Show writing for attractions: The secret of being audience-centric.
Stacy Barton, Veteran Show Writer & Experience Designer
After 20 years of creating live shows and immersive experiences for Disney, I can say with some authority that themed entertainment is only as good as its audience engagement. Walt Disney himself said, “I am interested in entertaining people, in bringing pleasure, particularly laughter, to others, rather than being concerned with ‘expressing’ myself with obscure creative impressions.”
More than any other medium, themed entertainment is nothing without our audience. Never has this been more easily understood than during this past year’s Coronavirus shutdown. No audience? No show. Period. It doesn’t matter how much artistry we hold, how important our message, how amazing our technology, how moving our story, or how refined our skill, if we have no one to share it with, we are nothing but the echo of our own voice.
Theater has always been a collective experience, and in the early days, intended for the masses: a tribal story told around the fire, the groundlings pressed together at a Shakespeare play, Dickens read aloud by candlelight, the Lone Ranger on the living room console. And then, once we were captured by cinema and television, Walt created a theme park as the ultimate theater for the masses. That’s why audience engagement is so crucial. Walt was not highbrow; he created stories for regular people to step inside. May we never forget this.
I got my start performing audience participatory street theater—reminiscent of commedia dell’arte—on the streets of Epcot at Walt Disney World back in the 80s. Two or three of us would gather a crowd, inviting the audience to create something out of nothing, retelling stock stories in which audience members became the stars of the show. And if their presence in our storytelling mischief didn’t matter, they simply walked away. There was no question that we were nothing without our audience, you only had to look at whether or not we had a crowd. Most days, hundreds gathered for every ramshackle show. And in between shows I could convince a hundred people to traipse around behind me in the hot Florida sun, laughing at my silly, improvised antics as I took them on a “tour of Italy.” Was it my supreme cleverness, my comedic skill, my writing prowess, or my wildly funny bits? Nope. They followed me because I loved them and invited them to join me as an integral part of every breath of my performance.
Although I’ve moved from storyteller to story developer, my perspective has remained the same. For two decades I’ve written shows and designed experiences for Disney, SeaWorld, Ringling Circus and others all over the world. And I am as audience centric as ever; I know, respect, and work for my audience. They are my first thought and my last, and every thought in between. My job is to move their hearts, delight their senses, and give them the power to interact with their own story. For in the end, that is why they come, why they stay, and why they leave with a deeper sense of who they are, because the story we tell reminds them of their own. Even a silly street show.
As a veteran writer of interactive shows and immersive experiences, here are three questions I ask my team throughout the creative process:
1. What is our promise to the audience? (a terror, a tear, a belly laugh?)
2. How do we deliver it? (an empowering ride, a heartfelt musical, a celebratory parade?)
3. What does the audience take away? (another’s perspective, a sense of belonging, a victory?)
The answer to these questions must be rooted in an emotional journey. In themed entertainment the audience is the protagonist. They are the hero or heroine who undergoes a victorious transformation or a tender alteration of spirit. The action, the plot, the style, the story—a haunted house, a roller coaster, a firework show—can be as varied as anything we can imagine, but we must know what we want the audience to feel. For that is what they will remember. In a live experience that is all they take away.
When we created Club Evil at Walt Disney World, we designed a ritzy, dungeon nightclub run by the Disney Divas of Evil. Was that the promise? No that was the premise. Their location. The world we built. Fabulous and important though it was, alone it could not illicit emotion; a place is not the same thing as a story. And so the story promise to the audience for this experience was that they could change, become someone different, alter their ego for a night: they could “let loose their inner villain.” We delivered this through the invitation, in the words of the swanky host, in the outrageous lines of the Villains themselves, and in the physical experiences in which the audience participated. And so, saying yes to call, our Guests came dressed to the nines, drank poison appletinis, and danced across the same lighted dance floor on which the Disney Villains created their spectacular floorshow moments.
Again, the real promise is less where we take the audience, or what we show them, and more how we make them feel. The brilliance of themed entertainment is that we create experiences that allow people to explore who they are inside the safety and structure of a story.
“Killer Whales Up Close” was an educational Shamu show at SeaWorld San Diego that explored the lives of killer whales through questions from children in the audience.
“Illuscination” created for The Greatest Show on Earth, took children and their families into the wonders of illusion and the fantasy of the circus, enthralling all in a shared experience.
“Stone of Stones” a theatrical escape room where teenage boys learned to work together to save the element of time and preserve the history of the world.
Hitchhiking Ghosts, premiered live in “Room for One More;” this fully immersive show recreated four rooms of the Haunted Mansion attraction and invited superfans to play.
“Scheherazade’s Tale” a 360 dome theater animation for Bollywood Parks Dubai; although it never made it to the screen, this show starred both the heroes and heroines of Arabian folklore, empowering young girls.
The Doorknob, in Alice in Wonderland, came to life in this script as a puppet who interacted with guests as they stepped inside an immersive musical, “The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.”
No matter who I’ve worked with, stateside or overseas, the shows and experiences I’ve been a part of creating absolutely burst with spectacle and music, technology and theatrics. But I will let you in on a secret: my intention is always experiential in nature—immersive and participatory for the audience. Always. Whether on stages, streets, screens, or ships, my heart’s desire as the writer is to guide my audience through a story in which they are vital. A story so alive it reminds them of who they are inside a greater whole.
In themed entertainment every detail, every word—every sight, sound, taste, touch and smell—must drive the delivery of the story promise we made, and result in the emotional takeaway we intended. If we succeed in this, then not only will we have earned our audience’s attention, we will have created something worth remembering and returning to. In the end, audience engagement isn’t just a lofty goal, or a beautiful idea, it’s job security for all of us, affecting the bottom line by ensuring our audience buys a ticket year after year after year.
“If your team of experience designers is without a writer—a storyteller who braids the threads of the design into a golden cord that captures not just your guest’s imagination, but their hearts—you risk missing the emotional connection that drives success. Content, technology, spectacle, even story—without connection—will not be remembered or returned to.” ~ Stacy Barton