On January 22 and 23 2016 the Mystic Midway operated a new interactive performance at the Regency Center, a part of the entertainments on offer in the Edwardian Ball 2016. Below is a peek behind the curtain at the development, planning and execution of the piece, entitled Mystic Midway: Stories of Gold.
The performances for Burning Man 2015 and the Life is Beautiful 2015 festivals were generally successful in increasing audience engagement and in training up a seasoned group of performers who could handle a more complex and deeper interaction with audience members. The general lessons from those performances were:
Finding an existing interaction model (like a labyrinth or board game) that provides a template of behavior for the audience "cracks them open," or makes it possible for them to participate with the performers and environment at a more vulnerable level. This seems to be because they can intuit the rules of the performance, and if the characters and environments work within that rule model, there is an affordance of safety and participation can begin quickly.
Experienced performers with group training in workshops raise the general quality and the resilience of the ensemble's performance. The Midway is very lucky to work with talented instructors and have both pro and amateur character performers who are committed to constant improvement. Insights are identified and recycled into continuing training, and participation in the Midway hinges on our cast and crew attending and enjoying ongoing workshops.
Flow of guests through the physical sets and through the mental systems need both detailed planning and room in the experience design framework for change in the moment. A good example of this is how the ensemble adapted noises and calls to help manage the flow timing of guests through the BurningMan Carnival of Mirrors labyrinth performance, since groups tended to bunch up in various areas and the cast couldn't easily see each other in the maze.
STORIES OF GOLD
The Midway has performed at the Edwardian Ball for many years and in late Summer 2015 the producers asked for a proposal for 2016 that would involve a trade road and visits to foreign lands.
After discussing the insights that the Black Rock and Las Vegas performances had given to the Midway, Barron Scott Levkoff (Midway director) and Marty Caplan (Midway game designer) generated a proposal for the Edwardian ball that was ambitious: a road of trade that extended between multiple worlds and yet was outside of them. We dubbed it The Athernium Road and further proposed that it had those who were lost, and those who conducted trade on it and the worlds that it linked. The Edwardian Ball would be one of the stops that these beings made on their journey, and the mortal guests attending the Ball would be treated to a terrible, magical and whimsical collection of visitors who had agendas of their own.
The development of the game system using Storied Currency originated with the insight that the boardgame element that was successful in Las Vegas Instead of a boardgame, the Midway would hijack an even larger game system that everybody in the world plays to a greater or lesser extent: money. Assigning value to paper. Living and dying according to an abstract symbol of value that is merely a media of exchange, and of no use without the participation (willing or not) of conscious beings. In developing a Mystic Midway boardgame we'd hit upon the idea of 'charging' up game pieces with stories - essentially giving blank vessels a value because they have a story told into them. Stories of Gold, as it were. This idea, combined with the hacking of the money model, became the Storied Currency system for this performance.
For the Stories of Gold performance, we invented three kinds of storied currency:
Terrible - a currency of terrible tales of shadow, suffering, or doom
Magical - a currency of otherworldly experiences, beneficent serendipity and good fortune
Whimsical - a currency of jokes, japes, and fun
THE WALKERS ON THE ROAD
With the currency idea in place, we invented a small economy model that relied on players paying mortal guests for their stories with these otherworldly notes, which would be of near zero value (other than as an artistic souvenir) except to the ones who told the stories. It was good, but not great, so we invented a market where guests could spend their Storied Currency Notes - a Goblin Market! And that idea kickstarted the development of the families or cliques who walked upon the Athernium Road.
Making up and refining the performer groups of Mystic Midway players that would be 'on the road' was great fun, and drew from the historical performances of the Midway with some new, remixed myths and legends to provide a balance and make sense within the Terrible, Magical and Whimsical trifecta. After much discussion and consideration of the talents available the following groups were defined:
The Goblins - Terrible proprietors of the Goblin Market
The Ship of Fools - Whimsical lost souls on a ship to nowhere
The Grimaldis - Whimsical clowns who play on the Road forever
The Fae - Magical Elves and fairies seeking their homeland, trapped on the Road
The Mystics - Magical Fortunetellers who guide the lost with fateful lanterns
The Dandy Bandits - Whimsical scoundrels who waylay travelers on the road
A three-sided stage was the center of the Midway presence, with the Goblin Market, the Fairy Grotto and the Grimaldi Toy Theatre on each side. Other outposts existed in the floors of the location where the more itinerant groups would travel to and from over the evening. We attempted to have a set schedule but the vagaries of the crowd and nature of extracting stories from the guests for Storied Currency left the distribution of players somewhat random.
