Reality-Plus … Immersive Design Summit Recap

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The Immersive Design Summit* just wrapped up in San Francisco. Over the past few days, 200 immersive-and-related folks gathered to learn, discuss, workshop, party, escape, conspire, and embrace each other and our shared love of all things immersive.

*[A review for those who don’t know: immersive encapsulates many things here: immersive theater, escape rooms, ARGs (Alternate Reality Games), art installations, VR (virtual reality), AR (augmented reality), site-specific work, pod plays, etc etc etc and any intersection and blend of the above! So much creativity packed into the Swedish American Hall.]

I came representing my play, SPIES!, aiming to learn what other folks are doing, what people see as possibilities for the space, and to FOMO about all of the incredible work that is happening all over the world. (For example, watch this amazing trailer video from Paris’s Big Drama. I wish I could have gone to the show! And I got to hang with their very lovely and brilliant creative director, Alexis. Their next show, CLOSE, opens soon, so if you are headed to Paris, check them out)

I learned A LOT. We also played the wonderful Palace Games’ HOUDINI ROOM (and got out with 1 min 30 sec to spare!). This was one of the best escape rooms, both narratively and design-wise, I’d ever done. We also went to SPEAKEASY SF for a lovely night of immersive theater and costume-wearing, partied in THE MUSEUM OF ICE CREAM and ONEDOME, and ate pancakes at 2 am after the after party because sometimes* you just need pancakes.

*(all the time)

(L to R) Museum of Ice Cream, Keynote from Fri Forjindam of Mycotoo, Speakeasy SF (outside, as no phones are allowed inside!)

I leave SF inspired, with my “creative well” truly refilled (one of my main goals). I have new knowledge, new friendships, and new ideas. One of the big questions I asked people was “what would be your dream/ideal immersive experience to go to”… and I heard a huge range.

Some recurring and/or interesting responses on what would be involved:

  • good puzzles (challenging)

  • story that is deep and narratively satisfying

  • Characters and stories that persist over longer periods of time, so you can engage with them over time (ranging from weeks to months to longer), so having an ARG attached or even having the experience run for longer periods of time

  • experiences that are surreal or totally different than reality (rather than just a historic experience or a familiar world like typical western-culture fantasy)

  • Lots of opportunity for exploration

  • An experience you can share with your friends, but that has good story lines for everyone who attends (no one is left out or feels like they had a “bad” track)

  • A longer duration experience like a weekend or a week where the story can really sweep you up and you have a character who affects change

WOW that’s a lot. Anyone want to create the above? Sounds like a big undertaking! So I want to ask you, the audience: what would be your dream immersive experience? Puzzles or no? Solo or group, and how large of a group? Repeatable or one-off? Funny? Dramatic? Scary? Emotional? Let me know in the comments.

(This post also appeared on Medium.com)

Choose: Bandersnatch or Immersive Theater (you have 10 seconds…)

It’s been a week since Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch dropped, bringing a mainstream update to the choose-your-own-adventure stories we all love. Last Friday, I sat down to watch with my boyfriend, excited to finally experience something I’d been eagerly anticipating. We played through, taking turns making the choices, until we hit a credits scene. I think we saw about 3 endings.

In the ensuing week, I’ve read numerous think-pieces about it, watched Netflix’s behind-the-scenes videos, and dreamed about where this could go. I especially love/fear this Westworld-esque take on how Netflix can use people’s choices to start marketing more directly to them. (I fully expect a future Black Mirror episode to delve more deeply into this idea. How meta.)

But as an immersive theater creator, I saw even more possibility. My first immersive theater show, SPIES!, used a chat bot to allow the audience to vote between two choices for the main characters to make at several points within the show, ultimately leading to one of three endings.

I’d love to say “I did it first, Netflix!” (Narrator: She did not, in fact, do it first.) but really, immersive theater at its best has been and IS the embodiment of audience choice determining story experience. Even when the ending doesn’t change, many shows have simultaneous scenes, and no one in the audience sees the same thing. The difference in experience for each person is one of the elements that makes immersive theater (and Bandersnatch) so great to talk about. Your experience and my experience were different, and only together can we reconstruct the whole picture of the story.

I’d like to present what I see as the challenges, advantages, and personal preferences in audience-driven storytelling for both live theater and filmed TV or movies.

