Where There’s Smoke is a live doc meets immersive theatre experience meets escape room — its marks the most personal work I’ve ever attempted to create.

Taking the leap: embracing vulnerability when prototyping immersive stories

In August I playtested/prototyped my newest project Where There’s Smoke at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in NYC. It was a wonderful experience that had me feeling a range of emotions. While I felt a deep sadness I also felt an incredible joy. I’ve been thinking/working/false starting the project for years. However, over the last 12 months, I’d been collaborating with my dad; his deteriorating health, due to a battle with cancer, brought the project to the forefront as we raced to do as much as we could together. He was thrilled to see the project included at the Sheffield International Doc Fest’s Alternative Realities Market this past June and was looking forward to the first work-in-progress run at the Future of Storytelling Summit later this fall. This evening marked the first time I was prototyping the project, and only a few weeks after my dad had passed away.

Where There’s Smoke mixes a live documentary, immersive theatre and an escape room to create an experience that explores memory and loss. Set within the aftermath of a blaze, participants race to determine the cause of a tragic fire by sifting through the charred remains. Inspired by true events in my life, Where There’s Smoke details the connections between two mysterious fires and my father’s battle with cancer.

Fire school training — firefighters set and extinguish blazes
My dad was a volunteer firefighter for 20 years and an amateur fire photographer who shot thousands of slides of things in various states of burning.

Keeping it analog

In an effort to prototype the core mechanics of the experience I grabbed some analog supplies (index cards, markers, paper, tape, playdough), built a keynote presentation and created a playlist via Spotify in order to test a number of ideas that have been swirling around in my head. Since the experience explores memory and loss, I’ve been working with a series of story fragments. Through a light game mechanic participants unlock the story which unfolds in pieces. As I have more time I’ll go into deeper detail in a later post. But for now, I wanted to focus on one interesting aspect that emerged from testing: the tension within the piece of task vs story. Trying to find balance between the expectations of someone stepping into a participatory space that is intended to evoke discovery — participants move through the remains of a burned house — and the personal story that sits underneath the surface, can be challenging. This is especially true given that the individual and collaborative actions of the participants/players are intended to unlock the story. In many ways, this mirrors the tension that I’ve personally felt making this piece. At the outset of the project it was very binary: I spent a lot of my energy fixated on my dad’s past and was obsessed with finding the answer to whether or not something had or hadn’t taken place. But as I dug deeper I came to realize it wasn’t so black and white, and that in fact, the shades of gray and the feelings of ambiguity and confusion were what made the experience most rich, vulnerable and human. These feelings are also true of what we’ve experienced with a loved one battling cancer — the quest to find answers and/or a cure often leaves you in an emotional fog.

Sometimes the “tasks” required to save someone can overshadow the very humanity that’s needed to help them die with dignity.
Attempting to find the human experience prior to considering the technology — participants take part in a prototyping session at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on August 1st (Photo credit Christina Elizabeth Hall)

It’s all about the human experience

Over the years, I’ve come to realize the value of making the time to fully take stock of the “human experience” at the center of the immersive storytelling projects that I create. Long before any technology is ever discussed we’ll playtest/prototype in an attempt to see…

  1. What resonates and why?
  2. What moments grant agency and why?
  3. When are people collaborating and why?
  4. When are people working individually and why?
  5. What’s confusing and why?
  6. What’s fun and why?

Think, Feel, Do

Understanding what someone is thinking, feeling and doing when they move through an immersive project is critical to its design. At the Columbia DSL, we’ll often utilize a simple framework entitled “Think, Feel, Do” to get a sense of how the experience that’s being designed is flowing. We’ll map what we believe a participant will be thinking, feeling and doing within the beats of the experience as part of the participant journey documentation that we create. Within the documentation, we’ll detail the participant’s steps throughout the experience beat by beat; this includes considering what the participant is doing prior to and after the experience. In addition we’ll weave feedback loops into the prototype itself so that participants can share what they were actually thinking, feeling and doing during the testing.

Example of documentation from My Sky is Falling an early project from the Columbia DSL. Visit myskyisfalling.com to read additional documentation.

Prototypes can evoke emotion

My heart skipped a beat as I listened to feedback from participants. Within the comments, I saw a mirror to my experience in little pieces. The use of simple prototyping materials and my willingness to be vulnerable in the moment was unlocking something for me. It was reflecting back emotions that my family and I had experienced over the last few years. Now mind you I’m not saying that it had the same emotional intensity (nor should it have) but the mere fact that similar emotions were present at all was what was amazing to me. And when someone walked up at the close of the evening and shared a powerful end of life story with me about the loss of their own parent, I realized that the sharing of my own family’s story had created a space for others to share too. In a room full of strangers, the fact that one person felt a level of trust to share something so personal with me was incredibly humbling. I’m excited by these moments of shared humanity and can’t wait for the next prototyping session. There’s never any way to know what will come out of prototyping before we actually do it, which is precisely what excites me the most about collaborating with a community.

I went into the evening with a test of 9 fragments that make up the current experience.

About

An alumnus of the Sundance Screenwriting Lab, Lance Weiler is recognized as a pioneer in mixing storytelling and technology. Wired magazine named him “one of 25 people helping to reinvent entertainment and change the face of Hollywood.” He was nominated for an International Emmy in digital fiction for his work on Collapsus: The Energy Risk Conspiracy. His award-winning collaboration with David Cronenberg entitled, Body/Mind/Change premiered at the TIFF Lightbox and his most recent project Frankenstein AI: a monster made by many was an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival. In addition, he is a founding member and director of the Columbia University School of the Arts’ Digital Storytelling Lab. He’s currently developing a new immersive work entitled, Where There’s Smoke which will start touring the world in 2019.

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