Advice From One Unusual SXSW Experience
Two participants, four days, thirty actors, two hundred extras, multiple locations across Austin, hundreds of balloons, two dimensions, one kidnapping, and one tiny train. Last year, during SXSW, a think tank called The Interactive Deep Dive teamed up with Meow Wolf to bring to life a one-of-a-kind theater experience called Open Mind.
One of our participants, Bryan Bishop, is a far superior writer and did a fantastic series of articles for The Verge about what it was like to experience Open Mind. I recommend reading his account first.
All done? Pretty fun, right?
Today we will be peeling back the curtain to give some advice for anyone interested in creating an experience similar to the one Bryan Bishop and Imani Dabney starred in. When creating an interactive experience, whether it is a one-hour experiential marketing event or a week-long behemoth, it is important to remember:
1. Find writers that understand “interactive.”
Anything interactive must put user agency at the forefront. One key factor in Open Mind was our writing team. Jeff Wirth, Christy Casey, and Carlo D’Amore each came to the table with experience creating interactive work. They wrote with a focus on flexible, impactful set pieces. They then drafted a story that guided the participants but allowed flexibility. An interactive script does not remotely resemble a stage or film script. Rather, it is a series of powerful scenarios that can adjust to the audience participants choices. We knew our participant would ride a tiny train and sit down for an intimate dinner scene – but we did not know what the participant would say or do! The script had to allow for their choices to bend the story without breaking it. If you have a writer that believes their every word is sacred, find another.
2. Prepare for everything…
Open Mind took place in public, the opposite of a controlled environment. Unexpected things were bound to happen. Planning was key. Our team of production managers crowded around a table and mentally ran the show countless times, highlighting every potential surprise. Traffic jams, “So they’ve blocked off the street the getaway car was supposed to drive down.” Spontaneous detours, “Uh, they just hopped in an elevator.” Strong choices by our participants, “Did he just fire her? Wasn’t she supposed to be in a later scene?” The team poured over spreadsheets, adjusted timetables and created backup plans in the lead up to SXSW. If you are running an interactive project, the aim is not to tightly control the situation. That can strangle interactivity. The aim is to be prepared to respond accordingly.
3. Except when you can’t.
That last example above, of a participant firing a character, happened on day three of Open Mind. They made the exciting choice to ax a fellow executive during a board meeting. No alternate plan was in place, so that night the team put together a resignation speech for the fired character to deliver during the big press conference. It became a wonderful moment of participant agency. When a choice is made that you were not expecting, fantastic. Reify that choice if at all possible. Empower the participants to create their own story. Trust that the framework you put in place will hold everything together. On that note…
4. Trust your systems.
A project as large as Open Mind is a mess of moving parts. From where you are standing at any one time, whether you are an actor, director, writer, or on the production team, it can look like a train wreck waiting to happen. That is why it is imperative to trust the systems that have been put in place. This is not exclusive to interactive work, any large scale production runs smoothly because each member of the team is trusted to accomplish their role to the best of their ability. When the participant is being transported from one location to another, there is a team in place reporting their every move. When something goes off the rails, there is another team enacting a Plan B. When someone drastically alters the plot mid-scene, well…
5. Trust your actors.
The interactors are your first point of contact with the participants. They are the ones directly responsible for empowering the participant to laugh, cry, and kidnap people (see The Verge article for details). There is a temptation to course correct from the outside when a scene begins to veer into unexpected waters. Hang tight. The nature of interactive performance is that sometimes it dips into the unexpected. Remember, you have systems in place if things truly go off the rails, so for now just sit back and see what happens. Trust the actors to do their job, and this unexpected moment could be the most memorable part of the show.
6. Remember who the stars are.
What is the actors’ job? To create an environment where the participants can become the real stars of the show. They are the protagonists, and every aspect of planning and design must remember this. If your participants are simply wandering through a world where interesting things happen to them, you have failed. If other characters begin making choices for them, you have failed. If the story feels like it is unwinding thanks to their decisions, if they feel empowered to speak up and alter the fictional world you’ve created… you have yourself an interactive show.
That moment hit me during the second day of Open Mind. Both of our participants thought the other was an actor. They began to negotiate an important decision together, without the input of the fictional characters in the room. We all stepped back and just watched. They were the leads. Everyone else, we were just the supporting cast. Keep that in mind and you’ll be well on your way.