Sunday Read: Beyond Secret Cinema

My belated Sunday morning read is this piece from the Guardian on London’s Secret Cinema, which blends movie screenings with theatrical experiences and themed activities:

I’m a big fan of participatory live-action storytelling and I’m fascinated by opportunities to blur the line between fiction and “real” experience, creating events where attendees shape the outcome of a story.

I went to a Secret Cinema event a few years back and was pretty disappointed – the set design and costumes were fancy, but the opportunities to get involved in the storytelling were minimal. I’d gone to see Casablanca and while it was cool to sing La Marseillaise at a bunch of actors in Nazi uniform, the rest of the “immersive experience” consisted of overpriced snacks and a “casino” barely worthy of a student union’s James Bond night. The Guardian piece captures the extent to which Secret Cinema events are now more about taking your money than letting you step into the world of a story.

With such events, I’m less interested in production values than experimenting with interactive mechanics, and empowering even the smallest local communities to create these programmes on their own terms. It’s not necessarily about hiring performers or buying expensive set dressing, it’s about extending that same sense of make-believe and collaborative storytelling that most of us can remember from childhood.

Zombie at the window

One of the reasons that the infamous Parkes and Auckland zombie library sieges were so effective is that a zombie scenario doesn’t require a huge effects budget, and when the community get involved they bring their own relationships, creativity, and local knowledge to the event.

We were able to have zombies running through the heart of Tullamore, a small farming town in New South Wales, because with a population of just 600, everyone was in on the joke – and a big Aussie country horizon meant that you could see vehicles coming from many kilometres away, so it was safe to bring boisterous play out onto the street.

Local cops, whose teen outreach usually consisted of a series of skateboard painting workshops, got to join in the battle and share survival tactics with the “survivors”. (In Auckland, the cops had such a good relationship with the teens they were able to turn the siege into a pitched battle).

zombies vs firefighters

Students from Charles Sturt University got involved too, and firefighters, and even the local parent-teacher association – leading to a particularly big surprise for one kid, when he realised his own aunt was among the ranks of the “turned”.

The Parkes Shire Council’s comms team decided to record some fictional “news reports”, joining in the fun:

No-one pretends that these videos – you can see the whole playlist here – would win any filmmaking awards, but what’s compelling is that staff from across local government were willing and able to join in the story. That led to Parkes Shire Libraries, who ran the event, being held up as a model of innovation to their organisation – and that did lead to an award: a national one, for youth outreach.

Similarly, in Auckland, our team were able to complement the live event with a choose-your-own online text adventure which a library staffer designed using Twine. Again, the production budget was low – but the City of Souls game allowed library staff to exercise their creativity and offer people who couldn’t attend our event the chance to take part from afar.

City of Souls game

As digital technology gives us ever more opportunity for interaction, we need to develop not just our coding and media skills, but also our abilities to tell open-ended stories and curate relationships.

A game of Comic Book Dice using pens and card will teach you more about collaborative storytelling than a night at the Secret Cinema; digital tools like Twine are as useful for writing reviews as choose-your-own-adventures; and it only takes a few books and some writing materials to create an all-ages simulation of the Frankfurt Book Fair. And as David Robertson’s Beyond Panels campaign suggests, we also need to improve models of participation in non-narrative events like panel discussions and conference workshops.

A Short Zombpocalypse/Participatory Storytelling Reading List

A zombie protestor declares

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