Today I did the pre-filmed parts for the event. I managed to get a location for free – https://www.backyardcinema.co.uk/mission-to-mars/ – a pop up cinema decorated as a spaceship. The filming was done by myself and Mhari, one of the production team I recruited from CSM. A friend linked me with a cosmetics company who had used space suits in an advertising campaign, and kindly let me use them for free.
The actors were Kathryn (whom I had previously approached as a stakeholder due to her expensive experience with Punchdrunk and Secret Cinema), and James Kelly – https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0811839/ -who was outstanding, and whom Katheryn helped me to find.
The last few days have been extremely tough / stressful. I’ve met the venue to address advertising / ticket sales, rewritten the script (again), met a film editor for advice on adding effects to the video, purchased Adobe Premiere Pro and started watching tutorials in anticipation of creating a professional edit of the footage, lost a lead actor (and replaced him), been to Essex to collect space suits, found a ‘space pod’ to go into the venue (currently negotiating prices on a crane / flatbed lorry to see if this is feasible), met the production team to finalise decor, and finally, filmed this morning.
I have never been so far out of my comfort zone, and stressed. There’s a feeling of regretting going this big with my intervention, but equally all the books i’ve read this year talk about growth only coming from being out of one’s depth, so there’s consolation there.
There’s also huge consolation in the fact that the shoot was great, the actors were amazing and the set location was perfect! We improvised some scenes and dramatically improved them, and overall i’m feeling much better about the event.
I’ve also created over 60 new types of facebook adverts based on the demographics and preferences of previous ads, hopefully to get tickets moving. Within 24 hours i’ll be able to see what is and isn’t working and funnel money into the successful ads.
With less than 2 weeks to go, I am finalising the production for the event. The main challenge is trying to work within time and (especially) financial constraints whilst trying to make a convincing space ship. I have been extremely lucky to have a small team of helpers from other theatre and design courses at UAL for this.
The decision we have made is to use neon signage with dystopian phrases around the venue, to give the impression of people ‘not getting what they bargained for’ in terms of life on Mars, 4 projectors within the building, so as to be able to give rich visual information without the need to physical building, and one centrepiece in the middle of the dance floor, which will represent the ‘mother ship’.
(Illustrations by design team, not myself).
This will be a kind of ‘pillar’ wrapped in neon UV cables and with some circuit boards. Whilst this is visually striking, it also very much fits with the aesthetic of ‘Nu Rave’ the musical theme, who’s aesthetic is all neon and glow sticks. It also fits with the broader aim of having decor and props which are consistent with the idea of the event being a party in which people are supposed to dance and have fun.
The deeper motivation for a centrepiece beyond it decoration, is a concept called ‘The Void’ by Jason Warren in his excellent book ‘Creating Worlds’.
Much of the theory I have read about Immersive Theatre presumes to project political or socio-economic motivations behind certain actions of Immersive Theatre companies after the fact by those not involved. Nassim Taleb in his book ‘The Black Swan’ describes such practice as ‘Lecturing Birds How To Fly’, that is, rationalising post-hoc something that has entirely practical reasons in the first place. An example of this is Adam Alston’s book ‘Beyond Immersive Theatre’,
in which he argues that the fact that one is ‘rewarded’ for being proactive in immersive theatre with individual scenes / interactions with actors is a reflection of New Labour and David Cameron’s embrace of the free market and generally the establishment of neoliberal economic thinking across the political spectrum in Britain in the 90s onwards. This is a neat theory, but it certainly doesn’t correspond to reality – immersive theatre productions such as Punchdrunk and Secret Cinema are businesses, and a major expense is acting talent – the ‘first come first served nature of interactions is entirely practical, as there are less actors than audience members for economic reasons.
Back to ‘The Void’, this is the idea that audiences will avoid large empty spaces, and that simply putting a pillar or other physical object will make those spaces more inviting to audience members. In fact Jason Warren’s example involves a night club scene in his own play:
I hope this will have the effect of making people feel comfortable on the dance floor from the beginning. Also, as ticket sales are currently very low (60 sold so far), it will help to ‘shrink’ the venue, making for a better atmosphere with less people.
