I love the iPad game The Room. I wish it had a little more of a story though.

So I'm building my own analogue, story-based adventure: A one-off physical, mechatronic box. Puzzle pieces will open drawers that reveal documents (and other electronic surprises) that weave together a time-travel story in which the players have the opportunity to change the outcome of the protagonist’s life.

‘Victor Penny’s Box’ is loosely based on the true (though little known) story of a local amateur inventor who spent five months in the 1930’s under Army guard, isolated on a small, otherwise deserted island in Wellington’s harbour (somewhat like Alcatraz). Rumour has it he was developing a death ray, but nobody knows for sure. Soldiers with bayonets were instructed that any intruders on the island were to be shot on sight.

Victor Penny was transported to the island by the police in a dramatic dead-of-night dash, after a mysterious assault (possibly an attempt to steal his papers) left him hospitalised. (I have my own theory about what really happened.)

My box is going to have moving parts, and a surprising reveal of a time machine!

So far it’s taken a ridiculous amount of thought and planning. And there’s more to go. There is no earthly logical reason for me to have made this; it’s just something I felt impelled to do. It’s kind of an unprecedented, weird thing, so there’s also no obvious venue for the experience.

It’s designed to be played with a group of friends, over a drink and casual conversation. The same kind of context as a board game. I’m hoping it finds its way to arts festivals and possibly a residency in a charming cocktail bar somewhere. It’d be perfect as the centrepiece for a special dinner, too.

The box is going to have about 20 drawers and will be packed with sensors. I’ve written the story; i.e. the documents that will be discovered (in a particular order) and the technical surprises. Now it just needs to be built – and I'm bracing for the uncomfortable encounter between vision and actual physical reality!

Posted
AuthorLeonie Reynolds

 

2017 is going to be seriously exciting. I have writers on board for a raft of planned projects (so it’s not just me this time), and we’re going to spend the year trialling interactive experiences with a small group of testers. I’m looking at the process as though we’re a software startup; we’ll be beta testing before the release of product 1.0.

A number of people have told me we should be charging for the beta experiences. I don't want to do that. We really do need to be able to fail. This is research. Even charge a single buck and, to my mind, you’ve got a responsibility to deliver something.

Also, I’ve been reading about the inspiring work of Wanderlust Projects/Sextantworks and how they got started making free experiences. In Ida C. Benedetto’s essay Notes on Gift Giving she said "Our events are free because we haven’t figured out how to square charging money with keeping guests in the mindset of receiving the experience as a gift." (That’s from back in 2013 so I suspect she’s answered that question to her own satisfaction by now.)

I really want the experiences we will be creating to be received as gifts, even though money will be changing hands further down the track. I feel the way to do this is simply through intention. Everything’s designed as a gift. The intent (at least) will show in the work.

So much of cultural production (maybe all of it) comes from generosity of spirit, of people simply wanting to give. I’m an avid listener to immersive/experiential podcasts No Proscenium and My Haunt Life, both of which feel like they’re fresh minted from pure enthusiasm and are regular gifts that help me feel connected to what’s going on in the wider world.

And I love what Ida C. Bennedetto says on her site www.uncommonplaces.com  about “opening people up to risk in a caring way”. Nailed it! The thrill of creating an immersive experience is knowing how profound the impact of that experience can potentially be. I take the responsibility that involves pretty seriously. Not everyone in this field does, I think.

Posted
AuthorLeonie Reynolds

 

I’m finding myself wanting more intellectual clarity on what I’m doing. I’m going to try to get some more clarity through the writing of this blog post. Apologies if this is a bit rambling and unclear; I’m thinking out loud.

Right now I’m trying to develop a slate of projects that are as diverse as possible, so I can start to actually define this new interactive work for myself, and know where the boundaries (of my interest) lie. Once I’ve worked that out, I’ll be a lot less likely to end up realising, halfway through a project, that it’s not my kind of thing after all.

This is particularly challenging and necessary because I feel like I’m creating a whole genre of entertainment out of thin air. Sure, other people are doing similar things around the world, but we’re all inventing this wheel right now. (No, not re-inventing.) It’s not like writing a film script, where there’s an enormous library/ set of skills you can access, and well-worn (and effective) rules on how to do it. We’re trying something very new.

