"We do everything on our phones. It’s not a far step to say, 'I’m going to get my relaxation and intimacy online now, too.'"

As the wellness economy continues to expand—the most recent analysis in 2017 measured the global market at $4.5 trillion—new offerings designed to enhance and deepen self-care practices are flooding the market. As the market matures, these offerings are expanding into adjacent categories including travel, technology and architecture (see trends #24 slow travel and #30 WELL hospitality in The Future 100: 2020).

Enter Whisperlodge. Sitting at the intersection of the experience economy and the wellbeing revolution, Whisperlodge is an immersive ASMR performance that merges theater with therapy to “relax the body and mind, expand awareness, and heighten the senses.”

Below, Whisperlodge co-creator and creative director Melinda Lauw catches up with us about ASMR’s evolution into a catalyst for self-care, digital versus physical performances of intimacy and how brands can tap into the powerful ASMR movement.

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Image courtesy of Chia Lynn Kwa/Whisperlodge

What is ASMR? Can you describe what it feels like?

ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. The term was coined by Jennifer Allen, but before ASMR became known as ASMR, people just called it ‘the weird feeling.’ There were many other names that came about, like brain orgasms and attention-induced euphoria, but when Jennifer coined ASMR, the community really latched onto it.

ASMR, to me, is a warm, tingly sensation that I feel in my head that makes me really fuzzy and sleepy. The standard definition of ASMR is a tingly sensation that is triggered by a whole range of stimuli—it can be auditory, visual, tactile. It’s very subjective. Different triggers will work for you that don’t work for me. The actual sensation also varies; I describe it as fuzziness, some people describe it as static, others describe it as shivers. It’s generally agreed that it’s pleasurable and relaxing, but people feel it differently.

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Image courtesy of Chia Lynn Kwa/Whisperlodge

What was the inspiration behind Whisperlodge?

We thought, ‘how can we combine immersive theatre and ASMR? Is ASMR a thing we can do live?’ At that point, no one had really done anything like that.

The intention at the very beginning was to be an art project. We wanted to make immersive theatre and incorporate ASMR—it was all about the tingles. That was how we initially structured the show.

But it’s changed quite a bit since we started in 2016. Four years on, the show has kind of morphed and incorporates a lot of other things. Now I’d say, rather than just about ASMR, it’s transformed into a practice of care. Our success metric is no longer whether you feel the tingles, it’s whether you feel cared for, whether you feel relaxed. It doesn’t actually matter whether or not you have ASMR; it’s just personal attention and someone being there for you.

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Image courtesy of Chia Lynn Kwa/Whisperlodge

How did that transition from an ASMR performance to a guided self-care practice happen?

It happened pretty organically—it was more of a realization. At the beginning, when we first made the piece, we didn’t have any characters; we just knew that, in this room, you’d get props one through four and they kind of go together, but we don’t really know why. And then people who came to our first few shows were like, ‘that reminded me of my mom, that reminded me of when I was in elementary school and my teacher.’

We started realizing that all of these ASMR triggers were very nostalgic for people. They brought up a lot of memories. And people were craving those memories. So, we started adding in more script, adding in more guides. (We call our performers ‘guides,’ because they’re not performing as, like, Romeo from Romeo and Juliet; they don’t have a backstory, they’re just themselves.)

People would ask, ‘should I even come if I don’t have ASMR?’ And we realized in the end that it is more about feeling loved and seen and being present with someone. And that is universally enjoyable, so we want to focus on that more than the tingles.

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Image courtesy of Annie Lesser/Whisperlodge

How does Whisperlodge fit into the self-care movement? And how is it unique?

Now, we market the show as a way to raise awareness of yourself and your surroundings. I think in general, people are overstimulated these days. You look at your phone and there’s, like, ten thousand things. All the notifications, the sounds—it’s a lot. I think the reason why ASMR is more popular now is because it’s sort of like an escape.

For us, our biggest thing from the very beginning has been that we are live. What we provide to the ASMR world—and the wellness world, also—is physical contact and touch.

People always ask, ‘what do guests come out of the experience with? What’s the payoff?’ One is relaxation; two is being cared for; and three is this amazing thing that happens in our show that we actually didn’t plan for.

The whole show is whispered; we don’t use any sounds that are really loud, everything is made live using objects really close to your ears. And after 90 minutes of being in that environment, your hearing levels automatically adjust. So, when we let you out into the world again, a lot of guests will say, ‘I can hear everything,’ and ‘I notice so many things.’ One guest said that he looked down at his feet and noticed that the threads on his shoes were different colors.

That physiological change in your body is undeniable and makes the piece really powerful. Even if you don’t like our characters or the story and you hated the experience, you will still have that response.

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Image courtesy of Chia Lynn Kwa/Whisperlodge

It seems paradoxical that something as sensorial and intimate as ASMR started online. How have you been able to evolve ASMR from a digital to an in-person experience?

When we first started, we didn’t know if [live ASMR] would work or if people would enjoy it. We were just experimenting. But it turns out people like it! So we’ve kept doing it.

It’s almost like creating a different language of [ASMR]. We are influenced so much by what they do on YouTube, but once you start doing things in person there’s a lot more to consider, like your tone of voice; how you’re positioned, seated or standing; scene choreography; and how to approach touch and build in consent. It’s become this new methodology of approaching [ASMR].

Do you think that the future of ASMR and similar sensory wellbeing treatments lie more in the physical space?

I don’t think so. I don’t think of it as a dichotomy like that. I think digital works better for some people, especially if they are using it for social anxiety and they’re not comfortable being with other people and they do not enjoy touch—then definitely do the digital thing, be at home, be comfortable. But for people who want that physical intimacy, we provide that. Like when you’re watching a video and they say, ‘I’m brushing your hair,’ you actually get someone brushing your hair. It’s dependent on what type of person you are. Some people really don’t enjoy that they need to be vulnerable and almost give up a piece of themselves when they come here.

I think [the rise in digital habits] is definitely part of the reason why ASMR has taken off. We find love on our phones; we order groceries on our phones, we do everything online now. It’s not a far step to say, ‘I’m going to get my relaxation and intimacy online now, too.’

What are some factors that have contributed to Whisperlodge’s success?

I think our success is a lot to do with timing. When we first started doing this, we were just at the starting point of immersive theatre in America being a DIY thing. Right now, it’s so much more professional; it’s harder to start something. It’s the same in the ASMR world; if you track ASMR’s history, there have been moments of popularity and press, and then it dies down. It goes up and down. We were just at that point when it was in another upswing, and now I’d say it’s mainstream. So we’ve rode both of those waves.

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Image courtesy of Chia Lynn Kwa/Whisperlodge

How can brands tap into the ASMR movement? Do you think they should?

I think if the brand values align with ASMR—slowing down, paying attention—then definitely it’s a match. And I think brands have an incredible opportunity, because ASMR is made using everyday objects so it presents a very cool platform. You could make sounds with shampoo bottles, for example. It’s an interesting way to introduce your product.

We actually have a side arm where we work with clients. But I find that when brands do try to use ASMR, they just want a plug-and-play thing. They want to be associated with it but not really go deeply into the experience. I haven’t worked with a brand yet where they are really invested in giving people a true ASMR experience. Brands [that do invest] would be able to really unlock something where they are not only creating an experience for their consumers, they are providing a service—something that will stay with them.

It’s different from providing something that’s fun and fleeting. I think the opportunity here [for brands] is the really slow and deep experience. That’s when you get to impact people on a deep level and that’s when you get true transformation.