(about 4200 words)
Some issues that the Spectacular Disaster Factory (SDF) has run into during interactive events—ours and others’—prompted this reflection on assumptions and considerations that immersive designers make about their audience-participants.
The following ideas could be common sense to you, especially if you tinker with user interfaces or user experiences in the digital realm, but it wasn’t obvious to us when we started producing events for the public. For example:
- One of the first immersive events I worked on was a Halloween haunt for UCLA dorm residents. I played the last scare, a masked guy who ripped a bedsheet barrier with a chainsaw and charged the entrants. The first group that came through were all young women. They saw me, screamed, and ran into the unused men’s restroom.
- I worried when one solo participant of One Last Thing Before You Go couldn’t figure out how to part the curtains to reach the main stage of the experience.
- An attendee at Temp Cupid revealed during onboarding that she was on a mystery date; her partner surprised her without revealing the details of the event, nor had she attended an immersive show before.
In each of these instances, I found myself momentarily stunned—I didn’t expect this to happen! What do I do!?! Improvisation took over each time: I suggested the haunt guide retrieve the terrified girls and “protect” them past me to the exit; the participant found the seam seconds before I was going to step out to direct them, and I acknowledged the new Cupid’s inexperience and spent more time explaining interactive theater.
Each of those examples, plus a few other experiences, led us to codify features and inquiries worth addressing when we design Spectacular Disaster Factory shows. I hope that these benefit you and your shows in some fashion.
Not Who You Expected
You’ve probably heard the quote “No plan survives first contact with the enemy”1 to describe uncertainty in military strategizing. The maxim can also apply to experiential events if the participants have any degree of agency to “do what thou wilt” such as in larps and some immersive theater shows. But why can’t a designed experience prevail after meeting the enemy, er, audience? One explanation might be that an event was designed for the center of a bell curve of participant demographics: ages 21-35, attending with a friend or partner, some college education, technically fluent with a phone and who has full mobility, sight and hearing, etc. If someone doesn’t match that generalization, the odds of show hiccups increases.
SDF tries to assume only the following about our participants:
- They are living humans who need air, water, food, and a bathroom to use, not to flee into.
That’s it, unless we intentionally limit attendance by age or some other prerequisite.
- What is their mobility?
- Do they have different hearing or sight?
- Color-blindness can thwart solving some puzzles
- VR headset creators already contend with eyeglasses
- Do they process stimuli differently?
- Is English their first language?
- Are they younger or older than your target demographic?
But there are other factors about your audience that should not be assumed one way or another:
- Did the participant buy a ticket themselves or are they comped because their friend is in the cast, or the show they really wanted is sold out?
- Did they read the event description before attending?
- Have they been to an immersive or interactive event before? Was it like yours or radically different?
- There is a spectrum of audience members’ knowledge, ranging from “never done anything like this” to “decades of expertise playing and designing these and will critique your event on the podcast by morning.” It’s important to remember that participant knowledge of the medium comes in a range, not a binary toggle.
- If you provide food or drink, do you take all diets or allergies into account?
- Do participants have emotional triggers related to something in your show that they need to know about beforehand? Conversely, does the participant want to go in without any prior knowledge?
- SDF offers content warnings on a separate page linked off the main details as an opt-in situation. Those who want to eschew spoilers can avoid them by not clicking, and those who want more information about the content can get it.
- Do they show up on time? What happens if they show up an hour early, absorbing clues from the audience leaving a previous show? What happens if they are 15 minutes late? Five minutes? One minute?
- Does the participant know any other participants? What if a group of friends and one befuddled stranger attend a small, deeply personal experience?
- Are they under the influence of alcohol or drugs?
- Did something radical occur in their life just prior to their attendance such as a job loss, financial windfall, family medical emergency, marriage proposal, or a heated argument with their partner?
- If your experience is based on an existing IP, including historical events or cultural tropes or myths, do the attendants know it? Know it well?
- Kirsten and I attended The Good Place activation during San Diego Comic-Con before we watched any episodes. While enjoyable, it would have been much better if we had seen season one.
- Do participants understand or have access to technology you feature? Can you rely on participants having charged their devices beforehand?
- I almost ruined a prequel to Stash House because I had no idea how to turn on a burner phone.
- For a disaster preparedness larp I designed for a neighborhood block, the main mechanic relied on sending photos or videos to our Headquarters phones. One participant on the block was an elderly woman who did not own a mobile phone.
Peter English’s essay, Introduction to tech-driven immersive theater, has more information about the different levels of technological and general knowledge each participant might have going in to an event.
Nordic larp organizers frequently attempt to “calibrate” the immersive-interactive experience using a workshop, questionnaire, or similar meeting between creators and participants before the event. In tabletop role-playing games, this is called session zero, where all participants confab about their expectations, background, motivations, etc. While this aids facilitation and reduces the chance of someone with arhythmic views to yours turning up, these options take precious time away from the event itself, and may be logistically impossible for some shows. But if you can communicate with the participants ahead of time, this is a good way of dodging some of the assumptions mentioned above.
