the lost children want you

Yesterday, I officially began blogging for Culturadar, an arts listings website for New York City. Here is my first post, which you can also read here.

Have you ever wondered what it is like inside a cult? I mean a true blue, alien believing, doomsday cult that blindly follows a single man anywhere he leads. How do they vet their members? What do they share with their inner circle? What is real, and how do they manipulate science to attract followers to their bizarre beliefs? And, what happens to someone after she is violently extracted from the cult in which she is deeply embedded?

In the 1970’s, if you had a loved one embedded in a cult, a man named Ted Patrick was your go-to-guy. He forcibly broke doors down, tied people up and kidnapped them from cults. The police couldn’t legally do anything about the brainwashed members inside these cults, so they let Patrick get away with it. This went on until the 1980’s when laws shifted, making Patrick’s actions extremely difficult. That’s when kidnapping convictions and lawsuits landed left and right. But that didn’t stop families from hiring extractors to rescue brainwashed loved ones.

EVIEIn the 1990’s, a young woman joined a cult, and her family hired a professional like Patrick to extract her. He forcibly kidnapped her and put her through a rigorous deprogramming process. She tricked the extractor into believing she was deprogrammed so she could return to the cult, but the cult rejected her because they believed she had been deprogrammed. The woman lost all her friends and grew exceedingly lonely. To deal with her loss, she sued her own parents for destroying her life – and won.

Inspired by this true story, director and story architect Mark Harris wrote The Lost Children, a film that tells the tale of Evelyn Hamilton, a party girl turned would-be messiah of the secretive Lost Children cult that believes they are aliens from another world and their mothership, hidden within the Tioga Comet, is approaching Earth. The film follows Evelyn’s journey from The Lost Children, to the hands of obsessed cult deprogrammer Jared Allen Tyler, a character inspired by Ted Patrick.

Once Harris completed the film, he decided to dive into the themes of belief and faith. He expanded the story world of the cult through a live, immersive event in which the audience moves between two spaces. The first space offers a fictional cult recruitment session where some audience may be targeted for advanced psychic testing. The second space is an interactive science lecture in which authentic scientists discuss the nature of comets, as well as the real possibilities of alien life in the universe.

CONVERGENCE

On January 22 and 28, Harris will fully realize his plans when The Film Society of Lincoln Center presents the New York premiere of both the film and immersive theater extension of The Lost Children in the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center’s Amphitheater.

Bouncing between cult mythology and hard science, the audience will see two sides of this strange world before viewing the aftermath, which is the film. When I spoke with Harris, he shared his hopes for the New York premiere.

“I kind of want this big argument going on in everyone’s head,” said Harris. “More importantly, I’d like the argument going on in person. Then, they kind of come together in the film with that argument in their head already.”

When finding distribution for the film became challenging, Harris sought a way to get people’s attention. The film doesn’t show the inside of the cult, so he turned to immersive theater to tell that story. By putting the audience in the position of the protagonist, they discover a unique perspective that deepens their experience. The live event also helps with marketing the independent film, which doesn’t have the big PR budget of studio movies.

“I didn’t want my movie to get lost,” said Harris. “You can’t compete. I wanted to do something really unique to make it stand out.”

UntitledDepending on the event’s reception, Harris might return for more showings in the spring. There is a possibility of digital distribution of the film, but he anticipates he will retain the theatrical rights, which gives him control over the live experience and allows him to pop up cult recruitments wherever and whenever he wants. For now, there are only the two showings at The Film Society of Lincoln Center. If you want to find out what it’s like inside a cult, Mark Harris is offering a limited peek at the secrets of The Lost Children.

Just tell your family where you’re going, so they know where to send Ted Patrick if you disappear.

The premiere of The Lost Children is now sold out.
filmlinc.com/lostchildren

thelostchildrenmovie.com

authentic listening, part 2: the rise of geek theater (and death of the theater geek) – an origin story

This is the second of a three part series on authentic listening, theater companies who do it, and how empathy can change the way we interact with our audience and other artists. You can read part one here.

