How a creative think tank in Austin is developing a new generation of interactive storytellers

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In the world of immersive entertainment, high-end activations like the extensive real-time recreation of HBO from Westworld or Disney's upcoming Star Wars expansion lands attract attention. But at South by Southwest this year, one of the most exciting and farsighted immersion jobs was not there to promote a movie or a television show. It was an interactive experience called OpenMind, which was developed in hotel rooms, office buildings and public places in Austin, Texas, over a period of four days.
OpenMind told the story of a protagonist, in this case I, jumping between two parallel dimensions, with the task of preventing a genius of nefarious technology from overcoming both worlds with an insidious technology of thought reading. It was an example of what its creators, the interactive laboratory Interactive Deep Dive, called "SimuLife", an experience that uses live actors and real places to blur the lines between fantasy and reality, mapping a fictional narrative in the real world .
In David Fincher's 1997 film The Game, Michael Douglas plays a wealthy banker who is enrolled in a real-world game that is so realistic that he quickly loses track of what is real and what is fantasy. That film is regularly cited as an immersive entertainment model, and is an open inspiration for the SimuLife experience. OpenMind was a tailored immersive narrative, and just one possible application for Interactive Deep Dive's new wave of interactive and innovative storytelling.

The interactive director of Deep Dive, Jeff Wirth. Photo of Kate Russell / Lobo Meow

"The reason why Interactive Deep Dive happened was because I wanted there to be a group of next-generation leaders in the field of interactive performance applied," Deep Dive director Jeff Wirth tells me. Wirth is an innovator in the field. He has been working on interactive performance, where actors can interact directly with his audience, since the 1970s, and brought the work to an academic context for almost a decade at the University of Central Florida. While training artists in New York, he decided to put together an emerging creative workshop that would give a small team the ability to lead and study all aspects of immersive work, from virtual reality and simulations to educational applications and pure entertainment.

"As you can imagine, this skill set is not something that you acquire quickly, so if you're really going to grow leaders, you need a substantial amount of time," he says, with the nine-month project called Interactive. Deep Dive – which started in Austin last August. "The Deep Dive" came from the desire of more people who have this set of skills and understanding in their bones, so they can apply it in different ways. "
The group is composed of eight artists and performers with backgrounds in a variety of disciplines: VR, educational simulation, dance, traditional theater and improvisation. The Deep Dive program itself calls on its members to merge those disciplines through public shows and interactive experiments where members of the audience can jump, play and co-create a story with the artists. The training for that last type of work, the engine that makes something like my experience with SimuLife possible, starts with what they call "StoryBox".
StoryBox, SimuLife and The Game
"I've been doing interactive onstage, as an interactive musical where the two romantic protagonists are played by members of the audience, or an interactive adaptation of A Christmas Carol," says Wirth. "And one of the things that I really noticed is how self-conscious people were when they played on stage, you could get over them, but it was definitely a setback."
In response, he created the StoryBox: a 14-foot square with fabric walls, equipped with lights, cameras and microphones. By eliminating the anxiety of being on stage in front of an audience, it allows the participants, or "spectators", a set of spectators and actors, to be less self-conscious when they enter the space and to improvise a scene alongside the trained interactive actors ( "interactors"). The lighting signals and the sound design can be generated in real time along with the interpretations, while the cameras and microphones allow to control everything live.