Although usually helpful, if a participant’s questionnaire precedes the experience by weeks, days, or even hours, it could be spoiled by the time the guest arrives: what they said they wanted when they signed up might have turned into the opposite when they show up.
If you require a pre-event quiz or meeting, will the participants be asked to reveal personal information to strangers, either the organizers, actors, or the other participants? Some people aren’t comfortable articulating their deepest fears or desires in front of friends or even strangers. Will withholding secrets ruin their experience or that of others? What if they lie?2
Empowering the Participants
All interactive events and many immersive ones ask something of the audience besides showing up and passively enjoying the presentation. Within that ask, are participants given enough information on how, when, where and who to engage? This onboarding process into the fiction is one where SDF occasionally stumbles. We’ve been told it’s an error to give more information rather than less, and we need to work on integrating our process seamlessly into the fiction instead of weighing participants down with details before shoving them into the deep end of the story.
The goal behind explaining what the participants can and cannot do is to provide them tools to maximize their experience. But teaching these can be confusing, leading participants to engage incorrectly or not engage at all.
One approach is to skip the onboarding and let participants figure it out as they go, but that ups the odds of committing an oopsie-daisy—yet that may be a tolerable risk compared to definitively saddling them with too much information. Successful, award-winning shows from Capital W operate that way, like Red Flags. Writer/director Lauren Ludwig has stated that they design for the most common participant, offer only minimal instruction and attempt to keep all communication between designers and audience inside the world they are creating, only deploying contingency plans in case of trouble.
The trick for designers is to:
- Provide participants with the Goldilocks level of detail they need—not too much, not too little. Well-being mechanics must be at the forefront of that knowledge—people can only hold so much information in short-term memory, and the safety rules should not be forgotten.
- SDF believes that culture sometimes influences what is considered too many or too few rules. Through our travels in Europe we noticed a trend of “What is not expressly permitted is prohibited” (signs tell you what you can do, everything else is forbidden), whereas in America “What is not expressly prohibited is permitted,” where Americans do anything we want unless you tell us no. For example, taking small objects from a set in Sleep No More because someone3 thought it was like an Infocom game and these items would be useful somewhere else (they aren’t, don’t take them).
- Impart that knowledge in the context of the environment itself, so participants learn about the show while in the show.
- Emulating a learning environment, like a school, is often used in larps. For Temp Cupid, participants become temporary seasonal hires for the god of desire around Valentine’s Day, so onboarding is conducted as a job training session.
- Have protocols for people who misunderstand or forgot the lessons; remember, not all participants are “ideal” or actively absorbing what you have to tell them. It won’t matter how many times you tell them something, they still won’t follow.
- Someone4 completely botched their first on-air DJ moment at 40 Watts from Nowhere, even though the rules were told multiple times and an important one was written on a piece of paper next to the microphone.
Weirding Everything All Up
Even if your participants fall within your expected range of humans and they have been dutifully and fully briefed on the rules and mechanics, some still might “weird up” the event while it rolls. Renowned ARG designer Reed Berkowitz, in his Medium article on how QAnon is an ARG gone horribly awry, has a great example of apophenia, the tendency for humans to see a pattern or narrative connecting completely unrelated things. In one of Berkowitz’s early mystery experiences, some loose wood shavings on a basement floor randomly formed an arrow pointing to a brick wall. The participants, looking for a hidden object, were just about to demolish the house’s foundation when Reed broke the glass for his emergency backup plan to save the situation.
In an early chapter of Creep LA, after exiting the maze with a chainsaw-wielding killer (something I was familiar with from my first haunt, remember), I heard another member of our group call out for help. I went back inside the event and started shouting over the din, kind of “Marco!” Polo!” style, to lead her out.
You may find that participants roughly align around these types:
- The Wannabe Actor is always performing and may upstage other participants or even the cast.
- The Explorer wants to look at all the pretty props, happy to be left behind the narrative.
- The Disruptor pushes everything, cast, crew, sets, etc. (see “that which is not prohibited is permitted”, above).
- The Shy One is unsure of what they can or can’t do, insecure about “ruining it” for others.
- Poker Face does what is asked, but they don’t initiate anything, and it is difficult to tell if they feel anything.
Think of these types like the colors red, yellow, and blue (or cyan-magenta-yellow-black, if you’re printing it), which can blend into any visible color. Most participants are a mix of the above types, rarely all one or the other. Nor are those classifications inherently bad or wrong, depending on your event; sometimes the Disruptor activates a powerful performance, or the Shy One quietly perceives the important information to unlock the mystery, or the Explorer finds the missing clue. Moreover, participants can slide between these types during the event. Maybe a Disruptor is called out immediately and then becomes the Shy One for the rest of the show, or an Explorer reaches the set’s boundary and turns into Poker Face.
