I caught a few more shows at the tail end of the Fringe, largely thanks to Lydia Nicholas’ science-tinged recommendations:
Lovecraft (Not the Sex Shop in Cardiff)was a fantastically funny and touching and scientific gig by Carys Eleri about the neuroscience of love and loneliness. It was very poorly served by its poster, which suggested a completely different show that had precisely nothing to do with the topics it was really about.
Toby Thompsonwas just as funny and lovely as he was before, although the full length show didn’t actually have that many more poems than his short 15 minute sampler. It did, however, have more listening to records and hearing him play the piano.
War With the Newtsby Knaive Theatre had the most immersive, tech-driven experience I’d seen this year. It’s “a contemporary reimagining of Karel Capek’s apocalyptic science-fiction satire” and used its three actors and small basement to tell a sweeping story with genuine panache. I did feel that it began to drag towards the end – one particular speech was entirely too obvious and unnecessary exposition, and some of the audio was so heavily filtered it was completely incomprehensible – but it’s a real achievement for such a small team.
DollyWouldwas the quintessential bizarre genre-smashing Fringe mix of music, comedy, video, and personal storytelling about Dolly Parton and Dolly the Sheep. It was fantastic, and the less you know about it going in, the better.
Since the introduction of consumer VR systems like Oculus and Vive, hundreds of VR-centric arcades have opened, hoping to attract punters by offering experiences that they can’t get at home because they can’t afford $1500+ VR setups and don’t have the space or custom equipment (e.g. force-feedback driving seats).
Some of these next-generation arcades are more than a few Vive headsets in a shop; they might have lots of expensive custom equipment, or even custom-made VR games that you can’t buy as a consumer. Two Bit Circus, a “micro-amusement park” opening in LA next month, combines VR with escape rooms with carnival games to reach the very highest-end of this trend. Supposedly, the entire experience will be united by a meta-game, discoverable with rabbit-holes like a secret payphone in the arcade, that has an overarching narrative. Yes, I remember when these were called ARGs myself.
The scope – and expense – of Two Bit Circus is extraordinary. It’s hard enough to make a single VR game, let alone several. And to link them with an ARG? It hasn’t been done before. That’s not to say it can’t be done, it just costs far more money than anyone is usually willing to spend.
When I tweeted out news about this, Chris Dickson (an expert in escape room games) emailed me about Entros, a restaurant-arcade in Seattle and San Francisco from the 90s with ARGish elements. Entros folded after a few years due to inadequate sales and rising rents, and to my mind, it sadly typifies a long line of entertainment-bar-restaurant-VR-carnival hybrids that end up failing like late lamented DisneyQuest.
Why do these ventures fail?
High capital costs: Cutting-edge hardware isn’t cheap
High maintenance costs because people keep breaking things and they don’t know how to put on VR headsets
High R&D and design costs that can’t be amortised amongst large numbers of venues (e.g. traditional arcade games, although even these are dying out), customers (e.g. videogames), or devices (e.g. game consoles and phones)
Inability to charge appropriate (i.e. massive) prices or motivate people to stay in expensive hotels (i.e. Disney theme parks)
Technology ages quickly and becomes uncompetitive with consumer offerings, meaning either more capital spending, or your arcade getting out of date quickly. This is a reason why traditional arcades have largely vanished.
Hard to attract repeat visitors without acquiring or developing a lot of fresh and affordable content (in contrast to, say, cinemas). If you can’t get repeat visitors, you need a constant flow of new visitors, which is doable although usually requires a healthy marketplaces and ideally, geographic hubs (e.g. Broadway, West End). If you make something extraordinarily good, people will travel just for your venue, like people who go on pilgrimages to Michelin-starred restaurants.
Difficult to scale a single location, so even if you’re super popular, you will cap out.
Other new kinds of site-specific experiences like escape rooms and immersive theatre face similar challenges: escape rooms may have lower capital and R&D costs since they usually don’t feature as much technology, but staffing costs are often can be higher and of course, return visits are even lower.
