Case Study: Boomtown Fair - Dank Parish

BoomTown Fair is our closest partner – from our first collaboration 10 years ago we recognised the potential for mutual growth and development. 

Each year our pioneering collaborations have grown in vision and scale; from humble beginnings, hosting a tiny pop up venue, we now run entire districts, train hundreds of performers site-wide and generate macro-narrative. We find ourselves at the forefront of creating immersive theatre within festival contexts, to the point immersive theatre has become BoomTown’s unique selling point.

 

Development summary

In year 1 with only an 8 person crew, we took on a small venue and offered people free funerals. The year after, with 32 people, we returned to run The Town Hall, the largest immersive theatre venue BoomTown had ever created. We ran an Election day, a fully interactive and narrative audience-led experience. 

From here, the potential of ongoing audience-led content emerged. We devised and ran a narrative which played out over 3 years, migrating to different venues, and pulling punters into increasingly elaborate missions, intrigues and decision-based gaming. The audience started shaping the story themselves as they became our closest collaborators.

Soon we were asked to devise and curate the theatrics in an entire district – a combination of exterior spectacle work and choreography, walkabout performance, and intimate narrative inside immersive venues, housing up to 3,5000 punters at any one time. The opportunities for extended play kept expanding and interweaving.

In year 7, the introduction of a site-wide macro-narrative provided a springboard for a level of immersion, swallowing 65,000 people. The narrative could be seen in every design feature, live image mapping, and could be experienced in multiple venues across site. Now an avid gamer could immerse themselves in the theatrical world without cessation, for the entirety of the festival, in a constantly morphing choose-your-own adventure story.

This lead to the introduction of ‘The Maze’, a site-wide exploration game, comparable to the sprawling, decision based narrative offered in sandbox computer games. The Masked Man narrative embroiled punters in a political game of espionage which lead to a climactic performance at the end of the entire festival. 15,000 participants played the Maze, the final show where the masked man was revealed was watched by 30,000 festival attendees. 

We now run BoomTown’s new district ‘Paradise Heights’, whilst continuing to train and develop extended performer-lead narratives site-wide throughout BoomTown. ‘The Maze’ continues to develop, and most recently, extended to digital gaming through phones, taking place before, during and after the festival. 

This ever evolving relationship is constantly generating new artistic challenges, the 3 most prominent of which we identify as:

1: INITIATING: Scaling the Immersive Experience

2: MANAGING: Safety in Chaos

3: DEVELOPING: Emerging Audiences, Emerging Forms

1: INITIATING: Scaling the Immersive Experience

Challenge

Boomtown’s current advertising strapline, ‘be a part of the world’s most theatrically immersive festival experience,’ is a testament to our ongoing collaboration. Over the years Dank Parish have created the festival’s unique selling point, a level of theatrical immersion unseen in festivals before.  As our composition of the festival’s unique theatrical identity has grown, both in terms of vision and capacity, new challenges were unveiled: How to scale up an original artistic concept whilst ensuring quality throughout all aspects?


Solution

Narrative flag-ship venues (Town Hall, initially) function as a focal point for theatrical immersion within the entire festival.

The creation of a meta-narrative binded together the depth and direction of the festival’s theatrical activity. It creates a unique theatrical invitation to an audience member; to immerse themselves, at a level of involvement they choose, into an epic episodic narrative.

We made the narrative flexible – participants can take missions and make utterly oppositional decisions;  the story allows for completely different interactional outcomes and allows creative autonomy.

Individual crews were invited, or created, and placed into the storyline – each with their own ideas and opportunities to enrich and extend the storyline. The sheer joy of such cluster-bomb proliferation – improvisation within cohesive vision – causes constant creative generation, the peripheries of which leak forever forwards into uncharted arenas of expression.

