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The Source of Magic at IOA’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter

14 Jan

Singing into the wind. Bailing out the Titanic with a teacup. That is the sense of futility I feel when it comes to sharing something insightful that hasn’t already been said about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. The entire production is an unqualified success from the Butterbeer to Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans; from the Forbidden Journey to Filch’s Emporium. It’s a feast for the senses worthy of the Great Hall at Hogwarts, and cannot fail to delight even the most studious and persnickety of fans.

As much as I gaped, marveled, delighted, and thrilled at everything I was experiencing, there was one detail, which I keep coming back to that crystallizes the strong sensibilities at work here. After having made my way through Hogsmeade a few times, I kept noticing a building with a modest line outside of it. I’m sure with a bit of investigation, or perusing the park map, or asking a cast member, I could have figured out what it was, but I did none of these things, and decided to just allow myself to be surprised. About every ten minutes or so, the doors to the adjoining building would open, about 30 guests would be allowed in, and the doors would close again. Curiosity piqued.

When it was my turn to enter, I found myself in a dark room with walls lined from floor to very tall ceilings with shelves crammed with narrow, rectangular boxes. As I soon discovered, I was in Ollivander’s Wand Shop. A young guest was selected, and the rest of the audience was entertained with ten minutes of immersive theatre. The guest is placed into the position of a young wizard choosing a wand (or being chosen by a wand) and experiencing the necessary trial and error that ensues during the selection process. As we observe, wand/wizard mismatches can have chaotic consequences, and the show is punctuated by tasteful special effects that occur throughout the room. Before long, wand and wizard are well-met, and the guests are ushered into the “real” Ollivander’s where they sell real items in exchange for real money.

So why is it that in a land that features one of the most technologically sophisticated attractions on the planet, an exquisitely themed restaurant complete with a bar that sells real alcohol, and an infinity of detailed exteriors and interiors, I was so taken by this bit at Ollivander’s? The answer is simple. The decision to showcase this particular component of the Harry Potter mythology demonstrates a true respect and understanding for the material and why it resonates with our culture.

Imagine the blank sheet of paper. Now imagine the task of selecting from among the thousands of pages and dozens of hours that comprise the seven, often massive, volumes and eight epic films of the Harry Potter series. At the very least, it’s an awesome undertaking to distill that into a handful of experiences to unify in a themed environment.  However, at the heart of all those pages and frames and at the soul of that phenomenon is the universe of answers suggested by a simple articulation and the question it raises, “The world is a magical place, but what if I could learn to control it?” It’s no accident that Harry Potter takes place in modern-day England and not on another planet, or in the distant past, or a parallel universe. The allure of Harry Potter is the not-so-childlike hope that maybe this could be real. As we live vicariously through the young heroes (and villains) of the story, their entry point into this world that we desire is Ollivander’s. More so than Platform 9 3/4, Ollivander’s is where desire meets destiny, and the realization of one’s dream becomes personal. Selecting this vignette shows tremendous insight and sensitivity to what really matters in this epic story.

However, the execution is equally stunning. It’s a very low-profile attraction, and it’s easy to miss. You can easily enter the real store through an alternate entrance and be none the wiser of what’s happening in the adjoining room. This deliberate understatement in an environment of overload is a very tasteful design decision, and makes the experience feel even more special. Granted, it is somewhat of a holy grail to deliver guests a personalized, intimate experience in theme parks, but the sheer numbers of guests often make this an impractical goal, and tends to be at odds with another hallmark of theme park design: consistency. This makes the choice to use the modality of immersive theatre even more daring. Attractions have been breaking the 4th wall for generations as a technique to kickstart an immersive experience. From the Ghost Host and the talking skull to Indy and Evac, we have been personally invited to enter the story instead of just watch from afar. However, beloved as those characters are, they’re still a step removed from us, no matter how amazing the technology gets. Quite literally bringing Ollivander’s to life creates an impact that is not soon forgotten even if you are not the chosen one (and chances are, at my age, it’s gonna have to be a pretty slow day.)