So. Here’s what I’ve noticed about the projects, and ideas for projects, I’ve gotten excited about so far:

– They’re designed to give a small number of people a magical and transformative experience that takes them into an experience they weren’t expecting and couldn’t have imagined.

– They’re designed to reward a particular type of audience member and audience behaviour: Adventurous, imaginative, adaptable.

– They’re difficult to explain (because the very form of the experience is unprecedented).

– They’re about capturing the intense interest of a few as opposed to vague interest of the many.

– They utilise new technologies in unexpected ways to create magical experiences.

– They have a very strong ‘treasure trail’ structure to them: A story unfolds, piece by piece, but the audience has to travel to find each next bit. They have to earn each next bit through adventurousness and solving simple puzzles.

Here’s something I’ve realised I’m not interested in, as a writer (though I’d happily play them):

– Pure games. i.e., playfulness that’s not tied into a world or a story.

– Games that do have a world, but don’t tell a story as you play them.

– Games where most of the story is created by the players (eg larping – Live Action Role Playing). I think I’m just too much of a control freak to be happy leaving the bulk of creativity to the players.

But! 

I did really enjoy the aspects of my show Frequency where the audience had a lot of agency: When they were in a van talking to a wounded agent, finding out things from him and healing him, and when they tied up an actor they’d realised was a bad guy, and interrogated him.

I’m going to flag this as something I’m unclear about right now: How much agency is the right amount to give to players?

What I do know about this, is these successful moments were short scenes where the players had been given:
 
– Specific knowledge, 

– Specific backstory, and 

– Strong motives to want to find out more or to feel strongly about a situation.

I really enjoyed the elements of choice that went on here. That each night was different, depending on how audiences reacted. I really enjoyed the audiences having different levels of indignation about the performer, discussing whether or not to free the secret agent from the quantum vortex – moments where they had a lot of agency, and were engaged emotionally, and had a short, contained period where they could be adventurous in unpredictable ways, and interact with performers.

 What exactly is my new work about?

Themes that run through all (or most) of my ideas:

– Treasure trail structure, with simple puzzles or challenges you must solve in order to get to the next story beat.

– People interacting with each other in unscripted ways.

– Blurring of the boundaries between the experience and the ‘real world’.

Hmm. I don’t feel like I’m actually figuring anything new out through writing this post. Darn. 

So what’s my conclusion? I guess, that the best (or only) way forward is to just keep moving forward making things, and to let my intuition tell me what’s right. And that the clarity I’d like to have will just have to come over time. 

This reminds me of that great quote by Keats about the quality he calls "negative capability" that forms a Man (ahem) of Achievement: “When a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.

Wikipedia also describes it as “the ability to tolerate the pain and confusion of not knowing, rather than imposing ready-made or omnipotent certainties upon an ambiguous situation ”.

So. That’s my spin, anyway. Clarity? Nah. Running with "negative capability". I’ll let you know how that goes.

Posted
AuthorLeonie Reynolds

My first interactive show, ‘Frequency’, was a sci-fi adventure that took small groups through the streets of Wellington. My goal for audience experience for that show was to bond them as a group and encourage them to be bold – to the point that, towards the end of the show, they’d tie a performer to a chair. When I explained this to people before the season began, they’d look sceptical/confused: "And then you expect the audience will tie the performer to the chair?” But they totally did! Every night! You rock, Frequency audiences!

I really enjoyed coming up with ideas that would encourage my audiences to be bolder (in fact the tagline for the show was: “Are you bold enough?”). And I felt all protective of them, like a mother hen encouraging her chicks to venture out into the world.

I think I assumed that that was going to be my default approach for interactive shows. But while writing this new one, I’ve started to realise that this time I want a different effect. I’m starting to think each show is going to have its own specific goal in terms of audience experience/behaviour. Which is kind of nice. And will keep me exploring and discovering new things.