Workshops and training ensure depth of immersion for performers; they are our front-line theatre soldiers and we equip them as such. Our content-generation methodologies prioritise ensemble gaming and character creation strategies to provide a shared artistic community dynamic which sustains as well as inspires the performers. The Dank Parish founders are all actors and know first hand how much better work is when actors are firmly embedded within their world, gifted to relish the opportunities for transformation and play that level of immersion affords. 

Utilisation of different performance styles: BoomTown is awash with stages, pop-up performance zones and shared-space environments; cabaret stages, 6 story hotel windows, exterior balconies, casinos, all requiring distinct disciplines and relationships with a shifting, constantly morphing audience. For instance, physical theatre; as a passive audience member strolls through a district they will witness finely choreographed vignettes through building windows, or larger spectacles atop BoomTown’s many performance balconies.

Walkabout performance: The playful day-time street wanderer wants light and jovial interactions with floor level performers, easy to distinguish from your average costumed punter by their sustained other-worldy appearance,  these interactions may lead you to a narrative entry point, if you’re willing, or else be an isolated moment of banter and play.

Cabaret: The late-night venue discoverer may find themselves inside an interactive holiday camp cabaret, sleazy MC yelling seducing the crowd with oily sheer, witnessing cabaret and comedy, quiz shows, or else just immersed in a DJ set, or taken into s a side-room to have their loyalty tested, then back out to the main arena to complete the party. 

The fully immersed game-player wants to follow clue after clue, constantly logging into the Maze App to speak to  their cell leader receiving daily instructions which facilitates the objectives of the faction they have elected to work for.

 


Outcome

Boomtown trailers now feature Immersive Theatre as Unique Selling Point of festival

The level of connection a festival goer has with the mythos is far deeper than any other festival  and runs all year round.

Boomtown and Dank Parish partnership has developed as a pioneering opportunity to explore the boundaries of immersive theatre in festival context

Increasingly socio-political narratives: The ongoing story has become a primal tale of power, politics, freedom, governments and  technology. The story itself has become a back-drop to the archetypal narratives driving our society.

Creation of Immersive theatre methodologies and actor training packages

Creation of Narrative Ripple Creation Theory: The story  is the starting point for diverse and surprising interpretations, the narrative is always moving outwards in multiple directions.

Over 200 venues, each representing the opportunity for side-missions, and narrative enrichment, are part of the immersive experience.

In recent years we have been funded by the Arts Council to train actors and performers across BoomTown. This involves working with a growing pool of non-trained actors, and artists from other disciplines.

Creation of district identities within BoomTown across language, physicality, behaviour, objective.

Continued nurture of new crews and theatre companies, attracted to BoomTown as an opportunity to be involved with the growth of a world, and own artistic development, over many years.

We continue to develop, in the rehearsal room, our immersive theatre creation methodologies, and actor training packages, and continue to collaborate with universities and drama schools throughout the UK.

Skills sharing and professional growth for associate artists

Inclusive Collaboration Ethics practised across all aspects of narrative content and development.

Interpretation, re-interpretation and cross-pollination of same idea across numerous art-forms and media

Huge network of the most inventive associated artists and professionals across all aspects of performer, producer, technician, designer, currently working in the UK and beyond.


"Immersive theatrical experiences, combined with bands of all types, provides a festival like no other (5 stars)"

- independent

"This is satire at its highest, and most unutterably silly"

- culturortrash


2: MANAGING: Safety in Chaos

Challenge

There can be no doubt that the festival experience, and arguably BoomTown more than most, encourage a relinquishing of norms, a departure from the mundane and a bolt into the realms of society-free chaos. Their hook-lines, come and ‘be a part of the world’s maddest city’ indicate the extremity of the expectation employed to attract festival goers to the unfolding chaos.  For those providing the chaos, there has to be a commensurate level of orchestration. Due diligence, above and beyond the requirements of typical professional Health and Safety procedures, must be observed and enacted to cater for, monitor, and safely nurture happenings which are only clear as they unfold. The festival experience is a transformative, and possibly, combustible one.