Theater people frequently lament lagging box office numbers and an aging audience that only supports the largest institutions. There’s talk that we must do something drastic to sustain our future. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about audience. Who are they and why are they waning? The solution to salvation may not be as drastic as some think.Ten years ago, Vampire Cowboys figured out the formula. A self-proclaimed “Geek Theater” company lead by playwright Qui Nguyen and director Robert Ross Parker, VC did two things. They followed their hearts, and they listened to their audience. Before VC, over-the-top, camp antics like cross dressing, wacky puppetry and goofy pop-culture references were relegated to cabarets and drag clubs. Certainly, theaters from the 1990’s like Collective Unconscious, Surf Reality and Todo Con Nada paved the way for VC to explore fringe theatrical devices. But, VC didn’t just create avant-garde passion projects for tiny downtown venues, nor did they try to fit their square-peg-style into a round theater community’s fashion. They aimed to cultivate a vast audience over the entertainment industry at large.

Vampire Cowboys was the first theater company to have an official sponsorship with ComicCon. For several years, these Geek Theater makers have manned a booth at the New York arm of the convention, offering live fight performances from their productions. Obviously, the increase in popularity of ComicCon paralleling VC’s inception is fortuitous, but the important point is they seized this opportunity and grew to cultivate loyal fans, as well as becoming critical favorites.

Another fantastic (now retired) program that VC offered was The Saturday Night Saloon. Again, building on the downtown theater models of the 90’s, VC created a monthly-serialized theater event that brought together some of the best up-and-coming playwrights, like Crystal Skillman and Mac Rogers. It also offered a regular home for actors and fans to get to know each other in an intimate setting. By involving these actors and playwrights, they expanded their talent pool and encouraged those artists’ inner geeks.

Vampire Cowboys inspired a theater movement that follows its heart and listens to the spirit of its audience. It effectively took the stereotype of the theater geek and turned it on its ear. Suddenly, it was hip to be square. More companies across New York City followed suit. Now, there are groups in Chicago and Los Angeles embracing the aesthetic. VC heralded the death of the theater geek and made way for a new hero: The Geek Theater Artist

Last season, Mac Roger’s theater company, Gideon Productions, produced his Honeycomb Trilogy – Advance Man, Blast Radius and Sovereign. It is an epic, science fiction tale about an alien invasion on Earth, the resistance and their rebuilding. The trilogy was ambitious, and ten years ago, it might have been a recipe for disaster. But Gideon learned from VC, skirted traditional theater press, and reached out to the science fiction community. They received accolades from tor.com and io9.com, which filled their houses with fellow sci-fi geeks. The productions’ success attracted the New York Times, which gave the trilogy’s final installation a rave. They also joined VC at ComicCon this fall, presenting Kill Shakespeare: The Live Stage Reading, based on the successful IDW Publishing comic book series.

Poster from Sovereign, the third part of Mac Roger’s Honeycomb Trilogy

Also last season, Flux Theatre Ensemble teamed up with Gideon Productions, forming an alliance with Boomerang Theater Company called BFG Collective. The three companies took over The Secret Theatre in Long Island City for six months, to disperse production costs. Flux produced August Schulenburg’s Deinde, a science fiction play about the rise of the singularity. Tomorrow, they open Adam Szymkowicz’s superhero  noir comedy, Hearts Like Fists.

Hearts Like Fist cast, photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum

Next week, terraNOVA Collective, where I served as associate artistic director for eight years, also opens a comic-inspired play, Robert Askins’ P.S. Jones and the Frozen City. I saw a workshop of the play earlier this year. It’s filled with wild puppets and fabulous costumes in a far out dystopian future. It’s gonna be loads of fun.

Illustrations by Peter Shevenell, Design by Christy Briggs

Finally, Vampire Cowboys returns for their 10th anniversary season. For the first time, the main stage play won’t be written by its co-artistic director and resident playwright, Qui Nguyen. In March 2013, they’ll mount the appropriately titled Geek! by Saturday Night Saloon alum, Crystal Skillman. I also enjoyed a reading of this play earlier in the year, and it’s full of stage fights and geeky girl power.

