Some of the biggest names in immersive theater came together at Midsummer Scream, to discuss the artform and where it’s headed. The immersive world building panel honored guests Bonnie Hallman (Mycotoo), Jon Braver (Delusion), Justin Fix (JFI Productions), and Aaron Keeling (E3W Productions).
Before they were able to discuss the art-form in general, the panelists were first asked to identify what makes something “immersive”. With marketing strategists slapping the label freely on an array of experiences that may not fit the bill, this deceptively difficult question was targeted at the core of this in-vogue theater structure. Fix identified agency as the central element of what makes something immersive. The audience member’s transformation from the role of the spectator to an active participant in the production is a hallmark of immersive experiences. In immersives, the balance of responsibility is shifted creating a collaboration between the actor and audience member for unfolding the narrative. Keeling added that sound and narrative are important elements in immersives that support induction into the story. Lastly, Braver commented on the importance of having high quality actors more so than a powerful set design. Braver stated, “Actors are key…It doesn’t matter what’s around you if the actor is powerful”.
In exploring the process behind making an immersive experience, each creator shared differences and similarities in their process. Braver reflected how his starting point is chosen from a book of ideas he maintains throughout the year. He focuses on his audiences and what role they can play within the fantastical and other worldly narratives he generates. Keeling shared similar sentiments in identifying his jumping off point. For him, it begins with a character and conceptualizing what audiences will take away from their time interacting with that character. Fix added that tone and theme are big. His company tries to hit on a collection of adjectives and verbs they would like the audience to experience during their time at the show. Whereas Hallman, who usually works with executives in the development of her immersive productions, starts with “the why” and sees her goal as tying all ideas together and pulling from executives what they really want. Hallman reflects that her immersive experiences hit on three different types of audience members: the waders, the swimmers, and the deep divers. To appease a mass audience, she attempts to make experiences that someone who knows nothing about the theme or IP will enjoy but that also has Easter eggs for the dedicated fans. She sees her work as that of an ambassador working to provide an exceptional experience for guests while keeping executives happy.
Although each creator has differences in their artistic process, they all experience similar challenges in designing an immersive. Having a high number of participants pulse through the experience with limited time for set up, especially in pop-ups, creates challenges for audience testing. Particularly with large scale productions, developing a narrative and intimate moments can be difficult. Hallman identified challenges related to audience flow which are tweaked on site to avoid bottlenecks. Unique to large scale productions, Hallman also shared how costuming may limit the actors that can be used due to needing to fit into the suit. Securing a location, especially in Los Angeles can be extremely challenging for immersive creators. However, perhaps the biggest challenge shared by all creators is working within a budget and using available resources to provide the most exceptional experience possible.
Despite creators’ challenges behind the scenes, immersive experiences continue to be enjoyed by a wide array of audiences. The emphasis Generation Z places on having experiences over material things bodes well for the continued popularity of immersive productions. In the upcoming months before Halloween, audiences can expect to see more immersive experiences popping up in the greater Los Angeles area. Stay tuned in to Nightmarish Conjurings to learn more and check out these websites from panelists Justin Fix (creepla.com), Aaron Keeling (E3Wproductions.com), Bonnie Hallman (mycotoo.com) and Jon Braver (enterdelusion.com).