The In Between: Audrey Huggett on Interactive Storytelling in Libraries

Murder. Mayhem. Family strife. Gateways to other worlds. Stories that the audience shapes, and that might run for months or even years.

In a corner of Michigan, one library worker and her colleagues are bringing all these things to life.

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I first met Audrey Huggett in 2017, while working with Ann Arbor District Library on the Wondrous Strange event.  Library technician Audrey has led a series of projects where members of the public participate in live-action storytelling, ranging from murder mystery to an epic fantasy with cosmic stakes.

Audrey joined me to talk about her work in interactive storytelling in January 2019, just as she was completing preparations for the upcoming “In Between: Quest for the Keystone”.

You started exploring this kind of interactive storytelling with October 2018’s “Murder at Raccoon Ranch” mystery event. Tell me what that was, and how it came to pass.

The Raccoon Ranch event was my test run for more ambitious roleplay-based programmes. I was trying to figure out how I could test the water and make roleplay work in our library without scaring off people who might be wary. You know, there’s a certain group of people who think, “Isn’t that Dungeons & Dragons? That’s not for me!”

Murder mysteries are pretty familiar – you can get those off-the-shelf mystery party packages, and so on. Players step into the role of the detective, which is a pretty simple character to inhabit. You can get really deep into that role if you choose, or keep it light and just focus on solving the mystery. People have seen enough cop shows or read enough mysteries; they just grasp the concept, without having to wonder too hard about what they’re getting into.

I looked at a few murder mystery party kits, but they weren’t up to the standards I was looking for, so I wrote my own. I ended up doing it in just one week, in a half-panic, trying to meet the deadline for our graphic designer to produce the various materials: police documents, photographs of possible murder weapons, a dummy page from a website

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I think some libraries believe that interactive storytelling events are something where you have to bring in people from outside, where the library merely hosts an experience run by a theatre group or external creatives. But libraries have always been the direct mediators between a community and its stories, even if those stories are in covers and on a shelf. 

If you do decide to create your own event, is it difficult to make the time to devise an interactive story? Were your managers wary?

I’m a library technician – not technically a fully fledged “librarian” – but our management team at Ann Arbor are very supportive of new ideas and staff taking the initiative. They want to see us proactively thinking of new, exciting, and effective ways to serve our community – and they’re happy to let us test something like the murder mystery in order to know if this style of event is meeting a real want or need.

In an age when everything is meant to be evidence-based or data-driven, organisations have to allow time for people to test new things and actually gather evidence.

Outside of meetings, desk shifts, and commitments to running public programmes, I’m trusted to manage my own time. I fit writing the murder mystery into a busy week when I was also contributing to the library’s annual Summer Game event.

One piece of advice I will give: make sure you find a story that you really care about. The project is hard work, and you’re going to put so much into it – make sure it’s something that you can be personally and emotionally invested it. 

Once you have that seed of an idea you truly care about, you’ll start pulling in other elements as you go – a suggestion from a colleague, or the realisation that a particular room of your library would be the perfect setting.

How much did you plan the story out in advance?

I had to write the thing to find out what happened! It was good for me, because actually I don’t get round to doing creative work unless someone sets me a deadline. It forces me to complete stuff. I knew there was a family, and who the victim was. I figured out who did it, then worked backwards – planting red herrings into the timeline of the “real” murder. Google is your friend when it comes to creating these plausible official documents – my search history looked pretty hair-raising by the end of my writing week.

I got friends and colleagues to playtest the draft, ensuring I chose people who think very differently from one another. One friend who’s a med student looked over my fictional coroner’s report; my brother and sister-in-law, who are pharmacists, gave me a great long list of poisons for the crime, until I decided to keep things simple and have my killer employ a blunt instrument!

The event was in two parts – a case file which players could read beforehand, and then discussion with actors playing the various suspects during the event. It was important to me that the case file intrigued people and gave them enough for them to make guesses about the murderer’s identity, without spoiling the whole mystery up front. 