Outside of what I deem specific research on the subject matter of immersive theatre, my reading this year has increasingly informed my thinking on the project itself. This reached the point a fortnight ago where I considered changing my question to a broader, more theoretical version of my own, perhaps using the event Escape To Atlantis To Interzone as some sort of case study. Upon reflection, this isn’t a necessary step – in fact the new knowledge gained is just part of my research, but on a more macro level – and if anything is a slight step back, a more academic justification for the project itself. I will attempt below to summarise my learnings and how they relate to this project:
Why Immersive Theatre, Nightlife and Technology?
Why Are Promoters Always Sad?
My experience as a professional music events promoter for the past 15 years allowed me to observe a phenomenon which only struck me upon stepping away from the business; promoters (and particularly venue bookers) are consistently unhappy with the industry in which they work – bitter, angry, enraged, exhausted. The usual culprit for this ire is ‘the industry’ or often ‘booking agents / managers’ who represent talent, but the vagueness is indicative of the fact that the difficulties of being a promoter are related to the structure of the industry itself rather than any specific stakeholders within the system.
In my opinion the main explanation for these feelings stem from the economic structure of this industry, and it’s contrast to the perception of it’s structure by those involved.
Being part of the music industry, most perceive music promotion as being a ‘creative industry’, whereas it is far more like a commodity business. Promoters compete to book talent (DJs and bands), and that talent is the chief driver of demand to the audience. Whilst other factors (venue, opening hours etc) affect demand, ultimately the most important driver of consumer decision making derives from talent, a commodity promoters have to compete for against competition based largely on price. Like any highly competitive market, intense competition pushes the price of talent to the point where all profit is competed away.
From Zero To One – Peter Thiel:
“Perfect competition” is considered both the ideal and the default state in Economics 101. So called perfectly competitive markets achieve equilibrium when producer supply meets consumer demand. Every firm in a competitive market is undifferentiated and sells the same homogeneous products. Since no firm has any market power, they must all sell at whatever price the market determines. If there is money to be made, new firms will enter the market, increase supply, drive prices down, and thereby eliminate the profits that attracted them in the first place. If too many firms enter the market, they’ll suffer losses, some will fold, and prices will rise back to sustainable levels. Under perfect competition, in the long run no company makes an economic profit.
This competition is further intensified in the night life industry, by the social currency to ‘being a promoter’, and by low barriers to entry allowing motivated amateurs to hire a venue for one night and book their favourite DJ (often willing to overpay due to lack of knowledge or motivations outside of profit). This is a derivation the phenomenon of interns competing to work for free in highly popular industries such as fashion.
Another way to illustrate competitiveness within an industry is how much of the value created is captured by the companies in question.
Again from Zero To One – Peter Thiel:
U.S. airline companies serve millions of passengers and create hundreds of billions of dollars of value each year. But in 2012, when the average airfare each way was $178, the airlines made only 37 cents per passenger trip. Compare them to Google, which creates less value but captures far more. Google brought in $50 billion in 2012 (versus $160 billion for the airlines), but it kept 21% of those revenues as profits—more than 100 times the airline industry’s profit margin that year. Google makes so much money that it’s now worth three times more than every U.S. airline combined.
Clubs may generate huge amounts of revenue from tickets, but the vast majority will go to the talent, when said talent is the driver behind those sales.
One argument is that avoiding the ‘surefire’ ticket selling talent in favour of upcoming talent is a solution to this problem, but there are two chief problems with this. Firstly, in an efficient competitive market, new talent is cheap for a reason – it generates correspondingly low audience demand.
The Lion King On Broadway
Secondly and critically, event promotion in its current form is not subject to the Pareto Principle (often referred to as the 80/20 rule). This is the idea that 80% of profit (or productivity, or growth, or sales etc) stems from 20% of the activity – a heuristic shown to be consistent across many domains. In the context of the creative industries (where it can be even more pronounced, often a 99/1 rule), many industries can lose money on nine out of ten ventures but that one pay for the cost of all ten. This is true for record sales, book sales and more, and allows for high levels of risk taking / experimentation in those industries. People often cite the absurdity of so few authors recouping their book advance, but for our purposes it’s more important to understand why an industry can exist where that is the case.