I don’t mean to suggest that the techniques used at Ollivander’s are unique in the theme park world. The hundreds of cast members at any major park provide a unique and constant presence in myriad interactions that is easily taken for granted, but in fact lies at the core of seamless immersive experiences. However, there is nevertheless a harmony of theme, execution, and restraint at Ollivander’s that is uniquely transcendent, noteworthy, and inspiring. Pure magic.

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Life After Blackout

13 Nov

gogos_vacationSome people go to Hawaii on vacation to enjoy a little R&R in a beautiful setting. Others prefer a staycation where they can catch up on hobbies or just get back in touch with the simple pleasures of home. Me, I head down to LA for three successive nights of immersive horror theater. At least, that’s what I did in October.

It’s probably no surprise at this point that I enjoy haunted houses, but I have my limits. I think they’re great fun if I happen to be in the area, but I typically don’t drop everything in my life to go out of my way to obsessively check them out. As it turned out though, I heard about a few productions that got my attention. Delusion: Masque of Mortality bills itself as interactive horror theatre in which you find yourself a participant in events surrounding a mysterious plague. The Purge: Fear The Night is a guided experience through “six floors and 70,000 square feet of horror theater,” based on the movie The Purge. But it was BLACKOUT: elements that actually did make me drop everything in my life and plan a trip to LA.

My daughter was guest-editor of this post

My 3 y/o daughter guest edited this post

NON SPOILER ALERT: I’m hardly going to tell you anything about Blackout. If you want to know what happens in this show, then go see it. I realize that as of the date of this post, this is probably only possible unless you live in Chicago, but there’s always next year.

You’re probably wondering why I would bother to review a show without providing any details. It’s real simple: Blackout succeeds on a level and to a degree that is perpetually sought and rarely achieved in the production of immersive experiences. Period.

All you know about Blackout is: you need to sign a waiver before entering, it takes place in the dark, you must do as you’re told when prompted, there’s a safe word in case it gets too intense, and you must walk through alone. Is your imagination working yet? Mine was. From the moment I purchased the ticket, my mind was filled with questions. What the hell happens in there? What are they going to make me do? Does anyone use the safe word? Am I up for this? Can’t we just have a nice dinner somewhere and tell everybody we went?

The secret of being a good producer

The secret of being a good producer

I was experiencing a level of anticipation that most producers either 1) would enter into some Faustian bargain in order to consistently engender in their customers, or 2) are completely unaware of how significant this is to the overall experience and are probably in the wrong line of work. This was not a temporary state of mind either. Having bought my tickets about one month in advance, these thoughts crossed my mind with alarming frequency. Moreover, the show enjoys a certain notoriety; I have a friend who works in the haunted attraction industry — this guy scares people for a living — and he won’t see the show. So by the time I got in line, I was pretty worked up and more than a little nervous.

Unfortunately, this is where the details stop. I’m not even going to tell you about the line, except to say that in its own way, it’s part of the experience. I had waited for weeks, but those last minutes and seconds were an elasticity of dread. It’s maybe up there with riding Space Mountain for the first time as a kid. But different. Very different.

tumblr_m4n6fbTBra1r0gxhgo1_1280Fast forward about 30 minutes. I emerge, running, out of the dark, out of the building and onto the same sidewalk in downtown LA that I had lately and nervously ambled along on my way in. My eyes scan for something familiar; I see the people I befriended in line. I see my wife. We all breathlessly exchange snippets of experience, but it’s not really a time for words, and we all arrive at that conclusion at about the same time. I feel the crisply soothing autumn air on my skin now that I’m outdoors again. I’m soaking in the vibe of people milling on the fringes of this nondescript corner of downtown LA. I can hear and feel my heart beating; it seems to be returning to a more normal pace, but it’s not in a hurry. And neither is the rest of me. I’m alert. I’m aware of this strange, animal feeling where I can experience the world in five or more senses, and calmly it alights on my understanding. This feeling — it’s the feeling of being alive. Not the “oh my god that was so scary, I’m so glad to be alive” feeling. Quite the opposite: I realized that I hadn’t had that much fun in a long time.

