Thursday, June 15, 2017

An Immersive Interview

In April I was asked to assist Tacit Darby, and a team of individuals from the Middle Kingdom, with their project to compile information on immersion events. The plan was to collect interviews with people who have planned and executed immersion events, and compile  the data into a website to share with the Known World.

While the website has been put on hold, I'd like to share the article Tacit wrote up. Thank you to Tacit for her kind words and the work she did in putting this together. Hopefully many other immersion event stewards will be able to help with the information database!

Ask anyone in the SCA what the most coveted—and least likely—experience at an event is, and you’ll hear about “The Dream”. When the lighting is perfect, and the speech is courtly, and you truly forget that you’re not part of the middle ages. Unfortunately, such experiences are rare. By necessity we hold our events in places rated to withstand sporting equipment (heavy and rapier fighting), weird, messy crafts (A&S classes), and industrial-level catering (feasts to feed a kingdom). Too often you find yourself dancing a perfect galliard in an elementary school gym, or taking part in a meticulously-researched Roman peerage ceremony in a county fair barn. The modern world is real, and it is easy—and not at all shameful—to use all of its conveniences to make sure an event runs smoothly, or even happens at all.

But what if we want something more? What if we want to spend an entire event transported into ‘The Dream’? More and more we are hearing about special events in other kingdoms; “immersion” events, where the entire day is set in single time and place, with a theme and the infrastructure to pull it off. It seems like an insurmountable undertaking—how would we even know where to start, if we wanted to have such an event ourselves? Luckily for us, the SCA is a friendly place, and if you ask around, you can find the people who run those events, and pick their brains.

We were lucky enough to talk with Lady Olivia Baker, the event steward for The Feast of St. Nicholas, an Elizabethan immersion even that took place in December of 2016, in the Barony of Concordia of the Snows, in the East Kingdom.

Our Interviewer: How did you get the idea for an immersion event?

Lady Olivia Baker: I don't really remember. I think it may have spawned from my love of all things Elizabethan, and my limited involvement in Beowolf, The Event.

OI: How did you get buy-in from your local group, and was it difficult?

LOB: Our Barony has done the same 3 or 4 events for the past few years. When I proposed it, everyone was incredibly excited about it.

OI: Is the Feast of St. Nicholas a yearly event that you added an immersion element to, or did you create a new event for the occasion?

LOB: Years ago, we used to hold The Feast of St. Nicholas as our holiday event. Enthusiasm and support for the event fizzled. During the initial planning phase of the event,I was brainstorming ideas for dates. Looking at a historical calendar of 16th century events, I had been debating between a harvest festival and a winter holiday festival. A Baronial member suggested we give new life to the old event, The Feast of St. Nicholas. My creative team loved the idea, and we ran with it.
OI: How did you get buy-in from the populace (given that many of them might have garb appropriate for a different time period)

LOB: While the attendance was not quite what I was hoping for (I had been aiming for 100, and we got 96), it was still good. I did a LOT of event promotion for the period leading up to the event. I also appointed a Wardrobe Liaison. She was the point person for anyone who wanted to attend, but did not have, or did not want to acquire garb. The Wardrobe Liaison found clothing for each person who wanted to attend and made sure the clothes were all put aside and clearly labeled for each person who contacted her ahead of time. We promoted this particular service a good deal, because we knew Elizabethan clothing would be a serious hurdle for many people.
OI: What other tasks were required to prepare for the event, over and above what one usually does to prepare to run an event?

LOB: LOL!!! What WASN'T required?! Sure, I had a deputy autocrat and a feast steward. We had a Gate Porter and gate staff, We had a set up and teardown crew. But, this wasn't a typical event. It required YEARS of preparation. I started the whole thing with research. I borrowed approximately 20 books from a friend's personal library. My staff and I went through each book, finding details that we wanted to incorporate into our feast. I love the idea of sending couriers across the land to deliver invitations. While there is a limit to what we are able to recreate, we did have our local scribes create some 20 invitations to send to various nobles through the Eastern Kingdom, as well as the sitting Royals of Aethelmearc. I also wanted our feast tokens to be something people will use and always remember the event by. Our baronial Arts and Sciences folks hand-hemmed and embroidered diapers (long, over the shoulder napkins, as would have been seen in period)for above the salt feast-goers and serviettes (smaller table napkins) for below the salt. On top of all of that, we also needed to recruit a full creative team, including a Master of Ceremonies, vocal coordinator, instrumental coordinator, masque coordinator, dance coordinator, and games coordinator.

We also had to find the right location. This was BY FAR the most difficult part. Because, why have an immersion event at all if the atmosphere isn't going to immerse you. This took the longest amount of time. It actually took around 2 years to find the right location. Yes, seriously, 2 years. Most sites that offered an optimal setting charged astronomical fees, and would have sent our event pricing skyrocketing.

On top of all this, we had to design our setting, with the proper tables, place settings, staff, feasting formats. There was so much involved in all of this.

OI: How many people were 'Sponsors', as discussed on the event page?

LOB: We only ended up with 2 or 3 people offering to sponsor items. I don't believe I marketed this as well as I should have. Though, we did have several people contact us, offering to loan us their tables, feast gear, and decor. We would not have had a successful event without all of these people.