Disney’s theme parks (and associated hotels, malls, etc.) are the obvious exception here in so many ways – size, visitor numbers, profitability, and so on. Disney’s parks do a lot of clever things, like: exploiting existing popular IP (e.g. Toy Story) not all of which they originally developed or owned (e.g. Star Wars, Avatar); incubating new IP (Pirates of the Caribbean, the forthcoming Jungle Cruise movie); and generally keeping visitors excited about Disney and thus continuing to buy mountains of merchandise. It’s hard to see how you equal this without really high-quality and popular IP, not to mention skilled designers and engineers (“Imagineers”).
Big isn’t always better. Not every restauranteur should aspire to become McDonalds. But a healthy ecosystem should support everything from big chains to cheap and cheerful cafes and eye-wateringly expensive Michelin starred restaurants. What’s important is that there is room for everything, and that enterprises of all sizes can theoretically be sustainable – even if most restaurants do, in fact, go bust.
Use withered technology to reduce capital costs. Maybe VR isn’t the answer to these kinds of arcades and immersive experiences! Nintendo is great teacher in this regard, as is the old-school Exploratorium.
Similarly, use the real world as your venue. The Headlands Gamble uses the North Bay in California as its backdrop; Fire Hazard uses London. However, the lack of control and ownership over the venue results in higher risk and introduces logistical challenges (e.g. accessibility, bad weather, more time required to get around) and can impose a cap on visitor numbers.
Increase prices. Punchdrunk, Disney, and The Headlands Gamble ($600-$1800 for two days!) show how high you can go, providing you can prove value. I personally have an instinctive aversion to very high prices as I want the things I make to have a wide audience, but it’s a perfectly legitimate route, especially if you’re still developing the core technology and proving your concept. However, rich people’s taste for human interaction can mean that you never end up automating anything.
Use established IP to reduce marketing costs, and potentially content development costs. Secret Cinema and The Crystal Maze have done this to apparent success. However: you lose creative control, it cuts into your margin (it’s entirely possible you have no margin left, if you have no leverage), and the demands of the IP can compromise the overall experience (I’ve heard that strict adherence to Harry Potter canon has hurt more than one HP videogame; then there’s “we need you to tie this game to the upcoming movie, but we can’t get you the script until too late, and you can’t talk about the events of the movie”.) If you’re unlucky, you’ll end up making free marketing experiences and “brand activations” for shows like Westworld. It makes for good headlines but are the entirely wrong way to make a self-sustaining business with a product that people will pay for. Believe me: I’ve lived it.
Be a non-profit so you can win grant money and donations, and justify paying your staff less money – or none at all, since you can get volunteers. Yes, I’m talking about Meow Wolf. Non-profits typically suffer from lack of access to capital, though, slowing growth.
Sell extra stuff like merchandise, hotel rooms, books, etc.
Get repeat visitors. Everyone claims they’re trying to do this and I have seen little evidence of success. It may be that it’s completely incompatible with the current design of escape rooms and immersive theatre. Learning from videogames is essential.
Reduce tech and capital costs by using off-the-shelf hardware and, importantly, software. Various companies are trying to build VR or real-world experiential platforms to make it easier to this kind of market, but most of them don’t have much money and seem singularly unwilling to share a reasonable (i.e. very high) amount of revenue with the creatives who, after all, are taking the vast majority of risk in setting up these venues and making new experiences. Platforms work best when cost of development is low compared to potential income. Witness Unity/Unreal or YouTube and Twitch. But potential income for location-specific entertainment is far lower than that of purely digital content that can be global; and that has lower capital costs.
Evidently, I don’t have very detailed solutions to these challenges yet, although I remain very interested and I have a few brewing in the back of my mind. I’ll finish by saying that the rumoured popularity of puzzle box subscriptions like Hunt A Killer (the name is both awful and yet brilliant) is telling. They have repeat customers, low capital costs, and it’s all done with ‘withered technology’.