Challenges: Live vs. Filmed

  1. Logistical nightmares. Keeping track of all the branches is really difficult, both for the writer/creator, and for the actors. In my first iteration of the flowchart for SPIES!, I imagined a story that branched at each choice, ultimately ending up with eight different endings. I thought this would be awesome until I consulted some actors, and they informed me that it might make things difficult to remember. I also found writing three endings to be plenty. The Bandersnatch team has spoken about the difficulties of keeping the narrative branches straight, and of the need to build a new software to handle the script. The actors also had to learn several versions of the same scene. I’d say that in both cases (live and filmed), there are similar logistical challenges.

  2. Emotional satisfaction. Audience choice and branching narratives can often interfere with the third rail (see: STORY GENIUS), because if there are different endings, the emotional outcome will be different. Some endings and branches will be inherently less satisfying. And in a larger piece, if the whole group is voting, certain guests will not get to see the choice they preferred come to fruition. It’s easy to let the choice element be a gimmick, and to ignore the emotional heart of the story. But that is never going to create the resonance that makes a story stick with you. (My favorite Bandersnatch ending is definitely the most emotionally resonant one. THE BUNNY!!!) I’ve also been to “sandbox” immersive theater shows that haven’t delivered a clear third rail because I missed key scenes (my fault? the creator’s fault?) and left feeling less than satisfied. 
    Audience members aren’t storytellers and they choose things for different reasons. Some just want to “break” the show. Some are over-eager, distracted by the “wrong” things, biased, whatever. They are live people in a live theater setting, set loose. Shepherding an audience member along on an emotional journey is a huge challenge in linear storytelling. Make the thing non-linear, and who knows what someone will get out of it.

As audience choice becomes more incorporated into both live theater and filmed works, writers cannot ignore the third rail. The challenge for both is the same: don’t get distracted and let choice be a gimmick.

Advantages: Live vs. Filmed

  1. Ability to react and number of possibilities. Immersive theater has actors who can change what they are doing immediately in reaction to an audience member. They can improv better than any AI that ever existed. There is no limit to the number of improvised iterations they can make, although there is the limit of human memory on the number of scripted iterations. In film, it’s the opposite. No limit to scripted iterations (hypothetically. I realize that there are temporal and financial limitations), but an absolute limit on improvised iterations (I’d call this 0. Even with an elaborate AI, it’s not the same as having a live person).
    Each has a different advantage, but both have the opportunity to have a large number of possible reactions. One has scripted, one has improvised.

  2. Reaching an audience. Obviously going to hand this one to Netflix. No limit to how many people can be watching at once, making different choices, replaying forever for the low, low price of a monthly subscription. Immersive theater will always have a smaller audience, in real time, paying more. Advantage: Netflix.

Personal Preference: Live vs. filmed

So which do I prefer? I think that Bandersnatch was a huge step forward in terms of showing people what is possible. (I also really liked it! )I look forward to the future of audience choice in filmed works, and I’d like to see more choices that feel natural and are emotionally driven.

A real immersive theater “sandbox” has tons of choice within a set of parameters. You can see different rooms, follow different characters, choose different paths. I like the options, but I like some guidance. (I was one of those who missed every important scene in Sleep No More and spent too much time wandering around alone in the dark…still loved it, though!)

For now I prefer immersive theater, surprising no one who knows me. Experiencing something unique happen in real time is magical, even moreso than having Stefan talk about his mother or not. (Or eat Frosted Flakes over Sugar Puffs.)

Should all immersive theater shows incorporate audience choice in terms of voting between options? No, nor should all TV shows. Really. Don’t do that. Please.

Do you agree?
YES | NO

(This post also appeared on Medium.com)

The Frustrations of Year-end

Another year is almost over. And we, as humans, ascribe a lot of power to this strange quirk of time measurement. We take this time to tally wins, losses, goals, failures…and somehow try to package it so we can make sense of our lives.

Therefore, with approximately two weeks left in 2018, I’m going to try to wrap up what this year meant to me.

SUCH good spying! Photo cred: Angela Gaspar

SUCH good spying! Photo cred: Angela Gaspar

  1. The best thing

The best thing for me this year was, hands-down, writing, creating, and putting on my play, SPIES!, at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. I’ve been in love with immersive theater ever since the first show I attended (Sleep No More), and while attending my second show (Speakeasy Dollhouse) I vowed to myself that I would write and put on my own piece. And I did it! It took many years to get there, but it was everything I wanted and more.

