If you don’t know the name (and the work) of Es Devlin you should. An inspired stage designer, Es Devlin crosses genres from opera to Broadway, to the O2 Arena and the Olympic Stadiums in London and Rio.
If anyone saw the Opening Ceremonies of the Rio Olympics or the Closing Ceremonies of the London Olympics, those were Es Devlin sets. The last big U2 tour? That was an Es Devlin set. Or how about Kanye West and Jay Z’s Watch the Throne tour in 2011? Or Verdi’s Otello at the Met in NY? Or Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch on Broadway right now. The range of her work is staggering.
So why am I talking about stage design in a “live events” article? Because, in the end, all events are “staged.” The best ones craft the audience experience from arrival to departure.
As she told Andrew O’Hagan in his wonderful piece in the New Yorker Magazine (March 28, 2016) “I do all this work and nothing physical remains. So what I’m really designing are mental structures, as opposed to physical ones. Memories are solid, and that’s what I’m trying to build.”
…all events are “staged.” The best ones craft the audience experience from arrival to departure.
And there is the magic: “Memories are solid, and that’s what I’m trying to build.” That is what we do when we craft an excellent event. We generate memories that specifically relate to our client’s need.
If you do a little web searching of Es Devlin’s work you will be awed by her transformative and inspired uses of technology. Technology is like clay in her artist’s hands. But deep down, Es Devlin is searching for feeling, for meaning, for connection, for amplification of deep and thought-provoking emotion. She is never simply using technology for technology’s sake.
So I have bias here. I am a firm believer that one of the most important things about live events is interpersonal experience: actual, physical, eye-to-eye interaction. In a world besieged by virtual reality, what could be more important than relationship? And the time is coming when we will be able to put on a headset in our living room in Los Angeles and be standing, virtually, in a ballroom in London experiencing, in real time, an event happening there (or anywhere). And that will be very, very cool. But I think it will be much farther in the future before we “sense” that person in London physically, “feel” them, “smell” them virtually. For that we need to be up close.
Capture the Imagination
These days it really seems like everyone is on the “story train.” Storytelling is the hot new buzzword of the marketing industry and, of course, special events fit right into the marketing world. So, in effect, many of us have adopted the narrative lingo. There’s a lot of value to this insight. Thinking in terms of story helps you organize your client’s message. Messages are a commodity. Just about anyone can deliver a message. But storytelling is an art. A politician with a message falls flat but one with a story captures the imagination (often whether right or wrong).
In the live event world, storytelling takes on new dimensions. We are delivering an experience that needs to be on message. We want to arouse the guest’s mind. Sebern F. Fisher, a noted Neurofeedback expert (Neurofeedback in the Treatment of Developmental Trauma W/ W. Norton & Co.) breaks down what is going on neurologically. “In all of us,” she says, “arousal gives rise to affect, affect to state, and state to reinforcing narrative.” Now, in fairness, she is talking about how the brain works and how it can be coaxed through neurofeedback into more affectively balanced states and better mental health. But there is a kernel here that applies to our industry. We build environments designed to arouse pleasure around our client’s message. This arousal can give that guest an affective boost inspiring them to share their state of pleasure with others through their own positive narrative of their experience. And thus our client’s message goes viral!
This is where Es Devlin is so brilliant. Her designs — widgets, hydraulics, LED and cranes and lasers and lights and cameras and robots, etc. — all come together to form what we experience as an organically shared pleasure in time and space. Her genius is in her honest pursuit of a genuine experience. Keep that as your goal, and your use of technology will always serve to amplify the human mind’s arousal system by generating memories that will live in stories that continue to be told.
Erick Weiss is President and Founder of Honeysweet Productions. Honeysweet has a nationwide network of professional partners in all areas of event and show production. Erick considers himself first and foremost a story teller, having experience as a professional actor and director (and a Masters Degree from the exclusive Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama at the University of Toronto).