Blackout is a visceral, emotionally turbulent, raw experience. It’s also not for everyone. But the feeling that I had after experiencing it, IS for everyone. If extreme haunted houses (note: criminally reductionist label) that have a safe word aren’t your thing, I get that. However, Blackout made me realize that I don’t get that feeling en0ugh, and I don’t necessarily need to go to Blackout to get it. Feeling alive is what being alive is all about. Making people feel alive, or feel, respond, think, react is an achievable goal for any experience designer. Whether they realize it or not, that’s what your guest wants when they come to check out your production.

brain-on-fireAs we made our way through the city, back to the car, out in public, it became very clear that there was US and then there was everybody else around us. We moved through the crowds in this glowing bubble that only we could see. We just had this incredible experience that lit our brains on fire, and nobody else had any idea as they went about their evening. There was no judgment or condescension on our part, but we felt different and special. And that feeling was important and persisted for the rest of the night, and for several days afterward. In fact, I can still conjure that feeling and remember what it’s like to feel my senses rip into the texture of life, and for that I’m both grateful for the experience and inspired to create something that can have that kind of effect.

Coffee, Beer, Zombies, and the Future of Immersive Entertainment

30 Oct

Unfortunately, it couldn’t be all play, all the time in Atlanta. We had a full day of work ahead of us to set the record straight on a few items.

Does Octane deserve to be considered one of the nation’s best coffee establishments? Yes. Especially when paired with a popover from the adjoining Little Tart Bakeshop in the Grant Park location.

Will Rosebud provide a superlative experience for the discerning brunch enthusiast? We started with fried cheese grits with smoked cheddar and pepper jelly. Need I go on?

Can Porter Beer Bar live up to its reputation as one of Atlanta’s best destinations for enjoying a wide variety of amazing beer? Early results are extremely promising, but from a due diligence standpoint, we feel that it would be imprudent to end our investigation prematurely.

Atlanta is a flexible concept

“Atlanta” is a flexible concept

Refreshed and recharged, and in gratitude to Atlanta’s gracious hospitality, we thought it was only right that we do our part to assist them with their zombie problem. Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse promises an interesting variant on the standard haunted attraction. Unlike NetherWorld, which was incongruously located a few blocks from suburban strip malls, AZA is convincingly nestled in the woods off a deserted stretch of highway. The attraction is built on and around the grounds of a deserted motel and it didn’t take much effort to believe that zombies might be nearby.

For those who don’t frequent this type of entertainment, the haunted attraction industry is all grown up and embraces more than what we endearingly referred to as a “haunted house” back in the day. There are a growing number of variants on the theme of scaring people for fun and profit, including haunted mazes, haunted trails, scare zones, haunted hayrides, etc. Many attractions aggregate and even mashup several of these styles to make sure that you don’t get too comfortable. AZA provides three attractions which can be generally described as 1) haunted house/haunted trail mashup, 2) haunted maze + paintball and 3) haunted house/immersive theatre.

cdc-zombie-posterOut of respect for the organizers, I won’t give up any spoilers, but I will share some general impressions. Admission can be purchased on a per attraction basis. I was here from California and was in the middle of nowhere, GA. I was going to all three.

Although the attractions can be visited on a standalone basis, some of the employees had specific ideas on the order in which to experience them if you were seeing more than one. They were essentially imposing a meta-level of story and emotional engagement that hadn’t actually been accounted for in the overall design of the attraction. The best part is: different people had different opinions on the ideal order, and they were pretty passionate about their individual assessments. It was like having a personal team of horror sommeliers. More importantly, it was unscripted proof that the tendency to find story in our lives is central to the human experience. It also echoed my thoughts on the very personalized reactions that one can expect from immersive experiences.

Unlike many haunted attractions, which are essentially self-directed (i.e., here’s the entrance, proceed to the exit,) each of these attractions had a guided component. While the most memorable features of many attractions are the live performers, the level of interactivity is typically low and unidirectional: they scare, you scream, keep moving. The guides and performers at AZA added a sense of theatricality and interactivity which enhanced the the overall immersive quality of the experience. The first attraction we chose was called “The Curse,” and it took advantage of the ample, wild surroundings by using parts of the neighboring forest as the set. There was a backstory and a mystery to the attraction, and we were recruited as investigators and addressed directly by the guides and performers. Although I saw room for improvement, I was certainly entertained.

