How did you begin to specialize in designing for immersive experiences? I’ve always been a storyteller. I started out by writing short stories during study hours at an all-girl Catholic boarding school and found my way into community theatre, and eventually a Masters program for theatre acting in New York City. This affinity didn’t bode well for my parents’ med school aspirations for me. Because my mind sees things—or rather, processes information—through the prism of world building with lots of “what ifs,” “why now,” and “yes...and!,” it was inevitable that I’d stumble onto the experience design industry. In my case, it was after a Craigslist post for an entry-level position for an executive assistant that I was introduced to this world. A place where writers, illustrators, architects, engineers, producers and even puppeteers could collaborate. And I loved it. I just sort of worked my way from there.
How did you begin working at entertainment development agency Mycotoo? Mycotoo was founded ten years ago and was born out of a strong belief and philosophy of making our collaborative process and culture more inclusive. Mycotoo stands for “My Company Too.” Cliff Warner and David Wally are the cofounders of Mycotoo, and I was the first “employee” in Cliff's garage. The three of us spent months in the hot Southern California weather envisioning a development agency that helped passionate people achieve their vision. It was always our intention from day one, with no paying clients or prospects at the time, to work on projects we felt personally invested in. To bring a diverse, innovative and seasoned perspective and not just coming up with great entertainment concepts, but also making sure they were feasible and could actually open, and open successfully.
What are the challenges and opportunities of theme park design in particular? Theme park design is like conducting a symphony on top of a high-speed train on gravel. It’s going to be bumpy, unpredictable and the curve balls are inevitable, but the orchestra has to stay focused and aligned on one vision: to play the most amazing, evocative and impactful piece of music, no matter what. Simply put, the show must go on! This set up provides many opportunities, like problem solving, culture, commitment to creative storytelling, trust, team building and hopefully growth and fulfillment!
How has your background in acting helped you with creating immersive experiences? Acting is listening. It’s about being present at any given moment and practicing the most aggressive form of empathy towards a character. I say aggressive because you aren’t just pretending to listen, you are embodying that character to affect change with your audience. What those years of training afforded me, without me knowing at the time, was the ability to think outside of what was comfortable and familiar, and learn more about what the guest experience is: Creative immersive experiences that resonate while telling an authentic story. I wish I would’ve embraced my training sooner and earlier in my career. I think it makes for being a better human overall.
You mentioned before that theme park design is similar to moviemaking. How so? I’m not a professional moviemaker, so I can only speak from my understanding from colleagues who do it for a living. What I do feel though is that like moviemaking, having a strong creative voice that’s open to being informed and affected by the team around you, and that can also withstand the realities of budget, is very critical to getting from blank page to premiere night or opening day. Creative vision and business acumen have to go hand in hand. And somewhere in there, a bit of luck and unicorn essence never hurts.
What’s a recent project that you’ve worked on that you’re especially proud of? Mycotoo was recently engaged to lead the transformation of Prince’s Paisley Park, a once formerly private facility that previously served as Prince’s home, creative sanctuary and production studio. I was fortunate to lead that effort as executive creative director and I was most proud of watching our team push forward under quarantine to stay open to the influences of Prince’s music, life story and legacy—allowing that openness to keep us motivated and successful in our collaboration with the Paisley Park team.
How do you think COVID-19 will impact how brands approach experience design? I feel like there’s going to be more emphasis on authenticity, purpose and social impact. We were already seeing that in trends prior to the pandemic, where better (more authentic) experiences were a strong attractor for consumers than just status quo entertainment. We saw that especially in the retail/shopping sector. In a post-COVID era, experiences will challenge, engage, evoke and maybe, just maybe, entertain in the process. Now more than ever, the caliber of those experiences has to ring true, as we cautiously—yet optimistically—decide what we want to step out of our homes for. We want to connect more authentically and find platforms or destinations where we can do that safely and feel represented. If representation (as a barometer for authenticity) really matters, then we’ll see more teams and decision makers reflecting the makeup of the audiences we intend to attract. Brand experience design has to mirror these goals and have an execution plan behind it.
Where do your best ideas come from? Dessert Instagram pages and going to the movies by myself. Fortunately, I can still do the former, but how I long to return to the latter.
You also sit on the advisory board for Harriet B’s Daughters and the Ryman Arts Foundation. How do you hope to inspire the next generation of creatives? I will never claim to be the expert on anything, as I feel I’m always learning, but I do honor my experience now and, at the very least, hope to share that honestly with anyone who will listen. I always say, “I would’ve loved to have seen a person who looked like me on stage speaking about what I do, when I was in high school.” I got tired of wishing that and decided to just be that for others.
What excites you about theme park design right now? Ask me after I’ve had some chocolate mousse. No seriously though, the vocabulary typically limited to theme park design is now integral to successfully planning and executing experiences of different types. The ability to build truly immersive worlds (spatial storytelling and masterplanning) to move large masses of people through space seamlessly (operations management and logistics) and to ensure that things last for a pretty long time (durability, sustainability and feasibility) are all blueprints that now extend beyond the theme park model. Now, real estate developments, retail centers, museums, public parks, academic institutions, corporate centers and even brand experiences are incorporating “theme park design” thinking as part of their evolution. What that means is that “theme park design” is an evolving skill set that isn’t just essential, but it is also critical to how we affect change and shape experiences in the world around us. That future excites me!