It may come as no surprise that all of these theater companies have dipped toes or dove into the deep end of transmedia storytelling. Vampire Cowboys has a long history of creating online videos that tie into their shows. Flux Theatre Ensemble and Gideon Productions have used video blogs, news conferences, and pamphlets. And, terraNOVA Collective used video, written blogs, and Twitter for my play, Feeder: A Love Story.

Is the theater market becoming overrun with Geek Theater?

Can it sustain the influx of zombies, super heroes and sci-fi dystopian futures?

Short answers: No and yes.

There are only a handful of groups creating this kind of theater in a massive market, and there should be room for everyone to play in the same sandbox. However, it only works if they remember to stay true their hearts and listen to their audiences. When creators authentically listen, they lay the foundation for a long conversation with a dedicated and engaged audience. It can’t just be about the next box office transaction. It must be about cultivating a sincere relationship. If large institutions are going to thrive in an ever-changing digital landscape, these are the values they, too, must embrace.

Tomorrow, I will conclude this series featuring another panel from the Futures of Entertainment 6, focusing on empathy and listening.

You can read part three here.

industry leaders talk transmedia success stories

Before I woke this morning, some top players on the transmedia landscape were wide awake discussing a question posed by Simon Staffans based on a statement made by Lina Srivastava at the Evolving Experiences seminar (#evolvingxp) hosted by MediaCity in Vaasa, Finland.

Simon tweeted that Lina said: “Real stand alone transmedia success stories, revenue wise, just haven’t happened yet. Have they?”

Andrea Phillips, Mike Monello, and Michael Andersen chimed in for a great Friday morning discussion about revenue success and business models in transmedia. They offered examples and debated why early achievements are sometimes written off as anomalies.

I assembled the responses on Storify. It was a good discussion.

[View the story “Industry Leaders Talk Transmedia Success Stories” on Storify]

experience true convergence: the 50th new york film festival invites you to play

People often ask me, “Transmedia storytelling? What’s that?”

Usually, I point the questioner in the direction of Henry Jenkins’ often cited definition:

“It is a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.”

I share how I crafted Feeder: A Love Story, a play that extended to blogs and online video. Then, I tell them about my current project, NY_Hearts, an immersive experience that guides participants through New York neighborhoods with the iPhone app, Moveable Feast. Generally, people are interested, fascinated, skeptical or confused, and, often, their minds are blown.

It’s a new thing for sure. The Sundance Institute, understandably, embraced this futurist story form, offering a retreat for creators called the New Frontier Story Lab. Tribeca Film Festival has the TFI New Media Fund that offers grants, and this year it launches a new transmedia program honoring creators who use innovative, interactive, or multi-platform storytelling tactics. Film festivals aren’t the only institutions supporting this trend. The Global Cyber-Narrative Project from Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Black Women Playwrights’ Group, and Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment and Technology Center offers residencies to playwrights of color to explore ways of expanding stage works to digital platforms. Until now, these institutions offered residencies, grants, mentorships, and project case studies, which are all vital to incubating new creative forms.

The missing pie piece has been audience engagement. It’s wonderful to listen to creators offering case studies. Other story architects learn new techniques, and it spurs audience to seek out more transmedia work. But only a few programs offer a place where audience can truly engage and play.

The 50th New York Film Festival aims to let the audience play at Convergence.

More than just a series of killer panel discussions with top notch transmedia creators, Convergence has several events on the roster for the audience to play with. Check out these four fun experiences offering more than just panels and discussions.

RENGA
Presented by Adam Russell and John Sear

Renga
is about finding a way home. Attacked and left for dead, our hero must carefully marshal their resources to build a new ship, confront their nemesis and finally return home. Only this hero isn’t visible on the screen – it’s the entire audience, working collectively to control the action using laser pointers directed at the screen. Turning the traditional hero’s journey on its head, Renga asks the question – what if the ultimate reward can only be grasped by many hands? The show combines real-time crowd interaction technology, retro videogame aesthetics and a wry sense of humour to bring the audience together and leave them feeling a deep sense of camaraderie. The title refers to a form of collaborative poetry with 100 verses that blossomed in 15th century Japan.

