The Themed Entertainment Association’s (TEA) annual storytelling and experience conference hit the bright lights of New York City and Broadway, New York, in October.
Taking SATE 2016 to New York was a change of pace for the TEA, shifting from successful partnerships with educational institutions over the past three years to a location in the heart of Manhattan’s theatre district. The vibrant setting enhanced the pace and dynamic of the conference.
In many ways, a tightrope walk aptly represents the project development journey – preparing oneself to traverse an unknown void. This void represents risk, which is dependant on many factors. The risk is mitigated by factors like whether the right safety net(s) are in place (such as a good team, a realistic schedule and budget) and the team’s response to the inevitable challenges along the way. Of course, there is also the omnipresent sense of tension and risk represented by the tightrope itself. Using tension and risk to your advantage can yield unexpected results and much greater success.
The essence of SATE is founded on the idea that Storytelling + Architecture + Technology = Experience. Conference co-chairs Traci Klainer of Luce (a subsidiary of JBA), Chris Conte of Electrosonic and Michael Blau of Adirondack Studios brought together an excellent team of segment chairs – Paul Osterhout from Universal Creative (Storytelling), Deanna Siller from Gensler (Architecture) and Chris Manson from Fox & Crow (Technology) – to curate a series of speakers and conversations that each embodied the essence of risk-taking.
Each set of speakers explored experiences from their own unique perspectives and helped the attendees become more aware of the risks we all take everyday, often without realising it. And they challenged the group to embrace risk and move outside their comfort zone in order to achieve even more.
RISKS VS REWARDS
The speakers were consistently excellent. Some stood out for the contrast they represented, the newness and boldness of their work and indeed the risks they took.
Manon Slome shared the story of her non-profit initiative, No Longer Empty, which makes transitional use of public spaces to make contemporary art accessible to underserved communities. The installations go beyond being simply “pop-ups” because they are connected to the people who live and work in the area, along with the artists who work there.
The installations make transitional use of generally abandoned public spaces of historic or architectural significance. While the art is the hub of the experience, programming is the key to attracting and connecting with as many members of the local community as possible.
The risks for No Longer Empty are palpable – they include precarious funding to bring art to seemingly tough neighbourhoods with no previous exposure to such culture. But the rewards are significant, creating lasting legacies and connecting communities beyond the duration of the installation itself. The installations also connect other businesses within communities, creating cultural tourism opportunities within each area.
The work of No Longer Empty is currently focused on the five boroughs of New York City, but Slome and her team of five have a dream to create a franchise which introduces art to underserved communities throughout the world. It’s a risky dream, but one that, given the success and impact of the programme over the past seven years, is on the right track. Initiatives to programme under-utilised spaces are growing throughout North America, with varying levels of success. No Longer Empty seems to have developed an approach that has the right mix of impact and legacy. The audience was in awe of the commitment and courage of Slome and her small team.
OUTLAWS AND ICONS
As the focus shifted to Architecture, Siller introduced a group she described as “outlaws and icons”; leaders in their industries who were “fearless thinkers”. She encouraged the attendees to expand their comfort zone, first by stretching it, which will lead to growing it and eventually lead to risk-taking. She also reminded the group that they should not walk the tightrope alone – there is strength in numbers, the team is important. And if they have a long leash, the team will take risks and know they have support if they fail.
The first of outlaw/icon was David Schwarz, creative partner at HUSH, an experience design agency working at the intersection of the physical and digital space. At HUSH, says Schwarz, they can tolerate risk but not failure. He talked about the legendary baseball player Babe Ruth who was famous for saying, “Never let the fear of striking out get in your way”. It’s important to build experimentation into what you do, make it part of the process, and part of doing business. If failure creates knowledge, then why are we so afraid of it?
Viacom’s MTV creative director Sean Saylor took the audience on a journey through the re-defining of MTV International as they challenged themselves to “evolve or die … or become irrelevant”. Given that most SATE attendees were not MTV’s target audience or had not watched MTV in the past year, Saylor first provided a reminder that the scale of impact of the audience share MTV has globally is massive. But, they still compete for the time of their ever-changing audience – and its decreasing attention span.
MTV went to external agencies for their help on the development of a completely new approach, but they ultimately came up with the mission after a select internal team spent many days in typical (and some atypical!) brainstorming.
Their new mission as of 2015 became “Kill Boring”. Imagine presenting that to a board of directors or your CEO. However, it has ultimately been embraced and the rollout is focused on making MTV different, creative, young, real and fun. The MTV platform is now built around the idea that “I am my MTV”. The style guide is at once clear and yet very loose. MTV has become very interactive, it encourages user-created content and provides the tools for viewers to be creative. The new look is fast-paced, edgy and contemporary and the target audience loves it. It feels chaotic, very risky and definitely not boring.
