Next Time by Candle House Collective Is a Playful and Poignant Afterlife Excursion
“INCOMING CALL from your CASEWORKER…”
I sit cross-legged on the floor of a cramped closet. A candle flickers in the corner and a string of fairy lights glow softly above my head; together, they fill the closet with a faint, warm light. My phone is resting atop a clipboard in my lap when it buzzes, notifying me that I am receiving a call from an unknown number. I accept the call, and a woman on the other line confirms my name. Her voice is alive with enthusiasm as she greets me and asks how it was. I’m not sure what she’s referring to, but I instinctually and cheerfully reply that it was good. She seems amused and takes a moment to ensure I fully understand the circumstances that have brought us together. She bluntly informs me that I am, in fact, dead, and there is some paperwork we need to complete before I can continue on my way to what’s next. The it she was referring to was my life, and we spend the next hour working together to unravel that initial, complex question: “So, how was it?”
Next Time is a one-on-one remote experience from Under the Bed, a festival of six remote encounters by Candle House Collective. Created by Evan Neiden and directed by John Ertman, this encounter lasts approximately an hour, occurs entirely over the phone, and is accessible to anyone in the United States or Canada with a text-enabled mobile phone. Next Time is highly interactive, with one key moment in which participants have agency to change the story’s outcome. In this experience, an otherworldly caseworker takes each recently-deceased participant on a playful, heartfelt journey of self-reflection culminating in a decision that will define what life after death looks like for that person. Audience members must be 18 years or older to participate, and the company provides a safety phrase for participants to use if they no longer wish to continue the encounter.
This show holds a mirror up to each participant and asks them to take an honest look at whether or not they’re crafting an identity they can live with for eternity. The woman on the phone, our caseworker, administers a series of hard-hitting, yet intimately reflective questions that ask participants to consider everything from their satisfaction with their bodies to whether or not they’re content with their accomplishments. These conversations could easily become overwhelming or robotic, but Next Time strategically uses humor to break the tension of heavy moments and put participants at ease. The caseworker frequently punctuates the conversation with jokes, singing, and endearing admissions of insecurity about her job performance. In one instance, she prompts participants to reflect on how they chose to kill time while they were alive. Just at the moment participants are beginning to feel the weight of regret at how much time they frivolously wasted, the caseworker jokingly asks what time ever did to the participant to make them want to kill it.
One of the show’s running jokes is that failure to complete the required paperwork in sixty minutes will result in the participant being put on a 700-year hold (with Lou Bega’s “Mambo №5” on repeat) while they wait for the next available representative. For that reason, the caseworker is constantly trying to hurry participants along through the process. Although the joke itself is funny, the resulting sense of urgency prevents moments of reflection from being anything more than cursory. In one instance, the caseworker asks the participant to think of a time they were paralyzed with fear. It takes more than a few moments to mentally catalog significant instances of fear in one’s life, but the participant must make a snap decision as to what memory they want to hone in on. Giving participants just a hair more breathing room for reflection would magnify Next Time’s already-significant potential for emotional impact.
Next Time is a one-woman show, with Katy Murphy performing as the caseworker. Murphy exudes unmatched joy, energy, and charm in her performance. Her exuberance makes her instantly likable, and this rapport proves to be valuable as she guides participants through questions that might trigger sorrow or regret. She navigates emotional moments with palpable empathy and is able to skillfully lighten the mood without compromising her sincerity. She conducts herself with confidence during moments that require her to improvise and is intentional about using each participant’s answers to personalize their experience.
Minimalism is one of the hallmarks of this experience. Aside from a few comedic references to Lou Bega’s “Mambo №5,” this encounter does not use music. There are, however, a few brief instances where garbled sound effects serve as the voice of the caseworker’s extraterrestrial supervisor, Harold. The only prop in the encounter is a piece of paper that participants use to record various survey-related numbers. The use of this prop is especially effective at keeping participants curious, because the caseworker doesn’t reveal the numbers’ purpose until the very end of the experience. This minimalism clears the way for both actor and participant to focus on building a connection with each other without distractions.
As with most of Candle House Collective’s work, Next Time is unique in that it is fully remote and relies solely on conversation and audience-supplied props to build connections, evoke emotion, and advance the story. Prior to the beginning of the encounter, Candle House Collective instructs participants to procure a single sheet of paper, get comfortably seated in a small, enclosed space (like a closet or bathroom), and close all entrances and exits. This space then serves as the show’s set: an individualized waiting room in the afterlife. Asking participants to close themselves in a small space is an unusual request, but it forces the audience to make a choice to play along with the story before the encounter even begins. It’s a brilliant way to both break the ice and allow the audience to craft their own set. Additionally, Murphy does an excellent job of infusing descriptions of her own environment into the conversation. She paints a word picture of an inter-dimensional hybrid between a call center and the DMV, where the paperwork never ends and being put on hold is a fate worse than death.
Next Time is a roller coaster of poignancy, humor, and celebration. It stands out as a highlight of the Under the Bed series, offering a fun and reflective respite from some of the festival’s darker encounters. In this playful excursion into the afterlife, participants find space for a meaningful encounter with themselves. This show grabs participants by the hand and, with love and laughter, cannonballs into the deep end of the discussion on death, regret, and legacy. When participants resurface, they emerge savoring the sweetness of each breath. The true gift of this show is that of perspective; this time matters, too.