Bringing the show to the audience rather than the audience to the show

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The Theater Guest Experience

It wasn’t long ago we were packing stadiums for concerts, or filling every theater seat for the opening weekend of a blockbuster movie. Guests would line parade routes at theme parks to catch a glimpse of their favorite princess, or to sing along with a marching band blasting a popular song. Theater makers were innovating new tactics to market traditional plays and musicals, to “get butts in seats,” as the old adage goes. And meanwhile, a new crop of artists were pushing boundaries, blurring the lines between audiences and performers, immersing visitors in the action of a play, haunted house, or escape room.

It seems like, in the blink of an eye, the entire live entertainment and performance industry has changed. The novel coronavirus has shuttered venues from Broadway’s largest houses to the tiniest Chicago storefront theaters. High capacity stadiums and small capacity escape rooms all went dark. But like the ghost light that remains lit on any stage, artists are finding their way through the dark to figure out how to bring entertainment to the world despite the restrictions and guidelines that dominate our new normal.

Escape Room Guest Experience
Escape Rooms, like Tommy Honton’s “Stash House,” asked guests to solve riddles and puzzles in an immersive environment, up close and personal. Thinkwell’s own Dave Cobb seen at right, above.

The internet became an immediate resource: artistic powerhouses like National Theater London started airing superstar performances, available on YouTube (for free) for limited runs. Other companies tinkered with paywall options to stream content that was (thankfully) recorded before the virus shut them down. Here in Los Angeles, the experimental opera company, The Industry, had to shutter their immersive, multi-path, wildly innovative Sweet Land well before its scheduled closing date. The company was able to think quickly and film the entire show, offering folks who missed out on the live event (yours truly included) a chance to watch from the safety of our laptops.

These are all great options. Pivots. Adjustments. But as shelter-in-place drags on, and restlessness sets in, performers and producers are beginning to think about how long term solutions can produce not just adjustments, but new inventions and fantastic innovations to the live events industry.

Here at Thinkwell, we’ve been brainstorming this head-scratcher using one of the basic tenets of our charrette (creative development work session) process. We’re assessing the parameters of our unfortunate situation: we assess CDC guidelines, think about how humans are going to respond to the “reopening” of their world, and understand guest expectations and wants for live entertainment. Then, we create the “box,” or the set of given circumstances that creates our creative sandbox. Personally, I love understanding the limitations of a creative conundrum! I think that knowing the walls and barriers of a task actually yields more creative solutions than “the sky’s the limit” thinking. 

Socially distanced audiences

And our creative sandbox has yielded exciting results! We are coming up with all kinds of ways to flip the switch on how to put live entertainment on the “stage of life,” so that we keep audience members safe. We want to produce parades-in-reverse, in which audience members drive past entertainment. We want to deliver immersive, content-driven shows that wind their way through neighborhoods, across the country, creating surprise and delight moments far beyond what happens when kids hear the “Turkey and the Straw” of an ice cream truck. We are tinkering with the idea of delivering neighborhood “walk-in” live shows or movies, utilizing park space or parking lots for communities to catch the newest blockbuster or a kids’ puppet show, all while staying socially distant. 

Storytelling, from a performer to an audience, has existed since time began. This virus won’t stop storytellers from putting on a good show. Thinkwell is ready to dream big about solutions to bring the show to our audiences.