CIRQUE ON BROADWAY
The SATE 2016 “Conversation with” featured Scott Zeiger, president and managing director of Cirque du Soleil Theatrical, with questions posed by Francois Bergeron, COO of Thinkwell Group. Bergeron spent many years working with Cirque and his insights into the traditional working of the business and their creative processes were invaluable in asking the right questions.
Zeiger is a veteran of the theatrical touring industry who is leading the Cirque organisation through new waters with the production of Paramour, their first Broadway show, which opened in May 2016.
From its inception, the production process was far from traditional, for many reasons. Paramour has twice the cast of a typical Broadway production, incorporating an acrobatic corps and an acting (singing and dancing) corps and required a rehearsal period more than twice what is typical, in addition to five weeks of previews. The scenic design integrates the required circus equipment, traditional spectacular scenic elements and some clever integration of new technology.
The approach to music was very different from Cirque’s typical process and results in a score that is the best of Broadway with the soaring unique musical interludes more typically associated Cirque. The orchestra includes a core band that is very well rehearsed and can respond to the timing challenges associated with the unpredictability of circus-style acts.
Attendance and response from the typical Cirque fans and international visitors has been strong. The producers have used audience research as a way to fine tune the show with a focus on attracting more of the traditional Broadway audience. Applying their learning with a recent refresh of the show has already impacted the attendance numbers significantly. Many conference attendees were able to see a sold-out performance of Paramour during their visit to New York, with an overwhelmingly positive response.
A highlight from the Technology stream came from Dr Kathryn Woodcock, human factors (ergonomics) professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, who challenged the group with the idea of “the necessary risk”. Woodcock’s research is focused on ride safety and she shared the fact that most ride incidents are the result of poor decisions made by users. When designers and operators provide all the information required to make an informed decision, guests can choose whether to participate. Therefore, safety is not about things that are forbidden.
Woodcock also suggests that it is the designer’s job to “make the invisible visible and provide authentic danger clues so that things look as dangerous as they are”. If the right clues are provided, there is inherent safety built in. She reminded the group that if we don’t provide guests with the full story within the experiences we create, they will be more likely to personalise or modify things to complete the story for themselves.
GARBAGE IN, BEAUTY OUT
Darren David, CEO of Stimulant, works in the world of architectural scale interactivity. He shared perspectives on how technology can be used to bring people together and how the devices we all own – smart phones, tablets, etc – have raised the bar and changed people’s expectations and behaviour when they encounter something they perceive to be interactive.
In today’s world, everyone is a creator so experience designers need to leverage this in their work. The way to exceed expectations is to provide experiences that empower the user and make them feel like they have superpowers. Digital interactive experiences can make this happen if they are programmed to ensure success from every interaction: “garbage in, beauty out,” he said. This helps people move out of their comfort zones to the place where they will feel able to take more risks. They are not simply building magic, they are becoming magicians.
Vaki Mawema from Gensler is a passionate and inspiring architect who’s committed to the redevelopment of his adopted hometown of Washington, DC. He is excited and inspired by the change in the city, a shift in the demographic of the population and culture sparked by the influx of Millennials into the city during US President Barack Obama’s administration years. The result is a new vibrancy to the cultural landscape that is influencing development projects in the city. Mawema drove home the idea that design is about people, not things. That’s why it is critical to use the stories of the community and the place as design drivers.
The Union Market District retail centre owned and developed by EDENS in Washington, DC, was a risky project that is reaping huge rewards. It has been called one of the five best food halls in the US and, during SATE, one of the restaurants located in the complex was awarded a Michelin star. This is certainly true of Union Market which was brought from disrepair and ruin to the vibrant, community-centred space it is today.
Attendees then heard from Richard Brandenburg, director of cultural strategy, and Norma Perez, director of design, at EDENS, who talked about disrupting architecture through food. The strategy is to use architecture as a theatrical stage and not as a mould. They have created an open space where there is no behind-the-scenes, where food preparation and creation is out in the open for all to see.
It is a true community space. There’s an opportunity for small businesses who produce great products to develop and grow, moving from a shared incubator-style space to a more permanent location in the complex. EDENS selects the right mix of people and products and gives them access to Brandenburg’s expertise to grow and succeed. Union Market is rooted in human relationships and the stories of food.
LIVING UP TO THE THEME
SATE 2016 lived up to its risk-taking theme. The speakers provided varied perspectives on risk and the countless rewards that come from stepping outside one’s comfort zone. They emphasised that with greater risks come greater rewards. The strong sense of community that flowed through the presentations was an important part of the risk-reward equation.
Everywhere from Union Market to the new approach to user-generated content from MTV, it’s all community. Projects in the themed entertainment industry require a community of like-minded individuals ready to support each other as they step out onto the tightrope. If we have any doubts, we just need to look around at the incredible successes – large and small – that come from working outside our comfort zone, doing things we’ve never done before and learning as we go to accomplish great things.