All in a day's work

The blogger in the line of duty

For me, the main attraction, and the reason I found myself in Conley, GA deferring my important research of Atlanta’s brewpubs, was the “Zombie Shoot.” We were provided with a semi-automatic AirSoft gun (essentially paintball, but using specialized BBs instead of paintballs) and protective headgear, and were told, “Aim for the head or the chest. Keep firing until they go down.” Pretty much the exact opposite of your standard preshow advisement, “Keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.” Also, in case it’s not totally clear, you’re firing at real people, I mean zombies, not cardboard cut-outs or animatronics. Did it work? Mostly. Was it fun? Definitely.

Maybe King Lear actually IS the future of haunted attractions

Maybe Shakespeare actually IS the future of haunted attractions

The final attraction was called “?” and I think it’s telling that it might have been my favorite even though on its surface, it seemed to be a standard haunted house. Why? Story. It was the most theatrical of the three and featured the most interesting and inventive story, while still remaining focused on trying to scare you out of the building. Granted, we’re not talking Shakespeare, but it was a refreshing and successful variant on what could have been an uninspired production.

The production value in these attractions was not award-winning, and the storytelling was not expert, but I’m still glad I checked them out. It was all produced with a lot of heart, and everybody from the people selling the tickets to the performers and guides and zombies seemed to be having a good time and wanted to make sure that we were too. By providing three very different, hybridized attractions, it was clear that the creators were willing to take some risks and try out some new ideas, which will always impress me more than playing it safe.

Crossing the line from a one-way performance to an interactive experience can immediately raise many expectations that are potentially difficult to meet. The biggest challenge becomes the reconciliation between the audience’s sense of agency and the practical and aesthetic parameters of structured entertainment. It’s a tricky balancing act between living an experience and playing along. To choose an extreme yet practical example from this show, being provided with a gun and an opportunity to fend off assailants is real and pulls you right into the experience. However, remaining cognizant of where you can and can’t shoot can temporarily pull you out. It trades the steady equilibrium of an evenly immersive but passive experience for one which attempts to balance instances of deep immersion within a more structured rules-based framework. The resulting dynamics suggest a hybrid with gaming, sports, and other experiences that would otherwise seem at odds with what (in this case) is essentially theater. Personally, I think that finding a satisfying balance in these intersecting sensibilities is a challenge worth taking on, and that we’re hopefully just scratching the surface of the types of experiences we can expect to enjoy in the future.

SATE ’13 & the Gross Anatomy of Haunted Attractions

23 Oct
Cutting to the chase at SATE

Cutting to the chase at SATE

Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting Savannah, GA to attend SATE ’13. SATE (Storytelling, Architecture, Technology, Experience) is the annual design conference of the Themed Entertainment Association, of which I am a proud, card-carrying member! This is my second year attending this event, and I can’t say enough good things about it. It would be well within the bounds of this blog to provide a full report of the conference, but rather than reinvent the wheel, I can vouch for the high-quality recaps posted at entertainmentdesigner and micechat. As if having my mind blown by the entertaining and informative presentations and panels wasn’t enough, I also hung out with industry pros and peers at events held at a haunted hotel and the courtyard of a former jail. It was two full days of encouragement, stimulation, and inspiration, and I left with a head full of ideas and direction. But I wasn’t going home. I was on a mission. I was heading to Hauntlanta!

It's my blog. I can plug my childhood friends if I want to.

It’s my blog. I can plug my childhood friends if I want to.

When my friend Ted Dougherty found out I was going to Savannah, he insisted that I had to go check out NetherWorld, a haunted attraction on the outskirts of Atlanta. When Ted talks haunts, I listen — he’s the author of an award-winning book about the history of Knott’s Scary Farm and he logs the miles to check out new attractions. NetherWorld is regularly ranked as one of the best haunted houses in the country and even enjoys a high position on a list of the Most Influential Haunted Attractions of All Time, alongside Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion and other legendary spots. The accolades made the 3 1/2 hour drive seem fairly inconsequential.

