Selling Out With Jessica Cheetham
We’ve talked about the immersive and experimental theater trend before, from interesting takes on the idea to its growing popularity. But if you’ve been wondering how you might be able to get in on the fun, you’ll love this advice from Jessica Cheetham, Artistic Producer for Root Experience, a theater production company in England.
Cheetham and her team have put together shows like The Rise and Fall of Geo Goynes, which takes participants on a wild secret mission through the city streets, Project: Oggbots, which lets kids build their own robots and then use them on a sci-fi adventure, and The Shout Project, which shared the stories and struggles of local homeless youths. She knows how to create an experience that engages the audience and makes them rethink their assumptions about theater. Now she’s sharing her insights and advice with us.
Selling Out: Your shows tend to get people out of the theater and into the streets. How are audiences responding to this? Do you ever have a difficult time explaining what the show really is? How do you overcome that?
Jessica Cheetham: Yes, we do have a difficult time explaining the show! But that’s common once you break away from the traditional audience/actor relationship — it just takes a few more words and a bit more creativity to get across what the audience experience of your work will be like. It’s difficult to get your average theatergoer to take a risk and try a different experience, but we’re finding that there’s a totally new audience out there, people who enjoy gaming and high-adrenaline activities who easily click into what we are offering and get very excited. Once our audiences are out there on the streets, they get into role and really enjoy themselves. We’ve had some awesome feedback.
SO: What are some of the advantages a non-traditional and immersive show have over other, more traditional theater pieces?
JC: We focus on giving the audience agency within a narrative — we create a world for them to play in. During The Rise and Fall of Geo Goynes, the audience is put into teams, solving clues and working with actors to discover how to unlock the next part of the story. The advantage of this is that the audience has a totally different relationship to the production, the connection is deeper, the piece still echoes through the streets after the performance has ended.
We also create work for children and young people who with the influence of the internet have grown up in a more interactive society. This blend of the real and the imaginary helps children and young people from all backgrounds engage with the story and the world you’ve created, rather than asking them to sit silently in a dark theater and listen for an hour. They learn more and their confidence builds as they speak to actors and see their choices affecting the story.
SO: What are some of the challenges in developing performances outside the typical theater space? Any advice you have for people trying something similar?
JC: There are definitely lots of practical challenges, and some of them sound very simple but it’s difficult when you are working in a small team and very invested in the show you’re creating! Make sure you have permission to perform in the spaces you choose — not all outside areas are public spaces — local councils are good people to have on your side. Keeping the audience feeling safe is the most important thing to remember — organize a safe space for bags and coats, have a point of contact if anyone feels unwell, and make sure your actors are sensitive towards the body language of participants who are feeling overwhelmed by the experience.
Another big challenge is that you have to think of everything — if you don’t have the support of a venue you need to consider everything a theater does as well as putting on the show — box office, marketing, press … the list goes on. Make sure you really do your planning!
SO: How do you go about marketing these shows? Any non-traditional methods that have worked well?
JC: Social media is an amazing resource for theater companies with small marketing budgets. Again, take time to plan out your strategy, learn how to use a few good social media analytic tools and schedulers and create tons of content to discuss with your online audience. Approach groups of people online — we found that talking to group organizers for gaming on MeetUp very useful as they bring groups of people who you know have an interest in that area.
Keep your marketing simple — if your piece is all about an experience, then make sure you’re being clear about what people can expect when they turn up. Avoid too many buzz words.
SO: Who is the primary audience of your shows? Is there a particular age group or segment of the population that’s really drawn to these types of performances?
JC: It really depends on who we create them for. We make sure that we tailor the experience to each audience group, but we really believe that everyone can enjoy interactive theater. We have shows for target groups — adventurous adults like our street gaming, children like Project: Oggbots, a treasure hunt show which ends in libraries where the audience can assemble 3D printed robots created by our partners Maker Club.
SO: What’s next on the horizon for your team?
JC: We will return to London with a new street gaming experience — Vigilante — where teams bring down a corrupt media organization from the inside. We want to extend our children’s show Project: Oggbots to tour to different libraries, and we’re holding screenings of a mini documentary we made during a project last August with young people in Hastings who experience homelessness.
SO: Immersive and non-traditional theater is certainly becoming a trend. Where do you think it’ll go next?
JC: Over the last year, there has been an explosion of immersive theater experiences. It’s really exciting to see how artists are harnessing a different form of theater and creating some great pieces. I think that we’re still in a period of learning and exploring what it means to create these pieces and how to work with audiences. Participation is definitely becoming an integral part of contemporary theater, and audiences are becoming much more perceptive about when that interaction is handled well. I think that the next stage is the discovery of the real masters of the form.
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