The concept allows actors and audience participants to jointly create a story in real time, either working from an established premise or inventing something on the fly. "The team is trained to understand the flow and structure of the story, and recognize the types of gender or character," explains Ken Ingraham, Wirth's producing partner. "They're using those tools at the moment, and the team is recognizing and supporting them, and sometimes contrasting that, and creating slides, so that the viewer is taken through the story, it's really a collaborative improvisation."
Taking that central idea – untrained participants who work with actors for co-authors of a narrative experience – and placing it outside of a theater environment was the next logical step. "I remember Jeff and me talking in his office, and saying that we both had seen the movie The Game, starring Michael Douglas," recalls Ingraham. "We knew how that was connected to what we were doing, and I'm pretty sure Jeff was the one who suggested," What if we did this? "
"I remember Jeff and I talking in his office, and we both had seen the movie & # 39; The Game & # 39;".
That led to Wirth's first SimuLife, which they simply called The Game. That project featured a single participant in a suspense narrative. Ingraham, who played the villain in the play, tells how they orchestrated a "murder" that the protagonist witnessed. "I took him to the window, and we looked down at the deck of a garage, probably 10 floors below, and he could see his friend in the story being dragged to a staircase from behind a door," he smiles. "We had a phone call with his friend at the same time." Then he heard the rest of the scene, which was, "No, no, I do not … There's no reason for that!" Bang – and then absolute silence. "
Immersive vs. interactive
The experience of being inside a SimuLife can be surprisingly difficult to articulate. (I chronicled my entire journey in our series The SimuLife Diaries.) Unlike looking passively at a television show or movie and empathizing with a character's struggles, you yourself are experiencing those struggles and making decisions in real time about how to respond It is also different from narrative games or even from most alternative reality games, since there is no sure detachment in familiar mechanics, mission structures or branching narrative routes. Instead, it is an emotional experience, as the participant develops what feels like authentic relationships with different characters throughout the story.
That distinction also illuminates the difference between the general term "immersive entertainment" and the interactive work that Wirth and his team are pursuing. Deep Dive member Joanna Harmon, who played the character of Faith in OpenMind, describes it as the difference between giving a hearing agency to explore a world of stories from a voyeuristic point of view, and the specific feeling that the story is responding to the behavior of the participant.

Deep Dive interactive members Olivia Jiménez, Christy Casey and Joanna Harmon prepare for the final of & # 39; OpenMind & # 39 ;. Photo of Kate Russell / Meow Wolf

New York's long-time production Sleep No More, which offers attendees masks and asks them to explore a spooky hotel while developing a Macbeth production around them, is a classic example of immersive theater. Guests can walk, dig in desks and closets, and witness any moment of history they want at any given time, but in reality they can not change anything that happens. However, an interactive piece like OpenMind is driven by the participant on a much more fundamental level. What they say or do at a particular time determines how the actors will respond next. When I decided to fire an executive at a high-level board meeting, for example, that became part of the plot of the story, and it paid off with a dramatic public resignation the next day. There is an overlap between immersive and interactive entertainment, but the emotional investment that is possible in interactive work is surprising.
Inside OpenMind
OpenMind began as a joint effort between Interactive Deep Dive and the immersive art collective Meow Wolf, which had a broad presence at this year's SXSW. A documentary about the origins of the group premiered at the conference, along with a piece of virtual reality called The Atrium, and an extensive treasure hunt throughout the conference. "There were a couple of people who were part of that organization, who listened to people who came and played with interactive deep diving," Wirth explains. "They said:" It seems you're doing really interesting things with the story, and we'd be interested in some kind of collaboration. "
"What is something that allows someone to play the imposter?"
Wirth began writing OpenMind in December, working with Deep Dive members Carlo D & # 39; Amore and Christy Casey. (D & # 39; Amore also directed the project.) "I started from the point of view of," What would allow someone to play the impostor? ", Says Wirth. In past experiences of SimuLife, viewers have been given fictional characters as a way to encourage them to take risks they might not be willing to take in their ordinary lives. The presumption of OpenMind gave me the opportunity to do that while also playing myself. Some scenes took place in the "real world," but when I entered the alternative dimension, where people thought I was the villain, Bishop, I could play along with their expectations or reveal the real truth.
That approach, along with agile performances by Deep Dive members playing characters like Bishop's wife, Faith (Harmon), the anti-tech activist Max (Kevin Percival), the detestable business partner Blake (Benjamin Nathan-Serio) and an aspiring to intern of Verge (Paige Keane), successfully created the illusion of a world that worked like a parallel to ours, erasing the lines between fiction and reality until it became difficult to analyze the difference emotionally.

