Creating Worlds: Learning from the design of immersive theatre

I took a long weekend break last week and decided to do no work but to read something that might inspire new ways of thinking.

I found Creating Worlds: How to make immersive theatre by Jason Warren and it turned out to be the perfect choice.

This is an extremely well written handbook for a kind of theatre that I really love: site specific, immersive or experimental theatre.  It is the sort of theatre championed by companies like Punchdrunk and I was transported back to Shanghai 18 months ago and their wonderful production of Sleep No More closely based on Macbeth.   

Immersive theatre feels like the best kind of learning experience in which the audience has a high degree of choice but this is guided (or facilitated) through a detailed world created for the production.  You experience drama, action, stories and events and piece them together while moving around a physical space.  I’ve taken part in many of these over the last 20 years and its a kind of theatre I’m always on the look out for.

In an immersive production you need to work a little harder to really explore the texture and meaning of the play.  Jason Warren talks about the essentials of creating such a production as designing Elegance, Rewards and Flavour.  What I loved about this book was how he named qualities that I could immediately recognise.  And the fact that I could think about using these qualities and design principles in my own work.

Here are a quick list of things I will remember and try to apply to future learning sessions:

  1. Transport your audience to a strange unfamiliar location while telling a familiar story.  I wonder how I could use this to help my learners explore some of the key ideas around problem solving and business transformation?
  2. Design for choice.  Jason describes ways of giving people apparent choice (a bit like a stage magician) as well as real choice.  I think I could apply both of these to some of the sessions we run.
  3. Create elegance.  This means designing for simplicity so that every element works without being able to see the mechanics behind the scenes.  Many educational experiences could definitely be less clunky with more emphasis on just experiences what has been planned.
  4. Reward your audience.  In immersive theatre the audience is not passive and they have to make the connections, follow the action and sometimes get involved. Rewards need to be planned with highs and lows across the arc of the performance. And so too in education.
  5. Maintain flavour.  I love the word flavour to describe the level of detail that needs to be created so that the world remains convincing.  We have so much to learn here.
  6. Design for your audience as a group.  This is a big idea because when designing education we often design for individuals.  In theatre this is impossible.  How can we use the power of the group more? How can we onboard, split, disperse and extract groups while telling the story?
  7. Design for factions.  This means designing for groups to take different positions and in terms of physical theatre, different journeys through the space. Each faction must make sense in terms of the story world that the play creates.  I can really see opportunities to split larger groups into small teams using these ideas. I wonder how I can apply this and the need to split naturally online?
  8. Think of the space as an actor.  The book explores fascinating challenges around how audiences treat spaces and particularly how empty voids emerge if we are not careful with the audience positioned around the edge.  I loved the way this made me look in a completely different way at “customer journey mapping” and I feel inspired to explore richer journeys.
  9. Allow your audience awareness of what is happening in other spaces.  This can be as simple as sound overheard, involve reports from actors or conversations between audience members.  In learning we often have fixed groups or breakout rooms and there is little communication between them.  I want to explore providing more visibility, signposting and intergroup communication.
  10. Immersive theatre is not improv.  The level of planning, design and attention to detail separates these two forms and both can be highly effective.  Designing immersive learning experiences needs more preparation and more world building if it is to give learners the maximum impact.
  11. Teach your audience how to experience the show, how to play their roles and how to move around the space.  We spend a lot of time preparing learners for our courses and this investment is very valuable.  Compare this with onboarding players into a game. We can borrow ideas from immersive theatre such as briefing them on their roles and providing opportunities to experiment and take risks.
  12. Build a team to deliver the best possible experience.  Immersive experiences cannot be created by a single actor but require months of planning and execution by a team.  Great learning experiences need the same sorts of commitments and roles.

So much to takeaway and apply.  Definitely on my list of surprising reads of this year and reminds me to continue to tech myself beyond my normal genres and authors.

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