There were also a few non-aligned characters who were there as audience guides and storytellers to draw the arc of the performance together at the end. That arc, in keeping with the grim theme of the Edwardian Ball, was of course one of doom!
PROBABLY NOT CURSED PRECIOUS THINGS
As the evening drew to a close on both nights, a frenzy of guests who had learned how to earn currency and discovered the price of the Goblin Market trinkets grew. It probably shouldn't have been surprising to see the gleeful greed in the eyes of guests who had indeed worked hard - finding a Midway performer and telling story after story was lots of fun, but required commitment and effort!
The pricing was the biggest lever we had to adjust the economy, since we had almost no control over the number and speed of the three kinds of currency notes being given out. With three types of currency and 25-35 performers spending 1-10 minutes giving out one or more notes… well that’s a crazy probability range right there that is essentially unpredictable! After some quick experimentation we decided on the following pricing structure for the trinkets on offer at the Goblin Market:
1 Set of Notes - small verdigris key
2 Sets of Notes - small cabochon key
3 Sets of Notes - small cabochon charm
4 Sets of Notes - large cabochon charm
5 Sets of Notes - Sculpted medal
Also, we decided early on to allow guests to take a set of notes that were torn to mark they were “spent” so they could have them as souvenirs as well. As the evening when on, we ran out of the cheapest items, the verdigris key, and guests had to therefore work harder to get a trinket. Most were willing to do so since it was fun to interact with the characters, especially once they understood the game - everyone has an infinite number of stories to tell!
As a real economy developed and was participated in, some not so savory behavior emerged, as well. We had guests behaving badly, stealing notes from the currency bags of performers, grabbing trinkets and decorations without asking, and getting belligerent with the Market proprietors about not being able to get what they wanted for the currency they had. This was a good sign to us, in light of the artistic process we were trying to build it was proof that the Stories of Gold system was creating value in the minds of the participants. Questionable behavior was to be expected when money is involved, even symbolically, leading average people to express their negative patterns around it. As the night wore on the Curse of the Goblin Market truly took hold...
HIGHWAY TO HADES
The finale of the piece was a short show on a beautiful and venerable Masonic proscenium that brought all the groups together on stage to determine which theme had won the night by collecting the most mortals’ stories - Whimsical, Magical or Terrible? It was fixed, of course, and the Goblins won with Terrible stories collected carried the night’s victory. The precious things that had been the object of so much fun-filled storytelling over the night were, of course, cursed, and the greed of most of the guests had doomed them all to Hades!
The Hades set was revealed and all the performers and guest cavorted to the mournful tune of devils and demons, completing their journey along the Aethernium Road.
As a performance, Stories of Gold was the most completely realized yet in the Mystic Midway’s annals, exceeding the early magic of Carni Mundi and the dusty intensity of the Carnival Of Mirrors at Burning Man. The performer’s training and execution was nearly flawless, with distinctive groups who looked, talked, moved and interacted with intention and distinction from each other. The sets were detailed and functional, making immediate impressions on guests and providing a backdrop for performers that supported their mission of drawing the audience into another world, sometimes literally. The gameplay of the night was compressed yet compelling, allowing a huge range of emergent behavior, a blossoming of thematic interactions, and a model for future efforts.
Future performance will build on this level of quality. Moreover the Midway plans to package the gameplay innovation we’ve been experimenting with in a ‘home game’ utilizing a deck of cards, the currency notes, and other items to encourage storytelling with intention for everyone.
Thanks to all the cast and crew, our sponsors and Edwardian Ball hosts, and especially to the guests of who chose to spend some portion of their evening of morbid elegance telling stories with us.