This show – working title “Jane Eyre’s House” – is in a contained (i.e. indoor) environment. There isn’t the thrill of walking through the streets, knowing the next beat of the adventure could come from anyone or anything around you. So I’ve been really feeling the pressure to come up with something as exciting. But, of course, in a different way. I’m going to make the most of the controlled environment by carefully curating their experience and using some magical technological effects I wouldn’t be able to use in the street.

The purpose of this show has been revealing itself to me as I’ve worked on it. This time, I’m going for a more interior, meditative experience. I want to lull people into an open, imaginative (right brain) dream state. Putting the left brain to sleep while the right brain (the intuitive side) comes out to play. 

Which means, partly, being very careful to restrict or remove any logic puzzles that would wake the left brain. Also, restricting group activity, so people can sink deeper into the meditative thing. These are both choices I’m making intuitively. At some point I’ll need to talk to a psychologist about this for more tips on accessing the right brain.

The base mood/feeling I’m going for throughout the show is eerie/uncanny. I’m planning to use specific sound effects to help with that (sound waves that can induce unease/fear in some people). And, of course, traditional sound effects/music. And I’ll be exploring other ways to use technology to affect experience/emotion.

There must, for example, be some kind of theory about lighting effects – the effect of lighting effects (sorry) – on human perception/experience. I’m not sure even what kind of psychologist to talk to about this. (Okay, betraying that I haven’t actually talked to any psychologists yet).

It’s actually a lot of fun realising I have a whole lot more tools at my disposal than I had when I was writing screenplays. A whole lot of tools that, hopefully, nobody else has thought to use in the particular ways I’m going to use them. I don’t believe in ‘originality’ as being as important as it’s cracked up to be in works of art (it’s better to be good), but still, it’d be a buzz to be first!

Posted
AuthorLeonie Reynolds

The idea I’m working on at the moment has a lot of technology threaded through it, mainly Internet of Things interactive props of various kinds. I’m writing with the assumption that any interactivity I can think of can be made to work one way or another, and that I’ll work out the ‘how’ later (with the help of people who actually understand that stuff). This makes me slightly uneasy, as a control freak who usually does too much on my projects, but I also like that I’ll be forced to delegate.

A friend advised me the other day to use technology sparingly, and i think that’s good advice. I’m going to look at the show through the lens of "What is the minimum amount of technology to create the effect I’m after?"

I think this approach will lead to a stronger show, and the technology supporting the show rather than being the ‘star’.

It will also minimise the danger of the show dating. I want to create a show that is mindblowing and creates wonder in the players. Part of that will be using new technology that people aren’t familiar with yet. But over-reliance on that would result in a show that lost its impact as soon as people were familiar with the tech.

I also feel that creating a ‘mindblowing’ experience is mostly about how you use technology, effects, and story. It’s about creating a specific kind of surprise.

I’m working on creating my own vocabulary of interactive narrative design, based on Christopher Alexander’s classic architectural theory book Pattern Language. Pattern Language looks at specific needs a house has, and creates a loose ‘rule,’ e.g. ‘entranceway’, listing a loose series of effects a functional entranceway space needs – transition space between inside and outside, change of light, shelf to rest parcels, etc. Alexander created over 200 ‘patterns’ that make up his language (or rather, grammar of architecture). His book has also been an inspiration in the computing world.

I know traditional film three act narrative structure backwards. But that’s not enough for the kind of interactive experience I’m creating now. I may be reinventing the wheel, but I’ve decided the most efficient way for me to approach this will be to start to understand the patterns I’ve already used in interactive writing, to develop and codify my own pattern language for interactive adventures.

That’ll make it easier for me to apply what I’ve learnt to future projects, and also means I’ll be starting to build intellectual property. Writing this show is feeling painfully slow, it feels like it should be easier, and I think the reason is I’m discovering a whole new storytelling format from the ground up. The difficulty stems from the nature of the task. I hope!

Posted
AuthorLeonie Reynolds

I’ve been procrastinating (or it felt like it) over the last couple of weeks. But then I sat down yesterday and things started to come together. I felt like I finally had a handle on how to make the show.

It’s nothing I hadn’t already known consciously - but somehow I hadn’t been ready to just sit down and do it. Right now, I’m ready to believe that what seemed like procrastination, unproductively circling my ideas, wasn’t.