Having tried a few out, I am not impressed by overall quality and not convinced of their longevity or broad popularity, but they hold a lot of promise.
Museum After Hours: A medley of 15 minute samplers from comedians, poets, and circus acts.
I enjoyed SHIFT‘s cyr wheel acrobatics – or at least, what little I could see of it due to the dreadful staging (not their fault). Pro tip: unless your circus performers are on stilts, you better have raked seating or an elevated stage.
Jay Lafferty had great delivery but spent her time dunking on obvious/tired subjects (millennials, Brexiters, rich people, health and safety, gluten intolerance).
Ben Target‘s physical meta-comedy was met with aggrieved incomprehension from the mostly-aged audience; I thought at least half the jokes were pretty great, which is a good hit rate.
Solid acrobatics from Tabarnak. Shame it was all over in just five minutes.
My highlight was Toby Thompson‘s lovely and funny poetry, whom we saw on Kate Tempest’s recommendation. I’ll try to catch his full show next week.
Once Upon a Daydream: Adventurous family-friendly mix of live action, music, and animation by a Taiwanese company. There are many good bits but the “miserable single woman seeks happiness through love” theme was tiresome.
First Snow / Première neige: The most Canadian thing I’ve ever seen. Deeply earnest, mulingual, multicultural, multinational, fourth-wall breaking, overly concerned about its place in the world, with good acting, important story, and confused execution. You can tell this is devised theatre.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story was easily my highlight of last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Created by Hannah Moscovitch, Ben Caplan, and Christian Barry, it’s a beautiful and funny and touching story based on real life, and Caplan has a tremendous baritone voice. From the Folk Radio review:
Old Stock is the story of Chaim and Chayah, whose characters are based on playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s real-life grandparents, two Jewish refugees fleeing Romania in 1908. They arrive in Canada where they start a new life and eventually found a large family. Old Stock is, first of all, a reminder of the long history of immigration and the role it played in the history of North America. At the same time, it’s obviously a very poignant story in this day and age.
… The title comes from a speech by Stephen Harper, a Canadian politician who made the distinction between “old stock Canadians” and new immigrants. Caplan turned it around and used the odious expression as the title for a story about immigrants a hundred years ago.
The album based on the play is out now, and it’s just as good as I remember. It’s hard to pick favorites but Traveller’s Curse (above) and Minimum Intervals are standouts.
This House is about the efforts of whips to maintain the shaky Labour government from 1974-79. When it premiered in 2012, a time when the most exciting thing in British politics was the coalition government between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, it doubtless felt like an exciting, topical play about the idealism and reality of politics – hence the rave reviews.
Between Brexit and Trump, shit has gotten very real, so the play has lost some of its power in its 2018 incarnation. But that’s not the only reason why it left me cold. Fundamentally, it’s a story about Parliament, not politics. You never hear from a single person who isn’t a politician; you never spend a second outside of Westminster. It feels clammy and paternalistic. And I’m not sure that I care for that kind of story any more, not given the state of our politics lately.
(I also didn’t like the play’s fast and loose treatment of the arithmetic of the 1974 elections and just how governments are formed, but whatever.)
Rhinoceros was written in 1959 and is essentially about fascism and Nazism – note-perfect for our times, sadly. I enjoyed it very much and if there’s a production near you, I recommend you see it.
Here’s what I tweeted at the time:
Act 1: hey I thought this was meant to be about fascism, wtf?
When Disney surveyed the public about a hypothetical immersive Star Wars hotel early this year, it felt like an idea from the future, not an actual commitment. Surely they’d wait until after the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge — already a highly ambitious and risky new park area — before starting work on a whole new hotel?
But at this year’s D23 convention in July, Disney confirmed not only that the hotel was real; not only that it’d be fully immersive; but that it’s a pilot for an entire ‘Disney 360 vacation concept’:
According to Bob [Chapek, Chairman of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts], this revolutionary new vacation experience will be a living adventure that allows guests [i.e. paying visitors] to immerse themselves in an entirely new form of Disney storytelling.
