6 insider tips for creating your own immersive storytelling experience
When I think about what an immersive production can and should be — and consider the myriad of shows and experiences I’ve seen — the work of OddKnock Productions stands out the most. The Denver-based organization was formed by Brendan Duggan, Parker Murphy, and Zach Martens, who all met as New York actors working at “Sleep No More” — an immersive theater experience primarily based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. A decision to pivot from acting to producing landed the group in Denver in the spring of 2021.
Faced with a unique set of creative limitations, OddKnock made a quiet (but very clever) unveiling that summer with a free five-part series they called “Test Kitchen.” For each performance, OddKnock spent two weeks writing, building, and rehearsing. Whatever they had at the end of those two weeks was what they showed, for one weekend only. Then they started the process all over again for the next one.
Building on the success of “Test Kitchen,” in the summer of 2022 OddKnock debuted their first full-length production, “From on High,” a corporate 80’s satire derived from one of the five original “Test Kitchen” performances. This mind-blowing experience, which I detailed for NoProscenium, pulled in audience members in ways I’d never before seen or experienced.
Keep reading for an insider’s guide on what to expect from (and how to embrace) a fully immersive experience like “From on High,” plus inspiration for your own experiential activation.
1) Expect some FOMO
At “From on High,” more than four hours of content was presented in a 90-minute show with five different tracks guests crossed in and out of. While this real-life “choose your own adventure” format is exciting, it can also hurt your FOMO.
- Embrace the the path you’re on: Because there was always so much going on, you could never experience it all in one viewing. While some may find this frustrating, the business-minded side of me can’t help celebrating the genius of a show that has true rewatchability — especially if you offer return visits at a significant discount.
2) Movement and choreography can play a major role
This is one of the ways that OddKnock’s ties to Punchdrunk and Third Rail are most obvious. One moment you’re sitting at a board meeting, and the next all of your coworkers are wrapped in a ball on the conference table or rolling down the hallway in interpretive dance. Where traditional storytelling attempts to take you inside the mind of a character to hear their internal struggle and reflection, OddKnock chooses instead to have their characters act it out — to express those emotions through dance and movement instead of with words. I love the jarring nature of this shift, and I think these moments bring a lot of vulnerability and emotion to the production.
- Embrace exploration: The takeaway is not necessarily to add choreography to your own shows, but to leverage your creative team’s expertise in things that they know work well. Don’t reinvent the wheel if someone already has a proven formula for building it.
3) There will be mature content and explicit scenes
During the evocative Test Kitchen series I watched a man fornicate with a purse and witnessed multiple full-blown mental breakdowns, while some of From on High’s most talked- about moments were a cult baptism ritual and a racy scene between a woman and a machine. And while I suspect some of that is for the shock factor, I think more than anything it’s an understanding of who their audience is and what that audience finds engaging.
OddKnock co-founder Zach Martens told me that their goal is to make work that is fun, weird, exciting, and bizarre, but to do it in a way that treats those qualities seriously. “So,” he said, “the audience is experiencing something that’s silly and offbeat, but also deep, moving, full of heart, and terrifying all at the same time.”
- Embrace your audience: Know your ideal attendee and don’t try to be everything to everybody. Define which lines you’re willing to cross and which you aren’t.
4) The more you explore, the richer your experience
I feel fortunate to have seen “From on High” three times, which gave me a really interesting perspective on the experience as a whole. There are about 10 scenes taking place across the entire set of the fictional corporate office, but I missed roughly half during my first show. As I discovered more rooms on my return trips, I found more ways to engage and continuously push my boundaries. I was delighted to find more layers to peel back — uncovering little details I couldn’t have possibly picked up on during my first visit, when I was more focused on understanding what was happening and where I was.
For example, I picked up on a romantic interest between two characters in the office on the first viewing, but it wasn’t until my third visit that I followed one of those characters as she stormed off with a love letter in her hand. Retreating to her desk, she pulled a binder off the bookshelf, quickly filed away the love note, and replaced the binder. After she left the room, I stayed behind, pulled the binder off the shelf, and found a mess of letters that added to the authenticity and duration of this fictional workplace romance.
- Embrace spontaneity: Planting easter eggs like the love notes in the binder — with minimal effort and cost and a potentially big impact on overall experience — is worth it, even if only a small handful of people find them.
5) A generous onboarding experience will help you warm up and get into character
That’s right! You’re in the show! And you figure this out pretty quickly when you’re given a name tag with a weird name like Cheather or Chessica or Chonothan. First, we were told to take a seat in the waiting room; “new employee orientation” would begin shortly. While we waited, one cast member floated around awkwardly interacting with different groups by having them fill out ridiculous paperwork and perform silly tasks. Then we were called into the office in small groups. It was disorientating at first, but when we were finally free to roam the set and interact with characters, we felt a clear sense of purpose.
- Embrace transformation: For an immersive experience to be effective, the audience has to go through a transformation process into the world you have created for them. It’s imagination on a level that a lot of people haven’t allowed themselves to experience since childhood, so expecting them to walk through a decorated doorway and suddenly “get it” is asking too much. Instead, treat them differently from the moment they walk up to the ticket booth. Spend the extra time and effort on scene setting, anticipation building and storytelling in these crucial early parts of the experience.
- Or… don’t! You can have a good time as a bystander, too. “From on High” offers ample opportunities to engage with the set and actors if you’re comfortable with that, but you can also stand in the background to observe all the action and not really engage directly. Audience participation should not be required to have a fun and unique experience, but it should be available for those who want it.
6) There’s a good chance you’ll get a one-on-one or a similar small-group experience.
At “From on High,” I experienced a couple of one-on-one and small-group moments and witnessed plenty of others. They usually occurred after I noticed a character abruptly leaving a common area at the end of a scene. Following those characters often resulted in intimate performances I felt privileged to have stumbled upon.
- Embrace subtle cues: Cue your audience to these scenes in ways that are subtle enough to not draw too much attention, but showy enough to be noticed by a few people. Design the scenes to work with all sizes of groups, because you never know how many people will pick up on the cue and choose to follow.
“From on High” was a true choose-your-own-adventure experience…
Giving the audience full agency to decide where they wanted to be and who or what they wanted to engage with. OddKnock was able to achieve this by developing a rather simple story (employee identity is tied to work, work takes advantage of employees, employees burn out… big time). This allowed for a variety of vignettes that were relevant, but not essential, to the narrative and could therefore go in completely unexpected directions.
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