Immersive Storytelling for The Lost Children Pt. 2

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Part 1 of this series laid out the overall plan for The Lost Children Premier event at Film Society of Lincoln Center in January 2013.

In this post, I’m going to focus on some thinking behind the live immersive portion of the event.

As I’ve been working on this, I’ve been thinking a lot about this term “immersive.” Any great piece of art can be immersive. Any time you get sucked into an amazing movie to the point that you forget you’re actually watching a movie, that is immersive. I remember having that experience with No Country for Old Men.

But here, I’m talking about live theater, and for me, live theater where the audience is somehow inside the action, and possibly having an impact on that action.

I’ve been drawn to this kind of theater for some time now.

Medium & Message

I’ve said in previous articles that in terms of transmedia, I love trying to suit the medium to the message. The Lost Children feature film is told as a documentary, as if someone had gone back and gathered the filmed material. The story is in pieces and the “documentary filmmaker” is working to figure out the meaning in those pieces. Audio+video are a good medium for telling that story.

But in the film, you never really see too deeply into the cult itself. You see the aftermath of someone who escaped, but not the mechanisms the cult uses to draw people in. Unless someone goes undercover and videotapes these, or reports on them after the fact, most of us never experience these. So a story about cult recruitment might be told as a memoir (as many have), or it may be told through hidden camera footage and recordings (which might also be very cool and interesting). Or the direction I decided to take is to tell is as the event itself, placing audience members in the position of potential recruits.

You are the Protagonist

In the way stories are traditionally told, you often have a protagonist who acts as a sort of stand-in for the audience. We associate with a story through their eyes. But in video games for example, you are the protagonist.

This is the mechanic I’m working with in the live experience for The Lost Children, and to a much greater degree in my next project. The idea that the audience experiences the story as first person.

As I design the experience for The Lost Children, this has brought up a lot of questions: How far to you take this? How much agency do you give audience members? How do you guarantee everyone gets a good show? And most important, how do you create a meaningful, compelling experience?

That last one led me to think about what exactly is the experience I’m trying to create? Well, one of the things I’ve become more and more interested in of late is the theater of everyday life. The theater of a political debate. The theater of a first date. The little bits of show we put on or experience in various situations. These all create emotional responses in us, and they all carry meaning for us. And that’s what I wanted to work with. So I chose a format that will allow the audience to experience the theater of a self-help event. Not a play about a self-help event, but the event itself.

This goes back to games and of course has many variations. In the Batman: Arkham City game, I am flying about the city, smacking bad guys, etc. But then there’s Left 4 Dead 2, a zombie game, that’s actually quite terrifying when the zombies start swarming, and they’re coming for you and you have to react to get out of it. It’s a different feeling than the empathy I have with a character in the same situation. I don’t know how far you can take this, or in which situations it will work. Many video games are jam-packed with bad writing and acting, characters mouthing exposition at you until you’re numb. I hear the Walking Dead game is really good. But I also think the emotional connection comes in different forms, which I get to below.

We see this first person thing at work in a lot of transmedia. Games of course,  but also things that are not really games, but play at the same ideas of putting you through the story directly, and creating an emotional reaction. Like the web-based Byzantium Tests Campfire created for the Cinemax show The Hunted. This used a number of real old time mentalism techniques to give people some genuine emotional and compelling experiences.

Non-Linear Exploration

Can a video game be as good as a movie? Is it simply the fact that attention to writing and acting is not as high quality as it is in (some) movies that’s keeping a video game from having as real, mature storytelling as The Godfather? Maybe. Video games are testing the waters of cinematic storytelling quite a bit now.

But I also wonder if we’re not looking at it the wrong way. One of the things I like most about video games is the ability to run about, interrogate characters at will, explore the world, find relics, and just exist in the world. This alone can give me certain emotional experiences. Some of the same experiences I get from say, a museum, looking over the relics of a lost civilization. Because instead of telling me a story, the game is laying out a lot of pieces and allowing my mind to put those pieces together in a meaningful way for me. And really, this is not too far off from how good movies work. This is the basis of montage theory. Two shots have no meaning separately, but when juxtaposed, they create a new meaning.

