Vanessa Baylen wants to take you on an interactive adventure in Barrie this fall, an adventure full of mystery, exploration and discovery. ‘It’s about spies, magpies, bow ties, and puzzles; it’s about codes, stories and secrets.’ What does she mean? It sounds incredibly intriguing. And who is this confident young woman with all these interesting ideas?
The basic facts: Born in Toronto 29 years ago; moved to Melbourne Australia where she lived for 14 years; met her English husband Adam (himself an accomplished musician and graphic designer) in Scotland; married in New Zealand, then home to Australia; moved again, this time back to Canada, just over one year ago in 2012.
The lady certainly knows how to haul up the anchor! But wait! It’s the details in between, the reason behind all the moves around the globe that are unique and fascinating.
Success around the globe
Vanessa has created a series of spectacularly successful and award-winning interactive theatre performances that began in Melbourne and have won praise at the largest Fringe Festivals around the world. Now she has brought her talents and energy to Simcoe & Huronia. With seed funding provided by The City of Barrie in the form of an Artist Grant (sadly the last of its kind, for now at least), Vanessa will produce and present “ Spies of Barrie” later this year.
“Spies of Barrie” is a new show, totally customised for Barrie. However, to understand the extent of Vanessa’s credibility for conceiving and executing a project like this, one has to appreciate her theatrical approach and its remarkable history.
A show that’s to die for!
To begin: The show that made Vanessa’s name was called “Death by Chocolate; an interactive murder mystery”. Vanessa explains: ‘It’s interactive, it has chocolate, but it also has a mystery; and that triage of concepts has been a runaway success. I had been doing interactive theatre experiences for some years before, but “Death by Chocolate; an interactive murder mystery” was a new show I created for the 2007 Melbourne Fringe Festival. It was a huge success, the whole run was sold out, and we won the Best Special Event Award. Everyone told me I had to take the show to the Adelaide Fringe Festival. I said “Why Adelaide? It’s a tiny city with churches, one state over from Melbourne, what are you talking about?” Well, in fact it’s the second largest Fringe Festival in the world! I had no idea.’
Vanessa moved to Adelaide, found a new local cast, new local chocolate, local venues, new local everything. Pre-festival buzz was so strong that organisers called a month before the opening asking for more shows. The run was extended and sold out too.
Taking on the Best in the World
‘Then people said “If you make it in Adelaide, you have to go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.” That’s not just the world’s biggest Fringe Festival; it’s the world’s biggest Arts Festival. It’s huge! There are over 2,000 shows. There are so many shows and so many venues that the venues themselves often produce their own festival guides because you can have an entire festival experience at that one venue. And it’s not just Fringe; it’s the Tattoo, the Film Festival. It’s insane.’
She was cautioned to have low expectations in her first year in Edinburgh. ’They said “The first time will be a disaster. A good night will be three people in the audience.” ‘ Undaunted she moved herself across the globe two months before the opening, found a cast, a venue, sponsors and hired a publicist. ‘I find a new cast wherever I go. I support the local community, use what’s there. I don’t bring in external people. I work with the local talent.’
‘At Edinburgh, you are expected to perform every night throughout the whole month of August. I cut it back to five shows a week, a total of about 20 performances. The gods must have been smiling on me; I sold out my show at the largest Festival in the world one month in advance!” A sell-out in terms of numbers means literally not being able fit any more people into the space, roughly 55 to 75.
It was in Edinburgh that Vanessa met Adam. ‘I was in a little tiny folk pub in Edinburgh. Everyone was singing traditional Celtic folk songs, but this one voice rose above the others. I turn around and ohhh! It’s the cute barman.’ They moved to New Zealand and presented “Death by Chocolate; an interactive murder mystery” in Wellington, and later at the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival.
Don’t expect the usual
It would be a mistake and very unfair to confuse Vanessa’s “Death by Chocolate; an interactive murder mystery” with our traditional understanding of murder mystery dinners, when the audience eats while stereotypical characters mingle and overact in gothic style.
‘It is not dinner theatre; it is not a sit-down-and-watch show. It’s like a cocktail party. You arrive. You meet people. You talk to people. You’re there because someone is dead. And when you are talking to others, you are talking as fellow detectives, swapping notes and coming up with theories. You have detective badges, and are given a kit of information when you arrive. You become characters; you are student detectives. You receive an introduction and briefing, then you mingle as you choose. That’s why I compare it to a cocktail party. The murder suspects are trained actors, identifiable characters who might be anywhere in the room. There might be a group of 20 people gathered around one of them asking questions, or maybe the suspect is having a breakdown over a secret that’s been revealed, or the suspects themselves might be having a massive interaction with each other.’
Is there is a resolution to the events of each evening? Maybe, maybe not. While the character traits and secrets are pre-determined, what constitutes a resolution might not be what the audience expects. The murderer may not be revealed, for example. But there is a wrap-up at the end of each performance, leaving the option open for people to return and use the information gathered on their first visit. To keep things fresh, the show changes each night. Different things will be uncovered by different audiences. Some are timid, some are direct, and any number of excellent theories can be developed by a given audience as to whether the crime was committed by one or more than one suspect.