From Blockbusters – Anita Elberse:
In 2011, 102 tracks sold more than a million units each, accounting for 15 percent of total sales. That is not a typo: 0.00001 percent of the eight million tracks sold that year generated almost a sixth of all sales. It is hard to overstate the importance of those few blockbusters in the head of the curve. And the trend suggests that hits are gaining in relevance.
Since music event promotion is essentially a commodity business, the upside is severely limited. A successful event is extremely difficult to scale upwards when demand is high – ticket prices have an upper ceiling (either self imposed or often imposed by the talent’s representatives), and capacity of the venue is fixed and inflexible. The successful event cannot be scaled through geography (adding dates in other cities) or time (adding extra dates in the same city) without renegotiation with the talent – one cannot scale what one does not own in the first place.
Digital creative products (such as music singles) have virtually infinite economies of scale, they can be reproduced and sold forever for virtually no extra cost – so even if the intellectual property belongs to someone else who takes the lions share, the upside is enormous. Events to which the promoter owns the rights have an upside which is scaleable – The Lion King Musical is the highest grossing entertainment property in history – because it can be scaled in price, time and geography simultaneously.
So how do club / concert events escape commoditisation and capture value? Differentiation (and ownership of that differentiation) and Scalability. We will discuss how later, but first antifragility and optionality in concerts / clubs.
Nasim Taleb shows us how the New York restaurant industry is Antifragile (improves from exposure to stressors, as opposed to fragile or even robust), because of the fragility of its constituent parts, the restaurants. Many highly competitive restaurants constantly enter the market, and many fail for myriad reasons – each failure is noted by the survivors, and so the industry as a whole improves – hence Antifragility (and great food). Having constituent parts that can fail can occur at different scales at once – cells die and are replaced within organisms (strengthening the organism), organisms die and exit the gene pool (strengthening the species), species become extinct (strengthening the ecosystem). A great example of internalising Antifragility is Streetfeast – a venue housing multiple independent food vendors, using the multiplicity as an attraction in and of itself. Should one vendor receive no custom and cease to be profitable it is replaced, strengthening the offering overall.
For a nightlife promotion organisation to itself be Antifragile, it must have constituent parts that are able to fail without the effects being catastrophic to the organisation – indeed the organisation must have ways to improve itself with each failure. The speed at which it’s smaller units can fail and the whole can improve as a result, the faster the evolution.
This ‘overcompensation’ to stressors, i.e. the improvement after each failure rather than simply returning to parity, stems from some form of redundancy in the system.
From Antifragile – Nasim Taleb
Now, it turns out, the same, very same logic applies to overcompensation: it is just a form of redundancy. An additional head for Hydra is no different from an extra—that is, seemingly redundant—kidney for humans, and no different from the additional capacity to withstand an extra stressor. If you ingest, say, fifteen milligrams of a poisonous substance, your body may prepare for twenty or more, and as a side effect will get stronger overall. These extra five milligrams of poison that you can withstand are no different from additional stockpiles of vital or necessary goods, say extra cash in the bank or more food in the basement. And to return to the drivers of innovation: the additional quantities of motivation and willpower, so to speak, stemming from setbacks can be also seen as extra capacity, no different from extra boxes of victuals.
The problem with a competitive, homogenous marketplace (such as multiple promoters attempting to book the same band for the same venues) is that with such tight profit margins there is no room for failure – hence no room for experimentation leading to failure leading to growth / innovation. So we can infer that the more competitive / homogenous the market, the more likely it is that one will be a fragile unit within it, rather than an Antifragile organisation containing fragile units. Again, need for differentiation and scaleability.
If Antifragility can be defined as having more to gain than lose from uncertainty (in our example of Streetfeast, not knowing which type of food will be popular benefits Streetfeast relative to single restaurants with their own kitchens), then optionality is a direct agent of Antifragility. As long as the upside from being correct from any given option exceeds the downside from being wrong, one does not need to be correct that often in order to thrive.