I notice this at work in many other places too. Art, for example. Two shows come to mind. One was the Tom Sachs show Space Program: Mars, in which you got to explore various mock-ups and works based on a trip to Mars, capped off by watching the entire countdown, launch, and remote landing on the red planet, acted out with actors, props, models and video. My favorite part was not the part we watched, but the part where we go to examine the artifacts and make up our own little stories in our heads.

The second show was the Anne Hamilton show, The Event of a Thread, which is still running, and involves huge, two-person swings, a record cut of a singing performance each day, and bizarre women reading from long scrolls, their voices projected through speakers stashed in paper bags throughout the space. This show depends on the audience to even exist. And what struck me about it was that it was less about the artist showing something, and more about the artist creating a space for the audience to make the experience themselves. And I think that’s the key for me.

Both of these shows were at the Park Ave. Armory. And what I enjoyed in both of them was that I was allowed to take various pieces in, and make my own meaning out of them. This is part of what I’m working with with The Lost Children live experience.

All the Senses

One more aspect of the live immersive experience I love is the ability to use all of an audience’s senses. Tactile storytelling. Using physical objects in an environment. Haunted houses do this, of course, when they ask you to put your hand in a bowl full of “eyeballs,” or let thin streamers to trickle down from above, as if the webs of some massive spider. In The Lost Children event we will use sight, sound, touch, and smell. Of course, films have played with this before, usually in a pretty cheesy way. Smell-o-vision! And some transmedia campaigns have dealt with it in a limited way. I want to take it to another level though, using it more directly with the audience in a pretty organic way.

It Clicked with Theater

Even though I had been to some other immersive experiences, this whole idea began to really click for me when I attended James Carter’s NY Hearts LES. This is a play wherein you roam the LES, with an app that plays out parts of a story based on where you are on your journey.  You visit locations where the story took place for the characters, while listening to the parts of the story that took place in those locations. New York City is particularly suited to this kind of thing, as the city is such a character in itself. But standing, sitting, dining, in these locations, really helped me form some very specific and unusual emotional connections. Some of those locations already had meaning for me. My wife was with me, so that brought one more layer of meaning.

But the part of this play that really sealed it for me was in the beginning. And it took me a while to understand just what an impact this had on me. The play included an actual yoga class. And as great as it was to get a yoga class in, I did the entire thing with this awareness of the story I was there for. But I also became hyperaware of the theater involved in a yoga class. The music, the incense, the choices in language the teacher makes, the little ear tug at the end, all of these trappings added up in my mind, and I had this electric realization that this was a piece of everyday theater.

Of course, I’ll say again, in The Lost Children experience people will not be forced to participate. There is plenty of room to hang back, chill, and watch it all unfold. Allowing you to hang back also plays at another idea I love, which is letting the interactive audience members be entertainment for the non-interactive audience members. This is an example of designing for multiple levels of engagement.

Priming the Audience

The last thing I’ll talk about here is what I call “priming the audience.” Usually, when you go see a movie, you come into a theater with your friends or loved ones, or whoever. And you have a whole other set of stuff going on. Maybe there was traffic, maybe you had a bad email from work. Then you get your soda and popcorn or mocha and sit down. Then, you’re assaulted for about 20 minutes with overly loud obnoxious “content” cramming something or other down your throat. So by the time the movie actually comes on, what state of mind are you in? For me, much of the reason I avoid movie theaters anymore is because by the time the movie actually starts, I’m so sick of being advertised to, I’m ready to just go home. Many independent theaters are fighting this, by creating engaging experiences, and this is part of what I’m doing as well.

I started thinking about ideas for getting the audience in the right frame of mind for the movie. I think this can be done in many ways. In the case of The Lost Children, the experiences are all focused on tuning the audience’s mind into the themes of the story. The immersive experience is focused on our own desire to believe. Believe in god(s)? Believe in aliens? Believe that everything is going to be all right? Believe that there’s a plan for my life? Believe that I have some special power within myself. Humans have a deep and ancient need to believe. And it’s my hope that this experience helps the audience tune their minds to this theme, as they go in to see the movie.