In a play entitled “Pool, Vol. 1″ — one of the fourteen odd and inventive works by “experience designers” showcased during a day-long event called The New Frame — Megan Livingston, dressed as a lifeguard with whistle in hand, put her trainees (the audience) through an intensive assessment. This included calisthenics, a water ritual, a lifeguard pool pledge, and an unusual written test, with a dozen multichoice questions:
3. While desegregating America’s pools, black children and families were faced with:
c. Threats of violence
d.Acts of violence
e.All of the above.
8. Emmet Till’s body was found
a. In a public pool
b In a river
c. Hanging from a tree
d. Nowhere; his body was never found
The trainees were then divided into groups to compete in a buzzer round of questions:
The desegregation of public pools in America was, in some ways, even more ugly and personal than the desegregation of public pools in America. (T/F?)
Megan Livingston was presenting her final project as a member of the first graduating class of Odyssey Works’ Experience Design Certificate Program, which is “a one-year program in any discipline – theater people, engineers, community organizers – unified by the desire to focus on the experience of the audience,” according to Abraham Burickson, co-designer of the program and co-founder of Odyssey Works, a 20-year-old interdisciplinary performance collective. “This is not about ‘how can I do this play?’ This is ‘how can I change people’s lives?’”
The first year of classes was presented virtually, and each of the students traveled to New York City to meet in person for the first time and present their final projects in a studio at the Gibney Studios near City Hall. Livingston came from Baltimore (“5. Historically, Baltimore, Maryland was a. a safe place to grow up Black in America, b. the city that taught all other cities how to do segregation…..”)
Christine Lesiak and Taouba Khelifa each traveled from Edmonton, Alberta Canada, presenting projects that were similar, superficially, but in reality starkly different.
Lesiak presented The Lost Sock Rescue, a volunteer supported organization whose aim is to “recover, rehabilitate and rehome lost, unwanted, and abandoned socks.”
In a half-hour presentation, Lesiak presented some of her extensive collection of single socks on display that she had named, and to which she attached a description meant to attract a forever home
Health: very good
Alfred enjoys an easy stroll down the park path especially in the Fall.
During her half-hour performance, Lesiak kept a completely straight face as she talked about how each sock “tragically lost their mates” but implied this might not be such a bad thing: “Socks enter the world as a twin, never recognized for their own individuality.”
Outside her performance to the entire audience, Lesiak also met individually with potential sock parents to assess their suitability.
Taouba Khelifa’s project was entitled “The Grief Publication,” and (like all the designers except Livingston and Lesiak) she only interacted one-on-one. She offered me tea, and presented a Grief briefcase — full of photographs and letters in which previous visitors had written of their grief. Low-key and sympathetic, she offered the opportunity to express my sorrow, but didn’t push, allowing me to sift through what others had given her.
I asked her how this came about.
“I’ve always been fascinated by how we understand and process grief. About 16 years ago, I lost my own father. I was curious how we processed it as a family; how do you sit with it? How do we unpack it? Can grief be our friend? Once I started talking to people, it opened up the exploration for me.”
What, I asked, does this have to do with design?
“it’s designing an experience where people have the opportunity to unpack and understand.”
Is this theater?
“For me, this is a performance but it’s different from walking into a theater, buying a ticket, watching them. It is a performance I set up in a very specific way. I want people to feel something very specific when they sit down and they look through things.”
Several of the graduating experience designers built their own little theaters to walk into, or at least enclosed spaces. In “Lover House,” Mel Bieler models (a low budget version) of the house in the music video of Taylor Swift’s “Lover,” “discovering easter eggs as you explore each room connected to the singer’s musical eras.” For “Moneyness,” Marion Tyler-Wiles constructed a room with walls covered by mylar, and a little wooden table with headphones and a stack of dollar bills. Putting on the head phones, the visitor listened for seven minutes to more than a dozen voices talking about their relationship to money, and then five questions– when did you first learn financial literacy? – which were meant to inspire the listener (looking at their own reflection in the mylar) to contemplate their own financial habits, and whether they need adjustment. A single bill on top of the stack was offered as incentive for you to practice this hopefully healthier adjustment (e.g. save it.)
Were these theaters…theater? Is experience design a form of theater?
Luckily, there was somebody at The New Frame with whom I could attempt to sort this out. Zach Morris, co-artistic director of Third Rail Projects, one of the premiere immersive theater companies in the city – the world, really (Then She Fell, The Grand Paradise, Return the Moon…etc etc), had been invited to give feedback to the graduating students about their projects.
“In some ways, all of this has to do with immersive theater,” Morris replied. “Because immersive theater is an exercise in creating an experience for an audience. The concepts around experience design are fundamental to immersive theater, and I would say are fundamental to the making of culture, especially now.”
I was struck by his use of the phrase immersive theater. When I interviewed the founders of Third Rail Projects years ago to come up with a definition of immersive theater, they were quite resistant to the term.
“Yeah, I think I’ve become a little bit freer with those definitions as they have become more omnipresent.”
He agreed that it was a brand people recognize now. But where, I asked, does “experience design” fit in?
“I think it’s a really complicated thing to tease out experience design or immersive theater. In many ways, these are terms that are being used now for concepts that people have been making for probably the entirety of humankind’s existence. We’ve always been thinking about how to gather, how to create shared and communal or collective experience.
“What Odyssey works is doing is blurring the lines between what is theater, what is experience design, what is simply the act of gathering and I think that that is where some really exciting innovation can happen. When we stop trying to create work in pre-existing models, then we can create the work that is most resonant for the cultural moment that we’re in.”
Buzzer round: T+10, F+5 because who is out here comparing emotional tolls of systemic violence?