Rather, I was productively circling my ideas, immersing myself in what I needed to know and understand for the writing journey ahead.

(Circling as, like a wolf around a campfire - not circling like circling a word on paper, just FYI.)

I’m writing about this to remind myself: The next time I can’t get it together to actually sit down and start a draft, it’s always possible that there’s a good reason for that. That I don’t necessarily need to beat myself up over it. Maybe things just need to incubate.

(Of course, show not written yet, hoping not to tempt fate, or some kind of wry grimace in the future, with these possibly over-optimistic thoughts.)

Anyway, I think ‘being able to tell the difference between procrastination and incubation’ is a skill I’m starting to learn.

I’m still stuck when people ask what I’m doing. The last time someone asked, I replied “making an immersive interactive hi-tech theatre show”. He replied, “That’s a lot of words”.

Hmm. Yes it is. I’m not sure there’s a solution to that. Because the kind of show I’m working on isn’t something most people have experienced before. No matter how snazzy and haiku-ish a phrase I came up with, the response would still be ‘huh?’ (And the description above is still a bad description, anyway). 

I think I need to come up with a description that’s maybe less accurate but that won’t involve me having to launch into an explanation about what transmedia/immersive entertainment is, every time someone asks what I’m doing. Yep. I think, just “writing a theatre show” is possibly the most functional small-talk description. Less satisfying for the ego (‘Look! Shiny! New!’) but a whole lot more functional for day-to-day life. 

Done!

Posted
AuthorLeonie Reynolds

I’ve had some self-doubt issues while working on my latest project so now seems like a good time to blog about confidence. The project was going ahead slowly but well, and then just recently I have found myself ‘too busy’ to work on it for a while. I think this was my subconscious having issues and throwing up obstacles.

In terms of confidence, I’m a bit bipolar (metaphorically speaking).

I seem to  have two settings: 

1) Buzzing, enthused about the idea (and my ability to tackle it), to the point of grandiosity. (I have no problem with being grandiose, I actually think you need at least a touch of grandiosity in order to have the courage to set out on the path of a bold idea.)

And 2) – Yep – self doubt. This is a fear-based thing. Mainly feeling that on some level I’m ‘not worthy’, that my creative well is ‘empty’. Feeling that I’m not entitled to be doing this, that there are other people who are or would be far better at doing this than me, and so on.

One thing I’ve noticed is that position 1 is focused on the idea (with a pleasant background of self-congratulation, of course!). Whereas 2, the sucky place to be, is about forgetting to be excited about the idea, and instead dwelling on myself.

I had an idea recently that I think will be helpful to dust off now – that it’s far more productive to think about yourself as the servant of the project or idea, rather than the ‘originator’, the ‘artist’. If you’re just the servant, then it’s not all about you and your magnificence. So self doubt is taken out of the equation ¬– it’s not relevant whether you’re ‘worthy’ or not. Is a servant ‘worthy’ to open the door? Just open the goddamn door! End of! (Then do your other servanty tasks. And you’ll be fed and have a roof over your head, and nobody will complain you suck as a servant.)

So. I think the solution for me, right now, is to first, remind myself I’m just the servant. The important thing is the project, not what it ‘says’ about me. That part needs to be YAWNSVILLE. (And, in fact, it is. Because, actually, the project itself, whether it’s perfect or not, will be bloody exciting, at least to me, and a discussion with myself or someone else about how ‘talented’ I am or not will be just ridiculously dull compared to it.)

And next: Remember to get excited about the goddamn project! Fall back in love with it. Allow myself to get excited about it (for some reason I have subconscious brakes on that). IT’S OKAY, EVEN GOOD, TO GET EXCITED ABOUT IT.

(Yes, I know that’s banal and obvious, but my subconscious NEEDS TO BE TOLD).

Hmm. Lots of caps lock here! Well, I think I slightly needed to shout at myself.

Now I just have to: Remember this. And act accordingly.

