Experience Design is a pretty broad term. Break it down and it’s just the practice of…well…designing an experience. That can be anything from a museum to a cruise to a theme park. My primary area of interest is the arts, so when I think of experience design I think of immersive art and theatre. Performances that invite audiences to explore a world, experiencing a self-guided story or bridge the gap between art museum and narrative work. A big part of this type art is allowing audiences to interact with the work. Whether that means talking to an actor or climbing through a fridge into an alternate dimension, consciousness about social distancing and high touch surfaces will make things like this difficult.
Let’s look at Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Returns Santa Fe. You explore a very strange house/museum/sci-fi mystery narrative. It’s a bit of a choose your own adventure in that it is up to the visitor whether they choose to interact with the story or just appreciate the art and oddities. Because the world is not populated with actors you can learn the story and move past it, or you can be me and spend way too much time on one of the disappeared character’s computers trying to piece together parts of the mystery and solving riddles on an old receipt because this is the one day you don’t have pen and paper.
Whatever you choose, you will be physically interacting with the set, climbing through portals to the alternate dimension hidden within the house, pressing buttons that make things speak or light up. Will there be staff standing by, ready to sanitize every high touch surface? At House of Eternal Returns they might actually be able to get away with it. Because of the wild sci-fi plot the roaming staff members are all wearing white lab coats and are in character just enough to add to the scenery. They could totally work masks and sanitizing into the plot. I could see hand sanitizer dispensers being built into the scenery too, disguised as sink dripping faucets or weird otherworldly plants that foam when you interact with them.
I can’t help but wonder if we’re going to be seeing a lot more experiential art and theatre created with the new restrictions in mind. While someplace like Meow Wolf may (or may not) be able to incorporate things more smoothly into their existing attraction, it would be more difficult for a less established or lower budget attraction or performance, especially one set in a world that does not blend well with masks and the like.
I’ve been to a couple of weird college performances that probably fall somewhere in this category. One was sort of part haunted house part Edgar Allan Poe’s works come to life. (Not really much difference there, come to think of it.) Another put the visitor in the story as a time traveler, let us guide our own journey through the pretty impressive set, and choose what we learned of the story depending on what actors we talked to and how we chose to interact with them. These were performances done in black box type spaces, the core of the show based on actor/audience interaction. Much harder to work restrictions into. “Quoth The Raven, practice social distancing in public places to reduce the spread of Covid-19” really just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
You can, of course, limit audiences and require them to wear masks. But, how do you work masks into the costuming? It’s a design challenge, certainly, for some shows for than others. I know in traditional performances, unlike what I’ve been describing, one solution is putting actors in masks and performing as one usually would but for an empty house and live-streaming the production. This is certainly better than no theatre at all, but it’s missing some of the magic of it. The audience is not a passive entity in a show, their energy feeds the performers. I imagine without them it will feel something like a very high stakes rehearsal. Outside of this, I’ve heard about plays being re-written specifically to be performed on zoom, which is completely wild and leaves me with so many questions. I have no idea how that is going to work, but art finds a way. I’m excited to see where we’re headed.