“It’s unlike anything that exists today.” Bob said. “From the second you arrive, you will become a part of a Star Wars story! You’ll immediately become a citizen of the galaxy and experience all that entails, including dressing up in the proper attire. Once you leave Earth, you will discover a starship alive with characters, stories, and adventures that unfold all around you. It is 100% immersive, and the story will touch every single minute of your day, and it will culminate in a unique journey for every person who visits.”
…which is about when every Star Wars fan on the planet posted shut_up_and_take_my_money.gif
There are two extraordinary things about this announcement.
One: Disney has chosen one of its most valuable crown jewel IPs for what anyone should realise is a highly risky venture. Star Wars may be the best possible fit for an immersive hotel (more on that later) but that only raises the stakes if the tech doesn’t work or the story or acting is bad.
No: Disney’s Star Wars hotel may well cost thousands of dollars for a family, and the entire point of going is the immersive storytelling experience. It’s what they’re paying for, so it has to be sensational.
I’ve spent the past 13 years designing alternate reality games with emails and websites and actors and black helicopters, and smartphone games that make exercising more fun in the real world. I can guarantee that the Star Wars hotel team will be rightly terrified at the scope of what they’re building, and thrilled that they get to be the first people in the world to do it.
But what’s driving Disney to build this ‘360 vacation experience’? Why was it so hard in the past, and (just about) feasible now? What kind of technology might it employ? And most importantly, what will the experience be like?
Disclaimer: My company, Six to Start, has consulted for Disney Imagineering on theme park stuff in the past. It had nothing to do with Star Wars and I have no inside knowledge on what they’re up to.
Why ‘Living Adventures’? And why now?
Disney has a poor track record with immersive storytelling experiences, providing that you look only at its most popular incarnation: videogames.
Over the decades, they’ve tried again and again to develop videogames in-house, with little lasting success. With the shuttering of Lucasarts, Disney Interactive, and the $100 million ‘toys-to-life’ Disney Infinity in recent years, and Star Wars games now farmed out to Electronic Arts (who promptly delivered a game with precisely zero story), it certainly seems as if Disney’s thrown in the towel.
Their heart was never really in it. Disney had to pursue videogames because too much money was at stake, but their most talented storytellers and artists and designers never truly wanted to work on games; movies were where true artistic glory lay. Along with the theme parks, they were the font of all new and refreshed IP, from Toy Story to Frozen to Moana.
More prosaically, I think Disney see themselves as narrative storytellers, and they’ve never figured out how to tell the stories they want to tell in a wholly digital and interactive format while still making bucketloads of money.
It’s tempting to draw comparisons between the Star Wars hotel and videogames. They both involve people interacting with computer systems with the aim of progressing in an immersive, digitally-mediated environment where multiple outcomes are possible, some of which are more desirable than others. You might then conclude that the Star Wars hotel will fail in just the same way as before, with Disney not quite making their stories mesh with a deeply interactive experience. Continue reading “Disney’s Giant Leap Forward”
At my school, all students were entered into the English Literature GCSE. What this meant was that a couple of times a week, we would take out copies of ‘English Literature’ – things like The Crucible, A Passage To India, various Shakespeare plays, poems – and take turns reading them out.
There is nothing that kills a good story more than having a bunch of bored schoolboys reading out books like these, not to mention Shakespeare. For one thing, reading ‘blind’ means that the speaker has absolutely no idea what emphasis to put on the words; for another, it usually took a few weeks to get through a single work. Most of the time I’d already read the whole thing at home right after receiving the book, and so sitting in class took on a special kind of boredom.
As if this wasn’t enough, we would then have to write essays about the ‘significance’ of various parts of the books or plays. What did the red brick colonial house in A Passage to India signify? What is the meaning of this passage in Macbeth? And so on.
Despite all of this, I quite enjoyed some of the books – I still remember The Crucible quite fondly. However, it wasn’t until I saw The Merchant of Venice being performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company on a school trip that I realised his stuff was not only good, but actually really funny. See, until then, my experience of Shakespeare had been these readings in class, and a video of Richard II, where Richard was played by a woman.
