The Lost Children Experience at FilmGateMiami 2014
This is a brief post-mortem on my last interactive live event at a small interactive festival in Miami called FilmGate 2014.
Over the past year, I have been focusing on a few core principles in my work. These are not rules, but questions I return to when making a piece of immersive/interactive work.
Rules/audience agency. When we go to a movie, we know the rules. Sit in the dark, eat our popcorn, watch. When designing a new experience, it’s important to communicate the rules to your audience so they can let go of their minds and get immersed. Along with this, it’s important to communicate what kind of agency they are allowed. That is, just how interactive are they allowed to get.
What role does the audience play? This will greatly influence #1 above. But also helps you define the audience’s interactions with the story world, and what is expected of them. In The Lost Children Experience, this is pretty easy, as the audience members are all potential cult recruits and the entire experience is designed to test their willingness to buy into what the cult’s selling.
Fragmented narrative. To me, this is what leads to multiple “platforms,” determining how the narrative is broken apart and how it is discovered.
Tactile experience/senses. Which senses are you engaging? Clearly this is where live experiences can shine. The Lost Children uses touch, taste, smell, sight and sound.
Personalized experience. What is an individual or a subset of audience members getting that everyone else is not? This might be one-on-ones such as the “Soul Readings” in The Lost Children, or it might be a Facebook-driven piece like “Him, Her and Them”.
Arc of The Lost Children Experience
The Lost Children Experience is designed to progress across three acts, pushing the audience through the emotional experience of being seduced by a cult.
ACT I – Exploration, fun and games. The first act is designed to seduce the audience, disarm them with a good deal of fun, gameplay and flattery. This is accomplished through warm-up exercises, group chants, personal “Soul Readings” and a variation on Truth or Dare called “Secret Society.” Cults often pose as everyday groups, bible studies, self-help groups, etc. and can use fun activities to make you think they are just like you. Act I is non-linear. Audience members are allowed to take in as much as they like. In this period, if audience members choose side missions, they will unlock additional storylines which they can share with the larger group.
ACT II – At this point, things take a sharp turn as the audience witnesses and takes part in the secretive initiation ritual “The Three Revelations of Metamorphosis.” Audience members are complicit in the ritual abuse of a cult initiate. The ritual asks ten individuals to circle the initiate, hold the initiate down via satin ties around his/her wrists and chant to encourage the initiate when he/she has doubts.
ACT III – The Lost Children film. The film tells the story of Evelyn Hamilton, patron saint of the cult, and is extremely dark in tone. The film is designed to represent the nightmare of being brainwashed by a cult and made to believe the insane is real.
It’s my hope that the audience goes on an emotional journey from fun to nightmare.
ACT I Non-linear “Cocktail Reception” and Cult Recruiting Event
This part of the evening is structured like a carnival. Audience members may take in smaller experiences as they wish, then return to the “cocktail reception” to discuss with others. It is non-linear, and a single audience member will never take in all of it. This is by design. Much of my work this year has been about creating opportunities for people to share stories of their experiences. So you may see one thing, and your friend another, then come together to share your stories with one another.
This part of the event had several elements to explore:
A central character attempting to win you over to The Lost Children’s philosophy through a series of speeches.
Video testimonials from “Real Lost Children Members”. Each is about five minutes long and tells the story of how The Lost Children changed that person’s life.
Side Missions. These are scavenger hunts that involve both SMS and physical clues throughout and outside the space. These scavenger hunts unlock story lines which may influence the ritual later in the event.
Soul Readings. Audience members may get a personal Soul Reading and “learn the truth about themselves”. This is what’s known as a “one-on-one”, a personalized theatre event for a single audience member.
The Game: Secret Society. A game for ten players which allows people to “form their own damned cult”.
These five elements plus discussion and watching others, provide enough opportunities for activity for about 60-70 people for about an hour. That’s how long ACT I should last.
The Game: Secret Society
By far the biggest surprise of the FilmGate show was the success of the game Secret Society. This game is based on the age old game Truth or Dare, but wrapped in narrative of The Lost Children story world. It’s presented as one of the cult’s “educational resources”.
The game is played in three rounds with corresponding decks of cards: Green, Yellow, Red.
The Green round contains easy questions designed to break the ice and get people laughing. Things like going out into the hall and yelling “I love hairy balls” three times. Nothing disarms an audience and gets them willing to play along like laughter so I am using it more and more at the top of interactive experiences now.
The Yellow round contains questions about sex, and is designed to start weeding out the crowd. People are asked to give lap dances, or tell sexy secrets, fake orgasms, etc.