I built a chat bot! I pulled together a great production team! We had the best best BEST actors, who inspired me daily with their intelligent, nuanced performance of characters who could have come across as simplified punchlines in less-skilled hands. The show SOLD OUT before we even opened, and I have a waiting list of people who want to attend when the show gets remounted.

(L to R) The Chat bot (early draft). The Wife and The Journalist. The whole cast.

The process of bringing a project from humble beginnings (the first scene I wrote for it got thrown out early in the writing process but ended up coming back for the performance!), all the way through to closing night … only those who have similarly seen the fleshed-out results of years of work can fully understand. There are highs and lows, and it’s the lows that are the biggest threats. During any one of those low moments, you can choose to throw in the towel and believe the little voice in your head that says “You can’t do this! It’s impossible!” But if you choose to power through, then you can reach those amazing moments: Seeing actors perfectly deliver a joke to raucous laughter. Watching audience members gleefully whisper to each other as they work out the secrets of the show. Taking a final bow along with your amazing team.

#worthit

2. the most challenging thing (… much harder to write about)

Aesthetic for my “brain-linked spies in space” WIP

Aesthetic for my “brain-linked spies in space” WIP

In 2018, one of my biggest challenges has been continuing to work on my novel writing. My former literary agent quit the business at the beginning of 2018. The manuscript I had been working on for nearly a decade had not sold, and ended up dead in the water. That was tough for me. I believed in that book with all of my heart (like so many other authors who don’t sell), but the publishing industry didn’t agree.

I’ve returned to another manuscript that I also loved, that had been languishing, half-finished, for years. Thanks to some awesome CPs, I’ve made several big changes. Also, reading a new-to-me craft book really helped me to get things organized. And NaNoWriMo gave me the oomph needed to power through rearranging and rewriting most of the middle of the book. I’ve still got the final quarter to finish, but I am close. I hope to be querying this sucker in the spring.

It’s always hard to feel like you were at a certain “milestone” and then have to go back to square one. That happened with me and novel writing. But I also know that I am not willing to give up on this. So here we go. Back to work.

3. The things that matter most

It’s very easy for me to focus only on “accomplishments” in the external sense. But the things that matter most are the people who have flowed in and out of my life over this year and who have left their mark on me.

The moments-between-moments. The successes and milestones of my friends and family … Weddings! Books published! Babies! And the break-ups. Job losses. Deaths. Because I am not an island, these moments that technically belong to other people ripple and affect me, too. Because as we become connected to other people, we draw lines between our hearts, and these connective cords ebb and flow in tightness and urgency. Some cords have strengthened over this year. Some have weakened. Some have turned from thread to fire-forged chain — unbreakable. These connections, in turn, give me strength to face the changes and challenges the new year will bring.

Finally: Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes

All of these things threaten to whittle down to “Seasons of Love” from RENT (“How do you measure, measure a year? … Measure in love”), but maybe that’s okay. Because no matter the milestones reached or missed, with two weeks left in December, there would be no point to any of it if I did not have the many hearts that support my own connected to me.

And regardless of the little frustrations of being busy at this time of year, and wondering where the time went… the real “wins” of the year won’t end up on a best-of list. Instead, they are written in those moments-between-moments, as invaluable memories on each other’s hearts.

See you next year…

(This post also appeared on Medium.com)

SPIES! - About one month till show time (ahhhh!)

WHOA this summer has blown past. At the end of June, we held auditions for SPIES!, a process that I had previously only experienced from the other side (as an auditionee). Going through this process reminded me that so much of the art of being an artist is accepting that things are subjective.

I was also reminded that an audition is the time to give 110%, not to hold back. The actors that did this showed us just what they could do, and it was impressive.

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We lucked out. Our cast is incredible. These brilliant, clever, talented, HILARIOUS people are taking the characters I wrote on the page and bringing them to life. I don't have the words for what a fun experience it has been.

From the novel-writing perspective, we writers often "dream cast" our book characters, or dream of the day it would be a movie... but for 99% of authors, that will never come to pass IRL. For playwrights, it might happen that there are many different people who will embody your characters over time, with no two actors ever handling the words on the page in exactly the same way.  Part of this process has been about me letting go of the version in my head, and embracing what the actors are bringing to the scenes (and also learning FROM the actors about what makes their character tick). The characters have gone from 2 dimensional (on paper) to 3 dimensional (in reality), and I could not be more impressed.

