands of possibilities have to match up. The second half of the journey takes us on a trip with whales in the sea with an added angle - a choice between stress management and self-motivation. All the audience choose self-motivation, a mistake considering that the nature of our collective stress is feeling like we are never doing enough. And when we reach the bottom of the ocean, we are told to think of a task we have either put off or need to do. All I can think of is the washing-up. "Think of the the sense of achievement," the voice intones. And then you pop up back to the surface and on to a raft, aghast at how self-motivated you really are.

"Tonight, thousands of potential options and scripts have to link in while the audience are voting to fly on the wings of thought, to go into the deep ocean with the English female voice and swim with whales. I hadn't actually heard that combination before, so I was a little nervous," says Latham.

At the preview screening, the man sitting in the cinema seat beside me looks terribly depressed. He was in the user-testing program, but none of his destinations was ever chosen. But the anonymity of sitting next to strangers apparently works well for group meditation.

Gerald Buckle, vice president of business affairs at UCI Cinemas International, is also here tonight. Meditainment could be a practical proposition for UCI because the company has 150 digital projectors used for digital advertising in the UK and they are always looking for interesting ways to use their cinemas.

"But I'm not a meditation type of person," he confesses. "The question is whether you would really get people to come along to an event like this and get into meditation in an auditorium with a bunch of strangers. I can't see it. It was floated by me that Meditainment could act as a prelude to a feature film, to open up an audience's state of mind for certain films such as Donny Darko. I'm not convinced. When people come to the cinema, they have expectations and want to be entertained. They like the adverts and to chat to their friends. You can't say, 'By the way, before Lara Croft, there will be a 15-minute meditation session.'"

Latham, however remains confident that Meditainment will take off. The critical feedback from his user-testing programme, he says, will ensure that the "magic"of the experience will be sustained. Coming soon to a theatre near you...

www.meditainment.com

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