Presumably some people liked this production, otherwise I can’t see why our teacher chose to show it. But I can’t think of a worse thing to show a bunch of schoolboys – it just seemed totally ridiculous. It was hard enough trying to follow the play on a TV, but the lead character swapping sex was just too much. I suspect a lot of students from my school still dislike Shakespeare due to these experiences. I don’t entirely blame my teacher, because she was just trying to prepare us for our exams (it was that kind of school), but it seems a shame nonetheless.
As far as I’m concerned, “Hamlet” doesn’t have a “point.” There’s nothing to “get.” It’s not something to see so you can check it off the “things I guess I should see” list.* Please! If that’s your reason for seeing it, don’t see it in the first place…
…I blame school. In school, we’re forced to read Shakespeare when we’re don’t want to. Most of the people I know who love Shakespeare, love him in spite of that, not because of it. Luckily, they already liked Shakespeare before encountering him in school, so the forcing didn’t seem like forcing. Or, if they were like me, they hated it. I hated “Romeo ad Juliet” when I was forced to read it in High School. I hated anything I was forced to read, just because it was forced on me.
Most people in my shoes feel a distaste for whatever was forced on them for the rest of their lives. At 42, I’m only JUST getting over my distaste for math. I can see math is a beautiful subject, but because it was forced on me before I was ready for it, it’s hard for me to shake the desire to rebel against it. And because of gym class, I wonder if I’ll EVER learn to like sports. Luckily, I had other formative experiences that stopped me from associating Shakespeare with school. So I like Shakespeare.
Also, in school, one is pretty much told that we watch/read plays to “get the point.” It’s all about Theme, Message, Social Import, blah, blah, blah. It’s not about crying when Cordelia dies or laughing when Bottom turns into an ass. School ignores or — worse — scorns the best part of fiction: the laughter, the tears, the emotional spice!
Finally, school teaches us that smart people are supposed to like Shakespeare — or at least read/see his plays. If you don’t like it, you’re dumb. So we wind up with a bunch of people who don’t really want to read or see Shakespeare but feel like they should. Of COURSE these people — once they’ve finished with the pain of sitting through “Hamlet” — don’t want to do it again
He’s right. In my class, we never talked about the emotions of the play. We never thought we were supposed to laugh at this stuff, or treat it like anything but a chore.
Over the course of history, scientists and philosophers (who, until recently, were essentially the same thing) tended to interpret the universe – and, interestingly, the human brain – through the lens of their era’s technology. During the Renaissance, the universe was thought to operate like a clock, mechanistically and predictably. Later, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, more complex machinery was brought to mind. In recent decades, we see the universe and the brain as a kind of computer.*
Should it be surprising, then, that a game designer would interpret a theatrical production as a game?
On Wednesday, I went to see Punchdrunk‘s latest production, Masque of the Red Death, at the Battersea Arts Centre. Punchdrunk has made a name for itself by creating plays which take place across many rooms, involving many different, concurrent performers. In these plays, the audience don masks and walk between the rooms at will, occasionally being seen and addressed by performers, but usually ignored. This is not a completely original style of production, but it’s one that Punchdrunk is particularly good at.
I had deliberately not read any reviews of Masque before going to see it, in order to remain unspoiled. And while I should point out that I got a free ticket from the director, Felix Barrett, I’d intended to buy one myself anyway. The point is, I had no idea what to expect other than what I’ve said above.
What I found, after putting on a mask and entering the production, was an immense, sprawling and breathtakingly atmospheric set of corridors, tunnels, cupboards, rooms, halls and courtyards. I am not talking about a few rooms, or even several rooms – I’m talking about three floors and dozens of rooms. Every single surface had been carefully disguised from its true, mundane origins, and made up as part of an decaying, unsettling, elegant Victorian manor. Eerie sounds and music echoed from odd places, and I often found myself disoriented and lost.