Mock up of the SPY HANDLER chat bot...

Mock up of the SPY HANDLER chat bot...

With approximately a month until show time (OMG), we are hard at work running scenes, uncovering extra humor, digging into character pasts, and tightening the action. Prepare to LAUGH a lot (we hope).

This has been one of the most challenging writing projects I've ever undertaken. Writing for eight characters who are all equally featured, writing a ninth "character" that exists only via text message, building the chatbot, and essentially editing in real time ("oh! change that one word from this to this" or "let's just take that phrase out, because I realize you can't say that line in a single breath if it stays in")  ... all things I had never done before.

I'm so proud of how far we have come since starting rehearsals in early July. And I am looking forward to where we will be in a month's time, waiting to open the doors and welcome you to the world of SPIES!

Buy Tickets Now: https://www.spiestheplay.com/tickets/

SPIES! - We're so done, Agents!

Hello, Agents!

SPIES! the script is officially complete. And boy-oh-boy is it a fun one.

We're also officially registered for the Fringe Festival in September!

I will be writing a post soon to introduce my behind-the-scenes crew, including our producer and director.

Also, all kinds of fascinating tidbits about the tech components of the show, including the infamous spy-handler ChatBot, who is the 9th character in the play. (They are Clever, Unpredictable, and Totally Sarcastic.)

In the meantime, sign up here to stay in-the-loop about all things SPIES! related, including when tickets go on sale. We expect the interactive tickets to go fast, so signing up is the best way to stay on top of things.

Your mission if you choose to accept it (and even if you don't)

SPIES! - Getting to the (first) finish line

The registration window for Philadelphia Fringe Festival is open as of March 1!

And I still have not registered SPIES! ("spies, exclamation point") yet.

Why?

Because I still have not quite finished the script. I am super duper close. Just the pesky ending(s) to tackle.

Wait...ending(s)?!?!?!

Yes! Because the end will change based on the attendee's decisions. So... I need to write a few versions of the ending, and see how that layers in. It isn't the simplest thing. At our last meeting of the Bourbon Bowls (my playwriting group), I was asked for a diagram of the entire play. Yes, that's a good thing to do. Because keeping track of all of the, well, tracks, can only be done in diagram form!

Other things I will need to do:

  1. Hire a producer
  2. Hire a director
  3. Hire actors
  4. Secure a venue
  5. Register for Fringe Fest
  6. Get insurance
  7. Make an LLC

NBD. Totally doable. Anyway, aiming to have a first reading in May! Here goes nothing...

 

A full day: Daybreaker and Seed Packing

Wednesday was quite the day.

It all started with waking up an hour earlier than usual to attend Daybreaker, the morning dance party. Yes. Dancing from 7 - 9 am at a club, but instead of drinking alcohol, it's all coffee and tea and juice and water. And eating bananas.

This. Was. A. Blast.

Honestly, they greet you at the door with hugs. Everyone is happy and positive and nice and supportive. There was a dance circle and everyone cheered for anyone who got in the middle. No one was awkwardly hitting on anyone. No one was falling over drunk. It was the most fun I've ever had at a club!

About 3 pm, my good mood and high energy crashed and I needed a nap but alas! 2 more hours of work.

Then we headed to a Seed Packing event. Basically, all of these heirloom seeds are gathered and put into jars. So we helped get them into labeled packets at the correct measurement for distribution to urban farmers. Pretty neat! These are seeds of beans and veggies that may be rare or extinct otherwise. It was great to hear stories about the varieties of seeds and to spend some time with my friends.

But I must say I was pretty exhausted by 8 pm.

I looked for a full-on awesome thematic link to write about these 2 events, but I don't have one. Let's just say they were super cool and outside of the norm. So I think "stepping out of your comfort zone" is the theme. And it was awesome.

So as we forge ahead into February, I want to keep on keepin on and I hope to go to another Daybreaker! (but then immediately after work go home and take a nap)

Rock on, friends!

2017: A Year in Review

So here in the waning weeks of 2017, I, like many of you, wanted to take a moment to pause and reflect. Because it has been A Year in so many ways.