A challenge for the actors
The demands on the actors are unique. There is no script. They might be asked questions out of left field, completely unexpected, and must be able to improvise a believable response on the spot. Typically Vanessa rehearses her cast once a week for 2 or 3 hours over six or more weeks.
But given the interactive nature of Vanessa’s shows, just what and how do they rehearse? ‘My shows are a hybrid of stage, film and improv. The actors need to leave themselves completely behind. They cannot speak or think like themselves, they cannot act like themselves. It’s a training process. I create the characters and I work with each individual actor to co-create the depth of their character. They need to know their character inside and out. It’s like traditional backstory development times 100.’
Then rehearsals move into areas that are specific to the particular show in production. Vanessa asks the cast “How does your character react to the events of this particular night of the show, the night that someone died? What is going through their heads? What will it look like?” ‘We have to get through all those details because those are the very details the audience will be asking about.’
Vanessa emphasises the importance of preparing her cast for a unique interaction with the audience. ‘It’s not theatre in the traditional sense; they are not on a stage. They’re not being filmed, it’s not straight improv. We work together and interrogate each other and give each other a hard time. If you can hold your character with the hardest audience of all, your fellow actors, the ones who know all your character’s secrets, then you’re fine.’
However, the upcoming Barrie show will be different again. “Death by Chocolate; an interactive murder mystery” has been put aside. ‘I’ve done it five times over four years on opposite sides of the world and it was a wonderful success. I will doubtlessly put it on again sometime.‘
Integrating the content with the culture
While Vanessa and Adam have been finding their feet here in Simcoe/Huronia, Vanessa has taken time to consider this new country and its culture, something extremely important for Vanessa’s show structure. ‘It’s been a huge learning curve. For example, Australian audiences will walk into a room, get their briefing and say “Alright, let’s give it a go” and start asking questions, whereas UK audiences want more preparation; they didn’t want to make fools of themselves. They are more tentative than Australians.
‘So, while I’m thinking about creating a show for Canada I have to ask: “Who are Canadians? What do they want? How do they react? What are they repelled by?” In Australia I knew the culture. I knew what challenged them and how far I could challenge them. What I learned from the UK experience was that the same things may not work in two different places. For me, the correct approach is to learn about this culture and to offer something suitable. I don’t want to offer anything passé, clichéd or stupid. The audience needs to be comfortable yet challenged in a gentle way. You can’t do that unless you know a place. So I haven’t been in a rush.’
Her thoughts about Canadians so far? For a newcomer, even a returning newcomer, she finds her birthplace extremely welcoming. ’Whoever you want to be is broadly accepted. I like to think that Canadians are very forward-thinking compared to (former Prime Minister) John Howard’s Australia. It’s so accepting and so embracing here in terms of choices.’
What can we expect in Barrie?
Vanessa is pretty tight lipped about her Barrie show. ‘ “Spies of Barrie” will not be a murder mystery; it will not involve chocolate. It will be about spies. Of course it draws directly from my experiences staging interactive events. In fact it is in some ways an extension of another show I produced in Adelaide called “Aardfard’s Treasure Hunt”, a 24/7 treasure hunt with a massive backstory that went on for a month. It had a custom website; it had secrets, over 70 original clues, massive puzzles, history references, art references. There was something for everyone. On top of this was an on-line experience with which you could interact as much or as little as you liked, plus a live event every week for each of the 4 weeks of the production. ‘
“Spies of Barrie” will not be a one-night, come-and-leave show either. You’ll sign up for a treasure hunt, something new and completely unique. ‘You’ll buy a ticket and decide how much time you invest. You can either work solo or work in teams of up to six. Think of it as a combination of geocaching, Zed.TO, The Amazing Race and Nintendo’s Professor Layton.’ The balance that must be struck is offering an experience that is challenging yet not intimidating, particularly in terms of audience time commitment. Vanessa is throwing around many ideas in her head at this point.
It’s time for YOU to interact with Vanessa!
Right now, Vanessa wants to reach out to those who might be excited about the idea. She is looking to partner with businesses to find out how they can be incorporated right into the production itself in some way or other. The potential exists, for example, for foot traffic to be directed to local stores and businesses in order to find a clue in the puzzle. And of course, she wants to hear from potential performers, no matter what their background or experience might have been in the past.
‘I want audience participants to walk through Barrie with a sense of discovery and wonderment, looking at familiar things in an entirely different way. When you walk down a street you’ve seen a thousand times but you’re looking for something particular, you then look at that street in a new way. That’s the core of what I want to do. It’s about spies, magpies, bow ties, puzzles; it’s about codes, stories and secrets.’
The Green Room will get back to Vanessa in a few weeks to learn more about her innovative and exciting new experience that is waiting in store for all us to enjoy and participate
To contact Vanessa Baylen, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
In the meantime, check out some of Vanessa’s websites detailing her innovative approach to interactive theatre.