Among these rooms were perhaps two dozen actors who engaged in brief conversations and encounters with one and other, occasionally deigning to notice the audience members and pull them into rooms for various private confidences. At certain times, groups of actors would come together and perform a highly scripted set piece, such as a dining room conversation and dance, or a heated argument in a bedroom. This was all very impressive and intriguing, but I was most struck by the feel of the place.
The idea of Patrick Stewart doing a one-man production of A Christmas Carol was a surprising one, but also one that I felt knew what was going to happen. I presumed that he’d read the book out on his own, using his unmistakable voice to enliven proceedings; nothing terribly difficult, and not terribly interesting, apart from the fact that Patrick Stewart is doing it. Basically, the sort of thing Dickens would have done when he toured England. That was enough for my girlfriend and I to book tickets for the opening night’s performance at the Albery Theatre in London.
And indeed, Stewart came out striding onto the stage at the start, bearing a big red book. He opened it, said a couple of words, put it down on a lectern at the front and then didn’t look it at for the next two hours. Now, I know that good actors are supposed to memorise their lines well – it’s their job – but to see Stewart reciting practically the entire book from memory, with no prompting and only one break, was very impressive.
Reciting isn’t a good description. Acting is. Stewart played all the parts, from the narrator to Scrooge to all the members of the Crachit family, to random merchants in the street and little children. At first, this seemed rather odd and very occasionally confusing, since his switching between characters involved nothing more than perhaps moving a step or two and changing his voice (no changing clothes, for example). However, after a while it became completely natural and I forgot that it was Stewart out there, and instead really believed that he was playing the characters. My only other experience of this was watching Being John Malkovich and completely believing that John Cusack inhabited John Malkovich’s body by the end of the movie – it’s that sense of immersion that makes for a brilliant actor. You can perfectly visualise the Crachit’s Christmas dinner thanks to Stewart, despite the fact that the only things on the stage are a table and the Captain of the Enterprise.
A Christmas Carol features a lot of Dickensian humour. Many might believe that Stewart, being rather dour in most of his roles, wouldn’t be able to pull this off. However, anyone who saw him in Extras recently will know that he’s perfectly capable of being funny, and several people who worked on Star Trek: TNG have said that, of a cast full of jokers, Patrick Stewart was the biggest one. His humour really shined in A Christmas Carol – not merely for the bitingly sarcastic Scrooge, but also for Mrs Crachit and the various children, whom he often danced around the stage as.
Aside from Stewart, the only other person actually working on the show while it was running was the lighting guy. Since the set consisted of a chair, desk, table and lectern which Stewart moved about himself, the lighting had to indicate the setting, mood and time of day, which it did in a very good, very sparse manner. As for sound, Stewart handled that himself. Our first treat of this was of the bells ringing the time. While Stewart was curled up asleep on the table (which at this was representing a bed), he said ‘Guh-dooiinnngg’ twelve times. It seemed a bit stupid the first time he did it, but it rapidly became a running joke that Stewart exploited later on in a wink to the audience.
The final part of Stewart’s performance that impressed me was his ability to rapidly change roles and emotions. This exhibited itself best when he was playing Bob Crachit and crying over the body of Tiny Tim, and within a split second, he switched back to the narrator. Ditto for when Scrooge starts his hacking laughter towards the end; it’s not that he doesn’t do it well in the rest of the play, but at those particular points, he does it so quickly and dramatically that I was taken aback.
The show wasn’t perfect. Stewart did occasionally fluff his lines, and I felt that the ghost of the past and the ghost of the future were a little boring and indistinct (more than they were supposed to be). Other than that, I can’t think of any other problems, so I’m duty bound to recommend the show. I’ve seen a number of plays in London since I moved down here, including the excellent new production of Sweeney Todd, and this has probably been the best of the lot. A Christmas Carol is on until December 31st in London, and while it’s possible he might do it again next year, I wouldn’t count on it, so if you want to see it, get tickets now.