The Red round contains personal questions such as “What do you hate about yourself”, and “How are you a disappointment to your parents” and gets much more serious.
Between rounds, players must consume pills of unknown substance. They are told these pills will encourage them to be more open and honest. If they refuse to take a pill, they are kicked out of the game.
The goal of this game is to get people to contribute personal information, to share secrets, and to undergo a sort of trial with one another, thus forming their own little secret society. At the end, it’s my hope that they are a new community.
In order to get a sense of how scary the questions would be, I user-tested them on about 20 random people across genders and ages, prior to FilmGate. So I thought I had a pretty good idea of the drop-off rate to expect.
But at FilmGate, the players were in it to win it. Many fewer drop-outs than my testing showed. But this lack of drop-out did not diminish the fun people had playing the game. Also, I had built prizes into the game. But prizes were irrelevant. That’s not why people played. People played for the fun and challenge.
It’s no secret in this day that people like to perform. Social media is full of people performing. The first night of our show, the air conditioning in part the facility broke, so we were forced to let more people into the theater where the SECRET SOCIETY game was taking place (and the AC worked).
This turned out to be fine as people really seemed to enjoy watching other people play the game. I’ve been aware of this mechanic for some time now, and have built it into experiences all year, but originally, it was not central to the design of this particular game.
It went so well though, that the second night, we opened the game up to anyone who wanted to watch. Additionally, as game players were kicked out of the game for not telling the truth, or not performing a dare, audience members could volunteer to jump in and take their places.
This game is all about personalized experience, tactile experience through taking the pills, audience agency and roles the audience is asked to play.
Finally, this game illustrates an idea I’ve been working with on my new play CURRENT:GOOD; “Games as Interface on a Fictional World.” This means using games to get people to act in a fiction. In an interactive live experience, you will not get most people to improvise or pretend they are something they are not. But just about everyone will have fun taking on a role in a game.
Another surprise was just how many people wanted a Soul Reading. Some people refused to go into the ritual until they got their Soul Reading. Soul Readings are one-on-one experiences. The actor uses a number of magic and psychic techniques to “Read the Soul” of the audience member and determine if they are “one of us.” It can be a powerful experience.
But it can also be a bunch of BS, and some thought so. This too is part of the design. I like to encourage skeptics to vocalize their reactions in order to foster discussion and create spaces where the audience can make their own experiences through dialogue. Plus, it is a cult, after all. They will lie to you.
Soul Readings use personalized experience, tactile experience through our custom cult perfume and cult amulets audience members handle during the readings, and to a lesser degree audience agency, as we really hope people discuss their readings afterward.
I created side missions as a way for people to go off in smaller groups and unlock different storylines through interactions with a combination of SMS and physical artifacts.
The audience took on side missions in about the ratios I imagined, though they seemed to prefer taking side missions in smaller groups than I had designed for. I had planned for groups of about ten, in order to encourage strangers to meet an discuss.
But the reality was that people chose smaller groups, like two or three.
These side missions use personalized experience, tactile experience (during one side mission, you have to dig up a box with a shovel), and fragmented narrative.
Fragmented narrative because side missions unlock new story lines that may influence the events of the evening. The story lines all tie back into other elements of the event.
Side missions are powered by a workflow engine I wrote as a WordPress Plugin and accessed via SMS through Twilio. SMS clues lead to physical clues in and around the space.
I wrote this as a WordPress because the ultimate goal is to license this production to live theaters around the country. So I needed a clean interface that would allow non-technical people to program side missions for their productions.
ACT II The Three Revelations of Metamorphosis
This is the initiation ritual of the cult, during which one audience member gets up and commits their life to the group.
At this point in the show things go from fun and games to something darker. This is the point where the audience has a choice. Go with the abuse of this person joining the cult, or refuse and rebel. In the last show I did at Film Society of Lincoln Center(FSLC), two people walked out of this ritual. In Miami, no one tried to stop it. But, two women who had gone on a side mission, really wanted to stop it because of what they learned about the cult in that mission. However, they felt like they might “screw up” the show, so kept quiet. For me, it’s a very big win that they had this desire to begin with. But they suggested I clarify their opportunities to act on that desire. So that goes into the next version.
At the FSLC event, this was a secret ceremony only for ten people who “leveled up” throughout the evening by performing various tasks. In the FilmGate version, I moved this onto the main stage for a couple of reasons.