The Lion King will launch five dates, and if they sell out, Disney has the option to add more (they are currently on over 8500 dates). This is optionality. However when booking premium talent, the event is one off, and the commitment absolute. And since artist’s up-front fees are the majority of the revenue at sell out, this is the mathematical opposite of an option – making the promoter fragile on each event involving top level talent. At sell out profit is small and predictable, anything other than sell out leads to large losses.
What can give scaleability, differentiation and ownership to the promoter? What can have more upside than downside (optionality)?
An immersive club event, an original story is owned by the promoter, and has no competition. A story contextualising specific music means one can convey the music policy to the audience without needing to book talent.
Optionality is achieved because A) the entire cost is production, which can vary depending on the strength of ticket sales, and B) more dates can be added at will depending on demand.
Scalability. There are economies of scale, because props & costumes are purchased once, and the effort in writing & planning the story only has to happen once. The story can be recreated in price, time and geography.
The main conclusion from reexamining all these ideas, is the impact that true scaleability can have. Anything digital has huge potential upside, so why not make the content on the night a film, which can be reused? This would be a replicable, own-able asset to be franchised elsewhere. Making a film set to the music will be my focus of research in the coming weeks.
The big learning from presenting my intervention today, was that the common thread of feedback, from press to stakeholders to facebook advert performance, was that the concept is somewhat confusing / complex.
In bearing this in mind for the next iteration, my second event seeks to marry music and storytelling in a simpler, more natural way. With that in mind, here is one of the videos for the second event. Messaging of an elaborate story will be on the website, but the advertising needs to be punchy and clear from the start.
In addition, a conversation with an observer led me to articulate the downside of advertising this concept – the people like Kanye’s music but dislike his involvement of politics. My plan for this, is that the website will have 3 options for bespoke ticket links ‘Vote Michelle’, Vote Trump’ and ‘Vote Kanye’. Each is a link to a ticket, to give agency to the audience, as well as taking out the concept of having to have a political view to enjoy the party.
On Monday we had a tutorial on final project questions and their development using research and critical thinking.
I thought it was an excellent lecture, and all the more instructive because examples were given. Case studies with examples are so useful, and other students remarked similar sentiments.
I also thought that the course got to see the tutors in a different (and positive) light. It was a real shame that the tutors weren’t all giving lessons in the early part of the course in my opinion.
With regard to my own question, I have spent the last couple of weeks attacking the practicalities of my interventions. I feel that perhaps my question may develop as I spend the next month delving back into the theory / literature on immersive theatre.
So many of the books I have been reading for leisure (outside of my field of research) are related to the general idea of ‘doing’ being superior to untestable academic theory – an idea crystallised by Nassim Taleb’s ‘Skin In The Game’ which I recently revisited. My gut feeling is that this could be the direction of my academic research. The next post will expand on this.
I’ve changed the script a lot. I wanted to simplify it, and make the issues more ‘localised’ to the ship rather than big picture – seems more believable and would likely seem to matter more to those present. The new one requires less acting and more action, which is something I got from visiting some immersive events – the acted scenes seem a little staged and separate. It is unfinished and questions still yet to be answered are at the bottom.
Escape To Atlantis To Interzone Audience Journey
The week of the event, audience members will receive a video by email, introducing them to the 2 person crew who will be taking them to Mars. It will establish the basics of the story – that they are going to Mars, that there will be a party after takeoff; after which they will go into deep sleep once the moon has been passed (this is important to the story later). It will establish that the ship is being flown by ‘Mothership’, an artificial intelligence designed by Space X.
They will also be asked about people that say a corporation shouldn’t colonise a planet, and that it should be for anyone – blithe reply from the captain, like ‘The thing about anarchists is, they aren’t organised to be build spaceships and colonise planets’.
It will also be used to establish empathy with the characters, as well as trying to make the story light-hearted / entertaining.
As people enter the building they will be given a glow stick, and told it is their emergency light “for emergencies only”.