Solution

Pitching material sensitively: the cathartic effects of unconsidered expression can produce strange destructive energies. Boomtown, with its dystopian aesthetic, overwhelming technicolour monuments, permissive behaviours and  relentlessly cacophonic music can, over the course of the festival, have a hypnotic effect on a festival goer, who may start acting outside the bounds of their normal behaviour. As curators of their experience we assume responsibility for the symbols we create and interactions we instigate with them. 

The narrative, with its socio-political applications and revolutionary phrasing, can be potentially incendiary, particularly when we consider the polarising narratives which are constantly flung between contemporary media outlets. Add  to this most punters have had a few more drinks than your average theatre goer, and it becomes clear that avoiding potentially fractious interactions with actors should be avoided at all costs. For this reason we keep the BoomTown world separate from the ‘real’ world’. We keep our content strictly allegorical to avoid antagonisms, particularly around political issues. This makes the content safe, it remains playful. 

It’s also about finding the correct performance levels. In Mayfair, a district we ran, our brief was to represent the curse of new money, neo-liberal greed, and corporate financial crimes, during rehearsal it became clear that the level of grotesques being developed were too aggressive, unless it was clear that these were performers, the enactions, within a shared-space environment could produce belligerent responses.  To make these carnivorous grotesques palatable, we work on ‘invitations to play’ with audience members, to find subtle forms of establishing ‘in-world’  consent from a perspective of play. An invitation to interact rather than an insistence. 

Recognising different types of creative energy: there are 2 very distinct creative energies evident during the event: the Dionysian (relinquishing of norms, purging, carnival), and the Apollonian (the built, curated, ordered) Without the latter we never allow the former. Chaos can only exist because of the ordering impossible. 

We always frame our performances, so audience members know there is a performance happening, we create and curate spatial contracts which subtly declare their engagement intentions. There are a few ways we do this, performers have clearly demarcated roles in instances say, where a pop up performance involving a fight in a crowded room, ‘marshalls’ will establish limits of zone, ‘spotters’ will oversee, ‘gate-keepers’ will guard entrances, ‘the pit boss’ will orchestrate ensemble gaming. Also, performers will be distinguishable from audience members by some feature of their costume and their physical performance characteristics.

Behind the performance are our tireless production and stage management team, vigilant at all times to any, and all, possible unseen issues.

To minimise confusion all our performers are trained in 2 separate layers of inter-team communication. On one hand, key phrases and signals exchanged between performer flag up punter-related issues and allow performers to respond ‘in-world’  to emerging events. Above this, the stage management team constantly supervise the entirety of our performance districts, communicating with performers, often across vast distances with hand signals which elicit constant feedback and crisis prevention.


Outcome

Creation of new performance roles, which hold, at the centre of their awareness, the need to hold and establish performance frames.

 

Development of in-world performers language, and stage management feedback signals

Enhanced safe-guarding policies for performers and audience members alike

Dedicated and flexible stage management teams.

Formation of ‘invitation to play’ performance strategies, and performer sensitivity training.

Effective translation of narrative into allegorical content.

Recognition of transformative experiences of festival goers.  This compassionate performance contract produces truly surprising interactions,  hilarious, confusing, exciting and sometimes beautifully therapeutic. We practise constant sensitivity within these transcendental, and some may even argue, spiritual, experiences. 

Effectively curated performance environments, which go far beyond the expectations and management of traditional theatre environments.

Training of stage management and performers in marshalling large numbers of people.

Growth of uniquely trained immersive theatre pot of immersive context sensitive actors.


"A full-blown, interactive theatre piece spanning every district"

- songlines magazine

"An immersive world... tricks you into believing life outside of the festival walls is non-existent"

- edm


3: DEVELOPING: Emerging audiences, Emerging forms Challenge:

Challenge

BoomTown attracts a diverse non-traditional audience which is always growing. We find ourselves playing to groups of people who don’t normally go to the theatre. A 10 year audience survey from 2008- 2018 (Association of Independent Festivals) indicated that 8% of consumers attend festivals for headline acts while 53% attend for the overall festival experience. This, coupled with a recent 21% growth in the Experience Economy makes it clears that audiences are demanding new experiences, and that we, the experience providers, must cater for their desires. 


