Center Screen to Center Stage

Tomorrow Awards Winner: Folly Plugged-In Live Theater Performance

The digital revolution is nothing new, but more and more creative professionals today are using tablets and even smart phones to execute the complex design and inspiration-gathering that was once left to their laptops. From mobile apps to tablet software that can produce high-quality work, to the ability to have your creative toolkit with you at all times, there’s been a seismic shift in the way ideas get made. So this month, we’ll be exploring the theme of Mobile Creativity: how all this on-the-go interaction influences, enhances and alters the creative process.

The 2014 Tomorrow Awards saw an incredible range of entries that harnessed the power of mobile technology to improve everyday experiences, raise awareness for important causes and engage users in the way they’ve become most comfortable. One of the five inspiring winners that took this innovative concept to the next level was VML‘s Folly Plugged-In Live Theater Performance, which incorporated smart phone use into the live theater experience, with awesome results for both the theater and the audience.

Linda Bumgarner, Executive Creative Director at VML, talked with us about the specific challenges and rewards involved when you completely embrace mobile technology, encourage audience participation and leave the rest up to a troop of ready-for-anything burlesque performers.

ADC: Tomorrow Awards judges appreciated how the Folly Plugged-In Live Theater Performance tapped into a behavior that is already happening (and is usually discouraged) to create a new experience. Did you approach this project with the intention to make a “bad” behavior “good”? 

Linda: Our project didn’t necessarily start with the bad behavior. It was more about how to attract the audience that wasn’t going to the theater. The Folly Theater had been around for almost 100 years and it had this old reputation of not having the most innovative acts. We were trying to look at ways that we could revitalize things with the Internet and attract a new audience.

This crowd that we were after, we knew that they’re always on their mobile devices and thought it’d be an interesting thing to start to play with that behavior of coming to the theater and being asked to turn off your phone. In this case, though, you could keep it on and actually start having an impact on the show.

ADC: What are your thoughts on whether smart phones should be better integrated into other kinds of experiences? How else can you see this technology being applied?

Linda: I definitely think it can be applied smartly in a lot of cases. It should make experiences richer and bring more value to them. I think just the power to give more information is key. It’s like at an art museum, you can look at a painting and then learn a little bit more about an artist or the time that it was done using your phone. I think the same can happen for performances and music and that kind of thing. So you’re just learning more; you’re getting a little more depth of experience.

Even other performers in town were saying to them, “Are you sure you want the attention down on the phone versus up on you?”

ADC: How did the performers respond to this idea initially and how did you work with them to ensure the performance would be enhanced?

Linda: The director of the Folly was the one who thought that the burlesque troupe would be a good group to try this with because they’re definitely used to being more flexible and spontaneous with their performance. They’re used to working things in, so she thought that it would be cool to add depth with a layer on top of that. They would be reacting to the audience’s voting in addition to everything else.

But at the beginning, even this burlesque group was hesitant. They were saying, “Are you crazy? That’s not really what we encourage in performances.” But in the time we were collaborating with them, they turned the corner and realized it could really be interesting to connect with the audience in a whole new way. That there was a moment when they realized that we were working as a team, that the team here at VML really was trying to enhance their performance and work with them to choreograph the show in just the right way.

We knew that people were looking down at their screens during certain moments to vote or to participate. But then they would be looking up at the performers at the other times. So we really did try to collaborate, coordinate and choreograph the show, so it did work with them. I think that put them at ease. But initially … I do think even other performers in town were saying to them, “Are you sure you want the attention down on the phone versus up on you?”

ADC: Do you think part of why they eventually came around was because the experience didn’t involve any advertising per se? It was just like another extension of the performance itself.

Linda: That was a huge part. I think the idea of it to begin with maybe was a little scary, but once they realized how it was really integrated in the performance and helping to involve the audience in any way, that made all the difference.

The performers got so into it that they actually used mobile devices themselves, taking selfies and pictures from the stage and encouraging participation.

ADC: You were a member of the audience yourself for several performances. What was it like to see the project come to life?

Linda: It was interesting because I worked on the project behind the scenes and then I really did experience it just as a member of the audience. You really did feel engaged. I think there was a different reaction from the audience, too. The audience at these burlesque shows gets involved enough already that they might shout something out. But they got even more involved in this performance because they wanted a certain song to play or a certain thing to happen within the show. There was a really good energy from the audience, and I could sense it. You felt you were a part of it, and you actually participated a little bit in it from your seat.

ADC: Did anything surprise you?

Linda: We choreographed the entire opening number, but the performers got so into it that they actually used mobile devices themselves, taking selfies and pictures from the stage and encouraging participation in a way that we didn’t even know they were going to do. That was a pretty cool surprise, actually experiencing that from the audience’s perspective and seeing how they were promoting it and encouraging it from the stage.

ADC: Advertisers and marketers as increasingly looking to “second-screen” engagement as an outlet. Do you think they’re attracting people that way, or repelling them?

Linda: I do think that there’s a danger of that. You definitely need something that is of value and is really truly wholly in that first screen (in our case the stage) making sure that the attention is there where it needs to be, and making sure that what you’re doing is really enhancing that versus detracting from it.