Music playing in room 2 is Starman by David Bowie, on repeat. People arrive in room 2 and enter queues for processing their Mars citizenship. They are asked for invasive personal data, and anyone (likely everyone) who refuses is told that they therefore are only give ‘half citizenship’ on Mars, with no voting rights. Neon paint is put on their face across the eyes to mark them as half citizens.
Actors processing look like ‘Nu Rave Air Hostesses’.
Anyone who refuses both the data and the neon paint is separated and taken elsewhere for a unique experience. I am thinking of two potential ideas for this.
A) A photobooth-type contraption where they are made to go have their picture taken for ‘incarceration on Mars’, but with a secret hole that leads to the dressing room. In which they are recruited by anarchists onboard who want to get off on the moon, and leave both earth and big corporations / data sharing etc behind. Our lead anarchist can give them booze from a hip flask, and give them a secret marking of some sort. Something that gets the initial skeptics more engaged / excited for the night ahead.
B) Taken to the canteen and recruited for the secret police on Mars. Given drinks tokens / cocktail to drink.
4. Main Room
The main room has a large screen at the front showing space, with a small square in the corner showing ‘the cockpit’, with the 2 crew working away. Music playing is The Strokes / The Libertines etc – the indie music scene pre-Nu Rave. In the centre of the room is a large object that will represent the ‘Grimes’ the spaceship’s personality, and will also be the focal point of the dancefloor. This needs to look impressive and have the effect of a disco ball or other dance floor lighting effect, whilst being ‘in character’ for a spaceship. It should have a top part that is a lighting feature, and a bottom part which can later be ‘destroyed’ by the anarchists.
4b. Smoking Area
People who want to go outside to smoke are given something to block noise / obscure vision (helmet . headphones?). Possibly google cardboard with this app –
This means people will see whatever effect is added, which would be a great experience. I am further exploring the use of ‘Artivive’, which converts innocuous real live logos into videos via google cardboard – as a way of getting subliminal messages over to the audience.
5. First Video Address
(Screen becomes full screen of cockpit, music stops playing)
Captain: Welcome aboard BFR206 to Mars, we hope you had a pleasant journey so far, and you got to say goodbye for the last time to everyone you ever met or knew. I’m your captain today, if by captain you mean the guy sat in a room watching the computer fly the ship.
Co-pilot: Good evening, I’m co-pilot Ella Loveday. Firstly I must apologise for the music, the ship computer, Grimes, appears to have a slight glitch, nothing to worry about, we assume there will be an update from ground control soon.
Captain: Yes, they infallible ship computer is playing the music from another ship, so maybe it’s not so perfect. I’d like to override and change it, and then I could actually fly us to at least the moon, but then i’d be the first unemployed person on Mars.
Co-Pilot: Anyway, enjoy the journey, we’ll get it fixed.
Actors are now rebels trying to recruit you, or ‘security’ trying to arrest rebels. This happens upstairs, in toilets, in smoking area.
Adventures are created for small groups. Taken to little restaurant room to recruit. Scenes / fights between security & rebels.
7. Second Video Address
Captain: Ladies and gentlemen, like you, we are hearing rumours of ships being lost, but ground control is currently telling us nothing. We are in contact with some other ships, we are hearing about bugs onboard mothership. I can confirm that at least one other ship has shut down mothership and switched to manual. There is nothing in reports that this is anarchists hoping to go to moonbase, I can assure you that it is all just rumours. Our own position is to just trust the system, trust ground control, all will be okay.
Co-pilot: We could go to manual to be safe, reset the system, at the very least the music would reset
Captain: Screw the music, we have procedures to follow
8. Raised tension
Music cuts out, alarm / siren goes off, ship voice says ‘emergency, emergency’ repeatedly for 30 seconds.
Rebel tries to smash computer in main room. Chased off. Gets on megaphone and says computer is going to run our lives in Mars, we must go to the Moon and be free.
9. Final Video Address
Pilot tries to reboot. Computer says no. Tries to override and is electric shocked by computer.
