InVersion Theatre has been active in the digital theatre space since 2014, when they premiered their first “app-play,” Mirroring Sky, as part of the Philadelphia FringeArts Festival. Participants downloaded the app, which used GPS to guide them on a walk through downtown Philadelphia. As they walked, participants experienced a soundtrack of original music and sound design by composer Marc LeMay, interspersed with poetry by Wallace Stevens and Leah Goldberg. The piece allowed participants to experience their city in a different way, to walk familiar streets with, hopefully, a renewed sense of wonder.
Armed with the rough cut of our soundtrack, we went back to the park to finalize the route, and think more about how we wanted participants to walk it. While Mirroring Sky had users walk without any prescribed stops, we liked the idea of having the Intralia app urge participants to pause in certain places. This would, we felt, make the soundtrack feel more interactive, and less like the podcasts or music you might listen to on a typical stroll.
The more we considered where and how we wanted participants to pause along the route, the more we felt that participants should hear particular parts of the soundtrack at particular pause points. Essentially, we wanted users to hear a certain bit of music and dialogue while seeing (and smelling, and feeling) a particular spot in the park. But people walk at different paces: we couldn't assume that telling a user to pause three minutes into the soundtrack would mean they were passing under the stone bridge. At three minutes in, the bridge would be ahead of some users, and behind others. How could we make sure that participants experienced Intralia in the intended way?
Adding to the challenge, we wanted participants to experience Intralia with a minimum of interruptions from the app itself: ideally, participants would be so absorbed in the story and music, they'd forget they were using their mobile phones at all. We certainly didn't want the soundtrack to include directions.
For their next foray into digital theatre/sound walks, InVersion wanted to replicate the magic of Mirroring Sky while pushing further into the possibilities of the medium. Instead of a soundtrack that was solely abstract and atmospheric, the new project would include dialogue and something of a storyline. It would also include a variety of found texts of multiple genres—and instead of an orderly urban grid, the winding paths of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park would be the app-play’s site-specific setting.
The first challenge of this more complex “app-play” was, simply, figuring out where to begin. We hired a composer, began exploring texts, and took many, many walks in Prospect Park. Eventually, we settled on an approximate route that snaked through forested areas to emerge at grand vistas, only to twist back along narrow shaded paths along the lake. We collected texts, including environmental reports from nearby EPA Superfund sites; poetry by T.S. Eliot; online news articles about weird happenings in the park; and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. We were interested in the tension between nature and artifice, environmental catastrophe and humans’ attempts to forestall it. We added dialogue and assembled a script, which actors then recorded; we handed those recordings off to the composer and sound designer, who wrote an hour’s worth of original music, into which he mixed the voiceovers.
A section of the Prospect Park Lake, surrounded by narrow paths and overgrown forest, covered in electric-green moss. We knew that a meandering route through this section of the park would make for an enchanting piece of outdoor, interactive theatre.
With these changes made, we could leave the beta version behind and go live in the iOS App Store—where you can download the Intralia app now! Note that the map and soundtrack will only launch if you're at the Ocean Avenue and Lincoln Road entrance to Prospect Park, but you can get a sense of the experience with the video teaser below.
TESTING + DEBUGGING
With the main conceptual challenge solved (our wonderful developer programmed the app to the exact specifications I'd laid out), our next task was to test and debug the app. The artistic director and I headed back to the park for more walking, listening, and note taking, but this time with a highly functional prototype.
Intralia, the weird park
Intralia, the weird park is an audio play and sound walk set in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. Participants download the iOS app, put in their headphones, and, guided by GPS, experience the park's wilds in a mind-bending, awe-inspiring new way.
To create the Intralia, I first worked closely with the artistic team (InVersion's director, the composer/sound designer, and five actors) to create the content; then, I collaborated with a developer to design, build, test, and launch the app. It was a challenging but incredibly rewarding process.
Lead and solo designer— discovery, design, testing
The question remained, however: how would the app tell participants when to stop, and when to keep going, such that most participants, regardless of their walking speed, would pause and resume walking at the same moments in the soundtrack, at the same points on the path?
After a lot of walking, brainstorming, and conversations with the app developer, I eventually figured out the solution to the starting and stopping problem: the app would need to tell participants to pause based on where they were on the route, and tell them to resume walking based on a point in the soundtrack. I put together this chart for the developer, identifying where the app would trigger a notification to pause (based on GPS), and where the app would trigger a notification to resume walking (based on a timestamp in the soundtrack). The letters A through E refer to the points noted on the annotated map, above.
While we wanted to keep the app as noninvasive as possible, we realized that some kind of notification was necessary. The developer programmed them to vibrate, so the participant wouldn't have to keep their eyes constantly on their phone, or worry about missing a notification.
Most of the issues in the test version of the app were map- and GPS-related. At points, the route we'd chosen included narrow paths through wooded areas of the park—paths that didn't show up on Apple Maps. With the app open on my phone, I took screenshots of the problem areas, drawing in corrections and explaining what needed to be fixed.
After finalizing the route and with the sound files loaded on our phones, the artistic director and I walked the path we'd chosen while listening to the soundtrack. We noted where the music and text made us want to stop and explore, and where we felt we ought to be moving. We made a lot of observations like these:
“When the music swells around three minutes into track 5, I feel like I want to start walking again.”
“It's cool how the lake comes into view right at the end of the poem.”
“There's a lot to explore in this area by the tree. Maybe we add a pause here?”
Once we'd settled on the spots where we wanted participants to pause, I created an annotated map to identify them.
A map showing the route
A map showing the route, with the pause points identified