I don’t want to disappoint, but I don’t feel that it’s fair to provide a detailed blow-by-blow review. These types of attractions rely on the element of surprise, and I respect the importance of not spoiling the experience. I will share some high-level impressions though. NetherWorld 2013 consists of two mazes, and the combined experience takes approx. one hour. Apparently, the attraction changes every year, which itself is a horrific consideration, given its massive size and density of detail. I sometimes leave these types of attractions, including those with presumably far larger budgets at theme parks, with a disappointingly sizable mental list of missed opportunities and instances of ineffective execution. My experience with NetherWorld was the complete opposite; I was struggling to hold on to the inexhaustible list of everything that did work, and my brain was in spasms trying to retain the outrageous sensory overload that I had just experienced . . . in a good way.

This kept happening

This kept happening

However, after leaving SATE, my head was full of story. Among other things, talking shop with Chris Huntley for an hour will have that effect. He promised that my brain would instinctively expunge his heretic theories so that I could resume normal functioning, but so far (thankfully) that hasn’t happened. As he pointed out, using the Haunted Mansion as an example, the story for most haunted attractions goes something like, “You’re in a really bad situation, and you need to get out, or bad things will happen. Good luck.” This would seem to justify an approach in which a haunted attraction is essentially an empty container for a potpourri of arbitrary horrific offerings. In fact, at NetherWorld, although the two mazes are distinctly themed, it was difficult for me to articulate anything more than the skeletal plot above for either of them. It seems that the lack of a compelling or unique story should have caused my emotional engagement to border on disinterest, but that wasn’t the case. So why did I love this attraction so much? I’m not exactly sure, but I’m going to take a crack at it.

I thought we were talking about haunted houses.

I thought we were talking about haunted houses

Without getting hung up on specific terms of art, understanding how we respond emotionally to stories may involve unwinding the relationship between “what” is being told and “how” it’s being told. This relationship is arguably more symbiotic and therefore less forgiving in non-immersive modalities. For example, while it’s possible to temporarily lose yourself in a great book or movie, it is almost impossible to totally forget that the story is happening to other people. If the art or craft of the storytelling falters, we quite readily fall back to the default state of being ourselves. Also, we instinctively and sometimes unconsciously act as critics and connoisseurs when we experience stories told in these ways. On the other hand, because an immersive experience inherently requires a material level of involvement by the audience, it begins to experientially resemble life or dreams. While we may form an opinion of the experience as it’s happening, it will be less natural for us to disengage and evaluate it critically. If some traditional storytelling components are missing or unbalanced, we tend to fill in the blanks ourselves and move forward, just as we do in life.

disbeliefIn short, stories that do not have a deeply immersive component must suspend disbelief so that you can accept the story that is being told to you. On the other hand, immersive experiences must suspend disbelief so that you can accept the story that you end up telling yourself. This is a key insight for me as a storyteller. As a writer and filmmaker, I recognize that I often try to direct and control my audience’s reactions. For instance, I might evaluate the success of my piece based on how many people laugh or jump or cry at specific points that I have crafted. However, as an experience designer, that approach might not be ideal. A successfully designed experience may encourage a viewer to integrate what she is experiencing in a very personal way and with a highly individual outcome. To paraphrase Asa Kalama, another speaker at SATE’s story segment, sometimes the most effective approach in developing a successful experience may lie in providing a compelling framework for a guest’s creativity to blossom, and then getting out of the way!

Slow news day

Slow news day

Back to NetherWorld. A haunted house is a classic immersive experience. I may have been more forgiving of “what” was being told to me, because I was captivated with “how” it was being told. This is not an argument for style over substance. A total disregard for story and plot will cause a haunted attraction to be indistinguishable from a fun house, and would not be successful in my opinion. Nevertheless, an exceptionally designed experience may emphasize the “how” by expertly employing abstract narrative tools that are not necessarily story-driven. For instance:

Pacing:  There needs to be a rhythm of emotional flow to the experience. Thrills should escalate and punctuate with an unpredictable but considered periodicity.

Cohesion: Although I couldn’t really put my finger on the details of the plot, there was something generally “demonic” about the scenic design which provided a baseline of thematic continuity. To clarify, in this particular attraction, it would have been jarring for me to if I had encountered a vampire or an alien in the attraction, because it wouldn’t have “fit.”

Variety: Within the cohesion, there must still be a diversity of stimulation that doesn’t feel repetitive.

Spatial Design: The space should be designed to obfuscate, disorient, reveal, etc., as required by the other narrative components.