First, scalability. It took too long for people to “level up” to the final ten. The first “non-linear” part of the show shouldn’t really be more than an hour, and that’s just not enough time to go through the levels. Secondly, the ritual might be the best part of the show, so why not use that? A lot of people at FSLC wished they had gotten to witness it.
The ritual has a few goals.
Theatre. Over the past year I have been very interested in the theater we use in life, be that religious ceremonies, weddings, even surprise birthday parties. So the Three Revelations is not a play in the traditional sense, it is literally a religious ritual.
The second goal is audience culpability. The ritual involves an initiate going through emotional and physical abuse. The leader calls ten volunteers on stage to aid in this process through rhythmic chant and literally subduing the initiate by satin ties. I like the idea of the audience being complicit, and questioning its own behavior. I work this into my new play CURRENT:GOOD as well, by giving the audience chances to deal with characters either cruelly or humanely.
The last goal is to provide opportunities for audience agency in the ritual. I don’t believe we can ask too much of people in this situation. So the agency takes the form of drinking an unknown potion, not unlike Kool-Aid, and holding the initiate down with the satin ties. For the most part, this works. The ratios of those who want to take part worked out to be about right for the number of tasks available. We then invite the rest of the audience to form “outer circles” and get a better look. This too suits their desire for engagement. They did not volunteer to be active, but they would like to be involved to some degree from the “second row”.
ACT III The Interactive Film
In both productions, I allowed the audience to influence the direction of the film through simple questions like “Do You Believe in UFOs?” I believe in the future I will do away with this. Some of the audience really do like it, but on the whole I just don’t think it adds enough to the event to justify it. So I’m just going to let the movie be a movie.
A Few Lessons
FilmGate was the second time I performed The Lost Children Experience. The first time was at Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2013. Since that performance, I took everything I learned and made a number of adjustments to the show. Below are some of the things I did and some things I learned.
Leading the Audience
One of the big changes from the FSLC version was building in a more centralized focus for the audience. I created a central character to guide the evening. In the FSLC version I did have a leader there, the leader of the cult, in fact, but I wanted to keep him more off the radar when he wasn’t clearly “on stage”.
This character serves as an emcee and an ongoing source of entertainment for large groups of people as they sip cocktails, or wait in line for Soul Readings. As he roams the space, he attempts to recruit groups of people with a series of speeches. But these speeches veer toward the conspiracy-nut variety, so as the evening progresses, you begin to wonder if he’s off his rocker. These speeches are performed in rotation throughout this portion of the show, so that more people get chances to hear them.
This character kicks off the event with a meditation. He asks everyone to relax, to breathe and to join him in a chant.
The first night at FilmGate, the audience dove right into the chant. The next night, they were a little more hesitant. So in addition to setting the right tone, this chant is a gauge of what kind of audience we have that night.
Planning for the Unknown
Opening night had two issues that forced us to alter the show on the spot. This is never fun, but re-enforces the idea that you need back-up plans.
The first issue was that the a.c. in the facility was broken for the “non-linear” part of the show. So it got extremely hot. This meant we had to cut that part of the show short. This turned out to be fine as the second issue was that the festival had overbooked that night of the show. The experience is designed for a max of 60-70 people. They let in about 110. So this forced us to move to the more “group oriented” part of the show sooner anyway.
We made a back-up plan for the second night but fortunately did not need it. That night went just about perfectly. The right size audience, timing of each act perfect, audience engagement high, and the arc of the evening pretty clear.
Go with the Audience
When you invite the audience in to play, you want to create moods, for sure. But you also have to be willing to let go of the mood to some degree.
The first night, the audience was jumpy, giggling and having fun. So I told the actors don’t try to fight this. Let it be fun if that’s what it wants to be. When we got into the ritual, things calmed down, and we brought the audience back around through the simple force of the storytelling.
I think that’s an important lesson. We will bring them back around. But people will react to something this odd differently each night, so allow some leeway.
Night two, the audience was much more subdued, but took in more of the non-linear experience at the top, and I believe they actually got more out of the show as a whole.
The show generally ends with a Q&A. But at FilmGate, several people told me how disturbed and frightened at the end of the show. And currently there is no release mechanism built into the event for that. It is very much my intention to disturb and scare you. I want the event to seduce and audience, then drag them down into a nightmare, in order to simulate the emotional experience of joining a cult.
But based on audience reactions, I think I will build in a structured talk-back, and give people more of a chance to decompress afterwards. This is a technique used by Epic Theatre Ensemble in NYC, and I’ve seen it not only provide that release mechanism, but also amplify the experience by giving the audience a space and agency to express themselves.