technology and immersive audience engagement part i of ii

Audience Engagement Customer and Technology Photo

Published on June 17th, 2013 | by Brett Ashley Crawford


Technology and Immersive Audience Engagement: Part I of II

Last week’s Theatre Communications Group conference presented a changing perspective on audience engagement that uses technology.  Tweet Seats are definitely on the outs.  This 2 post series, however, focuses on the more immersive experience with two organization’s successfully engaging their audiences.  Their audiences must engage in some if not multiple forms of technology to partake in the theatrical story itself.  The two organizations are Dog and Pony DC  based in Washington DC and Rude Mechanicals based in Austin.  Both use technology before, during and after the show.

Dog and Pony DC’s company member, Colin K. Bills, presented as part of a panel led by David J. Loehr of twitter handle @2amt (and I took away three useful lessons from his explanation of their work. Dog and Pony DC only presents works devised and produced by the company.  Technology is neither marketing nor ancillary — it feeds the story for their plays.  To wit, Bills explained that it had to be fundamental to the story or it simply did not work (tried, tested and true).  Lesson One:  It must be integral to the work. Without the technology the  storytelling will fail.

The primary case study he provided was the Dog and Pony DC show Beertown.  The process of devising the work included a significant google doc of the history of the imagined location.  The company recognized on the way to opening that the history would actually be useful as well as interesting to its audience. Solution: they created a web site akin to a typical chamber of commerce site for a town:  Visit Beertown, from its 1865 founding to present.  Additional key technology players include an email address for the Mayor of the town and a facebook page for one of the teen residents (a character in the play).  The integration is complex, but essentially the play revolves around the opening of the city’s time capsule with the audience determining what is removed and what is added for the next opening in 5 years time. How the decision is made comes from various technological feeds:  phone calls, texts, tweets, posts, and discussion with audience/neighbors.  Why so many options? Technology comes in various forms and different people have higher comfort levels with one or two of these forms. Lesson 2:  Don’t limit your technology.

A full technology immersion, however, does not come cheap.  I am not speaking of the actual technology — the patrons actually bring their technology with them (at no cost to the theatre).  The cost comes from the human resources to manage the communication engine:  Someone has to be 100% engaged back stage answering, collating, evaluating all the input to determine the progress of the show. Furthermore, the audience has to be prepared for the engagement well before the show begins. Dog and Pony DC accomplishes this through a confirmation email that links to the blog and a reminder email that includes a more detailed instruction sheet / memorandum on voting procedures for the attendee to have prior to arrival.  Lesson 3: While not a new concept, never forget ‘free’ technology is never ‘free’.

The post-show engagement or experience echo has been significant with previous attendees tweeting during the run of the show with their experiences and opinions.  That, for me, proves a successful ‘stickiness’ to this format for audience engagement.  Audiences continue to follow and engage well after the experience is over.

Rude Mechs is also a devised theatre company but with different solutions to meet a different community and audience.  They began engaging their audience as part of the devising process, seeking input by creating a feedback loop of sharings of the work prior to opening. Additionally, they created ARGs, a gamification model that will be detailed in Part II.

What successes have your companies experienced with immersive technology engagements?



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About the Author

Brett Ashley Crawford

Writer, Director, Administrator and Educator, Brett is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Master of Arts Management at Heinz College/Carnegie Mellon University and Executive Director for Technology in the Arts.