Motion/Body Engagement: Moving through a physical space, crouching, running, walking in a circle, fatigue, fluctuations in temperature, etc., all have the potential to influence emotional engagement.

I’m not suggesting that the above elements are absent in less immersive storytelling. However, while there is no formula for accessing the magic of emotional response, as storytellers, we can still draw meaningful conclusions about the effectiveness of certain techniques for certain experiences. This may sound very obvious and automatic until you encounter an attraction that has been ineptly executed. Bottom line: NetherWorld probably wouldn’t make a very good book, but it’s so effective as an experience that they make it look easy.

But that was over and done with, and I understand that Atlanta has a bit of a zombie problem…

To be continued.

Shhh, There’s a Speakeasy Coming to San Francisco!

7 Oct

No, not that one. Nope, not that one either. This one’s the real deal, and it’s opening in January 2014, but I might be able to get you a sneak preview!

A couple weeks ago, I was wrapping up a meeting with an associate at Cafe La Boheme in San Francisco, a suitably appropriate place to evaluate various plans for making the world a more entertaining place. At the end of the meeting, he asked me what I was doing the following night, and proceeded to give me a silver pocketwatch with a dog tag conspicuously attached to its chain. He said, “Call the number on the dog tag, they’ll tell you what to do.”

Once I got home, I called the number and received further instructions on where to show up and what to say when I got there. The following evening, we left the nighttime streets of 21st Century San Francisco, walked through the doors of a nondescript building, right into the year 1923 and the world of The Speakeasy.

The Speakeasy will be a work of immersive theatre. Like many newly-minted terms in art, technology, culture, etc., it’s both challenging and somewhat pointless to attempt to concretely define immersive theatre because every new show seems to expand the scope of what it can encompass. Generally though, it refers to a theatrical experience which “breaks the fourth wall,” which is a fancy term for saying that the conceptual, invisible barrier that typically separates the audience from the players is understood to be nonexistent. In short, when you come to an immersive theatre show, you should expect to find yourself onstage. I am personally very interested in this concept, because it employs many of the storytelling sensibilities that are found in the world of themed entertainment and theme parks. If you think of a theme park as a giant work of immersive theatre, then you can start to get a sense of the exciting possibilities for both of these types of entertainment.

Back to 1923. I can’t really tell you what went on in there, but it was a lot of fun. It might have involved classic cocktails and casino games. If you’re curious though, the theatre company that is producing the show had a successful Kickstarter campaign that will give you a flavor of what they’re creating without spoiling any surprises. As I mentioned, The Speakeasy will not be open to the public until January 2014. However, in the interim, they are running exclusive previews on Friday nights to test out ideas, generate buzz, and engage potential supporters. These aren’t actual performances, but if you’re interested in the bleeding-edge of the local theatre scene, it’s a great opportunity to meet the creators and producers and get involved in the early stages of a very unique experience. If you would like to attend a preview, please contact me and I’ll see if I can let you borrow the pocketwatch for a night.

A Chorus Line: An Immersive Paradox

26 Aug
Need I dignify this with an answer?

Need I dignify this with an answer?

Recently, I had the privilege of enjoying the final performance of a local production of A Chorus Line. It was produced by Woodminster Summer Musicals, and their venue, the Woodminster Amphitheater, is yet another stunning reason why Oakland is such an awesome place to live. August night, sun going down, ridiculous views, surrounded by trees, being entertained by highly-trained, talented people. Did I mention that they encourage you to bring your own beverages, without restriction?

Anyway, back to A Chorus Line. I had never seen any prior production or version, and didn’t know too much about it, so I was essentially experiencing the show for the first time. I guess this is the musical equivalent of somehow managing to have never seen Avatar. After all, this was the sixth longest running show in Broadway history. I won’t bore you with the details, but the five that are higher on the list essentially redefined the concept of “theatrical spectacle” for their respective time. Also, every single one of those other shows is based on or inspired by some well-known pre-existing work, such as a book or a movie, which basically provides instant cachet. Amazingly, neither is the case with A Chorus Line. I won’t rehash the historical significance and origins of the show, but I will share my impressions of experiencing it for the first time, almost 40 years after it opened on Broadway.