While the show goes on, as it must, the critical question about participants weirding everything up becomes “Who has the obligation to monitor and wrangle them?”
Who Gets the Assignment?
One of the many merits of interactive experiences is the ability to accommodate unexpected occurrences. If a video game glitches, a film strip breaks, a video stream lags, a vinyl album skips or a typo stows away into a novel, fixing it might be laborious, embarrassing, curse-word-laden, or just impossible. But with improvisational interactive events, wayward audience members can be steered back to the plot, sometimes without noticing anything out of sorts. But who acts as shepherd? We know of four options, all of which can combine and overlap.
- The duty could belong to the design / scripting unit.
- Here the creators plan procedures for unforeseen eventualities, e.g., “if the participant does crazy x, activate solution y.” This method works for many instances, and can (and should) be rehearsed prior to opening. However, it asks the designer(s) to imagine all the things that can go wrong—which nears the infinite. Accounting for all possibilities could explode the script’s page count with incidents that never come to pass.
- Another design-led option goes back to the rules written out and told to the participants before they enter the fiction, stressing the dos and do nots plus the penalty for violations, such as removal without refund. While harsh, it is more likely to ensure nothing gets weirded up. Conversely, it’s also probable that some participants become too timid of breaking the rules to deeply engage.
- SDF tries to include and rehearse a “no engagement” likelihood. We believe that all participants affect the narrative, whether they interact or not. The narrative shouldn’t stop if a Shy One stands back and watches.
- The front line cast or crew are usually the ones who end up dealing with startling situations or actions—they’re right there and can rectify things immediately. On the other hand, it could be asking a lot from each performer to execute situational awareness, plot triage, and their lines.
- Good improv actors can take anything that comes their way and integrate it into their character. Talent being “present” when something unanticipated drops can lead to sincere and profound moments.
- Directorial or script guidance plus rehearsals with live audiences vastly help actors experience different potentialities. A rehearsal for One Last Thing Before You Go, featured a lone audience member who did not interact at all, but passively stood and watched. This didn’t occur in any ticketed show, but that exposure aided the run where the participant couldn’t find his way inside; his tardiness started the cast down the “no engagement” path before he stumbled into the scene.
- Any time the cast needs to attend to an improbable occurrence, it helps to provide them with a cue to use between themselves, a certain word or gesture that one member can use to surreptitiously pass on information to the next actor, pony express style.
- Jeff Wirth’s book Interactive Acting: Acting, Improvisation, and Interacting for Audience Participatory Theatre has some great advice. He compares improv acting to ballroom dancing, where an effective way to lead your partner is not by pushing or pulling their body, but by opening spaces for them to choose to move into.
- Veteran experience designer Tommy Honton added this indispensable lesson: “Give staff room to know the rules, the world, the rails, and that they are empowered to keep going if they don’t feel in danger and it works in the fiction. Explicitly building that trust between designers and cast in the testing/rehearsal phase is insanely valuable.”
- A common aspect of live action role playing asks your fellow participants to assist if someone or something goes offbeat. There are many safety techniques for larps to address physical, mental, or emotional problems during an experience, and all participants are drilled on them in a pre-larp workshop.
- Asking participants to watch out for one another activates more trouble-spotters and trouble-shooters, decreasing the chances of something happening without anyone knowing and reducing the time ticking away before predicaments are addressed. This allows participants to cut loose somewhat, since others are watching while they do the same for others.
- Some audiences may resent the onus of “babysitting” in case of someone else’s mishap.
- No one knows you better than yourself. Safewords are quite common in larps and immersive events, but it is up to the individual to know when to use them. This option asks the participant to address any foibles—especially their own—that weird the experience.
- Some larp techniques, such as the OK check-in, can be taught to and used by participants as a proactive signal to others that they are actually fine when they might appear not—by crying5, yelling, and so on. Typically, an OK check-in is used by other participants to see if someone is OK, but it can also be used by a participant to indicate to anyone around that they’re fine.
- A participant might not know where their limits are until it’s too late, the line already crossed, the damage done.
- Providing someone tools to navigate the border between reality and the immersive fiction is considerate and empowering. Some participants might be more enthused about taking risks when they know they can eject at any time. However, many immersive events only use a binary procedure: stay and take it or use the safeword and leave.
