Be it internal or external, collaboration has always been a backbone of our work and company wiring. Over the years, we’ve been fortunate enough to maintain, nurture and develop fruitful creative partnerships with peers we’ve grown to consider friends – and inspirations. London-based theatre group Les Enfants Terribles has been one such trusted ally, accompanying us through a variety of large-scale live projects, and smoothly succeeding in the transition towards the hybrid.
As we partner up again for Esch2022 European Capital of Culture, our CEO Brendan Shelper and James Seager, the British award-winning theatre company’s Creative Director, come together and break down the industry’s post-pandemic state, the latent potential of new formats – and the joy of going to work with your mates.
Across the broad spectrum of your work over the years, what would you say has been the constant, recurring value (or values) backing and enabling each project?
James: Passion, ability and collaboration. It is always important to surround yourself with like-minded people who have the drive, and ability to deliver. We have been very lucky, over the years, to have gotten to work with some of the most skillful people in the industry. That ultimately breeds enthusiasm, and collaboration.
Brendan: I’d say an ingrained desire to move an audience emotionally in surprising, highly visual and innovative ways.
How do you think your approach to facilitating immersive experiences has, on a holistic level, changed as a result of the pandemic?
James: It’s a strange paradox, how the pandemic has both changed it completely, and bolstered our resolve to simply get back together and create live experiences. Obviously, that has been missing over the last year and a half, and in some ways, we’ve almost had to relearn to reconnect with people in a live environment – but that sense of togetherness, all experiencing something at the same time, live, has been absent for so long that we are keen to bring it back, in some kind of euphoric way.
Conversely, the pandemic has also pushed us to think a little differently about how digital can enhance a live experience. Throughout the past year, Les Enfants Terribles created three digital immersive shows (one as an interactive video, the other live on zoom and the third in VR). Now we are back creating live events, and we are working hard to see how this new element can be incorporated. This is very exciting.
Brendan: Absolutely, ‘immersive’ practice comes in many forms and formats, and during the pandemic we entered a massive transition phase after grasping the opportunity to pivot. We went from leading 2000+ event guests through a maze-like, live experience – to encouraging 3000-4000 online guests to interact and choose their own adventure via our virtual experiences. We doubled down on our technological development, and found new ways to immerse our audience in the content of our clients, creating rich, educational and entertaining formats. Interestingly though, our core approach did not change as much as one would think: we still seek tangible vectors of storytelling to capture the attention of broad audiences and target groups – the tools we use, and certain processes we developed along the way, were totally new.
How has your perspective on storytelling changed by the shift towards the hybrid format?
James: This hasn’t shifted that much, to be honest – we have been surprised that our digital shows have followed formats similar to our live immersive shows, whereby we work hard concentrating on the audience journey and what, how and (most importantly) why they go from area to area.
Brendan: I agree – it hasn’t really changed. Our core business is finding innovative ways for storytelling regardless of the format or engagement. No matter whether on the stage, or a digital event platform, we are always searching for exciting new vantage points from where our audience can devour the content.
What would you say is your aim, as a company, whenever taking on a collaborative project?
James: It may sound a little glib, but one of the main questions we ask before taking on a project is, will it be cool and fun to do – and will it be equally fun for an audience to experience? The aim is to always think about the audience and make sure they are integral to the story. We then make sure we answer to the two R’s, as I call them – role and reason. What is the audience’s role in this world, and what is the reason for them being here? If you answer those two questions, I believe you are a third of a way to achieving something great and immersive.
Brendan: Laughter is essential! The ability to make fun of each other’s ideas and contributions, to not take things too seriously, to find the joy in creation, and excitement in leading our audience on the journey of a lifetime.
What makes you decide which projects to take on, and which ones to pass on? How does collaboration weave into this decision?
James: It is very difficult to pass on projects because, fortunately, most that we seem to encounter are very cool jobs to work on. We rarely say no, but we are lucky that people come to us with projects that are very ‘us’, and we are also able to create our own projects or shows from ideas we have internally. These are usually inspired by pieces of theatre, film or books we have enjoyed and think we can take an idea or theme from them and expand it.
Brendan: Scale and complexity play a big role in the decision, but ultimately it is about finding the best collaborators to help you realise an idea that has never been done before. We always strive to have the best possible team on each project, the people make the project and guarantee its originality and success. You’ve got to have the best talent, and for us, this is a constant process of meeting new and diverse experts in very broad industries.
What first drew you to the Esch2022 festivities? What kind of experiential potential did you see in this ceremony? What kinds of challenges did you encounter?
James: It is very exciting to be creating something that is different to what has been achieved previously in the realm of ceremonies. Adding the element of storytelling has always been Les Enfants Terribles’ focus, and we believe that connecting people to a story engages and immerses people even further into an event. Genuinely giving an audience real agency produces fantastic results and doing something for Esch2022 presents a huge challenge for this number of people – but an exciting one!
As far as the challenge goes, working remotely has actually proved fruitful but the disadvantage is that there are so many people involved in the project it can be hard coordinating all of this online. Another challenge is creating something unique for an audience who have not experienced or are accustomed to this type of experience – the key, therefore, is to educate them as much as possible so they can get the most out of the event.
Brendan: On a project of this scale and nature (we’re attempting the largest public immersive event ever in Europe), a project owned and administered by a city or region means that the organisation is built from scratch, much like a start-up. Now start-ups can be very inspiring places to work, but there is also a lot of teething that happens along the way in terms of management, talent and process. The challenges of this project reflect the challenges of running a complex machine, without all of the training manuals and time to tune its performance.
What has been the most enjoyable part of helping this project come together?
James: Working with battleROYAL is a fantastic experience as they are so talented, full of ideas and very collaborative. We thrive on bouncing ideas off them, and with them. They are so open to new thoughts.
Brendan: Thank you James! For me, it’s about the potential. We have some bold and exciting ideas to encourage and engage the audience and citizens within the creative program – just the thought of this alone is hugely enjoyable. We also have a fab team – people I genuinely enjoy spending time with. There’s nothing better than going to work and seeing your mates.
What kind of projects are you keen to take on in the future?
James: I’d quite like to do an immersive experience over a course of a few days and nights – creating something with a dedicated storyline, which can last for longer than an evening.
Brendan: battleROYAL’s current focus is on hybrid experiences: experiential entities that merge education, entertainment and immersion by way of crazy, new and surprising formats. We’re busy reinventing the definition of a ceremony and the celebratory space where large groups of people can share their common rituals and values.
What excites you the most about the future prospects of the experience-crafting industry?
James: The willingness of the creators, to push the boundaries of what they want to try, merged with the audience’s desire to experience something new. The immersive world is growing very fast as demand is increasing, which pushes us creatives to keep trying new and exciting things.
Brendan: A dynamic mix between physical and digital experiences. This process of true hybrid transformation has only just begun – I think this is an incredibly exciting area to watch.
We’ve been close collaborators for years — how would you describe the creative alignment between Les Enfants Terribles and battleROYAL?
James: We have great respect for each other, our skills and abilities – but also a great understanding of how we all work. We also like to have fun and work hard on projects that excite us, which is always a necessity on jobs like this!
Brendan: Les Enfants Terribles are leaders in their field of immersive theatrical experiences. They’re a magnificent partner we’ve been collaborating with since 2017, on some bold and daring live events. We trust each other immensely, which means the creation process is a wonder of ideas and skill-sharing where both companies thrive and profit. Crucially, they love a good laugh, and excel in ‘bad’ British humour.