Aside from the title, does not have much in common with A Chorus Line . . . except greatness

Aside from the title, does not have much in common with A Chorus Line… except greatness

For those who are unfamiliar with this show, the entirety of the story occurs on-stage during an audition for positions in the ensemble (“the chorus”) of a hypothetical Broadway show. The characters are the auditioning dancers and the director/choreographer who is running the audition. That’s it. I don’t have a point of reference for how this show has been produced anywhere else, but I think it’s safe to say that this production’s minimalist scenic design was fairly typical. The set literally consists of an empty stage backed by mirrors. With the exception of a few technical modifications that occur during the course of the show, there are no set-changes to speak of. No windows, no doors, no “furniture”, no nothing. One even gets the sense that the action is approximately occurring in real-time. In other words, while there might be some amount of time compression, there isn’t a sense of action occurring tomorrow or next week. It’s pretty much all happening right in front of you. The plot is very straightforward: the director needs to cull the group down to four men and four women, and he uses the audition to get the dancers to open up to him. The show is basically the chronicle of that session, told through dialogue, song, and dance. It’s like the reality show of musicals, except about 20 years before the term lamentably emerged in widespread use.

Doesn’t sound very interesting, does it?

Oops, sorry inside joke.

Sorry, inside joke, you had to be there

But it is. And that’s what I’m trying to figure out and explore. There are so many characters on-stage that it’s hard to identify any as “main.” True, quantitatively some necessarily get more lines than others, but it’s hard to put your finger on any subset of characters and assign their motives and struggles as the lifeblood of the story. What about the director, you ask? Sure, he’s in every single “scene,” except he spends 85% of the time off-stage speaking to the dancers. Arguably, the entire cast of characters, which essentially share a common motive (to get hired), is the “main character.” That might sound interesting in an abstract, postmodern, academic way, but is any of this entertaining?

Yes. And here’s why. The dancers are led to believe that being honest and open with the director represents their best shot at getting the job, and that’s exactly what they do. Whether they are saying or singing something sad or funny or painful or shallow or reflective, it all comes across as incredibly raw and honest and vulnerable, and therefore compelling. Because there isn’t much of a story to speak of, there isn’t any way for a first-time viewer to anticipate who will speak next, or what they will say, or what greater significance it will have. As a result, it’s very liberating to not have to “keep up” with myriad plot machinations, twists, and intrigues. You’re encouraged to just sit back and relax and listen to what each character is telling you, and if you’re not totally into it, no problem, there are about 20 other characters on stage, and someone new will be rotating in shortly.

For me, where the creative concept of the show came full circle and ultimately succeeded was oddly enough in the minimalist scenic design. Because there is almost nothing to distract you visually, you actually don’t sit back and relax. You give each character your full attention and listen to their story, because there are no other distractions or competitions for your attention. This is the immersive paradox I refer to in the title of this post. You are provided with so little “information” to absorb and even less “metadata” about how to process or anticipate what is being presented to you, yet somehow the effect is to actually draw you in even further. It is the opposite of being overwhelmed, yet you are. And it somehow allows the truth of what the characters are saying to hit home even harder.

As I mentioned, I choose to interpret each character as a facet of a single conceptual main character, which I conceive as “the daring dreamer.” Each of these characters approaches their personal challenge from a different angle and has a different story to tell, but every single one of them shares a common drive to put it all on the line to realize their dream. Most are honest about the fact that they’re not looking past the here and now, and some even have the courage to admit that this may not even be a stepping-stone to anything except professional disappointment. But that doesn’t stop them from dreaming. I believe that the mirrors, which arguably constitute the one “prop” in the entire show, intentionally reflect the audience back to itself as if to say, “This is you onstage.” I believe that the reason why people lined up for 15 years to see this show is that every person who watches it finds at least one character that speaks for them and challenges them to ask themselves, “Where is that daring dreamer that once was?” I know I did. Even if that resonance exists for only a handful of minutes, as represented by a single character, that feeling of being “spoken to” is powerful. That said, there may be any number of reasons why none of these characters truly speak to you, and that is at the heart of the beauty and mystery of art. But if the very notion of the daring dreamer is a hollow concept, then you may as well cancel your insurance and pack it in, because chances are, you’re already dead.

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