My brother was the only playtester who guessed the murderer in advance, but maybe that’s just because he knows how my mind works.

What did you do to prepare the performers for the event?

The actors came from our library’s pool of storytellers. Some were more familiar with roleplay than others; it’s a special kind of challenge because there’s not a strict script. Instead they have to both inhabit the character and help guide the audience through the mystery.

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I prepared a dossier for each performer with the character’s background and key information, plus a timeline of their movements on the night of the murder. Some also had things they needed to “let slip” during the events, and I made sure they had copies of those evidence documents which their character would be familiar with.

What happened on the night?

An MC welcomed our audience and recapped the story before introducing the characters. We had 120 attendees – a really good crowd. One of the challenges for our library is that we’re victims of our own success – attendance numbers can be really high, so you’re trying to design events which will work equally well with a handful of people, or hundreds. 

In this case, we’d focussed our marketing on adults, but whole families ended up coming along. People had read the case studies and had primed themselves with questions for the suspects. We had a group of old ladies turn up in cosplay to solve the mystery! Kids got really into it too – one of them started interrogating a suspect she spotted in the corridor before the event began. That was great evidence for us that these events would attract and engage our community.

The audience had 45 minutes to interrogate the suspects, then a break for snacks and discussion before they submitted their decision as to who was the real killer. They did this via computer terminals we had set up. After this, our MC brought the group back together to reveal the solution and reward three randomly chosen players who had accused the correct suspect.

Sounds brilliant. What happened next?

I used this successful event to go back to my deputy director with a more ambitious but still only half-formed idea, something more cosmic in scale, a weird fantasy thing! The Raccoon Ranch murder mystery showed us that this event format worked, that it brought in the numbers, and that people would do their homework – reading the case files online before attending.

Our next event, on Saturday March 30, is a two and a half hour interactive adventure in which library users will encounter the In Between – a mysterious place which exists between worlds, populated by archetypal misfits with unusual powers and experiences. The In Between is held together by the magical Keystone, which has gone missing at the outset of the story. The library is full of books, each of which contains its own world – so the disappearance of the Keystone is causing the In Between to leach into our reality.

People are given an Explorer’s Journal with hints and tips for what awaits, then sent off to meet the dwellers of the In Between, solve the puzzles, and finally, through their choices, determine the future of the In Between.

This is just the start of an ongoing adventure, right?

That’s what we hope! The choice which concludes the Quest for the Keystone will determine the setting for our next In Between adventure. Gradually, I’d like to give more and more control to participants – not just puzzle-solving or voting for the final outcome of the overall story, but full co-creation. That will happen gradually – the library and our community have to take that journey together, one step at a time.

Are you a Dungeons & Dragons expert?

No! In my heart, I probably should have been – but I didn’t play as a kid. I have always loved fantasy literature, but I wasn’t a lifelong gamer. I got the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook when I was 8 years old, but I couldn’t make sense of it – the rules were so elaborate and archaic, and of course you really need all these other books to make sense of it, which were expensive. So I’d pore over the book, and I vividly remember all the illustrations, but I didn’t play when I was young.

When Stranger Things came out, it felt serendipitous – a moment I’d been preparing for all my life. A friend suggested playing, but when she saw how enthusiastic I was, suggested that I run the game instead. 

I ran a game for a couple of years, but now I just take part as a player. What I prefer about the library events is building a structure which people are then free to play in for themselves; you don’t even have to take on the role of the Dungeon Master, improvising and responding directly to players’ wishes. 

I bet that doesn’t mean it’s easy, though.

No – I was so anxious during the murder mystery, watching my story play out! I was standing by if there were any issues, but otherwise I was trying to relinquish control. I’m lucky to have such brilliant colleagues – both my boss and one of my friends was there to reassure me that everything was going well!