Posted
AuthorLeonie Reynolds

I’m working on a multi-room experience, a lot like an escape room, but with a linking narrative. I’ve played an experience like this previously at a Con (and it was great). Now I’m learning the form for myself, figuring out what the rules are. I plan to have hints but it’s still difficult to figure out the right level of difficulty. I know from playing escape rooms that people really love a challenge.

I’m also trying to figure out how to control what headspace people are in, left-brain vs right-brain. I don’t want them to be totally in left-brain ‘logical’ mode, in fact I’m not sure I want them to be in that mode at all. I’d far rather they have a dreamy, atmospheric, immersed experience. 

I’m going to be able to partially induce that with sound, lighting and set, but I think the puzzles/challenges will need to be right-brain too. The fact that the experience is about mood and atmosphere means the challenges will need to be metaphorically connected with the story I’m telling. If they’re about metaphor, then they’re about understanding the relationships of things to each other. About understanding the difference between order and disorder, in this world. And about understanding ‘what needs to happen’ metaphorically.

I think this means NOT making challenges that are mathematical or logic puzzles, as that will pull people out of . I think the challenges will need to be about: 

•    Finding objects, 
•    Figuring out which objects are important/carry hidden messages,
•    Figuring out how objects go together,
•    Finding secret things (sometimes through putting other clues together to unlock other things).

Why do I feel confident that this show can work? Because, when I played the game at the Con, I found it really exhilarating. Because it was exciting to be in an atmospheric theatricalised space, and to be a free agent within it. So I know the form works. I just have to make a show that's a competent example of the form.

Of course, I’m not fully confident about doing that! I’m planning numerous playtests. Which are a necessary part of building games, but part of me still shudders at the idea of inviting people to tell me all the ways my show doesn’t work.

Posted
AuthorLeonie Reynolds

This blog is my attempt to think through and make sense of the fields I’ve recently discovered and am excited about – pervasive/immersive theatre and entertainment. And also to figure out my own creative place in this new and exciting world. 

‘Pervasive’ essentially means creating a story world which bleeds into the real world, so you can’t tell where the real world ends and the story begins. Like an Alternate Reality Game, where you can visit a character’s Facebook page, get emailed by them or track them down and discover them in their favourite bar. And ‘immersive’ when applied to theatre means the audience is part of the action.

I’m also interested in street games (which adults literally play in the streets or in a room somewhere), and in figuring out how storytelling can tie into all these things. It feels like there should be a single term for all this. I like to call it ‘interactive adventure’. That’s how I described the immersive/pervasive show I made in early 2014, which took a small audience through the streets of Wellington on a two-hour scifi adventure where they received texts, saved a wounded agent, and (of course) saved the world.

In the past, I’ve written feature scripts, written for TV and made documentaries. I’ve always been hyper-aware of what the audience is experiencing at each moment. And I’ve always tried to make things I’d like to watch. I realised that, as an audience member, I’d rather be in a movie than watch one. So I made a show that was like being in a movie, for the audience.

I’m working on a number of new immersive ideas right now, that are all quite different from each other. But what they have in common is that the audience is at the centre of the story, driving the narrative, and being challenged.

What I want for the audience is: They have a good time. That they’re stretched, encouraged to be bold, rewarded for curiosity. That they’re emotionally safe and cared for even while they’re being challenged and pushed out of their comfort zone. That they finish one of my adventures feeling exhilarated. 

In fact, in my head I’ve decided to call them ‘adventurers’ rather than ‘audience’. I think that subtle layer of increased respect will change how I write for them.

And what I want for myself (among other things) is to come to understand better exactly what my role is in this new field. To understand the possibilities and my own strengths better so I’m really clear on how to approach a project in a way that’s right for me. At the moment, I’m operating almost solely on intuition, on what I’m excited about. I’d like to be able to articulate why that is more clearly.

I also want to start to articulate a grammar of performance, to build up a knowledge bank of what works for audiences when they’re involved in an immersive project. This is a field that, as far as I’m aware, is still a little bit like the Wild West, largely unexplored and still being figured out. I guess I’m getting to the word ‘pioneer’! I hope to be one of the pioneers in this new world. It’s not that often that a totally new field is born, and to get to be one of the first playing in this still-new playground is rather thrilling.

Posted
AuthorLeonie Reynolds