December 2, 2019

What immersive theatre taught me about experience design

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experience design lessons from punchdrunk
The entrance to Punchdrunk’s secret village

Earlier this year, I had a unique experience. Following a chance encounter with immersive theatre superstar Felix Barrett, I was able to take a group of friends through a one-day, bespoke masterclass on the Punchdrunk immersive experience design methods.

It was probably the best workshop I ever attended. Not just because it more than delivered on the agreed learning goals (which it did). Not because it was an awesome piece of experience design (which it was). But especially because it showed all participants that there was much more to the universe of theatre and learning than any of us had imagined before. It was one of those rare moments where you suddenly realise that the world is that little bigger, deeper and layered than you ever imagined.

Because it was so experiential and visceral, I have struggled for months to write what I have learned during the day. But I’ve come to accept that I won’t be able to capture it all. So I thought I’d just share the top 3+1 lessons that come to mind.

Important: While they have broader application, these lessons are mainly effective in Punchdrunk’s signature format of ‘free-roam immersive theatre’.

#1. If the experience design allows, audiences will tell their own story

In traditional theatre, the actor tells a passive audience a story written by the playwright. In interactive and immersive experiences this is not a requirement. Here, the role of the experience designer is less that of a storyteller pushing their worldview and more that of a facilitator that helps audiences come up with their own narrative.

In the world of Punchdrunk, this facilitation approach becomes fairly extreme, as stories aren’t always linear and audiences can roam free.

But even for more structured environments, there is a lesson to learn. People need not know every detail of the story. In fact, if you let them make up the missing parts, the story can feel even more true.

Practical Lessons

  • Go easy on the acting. Keep the number of words you speak to the minimum required and when being silent, avoid miming emotions or actions too much. If you act like an ‘empty vessel’, audiences will have more room to project their own ideas onto the characters and this way make the experience their own.
  • When communicating, avoid ‘normal’ behaviour. This is unremarkable and therefore boring. Either act slow (to build suspense/tension) or fast (to build action/release). This will keep audiences attentive as they roam around the places you create.
  • Immersion in a fictional world is about the suspension of disbelief. This only really works, if the world you create is internally consistent and requires minimal interpretation. So don’t make up the bed in a child’s room. Be literal in using props and spaces. E.g. if you want to portray a church, build a church. Don’t set up 5 rows of chairs with a table in front and call it a church. Do whatever you can to minimise the amount of brainpower audiences need to spend on interpreting your environment. This way, free their mind to suspend disbelief and focus on the acting.
  • Use clues to keep the audience on track. While people can create their own stories, you don’t want these stories to leave the world you are creating. So use props, notebooks, music, light to help audiences reach the right conclusions.
  • Dare to let go. Letting audiences tell their own story requires a willingness from the experience designer to let go at some point. To trust that the audience will come to the right conclusions. And if they don’t, to resist the temptation of telling them. But to develop a mindset of going back to drawing boards and reconfiguring the clues you’ve left.

#2. Immersive experience design considers multiple perspectives

If you’re sitting in a theatre, the stage is a clear focal point. But in a world of immersion, you need to consider every angle.

A scene which looks great and clear from one perspective, can have a different meaning when you look at it from to another part of the room. A guest that focuses on the big picture, can have a different experience that the guest who sits down to read in the diary of the main character.

Especially as the guest’s path is typically random, it is impossible to predict which perspective each guest will take. But in experience design it is important to realise that a different perspective can completely change the dynamic of a scene, an environment or even a story.

Practical Lesson

When designing any immersive experience, always look at it from every angle and perspective. Physically walk around your rooms and scenes to see whether they the message changes.

Mentally put yourself in the mind of the person who interacts with the actors, but also the person who quietly observes from a distance. Think of the person who is so obsessed with one detail you’ve created that they disregard the whole scene. Or inversely, who is so impatient that they rush through your space.

Every immersive experience will feel different to different observers, and that’s OK. But do make sure they all walk away with something.

#3 In experience design, beginnings and endings matter

At the peril of punishment by the gods of theatre, the Punchdrunk team have sworn me to secrecy to what really happened. But I can say that I have seldom been as delighted or moved in a workshop than at the experience’s start and finish.

I’ll never forget the look on my son’s face (and that of all other participants) when we had the highly dramatic reveal of the Punchdrunk village of Fallow Cross. I’ll also always remember choking up as we left our magical workshop room in procession. Both because the ending was so beautiful, and also because I didn’t want to leave.

While the workshop itself was awesome, the emotional charge of its beginning and ending were totally off the chart and when I caught up with some other participants, it was all they could talk about.

Practical Lesson

When designing an immersive experience, make sure you blow people away with both the beginning and the ending.

The first will set up you for success during the experience itself as the feeling of delight will carry. The second will make sure that everyone leaves with the feeling that they were part of something special.

#4 Bonus: don’t teach … let them experience

While not directly related to the craft of building immersive theatre plays, I also walked out with a fourth lesson which has increasingly been on my mind. This is that the best way for teaching someone a lesson is not to teach it.

From research and personal experience, I’ve always known that experiential learning is the best method. But in a way all the learning methods I’ve ever applied or seen apply, always combined this experience with ‘some teaching’ (i.e. someone stands in front of a room to tell you how it’s done).

At Punchdrunk masterclass they didn’t do ‘teaching’. Instead, we got some instructions and then – like children – we just played. And through playing and perhaps a few questions from our teacher/coaches, we discovered and took away our own lessons. Each of these lessons differed per individual, as they were highly dependent on what a person was ready to learn.

In my case, I walked away with a much better understanding of the impact of sound and light on audience emotions. There was never a lesson on this and our coaches only mentioned topic for about 10 seconds. But a young lady who continuously accompanied all workshop participants made this point without words. She continuously ensured that the light, music and smoke (?!) supported the mood, goals and emotion every moment of the workshop was going for.

And by experiencing all of this, I didn’t really need any further explanation. In fact, it probably would have been counterproductive.

Practical Lesson

If you find yourself in the role of teacher, think about what you would do if you would need to transfer your knowledge, but you could not teach or even explain what it was you were teaching.

How would you let your audience or students experience and discover the lessons they should learn? Could you make them feel the power of your ideas, rather than let them think about them?

It’s not easy, and it may fly in the face of every way you’ve ever known learning to work. It also requires letting go, as different people may walk away with different lessons. But I have tried myself since, and trust me when I say that if you succeed, your audience impact increases by a factor 5.

Conclusion

Punchdrunk practices a very specific style of immersive theatre, and not all of their lessons can easily be transferred to other situations. But the four I’ve described in this article, have profoundly affected the way I approach the experience design challenges that come my way.

I hope that by sharing these thoughts, you can find some inspiration too.

I mainly use these posts to keep track of the things I learn about immersive and transformational experience design. But I hope you find them useful too. If want to discuss, drop me a note. I’m always happy to meet with fellow immersive geeks!!

© Alain Thys, 2nd December 2019 — All rights reserved

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