*****FIGHT SCENE WHILST PILOTS LOOKS ON***COMPUTER IS SMASHED*****
Co-pilot – We are going to reset everything and i’m going to fly it. If this works you’ll know about it. If it doesn’t work, well, I guess you’ll know about that too. Better turn on those emergency lights.
10. FINALE – 11.30PM
Silence. Pitch Black.1 full minute. Screen is just space.
10. The Dance
On comes Klaxons – Atlantis To Interzone. Whole place erupts (hopefully).
90 minutes of bangers. Throughout this the screen shows space, slowly getting closer to the moon. By 1am we ‘land’ on the moon. At which point all anarchists come out to party, with confetti, glitter etc. Perhaps a slogan about a free world.
HOW DO I GET AUDIENCE TO HAVE A CHOICE? WHAT SEEMINGLY CONSEQUENTIAL ACTION CAN THEY TAKE? IS IT TO ‘BECOME AN ANARCHIST’?
HOW DO I GET THE AUDIENCE TO DECIDE THAT THE CORPORATION IS BAD AND THEY ARE WITH THE REBELS? TO HATE THE COMPUTER?
THE ‘ANARCHISTS’ NEED A WAY TO DISTINGUISH THEMSELVES THAT ALLOWS PUNTERS TO CONVERT AND ALSO BECOME ONE. THIS SHOULD TIE WITH THE NU RAVE AESTHETIC – SMILEY ‘RAVE ‘FACES?
My original plan for my ‘dream project question’ attempted to incorporate Augmented / Virtual Reality into immersive theatre & night life. I eventually rejected this as it appeared clunky and overcomplicated for an academic study. However, in my ongoing re-write of the audience journey for my first event, I am incorporating some AR into the production.
The smoking area is a significant problem in maintaining the illusion of being on a spaceship, especially as it is out of the front of the venue on a busy street. One solution was to make people wear makes / ear defenders and make it part of the story, at least to dull the senses whilst outside. Another I am exploring is to use google cardboard (a cheap device which turns ones phone into an AR headset, and this app –
Both require some work to be practical for this first event.
I am poor at practical / making of things, and so have been trying to plug that gap in my knowledge. I started with posters around university.
This garnered just three responses, of which two were dead ends. I spoke to the head of MA Theatre design, and this was also a dead end as he was reluctant to expose his students to something he knew little about.
Upon advice from David (my tutor) I re-wrote my brief based, consulting a template of an ethical risk assessment – and having met the head of BA Theatre Design and BA Product Design have had far more positive results; in addition my new pitch changed the mind of the head of MA Theatre Design. Fred from BA Theatre Design has said that working on my event can count towards their own projects as coursework, and all three course leaders have emailed all their students.
I have received over a dozen responses in 24 hours, and am now meeting with each individually. I feel confident on the set design aspect now, and must turn back to completing the revised script, filming a script read-through and sourcing actors / extras.
I am re-writing the script, and realised something. The story is that of the ship failing, and essentially is one of turmoil. This is a serious thing to supposedly be happening, and whilst it is clearly make-believe to the audience, if it is done well there is unlikely to be a jovial atmosphere conducive to dancing.
When I attended ‘Feasty Blinders’, the scripted parts were broken up by a live band and 2 burlesque dancing performances. These were good because they provided early entertainment before people were ready to get up and dance, they stopped all the ‘immersion’ from being scripted (and therefore didn’t interrupt people’s eating and conversations), and most importantly, they fit within the narrative.
My idea to achieve this, is to have a ‘fight’ between a ‘rebel’ and a ‘Space X Security’ as the rebel attempts to destroy the mothership console in the main room. This could be heavily choreographed and performed by 2 experts (ninjas), and they can fight with sticks made to look like some sort of ‘light sabre’. My idea is to have security ‘fight’ an obvious actor / member of the rebellion, quickly vanquish him before his stick is picked up by what looks like a member of the public (but is actually our hired ninja). They then have an elaborate and entertaining fight with acrobatics etc.
This should provide a surprising and entertaining finale before the video ‘finale’ in which the music becomes ‘Nu Rave’.
This sounds like a small detail but I think it could be the main talking point after the event, and a clear differentiation from a normal club night.