The trick is to give up control not just to the community, but also to your colleagues participating in the event; to make room for their creativity. In the murder mystery, I created the scaffolding or skeleton for the story and characters – the performers gave them life and clothed them.

For example, one of the characters was kind of a slob and difficult. The performer brought a plastic-wrapped cookie in his pocket and when people asked him a difficult question, he’d painstakingly unwrap it in front of the microphone, then put the crumbs in his mouth. He even smeared some of the chocolate on his shirt. None of that came from me, it was glorious! 

There are similar things going on with our upcoming In Between event, but I don’t want to say too much yet. Suffice to say that people came up with stuff that I never thought of, and it was awesome and elevated my idea to even higher levels.

I think that giving your colleagues space for creativity and choice, as well as the community participating in the event, really helps people to take ownership of the activity.

That struggle between choice and control is always with us. Who is in charge, the user we serve or the professional who builds and maintains the service? Can we let our users be truly free and surprise us?

There’s a tension there. I don’t necessarily want our events to lead to “A or B” endings, but you do need to have a prepared response for your actors – and a payoff for the events of the day. As this storyline progresses, and the characters and setting get established, we’ll loosen up the choices so the community has more input. 

That said, even in this episode, people can talk directly to characters, say whatever they want to say, find their own ways of solving our puzzles — and their collective choices will determine the outcome of the overall event. That does mean you might get a situation where 52% want one ending and 48% want the other —

— the Brexit scenario! —

–but if the story is satisfying and the experience is rewarding, players will enjoy what happens even if it’s not the ending they wished for.

I was reading this piece by Austin Kleon pointing out the ways in which musicians compare their work to gardening

For some artists, creation is about planting a seed and fostering it – rather than a more architectural approach, where you execute a plan to create a structure you have ordered. 

I do feel that creating these interactive events is more about letting them grow than constructing them.

These stories have to be organic, because if they’re formulaic people pick up on that really swiftly. You need to let unpredictable things happen, and design a resilient event that can accommodate and even encourage that element of surprise.

I’m trying to build a story with a structure of branches and limbs, not boxes. I’m always talking about legs, asking, “what’s the other leg I need for this story to stand independently?”

I’m finding the same thing with the strategic planning work that I do. Whether you’re a hospital, a business, a court of law, or a library, you have to prepare for an uncertain future and not just assume that the world will unfold in accordance with your wishes. 

That’s the basis of scenario planning as well as this kind of participatory storytelling.

Stories can change us. They are like a practice field for life. If you’re going to fail, the safe space of a story – the safe space of a library – is a great place to do that. 

In fact, that possibility of failure – so scary for the institution hosting the event – is vital. It’s what gives the event its thrill, the idea that there really is something at stake, something to be won or lost through our choices. That’s what makes these stories feel real, that your choice made a difference.

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There’s a therapist called Jeffrey Kottler who wrote an excellent book called Stories We’ve Heard, Stories We’ve ToldIt speaks exactly to this idea of stories as a conversation between us – not just something which is transmitted from a single author – and a conversation that we can use to change our lives, too.

I’m reading a lot of screenwriting books now, seeking to make my writing even more sophisticated. 

Character change is the real source of drama, and what excites me is the possibility that if we invite the audience to participate in the story, to become characters themselves, then the choices and changes which they are making will become the true source of the drama. 

We’ll move beyond puzzle-solving and choose-your-own adventures to a truly interactive narrative, a story told together by the library and the community in a make-believe world.

What a wonderful thing that would be. Thanks for your time, Audrey. Where can people find out more about your work?

I’m actually pretty new to this creative stuff that is facing to the world, so I don’t have any of my work out there floating around. It’s all in my personal journals and sketchbooks. 

Well, I guess they’ll just have to check in with Ann Arbor District Library then…cheers Audrey, and good luck!

For more on interactive experience-based programming in libraries and cultural institutions, check out these posts:

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