Getting Into the Act: When Audiences Star In Their
By Louis M. Brill
It was a typical Dennis The Menace show with Dennis, and a host of other park guests, participating in a Six Flags theme park touring attraction. Dennis was up to his usual shenanigans of pestering Mr. Wilson (who was a stunt actor) and as usual was being bedeviled by Dennis' pranks.
In this show poor Mr. Wilson was not only pushed out a window but also blasted with a giant fan. In another scene Dennis throws a pie at Mr. Wilson, who unexpectedly ducks and allows the stage manager standing behind him to get pied in the face, leaving Mr. Wilson red in the face for having missed his cue. This however, was all good natured fun as Dennis and several of the other actors were all audience volunteers who jumped on stage to fill out the needed cast with the chance to be temporary "stars" for a live performance and TV show in front of their friends.
Presenting live shows with audience volunteers is usually a great turn-on for the park guests who have a little bit of acting in them. After all, it's not often they get a chance to ham it up in front of a crowd with a great of silly costume, some dialogue, and a prop or two. The volunteers get to be temporary stars with the theatrical action, to a certain degree, flowing around them. Certainly their vantage point is first class, even better than the front row seats - they're on the stage and loving it.
"Interestingly enough, when people get on stage, they are surprisingly good. They don't misbehave of miss their cues," says Peter Alexander, principle of the Totally Fun Company in Clearwater, Fla., that designs participatory live action shows and rides for theme parks and destination entertainment venues, who also designed the before mentioned Dennis The Menace Traveling Screen Test show.
The audience also loves it because it gives the show
a little more meaning knowing their friends or relatives are up on the stage.
Not only is it fun, but in some cases the shows are
videotaped and sold as souvenirs to park guests to show off their starring bit part to friends. For theme parks it's a great idea because it allows the audience to heighten their park experience, some who in planning their park visit never expected to wind up as special stars in a live show.
Audience participation is all about audience involvement and either how much control they may have over a themed attraction or how close the audience volunteers get to the center of the action. Audience participation is directed at mostly live shows and in some cases themed ride shows (most Universal Studio exhibits) or multimedia (T2 3D) attractions. Essentially, audience participation deals with the relationship of the audience to the stage and breaking or raising the barrier from audience as spectators to audience as participants in some way
For park guests who do it, the shows come more alive and the audiences have a more enthusiastic appreciation for being a part of the show.
Landmark Entertainment in North Hollywood, Calif., an entertainment development company that provides design and production services for theme parks, desination entertainment centers, the stage and screen, has recently designed several live show attractions where the stage blends into the audience, who are taken along for a ride in more ways than they expected.
Gary Goddard, CEO of the company, notes that participatory
entertainment is an important attraction feature both in heightening an audience
experience and in helping audience flow through different parts of a single
attraction. "At Landmark,
we're always trying to push the envelope of audience participation. What we've created are interactive or immersive experiences that work with 1,000 to 3,000 guests an hour
and move them through each attraction, and that's where the challenge is. I think Star Ttrek: The Experience, T2 3D, and Ceasar's Magical Empire move a lot of people hourly, so it makes sense from an operational standpoint. But it also works out audience-wise as everybody comes out of our shows feeling very much as if they were involved and were actually part of the experience."
Readers should note that these following audience participation
categories are not hard and fast; some shows, depending on how they're staged,
may overlap between two categories. Audience participation can actually be categorized
into several levels depending on the degree of involvement of the audience.
Ultimately it depends on how
much interacting the audience volunteers have with the show. In some cases the whole audience is involved; in other situations it's a few members who are plugged in with the regular performing cast.
lmmersion vs. Interactivity
The basic theatrical categories for volunteers are either
becoming immersively involved or interactively involved. Each theatrical contact
requires show participation but is also influenced by different degrees of performance
contact. An immersive participation involves the audience having personal contact
with the actors or an attraction, but not
affecting the plot of the show. In an interactive participation audience volunteers become involved with the show and/or the actors to the point of influencing the plot to launch it in any number of theatrical directions.
Looking at immersive participation, the boundary level
of getting an audience or a few volunteers involved with a show expands depending
on how much interaction there is between them and the show. On the simplest
level we have the dynamic
of "attraction proximity" or getting very close to the show's action as if it
were taking place all around you.
The greatest example of this, probably the first and certainly the inspiration for other similar attractions, is Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean. This show is essentially a
dark ride with a series of interconnecting life-size dioramas of a group of pirates campaigning through a small village. The audience involvement is simple, but direct. Park guests are placed in boats that allow them to sail into and through each diorama, in a sense interrupting the pirates in their encounters. Although simple by today's entertainment standards, when conceived in the 1950s, it was obviously new and innovative, bringing an audience in close contact with a show's theatrical action.
The second level of audience participation is "attraction
immersion," where the audience becomes part of the action of a show but
not necessarily having any personal contact with the show. In a way, you might
say they're along for the ride. The best example of this is
Universal Studios Back To The Future...The Ride. This is a ride simulator experience with a very strong pre-show that involves the audience in the attraction
The Universal Studio attraction basically follows the
plot line of the movie with the same characters and involves the entire audience
so their participation allows them to become
heroes of the show.
In the pre-show, park guests are visitors to Dr. Brown's
Institution of Future Technology, where he is doing time travel experiments.
