How do you persuasively design the experience to encourage desirable interaction and discourage undesirable interaction?
What you bring up definitely begins with the initial design of an experience. I think that amongst immersive theater makers, the term “portal” is fairly ubiquitous, but for sake of clarity, I’ll restate here what it is. The “portal” is a section of time before the narrative portion of the experience begins. In this section of time, the ground rules of the experience the audience is about to embark on are stated. Points to address in the portal may include: where the bathrooms are, where personal effects are stored, the cell phone policy, if the audience is to remain silent or if talking is allowed. It is delivered by someone not in the fiction/out of story.
For SNM, I would suggest that the concierge explicitly states to the audience before they enter the bar that “(along with any other rules/parameters) performers may touch you, but you may not touch the performers…. Any violation of these ground rules will be grounds for dismissal from the performance.” In a haunted house experience that my colleague Noah Bremer directed, this was one of the explicit directives. When an audience member did violate this rule they were previously made aware of, an actor could inform a nearby stage manager and that stage manager would remove the audience member. This didn’t happen often, but there was a protocol for handling it. The key here is explicitly stated parameter before the story is in play.
“Boldness is rewarded,” SNM actors state in the elevator ride up. If audience members interpret that directive as encouragement to get close to a character, and even touch that character, it is unfair to then punish those individuals’ boldness by removing them from the experience unless they have been given an explicitly stated directive in an out-of-story-world setting.
I heard that Then She Fell experienced problems with audience members opening doors that they shouldn’t have. When I saw TSF, I was greeted by a concierge to handle tickets, coats, bathrooms. Then, I was ushered into a beautifully designed other-worldly room where then an actor playing a nurse entered and spoke to the audience in her other-worldly way. She was the one to tell the audience before we walked upstairs, “Do not open any closed doors.” The danger with giving the audience the directive at that point in the experience is that a character is giving the direction. This opens the door (pun intended) in the audience’s mind to emotions like suspicion and doubt of the character who has just told them a piece of information — all great emotions you want your audience to feel towards characters. This means that your audience is invested! But, characters cannot deliver the instructions to the experience. The ground rules must be given by out-of-story individuals.
Now, how to encourage wanted behavior and discourage unwanted behavior of audience members within story? Defining the role of the audience member(s) is key. Their role defined allows relationship to be defined between audience-as-character and actor-as-character. It is also key to regard every spect as playing the best that he/she knows how.
The interactive work that work that I have done with my company Live Action Set in Minneapolis, with the Interactive PlayLab in NYC, and with the Deep Dive in Austin, uses techniques that incorporate improv-acting skills, narrative structure, and social psychology as the foundation of our ability to take whatever the participant (we call “spect” - short for spectator actor) is doing and incorporate that into the story. If there is a shy spect, there are techniques to encourage him to play. If there is a wily spect there are techniques to ground him in the scene. As interactors (our particular breed of actor), we funnel the thoughts of our actor/writer brains through the mouthpiece of our characters. In this way, an interactor can “backlead” spects into certain behaviors or “aikido” spect behaviors into something desirable for the sotry without shunning their efforts to play within the world of the story.
A story that Jeff Wirth (Director of Interactive PlayLab and the Deep Dive) told me comes to mind as a great example to share:
There was a scene in which a bunch of people— interactors and specs both— had to rush to the other side of the room to escape the enemy characters. This action to escape caused the people to get closer together. One male spect took this as an opportunity to put his arm around a female interactor in a way that felt to her like a sexual power play, and this behavior was unwanted. What this interactor did was say to him, looking directly into his eyes, “Yes, please protect me.” This caused the spect’s physical action to be acknowledged, and gave him the opportunity to shift how he was relating to his own behavior by redefining how he was embracing the interactor.
What is agency in this context? How do you define it?
I think “audience agency” is about giving the audience the feeling of choice. The feeling of choice. There are always constructs/parameters to that freedom.
To be a little philosophical for a second...
Total freedom, total freedom of choice, is an illusion. Even in the “real world,” our freedoms and ability to choose exists within constructs. Whether we live in the world called the United States of America or The People’s Republic of China or The McKittrick Hotel or Westworld, our ability to choose to do whatever we want is limited by constructs. Knowing what the constructs are help us maneuver the world we find ourselves in. Defining the world you are functioning in or the world you are asking someone else to step into becomes very important. (This is another reason why the information given in the portal of immersive and interactive experiences becomes so important.)
In the work I’ve been creating with The Deep Dive and Interactive PlayLab, absolute freedom of choice is an illusion. But, the feeling of freedom in our spects is what is present and what matters. With these two teams I have worked with, our artistic mission has been to create experiential narratives that are driven by the spect’s emotional choices. Even in our scripted work, what happens in the story is driven by the spect’s choices. The challenge is to create something “on the rails” but with the feeling that anything could happen. Anyone could play any story that we’ve written and every event would be the same, but how we go from event to event would be different based on the choices the spect made. How to do that? Technique, technique, technique, of course! We use technique to give the illusion that it’s all improvised, and while on the one hand much of it is, we as creators know almost exactly what will happen next in the story. Our job as creators and interactors is to make the next “node” of the story come about because of a choice the spect makes. So, audience agency here is giving spects the feeling of freedom of choice.