2017 best nine.png

Writing: I started the year finishing a book and I spent the spring rewriting half of a book. In June I revisited an old WIP and promptly abandoned it. In July I started a brand new WIP and abandoned it a month later. This fall I've started in on an even different WIP, and I am still digging into it. It is hard. It is so, so hard to work on a new story when I don't even feel like I have my footing in the world. Maybe it's because this is my most "real world" world that I've created. Maybe it's because I don't have a complete image of my main character yet. I'm not sure. But I am sure that I will get there.

I also made muchos progress on my choose-your-own-adventure immersive theater play. I am very excited about it. I want to do a reading of it in 2018. GOALS!

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Life: I had a wonderful happy year with my friends and family. I am in a very wonderful relationship with a wonderful person (a huge reason why 2017 was awesome). I've been to such super cool events this year with amazing people. I've made new friends and deepened existing relationships. I've celebrated successes and mourned alongside people that matter to me. I am so, so, so lucky to have all of you here in my heart.

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Lessons learned: I've learned a lot of things about what I need to be happy in life and in love.

  • I've learned to say no to things that would be taking away my time instead of giving to my heart.
  • I've learned that I need to keep up my physical activity level. Regular yoga (2-3 times a week) is a must. Biking has also been a wonderful addition (and my bike is the CUTEST!)
  • I've learned that you do really teach people how to treat you.
  • I've learned (again and again) that my friends are the best, best, best.
  • I've learned it's okay to say no to writing when LIVING is happening. Sometimes you gotta step back from trying to constantly produce and just enjoy living.

So, happy END OF 2017, everyone. Seriously. I have faith in the future, because we have to. Keep swimming, keep fighting, keep arting. And keep sharing the love.

"That's how we're gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love."

Managing My Writing Load

November ... for many writers, this means NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), a worldwide movement where writers try to write 50,000 words in the month. I have participated for about 6-7 years now, and I usually manage about 20k on a project already underway. The only time I "won" (hit 50k) was when I was heavily editing a work that was almost done. So I don't think it technically counted.

So here we are at the almost-halfway point on the 14th. This year I am up to 13,000 words on a book I started writing on Nov. 1. The fact that I have averaged 1,000 words a day in the last 13 days is astounding to me. Because, in November, I am also:

  • still working my full-time job
  • taking PlayPenn's 7-week workshop and trying to also write major words on my play (not counting those words to my NaNo wordcount)
  • still spending time with friends and family
  • Thanksgiving, weekend travel, etc.

Basically, ALL THE THINGS! And still writing. It's hella difficult, friends. I know that many of you are struggling with writing along with a host of other challenges and commitments. We are all trying to "just keep swimming," aren't we?

I don't really have any great words of wisdom, other than to say whether you hit 50k or 5k or even just 500 words this month, it's okay. It's a big challenge and you need to be kind to yourself above all.

Good luck with writing!

There and Back Again

Last night, I had the pleasure and honor of singing with the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Boy Choir, and the Philadelphia Orchestra for a performance of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Live. This was the third movie, and the third year I have participated in this incredible experience. So to mark the occasion, I wanted to record some thoughts.

Although I don't sing with the choir year round, I am very lucky to be able to participate as a member for these concerts. And considering that the music is for a trilogy of movies (and books) I love, it is even better. I've seen the movies too many times to count, and the music has always been one of the soundtracks that burrowed into head and heart.

My main point for writing this post is to remind myself that there is value in "fellowship" of the artistic sort, always. Joining with other humans to pull off something of the magnitude that we have done on three random nights over three summers... it's worthwhile. Always. That's not just because the audience screams like we are literal rockstars (something which -- spoilers! -- isn't too common for choir singers), it's the shared emotion, the feeling of being on a journey that makes it matter. The exchange of LOTR trivia backstage, the ability to hone a page of music through repetition and the infusion of emotion via crescendo, the way we can sit and watch the movie and all scream "THIS IS MY FAVORITE PART" at at least 10 different moments... yeah. It's pretty darn special.

And now it's over. I don't know if we will do another movie series next summer. I don't know what comes next! But, I am still so proud of the work we all did over the last 3 years to make this happen. We brought a stunning musical experience to people and engaged with a story in such an intimate and powerful way. We took the ring to Mordor, and we made it back to the Shire.

And we did it together.