Deep Dive member Benjamin Nathan-Serious shakes hands with participant Bryan Bishop in a scene from & # 39; OpenMind & # 39 ;. Photo of Kate Russell / Meow Wolf

That experiential prestidigitación was so effective due to the focus of the writing and the interpretation techniques that the Deep Dive team has been exploring. The OpenMind script was not full of carefully designed monologues or alternative scenes that could be unlocked depending on what action I took. Instead, it was a structural scheme, detailing specific rhythms or objectives of the story that had to be reached in a certain scene. On my first day, Faith had to convince me to reveal my true identity, for example, but it was Harmon who brought me to that revelation by playing my responses and actions in the moment.
It is improvisation with intention, and although I found it perfect in practice, it requires that the interactors not only be active listeners, but also skillful for the readers of the tone and mood of a participant. One of the best examples in OpenMind came when I went into my hotel room in Austin, only to discover that it had really jumped dimensions and was in the villain's room, where his wife was preparing to go out at night.
"In the hotel room, that scene is written that Faith appears on a towel," explains Harmon. "Now when I appear on a towel, which is something shocking, it has to be shocking, I'm going to see, well, how is this person reacting, is this person moving away, does this person seem embarrassed, is this person finding something more to worry about, is this person respectful?
"I'm going to see, well, how is this person reacting to this?"
Those interpretations are not about judging a stage partner, she says; it is about using the reactions to obtain a reference reading about the participant who can then inform the subsequent interactions. "Based on that, I can now add something to the relationship I'm building [based on] how I'm reading how the viewer wants to make the scene."
It is a healthy dose of social psychology, deployed to create a stronger dramatic experience. Throughout OpenMind, our scenes were monitored and recorded for analysis, and any reading or idea would be shared with the rest of the Deep Dive team in the form of nightly reports. The way I reacted to certain characters in a day could inform how other interactors would approach me the next, and any unexpected turn, like that surprise shot, could be incorporated into history in the future. When all these elements were combined, they really created the feeling of being inside a fictional world fully realized in the form of my actions.
Two participants are better than one
It may seem contradictory that an interactive experience can work when an untrained and unprepared participant plays such an integral role. We tend to think about "storytelling" in the context of fixed works such as novels and television programs, where a strong author's voice dictates everything. When the improvisation of the participants is helping to drive the action, the experience could collapse if they are not able to invest or increase their weight. Even members of the Deep Dive team admit they were skeptical before working with Wirth. "I was like," Okay, yes, I want more interactive, but I think I want a more interactive immersion ", recognizes Christy Casey, who played a resistance fighter named Jules." Now, I'm a convert total. Kool-Aid has been drunk. "
That response is likely because group techniques are so effective in empowering viewers. In OpenMind, one of my favorite characters was Nikita, a calm anti-technology activist under pressure who brought the reason to the table when the leader of her group, Max, flew off the rails. Nikita was so persuasive that she changed her mind about the key decisions, and I assumed that she was another member of the Deep Dive team. However, after the show ended, I found out that she was actually another participant like me.

Participant Imani Dabney participates in a scene from & # 39; OpenMind. & # 39; Photo by Kate Russell / Meow Wolf