Solution

Responding to audience input: the creation of the overarching narrative, and its eventual growth into the maze, came about as a direct result of punter interactions over the 3 year tenure of the narrative- heavy Town Hall. The interpretation of narrative across diverse artistic disciplines and media gave birth to style of audience experience which some argue is closer to Dungeons and Dragons role-play, or even computer gaming. 

 

Diverse media: Our artistic output stretches now to include all forms of digital and filmed media. Most recently, the BoomTown App (Access A.M.I.), created Instagram & Twitter accounts for BoomTown’s characters and places, so avid punters, who are becoming increasingly sophisticated game-players, can start their  detective work early , finding clues, and generating a level of complicity with our material that stretches far beyond the confines of the staged event.

 

Non-linear gaming:  audiences should be able to choose their own level of involvement. Some people prefer a passive voyeur experience, and that’s fine (and very simple to deliver), however we always want the most avid audience participant to be catered for, the idea that the game, or their story, might fall apart between their experienced chapters is anathema to us. 

During rehearsal we ensure constant feedback between immersive theatre venues so the material they generate doesn’t contradict each other. Within this we also establish sign posts, and stepping stone activities which lead participants from one experience to the next, but also exhibit sufficient reward should the participant want to leave the game aside after that interaction. The idea is that the game can be picked up, dropped, re-joined without a sense of fracture or dissociation.

For the most avid game-players, we constantly make them feel like they’re ‘levelling up’, being rewarded for their efforts, delving into ever deeper levels of mystery and intrigue, to the point that their decisions eventually affect the denouement of the festival.


Outcome

Creation of audience focussed Maze, continuing to grow year after year.

Creation of new audience-sensitive forms which seek to engage the participant and respond, in a narrative sense, to the offerings they make.

The narrative ripple effect we’ve observed in our world has stretched far beyond anything we could have conceived, and continues to be influenced by tour emerging audiences.

Identification of emerging audiences, the tourist, the game-player, the wanderer, the theatre-goer, and sensitivity to the gaming competency of these distinct groupings.

Creation of digital narratives, which have a life all year round and are directly influenced by audience involvement.

Areas of research and development identified, particularly in terms of audience-performer contracts, and Apollonian/ Donysian performance forms.

Original Feedback loops between audience created, multiple ways of sourcing and integrating audience involvement into ongoing festival narrative.

What we now face, as a result of our lucid audience interactions, is a self-perpetuating narrative feedback loop. Even as we interact with them in the punter, content is generated and new directions suggested.

Growing awareness, and utilisation of audience as actor, audience as creator

The recognition that the possibilities for development are truly staggering- 65,000 punters a year are, at least absorbed as passive voyeurs in our world, 10,000 of these are avid game-players, each influencing narrative and shaping its direction. Listening to the contributions audiences offer, makes it clear that they want a constantly evolving narrative and  for that narrative to be a microcosm for exploring social issues.

In some cases the level of interpretation is truly surprising. One such instance concerns the ‘Boominati’ symbolism. The narrative became a monster unto itself, a self-contained  conspiracy, with a conspiratorial group of game-players actually postulating that BoomTown was being run by The New World Order. It has evolved into a glorious game of revolution, information manipulation, secret societies, in an endlessly morphing symphony of self-perpetuating story-lines.


"Hundreds of actors enacted surreal storylines amongst 60,000 members of the public"

- telegraph

"It’s bursting with utterly bonkers curios and situationist art to get fully involved with"

- time out


Conclusion

The constantly shifting boundaries of BoomTown’s punter- lead world throws up new areas of exploration and research, a war of constantly evolving narrative, asking us, ultimately, ‘who is telling this story?’