WHISPERS IN THE DARK
Presented by Jeff Wirth


Whispers in the Dark
is an immersive fiction experience in which a non-actor participant will become the lead character in a story that plays out over 24 hours in settings throughout New York City. A young psychic spends the night investigating a room that has recently become haunted in Lincoln Center. Her encounter with the ghost sets her on an odyssey through the hidden worlds of New York City to uncover a dark secret. A professional cast plays the characters that appear and engage with the participant in the real-world locations, while an invisible crew captures the entire experience in one extended 24-hour “take.” The experience culminates at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, where highlights from the adventure will be screened on September 30, 2012 during a live presentation.

MCCARREN PARK:
HIPSTER DINOS, TRANSMEDIA, AND PRODUCING SOMETHING FOR NOTHING

Presented by Caitlin Burns and Steele Filipek

McCarren Park
is an interactive educational transmedia experience available on phones, the Internet and even a card game. In this session, a selection of scenes in the first half of the narrative will be combined with lessons learned creating the feature for under $3500.00 How do you inspire collaborators to engage in your story world? What are some tactics that worked on this project and others to build an audience and to get that audience to add their own content into the story world? How do you create a story that can translate from one platform to another? How do you do that without a huge budget? Finally, what are the barriers to production on a miniscule budget and how can you overcome them?

TRANSMEDIA TEST KITCHEN
Presented by Brian Fountain and Matt Bolish

Two teams enter, but only one will leave victorious. Witness this first-of-its-kind exhibition-style transmedia showdown. Over the course of an hour, two teams of elite storytellers will conceive, build and pitch their best cross-media story. Not crazy enough for you? Wait! There’s more. In an unforeseen and dramatic twist, which you will already know about because you are reading this now, the teams learn they must also incorporate a secret ingredient. Spoiler Alert! The secret ingredient is you, the audience. That’s right you will be part of history. And who will decide the fate of these two teams? Some Ivy-league eggheads? Nope. Some B-list celebrities? Not happening! Those guys are way too expensive to book. In a stunning conflict of interest, you (yes you!) will be casting your vote to decide the outcome of this event. One team will be crowned victorious. The other will suffer the deep humility of having to watch the other team being crowned victorious.

Of course, there are plenty of professionals speaking about the evolution of storytelling. Collapsus creator Tommy Pallotta offers the event’s keynote address. Steve Schultz (Moveable Feast), Andrew Evans (National Geographic), Bill Plympton (Animator), and Amy Neswald (Indie Filmmaker) head up a panel on sharing stories in a geo-tagged world. Plus, the woman who literally wrote the book on transmedia creation, Andrea Phillips, discusses new roles audiences can have in storytelling.

I’ll be bringing NY_Hearts to the festival in a conversation about the Lower East Side experience that launched this past July and teasing part two of the story hitting Park Slope this fall.

I am also one of the participants in the Transmedia Test Kitchen, so if you want to see me get silly and try to make a multi-platform experience in 45 minutes, come by for a laugh or ten.

If you’ve ever wondered what transmedia is or want to play in new creative sandboxes, get a pass to Convergence in The 50th New York Film Festival on September 29th and 30th. It’s gonna be loads of fun.

Buy your festival pass here.

a couple interviews with cindy marie jenkins

A few weeks back, I closed NY_Hearts: LES, the first of my four-part immersive neighborhood love story experiences created on Moveable Feast. During the run, Cindy Marie Jenkins, a storyteller in Los Angeles, interviewed me about the project in her “Beyond the Blurb” series on G+ Hangouts.

Cindy is super fun and very interested in the convergence of digital and physical worlds, specifically in the performing arts. She’s has another series called “Artist Check In” in which she catches up with creators’ ongoing projects. It’s a great perspective on the before and after of a project’s life, and it offers a way for creators to critically reflect and look forward to the next step, which is often the hardest part of making art. We recorded my “Artist Check In” this past Monday.

Thanks to Cindy Marie Jenkins for her time and dedication. Check out her YouTube channel, where she covers everything from arts creation, marketing, fundraising and administration.