During their tour of the lab, Biff Tannen (the
bad guy of the film) breaks into the lab and steals one of the DeLorean time travel cars. The audience learns of Tannen's theft and is told they can save the day by using the other
DeLorean car to capture Tannen and return him to the lab. At this point the audience is broken up into small groups and each group is led to a DeLorean (which is actually a ride
simulator) and there is where the adventure begins.
At this point the audience becomes fully involved as
their DeLorean takes off and they actually chase after Tannen, Each group is
personally chasing Tannen and becomes
instrumental in capturing him, in effect saving Dr. Brown's lab and the time-space continuum.
While this is the most spectacular example of audience
immersion, suffice to say that at Universal Studios theme park it is the standard
for many of their other film-oriented at-
tractions where park guests are placed in the middle of film scenario and then rescued. For example Jaws, Kongfrontation, Backdraft, and Earthquake are other major attractions where park guests enter into apparently normal situation where they suddenly become immersed in a threatening position, such as the sudden earthquake, an attack by King Kong, or the shark from Jaws from which they are saved.
Essentially audience participation is about their relationship to the stage and going from spectator point of view to that of an actor
The next level of audience involvement is "attraction participation," where the audience becomes part of the attraction and actually mingles with the actors, One example of this is at the Las Vegas Hilton's Star Trek: The Experience. Here all the show's attendants are dressed in Star Trek Federation uniforms, and as they escort guests through the attraction the guests in effect are on a stage and mingle with the actors, though they do not interact with the actors or change the plot in any way.
Another example of this is a show designed by Alexander's
Totally Fun Company The show, King Solomon's Mine is a live-action, stunt show
produced for Wallaby Flavo in
The attraction is a prototype of Indiana Jones about a treasure hunter who discovers a mystical temple. As Alexander explains, "It was basically a stunt show with lots of great special effects in which the audience is close to the show. At one point in the show we needed to have a group of African warriors emerge from the jungle and attack the hero. To get our warriors, we selected five volunteers from the audience, dressed them in costumes and then had them shoot blowguns at our hero."
The highest level of audience participation is an interactive relationship or "attraction involvement," where audience members become part of the show with the ability to influence its plot. This can be established on two levels, First, in the context of a live show where the volunteers influence the action of the show. Voluntiers interacting within a live show on that level is very tricky and would call for a lot of improvising by the regular actors to pick up on the volunteers' actions and move the show forward.
The second format would be in a virtual reality experience where audience members enter into a consensual cyberspace where they can see each other in their computer graphic counterparts and from there interact within the rules and goals of the VR theme, In a virtual reality attraction, the park guests are usually presented with a landscape or an environment where they are able to interact with and completely control their activities and degree of participation within that VR world.
One example was Virtual Adventures, a very short-lived
VR attraction by iWERKS Entertainment titled The Loch Ness Expedition. This
involved two, six-passenger cabs
where each seat in each cab was an active workstation, (captain, navigator, gunners, and robot arm operators). Guests entered into the submarine module with riders taking a seat
and operating some control device with a video screen in front of them so they could all see what they were doing.
The theme dealt with the Loch Ness sea creature and a problem of rustlers and evil alligators both intent on stealing the Loch Ness eggs.
The game involved participants act- ing as a coordinated
team to control
that of an actor the sub, collect the eggs, and defend themselves by fighting off the
rustlers trying to steal the eggs. In this scenario, a basic plot is defined, and passengers react by moving the virtual sub through its underwater landscape. Thus, a plot direction is
achieved and a thematic experience created that becomes the adventure of the park guests.
As to where audience participation is going as an entertainment
element, Alexander sees continued audience participation as the future of live
shows and certain ride shows. "If
we can devise ways to take people out of these bit part roles and have them appear to be the heroes, that would be something special. Especially when the audience knows it was one of them who was pulled from the group and suddenly he or she's the star. That's pretty cool."
Alexander also believes that ride shows where audiences
sit in tracked ride cars that travel past themed attractions can be made more
interactive, giving the car passengers the
ability to influence the direction of the ride or what the forthcoming show elements of the ride will do, A first step, Alexander notes of this kind of interactive participation, is Disney's Indiana Jones ride where ride guests encounter unique experiences that are usually different for each group that takes the ride.
Landmark Entertainment's Godard notes; ultimately what we'd like to offer is a particiaptory situation like the Holo Deck on Star Trek, but that's a ways off, As for what we can do, Godard describes some upcoming projects, 'We created the concept for the Spiderman 3D ride to be shown at Universal Studios where park guests are on a ride with 3D objects coming at them; I think that's going to push the envelope in another direction. We also have on the drawing boards Aliens 3D, which will parallel T2 3Dbut use other elements to achieve similar audience involvement scenarios."
Essentially audience participation is about their relationship
to the stage and going from a spectator point of view to that of an actor. Of
course, the magic is the knowledge
the audience has that one or more of their own group has a special opportunity to be on stage, and for the audience in knowing that these volunteer actors have had hardly any
rehearsal time improvising their part in the show.
For those who get lucky and get picked to go onstage, they begin to understand the old adage, 'There's no business like show business," particularly when you're in it for the yuks and fun.
"Interestingly enough, when people get on stage, they are suprisingly good. They don't misbehave or miss their cues."
Louis M. Brill is a San Francisco, Calf.- based consultant and journalist who writes about high-tech media for communications and entertainment applications. He is also writing a book about the future of film exhibition.
In Jurrasic park, riders share the stage with some of Hollywood's biggest stars.
Presenting live shows with audience volunteers is usually a great turn-on for the park guests who have a little bit of acting in them.