The Design of Immersive Events and UX
Almost 5 years ago now I stumbled upon an incredible opportunity. I was working as a Scenic Artist for theatre in a Broadway shop, which basically means I was painting sets for Broadway shows as well as a couple of the NBC live productions. It was (at the time) my ~*DrEaM JoB*~ and I was thrilled to feel like I had made it after years of hard work. I was freelancing, and theatre has a pretty regular slow season that hits right after the holidays and stretches into March or April, and I had just been laid off as part of the yearly slimming of the freelance crew while work was scarce. A friend called and asked if I was available for the next two to three weeks as the show she was working for, an immersive theatre experience called Sleep No More, was looking for scenic artists to help refresh the existing set for their upcoming 5 year anniversary. I quickly said yes, and those two to three weeks lasted 4 years.
Sleep No More is an incredibly unique theatre experience. The show takes place in a 6 story building, and the audience is set free to roam on their own while performers present the show around them. It’s up to the audience to choose who to follow around and which part of the story they are going to see. Other than performers, the audience is completely immersed in the set. They are welcome to touch, smell, taste (there’s a candy shop), and experience everything first hand. This is not traditional theater, sitting in one place will not tell you the story we were telling! But how does this relate to UX? Let me tell you.
I saw this post by Jerremy Laesser on LinkedIn, and it really got me thinking. Of course sound and UX are linked! Sound is not my specialty, I’m the visual type, but in my time at Sleep No More I worked designing and executing the immersive events and parties we would throw. This included working closely with our whole design team: Scenery (that was my department), Lighting, Sound, Costumes, Video, and Performance all come together to make one complete event. These events could be directly compared to products. We have our stakeholders (the Producers) who want to throw a party based on a theme or an idea. They would choose a Director who would describe the story they wanted to tell through the party - the Information Architecture! We had 5 stories of a building to work with, how did each floor and room create the experience? We’d come up with a map of each room and how we thought we might direct people through it, quite like an app map would be used. Over 1000 people in a building is overwhelming! We created pathways that they could take even before designing our final product; we wanted to make sure we had our full layout before continuing so we knew what our end goal was.
Our Scenic Designer would then start creating moodboards, collections of images and ideas that inspired each portion of the design. Some would be direct examples of what they wanted to accomplish, some just the overall feel of the environment. Then came the hard part: actually creating the space. Preliminary designs would be created and presented to the Director and all the other designers. Is this the right direction? Do we need to change anything? How can all the other design elements be incorporated into what we have? We would iterate over and over together until we landed on our final design.
Now we had to execute. This was the tough part - how do you show someone a picture and ask them to create it? Our Technical Director is the theatre's answer to a Developer. They take the drawings and draft them, they figure out how everything should be built to best create our end goal. The built scenery is passed off onto Artists who make everything look exactly how the Scenic Designer wants by using renderings. We would use a physical version of a design system that the Designer creates and hands off. There is always room for interpretation and iteration, it’s a growing living system that is used in the same way a digital products design system is used! Most of the visual decisions are made with guidelines to execute all of them while still letting the actual artists figure out the best way to get to the final visual outcome.
What happens when you have to put it all together? Now we have a set, the Director has created a show to happen on it, we’ve been working with the Lighting Designer to make sure everyone is seen properly (and they do this super cool thing with some fog so you can see the light beams! So neat), the sound designer has created our soundtrack that the lighting also reinforces, and the Costume Designers have beautifully dressed the performers to tell even more of the story. This doesn’t just automatically happen. We have something called technical rehearsals where everything is slowly combined and then rehearsed over and over to make sure the performance looks and sounds exactly right. We were lucky to have a building full of people who weren’t directly working with us so we would be able to test our show with an audience! Usability testing!
Then: we have launch day. It’s the day of the show y’all! All day is spent preparing, checking props, costumes, set pieces - all ready for go time. One piece I’ve failed to mention is that all of our events happen immediately after a performance of Sleep No More has ended. Many of our party guests will have just 30 minutes before been in the party space where it looks like an 18th century Scottish hotel. Seeing the audience start to stream into this completely reimagined space is incredible. Their eyes get wide, they gasp, they say things like “oh my god how did this change?” (it’s theatre magic, I’m bound by many secret clauses and can’t tell you how), and they are transported into a new place. We have some performers to guide them through the building, telling a story that is meant to be followed, but otherwise we have our audience members (users) free to explore the party (our product) in a way we want them to (using all of our combined designs to show them what we want them to see and experience!).
Unlike products, usually we only do each of these events once, so there isn’t much room for working bugs out or introducing updates, but we certainly learned from each event and applied our reviews and notes to our next one. When I made the decision to pivot careers, UX/UI and Product Design felt so familiar to me. I would love to apply my unique experience creating interactive immersive physical events to creating digital ones! The world of theatre may be on pause right now, but the world of UX is growing even larger and I can’t wait to be a working member of this entirely new to me, but equally special community.
PS - if you have the means, please donate to @losthalloween at www.losthalloween.com to directly support the artists, performers, designers, technicians, and everyone else whose income is directly affected by COVID-19 immersive events closures. They were the first industry to shut down and will be the last to reopen. I know they can’t wait to get back to work and put on so many more events, parties, and shows!