Before my story even began, Imani Dabney was taken to a secret resistance recruiting meeting and told to throw darts at my drawing. (In its dimension, I was the villain, Bishop.) When she called me the last day, saying that she had some documents leaked to share, I had no idea that she had represented a scene that morning in which she had stolen those documents. . It was an example not only of the impressive management and scenic disputes that the Deep Dive team was able to carry out, orchestrating multiple participants in multiple locations throughout the city, but it was also an indicator of how effective the group was in executing Wirth's central mission Dabney and I were interacting with trained artists and untrained participants, and we could not distinguish one from the other.
"That is the most exciting moment, when interactors are no longer a factor," Percival tells me. "When they can sit down and watch the process, but the two participants work together and play together." These are, for me, the most satisfying moments of this work. "
Paying it forward
The inevitable question about Deep Dive's experience is how it adapts to a wider audience or translates into a profitable business venture. But Wirth does not seem particularly interested in that question. (At one point, Ingraham tells me, they considered offering the SimuLife experience to the extremely rich through Neiman Marcus's "Fantasy Gifts" catalog, although the plan never moved forward). Instead, Wirth points out that a think tank like Interactive Deep Dive is not necessarily about the work it will produce today. It is about laying the foundations for the immersive and interactive narrative that will be realized in the coming decades.
"It's important to know when you win and lose." It is also important to allow yourself to be transformed. "
"If there is no body of knowledge related to the interactive creation of stories, then [once] technology is doing more than just [showing] things on the screens, rather than simply using VR headsets and being tied or unattached. But where you can actually be living in a world, if we do not have the body of knowledge of interactive history, what will be created will be mainly interactive games, "he says. "I'm not against interactive games, it's just that they serve a particular kind of purpose, but there's another purpose that serves the story that is equally important, and I care that we have a balance in the future. When you win and when you lose, it's also important to allow yourself to be transformed, and that for me is the duality of the game and the story. "

From left to right: Ken Ingraham, Christy Casey, Joanna Harmon, Imani Dabney (participant), Jeff Wirth, Paige Keane, Bryan Bishop (participant), Carlo D & # 39; Amore, Olivia Jiménez, Kevin Percival.Photo by Kate Russell / Meow Wolf

That claim could be controversial in some sectors, particularly with the way modern games such as Gone Home, Tacoma and Florence are exploring non-traditional frames and more interactive and experimental storytelling. But even in those contexts, players still often have a sense of the game's modern mechanics. In contrast, when I received my first (and only) instructions for OpenMind, I was specifically told that the mechanics of the game, the clues or riddles, and for the project credit, would not have to be resolved, that was completely accurate. This was not a game to unlock doors or win a stage. It was an experience about relationship building and the impact it had.
But Wirth's long-term vision requires teaching its particular taste of interactive performance to as many people as possible, the ultimate mission of deep interactive immersion. And as the group moves towards its last month, that's where the focus will follow. This week, the team will re-assemble their show Spirit of the Torch, a five-hour themed horror production that will pair seven spectators with nine interactors. Then, it will be time for the individual members of the group to carry out their own projects before separating and taking what they have learned to the rest of the world.
"We are developing a program for the re-entry services program here in Austin."
Harmon will direct an interactive dance project called Unset, in which members of the public will be invited to the stage to become lead dancers in improvised movement pieces, with the support of a group of trained dancers. Kevin Percival and Olivia Jiménez, who managed OpenMind in stages as well as playing roles, have an academic background and have been developing ways to use interactive interpretation techniques in learning programs. "Currently, we are developing a program for the re-entry services program here in Austin," Percival tells me, with a focus on better equipping those who help inmates return to society. "We're going to do different interview skills training, and different ways of practicing talking to someone – actively listening to someone and being at their level when you're talking to someone – that may have a very different background experience than you & # 39; re used to. "
Others, like Casey, see incredible potential not only in the ability of the work to foster empathy, but also in entertainment applications, such as adding more personalized interactive elements to facilities such as HBO and the giant Westworld construction of Giant Spoon, or adding a real life interactor element to virtual reality experiences that could give audiences the experience of connecting with living characters and respirators within virtual worlds. In a very real way, interactive performance as a technique begins to sound like VR, AR or any other immersive technology in development: it can be applied anywhere, in almost any context, with benefits that even its creators are just now beginning to discover .
"In all fields, we have worked with this, I see that people understand how we are doing an interactive work that adapts to each person who does it, and it feels like," Oh, of course, that's where they go things ", says Percival. "And that's why my biggest lesson is how this work is not going to stay alone in things like SimuLife, it will not be just in the avant-garde theater, I feel that this work can really connect to almost anything, and where you have human interaction, you're techniques can be very valuable, it only takes a bit of a code change, and a bit of seeing how interactive things can be. "

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