- We haven’t tried this yet, but we want to give participants at one of our experiences three glow bracelets (visible in low-light scenes) or other signifier to wear, such as a green, blue, and red wristband. Wearing green signals to the actors that the participant wants to be fully involved in the fiction, i.e., “Bring it on!” Donning blue means the participant still exists in the fiction, they are still engaged but don’t want to be singled out or intensely immersed. Sporting red means the participant is only observing; they don’t want to exist in the fiction. Folks can swap bracelets at will, or maybe only between scenes, and the cast configures the performance appropriately.6
We recommend that everyone responsible for adjusting the show during flight—either creators, actors, other participants, individual participants or a combination thereof—knows before takeoff that they have agency and responsibility when turbulence occurs. As long as someone or someones knows that something weird might happen and they have some direction on how to soldier through it, the path to enjoyment should be secure.
Exception, Exception, Exception
While it is vital to consider the needs and abilities of any human paying for your experience, there are two snags to be wary of: some participants believe they are exceptional and deserve special treatment when they might not. For example, after seeing Vote for Murder at the 2019 Hollywood Fringe Festival, one audience member complained about insider jokes going over his head to land in the laps of returning guests as well as those same veteran audience members voting for characters “just to see what would happen.” In this case, did the complainer warrant an exception or the experienced audience members?
Another example: on our way to see our first Hollywood Fringe show, we were involved in a minor car accident and arrived 10 minutes late. We could neither get our money refunded, transferred to another show, or allowed late seating, despite the sob story. Should we have been permitted any of those things? I thought ours was a special case. Yet if everyone who arrives late gets a full refund, the event’s slim-if-any-profits will vanish.
There is a danger of breaking if you routinely bend over backward to accommodate every complaint, every exception to the bell curve.
Pros, Cons, and Summary
It is quite difficult to get inside someone else’s head, figuratively speaking. There seems to be a drastic lack of empathy in the world today—how often do you notice someone asking “Why would anyone act this way, what’s wrong with them?” Just asking that question suggests the inquirer can’t imagine a human whose lived experience brought them to make that decision.
Experiential events can help participants develop greater empathy towards others by immersing them into unfamiliar narratives and viewpoints. But creators, in turn, must exercise greater empathy when making these experiences, both towards the characters in their narrative and towards the actual people who participate.
When designing your experience, try to imagine the mindset of someone who would pay to attend your production. What might be going through their head? In the vastness of human uniqueness, concede that some people might not be coming from a place you expect. Ask yourself and your team: Do you want anyone who can afford a ticket to attend, or do you only want to include people with certain mindsets? How strictly do you enforce the rules? How transparent are you about the rules and the content?
There are pros and cons to all of these choices—pick the ones you can live with:
- If you impose tight control over what participants can do, they are less likely to weird up the experience. On the other hand, you reduce the opportunity to be surprised. In this interview with Ariel Abrahams from Odyssey Works, he says “The best interactions I have in my work are the surprises. Planning for surprises means not planning too much. Underplanning, maybe. Underplanning as a tool for great surprises.”
- Designing for breadth (or width) is an appeal to the most people possible. This means more attendees, which also means different origins for each participant. Some might not get it, or bring something out of place to the experience, detracting from their enjoyment and possibly the enjoyment of others. But designing broadly can lead to more ticket sales.
- When making a broad-appealing event, it’s wiser to let the script and/or cast deal with weird things happening and not rely much upon the participants.
- Designing for depth means creating for a certain type of person. Although this narrows the potential audience, it could enhance the overall experience for the attendees. If the event is tailored for this type of person, tickets can be priced higher, making up for fewer units sold.
- For deep events, allow time to empower the participants with options for calibrating their individual journeys.
Of course we all want a deeply meaningful experience for everyone. I hope these tips help you achieve that goal. Break a leg.
Other SDF essays about experiential design are:
- Let’s Play with Fire! Using Risk and Its Power for Personal Transformation (with Bettina Beck)
- Informed Consent for Immersive Events
- Tools of the Trade: Mysteries and Secrets
- 19th century German general Helmuth von Moltke said “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength,” but it has been simplified into the current quote.
- Odyssey Works creates immersive events for one participant. The prospective person answers a very long, detailed questionnaire that the designers use as the wellspring for the experience. Nothing is created until the audience member informs and inspires the design team. Since there’s only one participant and the experience is designed around their in-depth responses, the chances of creating something that ruins the experience is reduced to almost nil—the participant’s apophenia is correct because the experience was designed for them, they know it was designed for them, thus they are free to incorporate everything they witness. Even if something isn’t a deliberate part of the Odyssey, it’s still a legitimate as part of the holistic experience.
- That someone was Aaron, because he’s an Unintentional Disruptor and he’s very sorry.
- This is why we developed the OK check-in: during a larp, Kirsten ran into the bathroom, crying. Aaron broke character and left an intense conversation to check on her—she was fine and told him in no uncertain terms to go away. We thus created a means to non-verbally indicate to each other that we were “just acting.”
- If you do or have done something like this, please let us know how it went! EDIT 10/15/23: Thanks to Julie from Toronto for informing me about inappropriate colors for armbands.