OI: Is there anything on marketing and publicity that you'd like to add that isn't covered in your blog post?

LOB: The hardest thing about marketing an event like this is figuring out what information needs to be pushed out the hardest and the most often. For our event, the things we should have pushed more were the sponsors, the need for servers, and the offer of loaner clothing. The real key to getting people interested in an immersion event is Early & Often. And by early, I mean, get promoting 2 years ahead of the event. Get people excited about the idea early. Get the word out early. If people are excited early enough, they will make certain it's on their calendars.

OI: How many more staff (if any) were required for the immersion event, compared to a regular SCA event?

LOB: Our kitchen required at least 1 additional person to handle plating alone. This event was all about pomp & circumstance. Beautiful food was a necessity. On top of that, we had around 10 musicians, 8-10 choral performers, 8 (I think?) masque performers, 6 wait staff, 2 messengers, and 4 runners. On top of this, our set-up and tear-down crew was MASSIVE. And it needed to be. There were so many things to set up. It was impressive how much stuff it took to create this event.

OI: How much more time (if any) was spent in preparation for the event, compared to a regular SCA event?

LOB: All of it. This was a 4 year event plan. FOUR YEARS! And I should have taken another year. As I said before, research is the first step, and this took the longest. As it is said, you can have something good and fast, good and cheap, or fast and cheap; but you cannot have all three. We wanted something good and cheap, so it took a LOT of time.

OI: The site for the Feast of St. Nicholas looks beautiful in the pictures on your blog --how did you find such an appropriate site, and do you have any suggestions for other people searching for immersion-event-friendly venues?

LOB: Of all my struggles, this was the hardest. I have two tips regarding sites, for anyone looking to host an immersion event: 1. get everyone involved - let your entire group know what you're looking for; the more eyes you have keeping watch, the more likely you will be to find something amazing. 2: Don't settle - You may find something will work, but it's not really what you want, or you may find something that's really not great at all, but is a great price. Hold out as long as you're able. You will find something amazing, or you will find something that, with the right amount of additions is exactly what you're looking for.
OI: How did you deal with the modern-yet-necessary parts of an SCA event--gate fees, changing rooms, etc--while still remaining immersive?

LOB: For our changing areas, we set them up downstairs. The downstairs was the area set aside for those moments when you needed to break the immersion. If people needed to take phone calls, they could go there. If people wanted to talk about modern things, they went downstairs. If people needed to check email, change, or do anything else that they needed a break from the festivities, they could go downstairs. Gate was a bit more difficult, because of the set-up of the venue.. We put get directly inside of the doors. People had to walk into the feast hall, then head downstairs to change. If we had been able to do it differently, we would have tried to send people downstairs first, instead of into the hall to go downstairs.

OI: Did you have merchants at the event? Were they also part of the immersive experience?

LOB: We did not have merchants. If we had, they would have only been selling immersion period items, and they would have likely been in the basement area, unless we could have found a way to incorporate them into the main event.
OI: What did you want to accomplish by having an immersion event?

LOB: I wanted to create something beautiful and magical. I wanted to recreate a painting. I wanted people to feel the magic I feel whenever I put on my court garb.

OI: What were the most important things you wanted the populace to experience at the immersion event?

LOB: I wanted people to have that moment where they felt they were truly in a 16th century feast hall.

OI: What were the different component parts of the day?

LOB: We began with dancing in the morning. Once the dancing was done, we opened the gaming tables. The first course was served shortly after that. Following the first course, there was vocal music, both solo,and choral. The plan was to have the second course at this time. Unfortunately, there was a MAJOR problem with the ovens, and the second course was nearly 2 hours behind. So, in the interim, we had a performance of the St Crispin's Day Speech, followed by more musical entertainment. During this break, we also had a throw down between 2 men at the gaming tables. One had accused the other of cheating, and challenged him to a duel. The second course came shortly thereafter. Shortly after the 2nd service, the duel began. The duel was not fully scripted, but there was a general outline the Fencers followed. We did have a marshal, and each fighter had seconds. It was really a wonderful piece of the evening. After this, the 3rd course was served. Following the 3rd course, we had a Masque. It was brilliant! After this, the dessert course was brought out and placed at the head of the hall for people to eat at their leisure, while the evening ball took place.

OI: What kind of feedback did you get from the staff about how the event ran?

LOB: I didn't get as much feedback as I would like. Mostly, people were exhausted and I only heard a couple of complaints about the facility. I would definitely have liked more feedback. 

OI: What kind of feedback did you get from attendees?

LOB: Nearly everything I heard from the attendees was positive. People loved feeling immersed in a 16th century feast. The biggest complements were of the food and the music. It was truly a delight. One thing that had been suggested by the attendees was more entertainment. While there was a good amount of entertainment, the timing of the feast threw things off greatly and changed the dynamic of the entertainment. The other complaint I received was regarding having someone photograph it. However, when we do the event again, we will now have some amazing photographs for event promotion. I, personally, would not change that.
OI: What was your favorite part of the event, small or large?

LOB: My favorite part was seeing everyone dressed in their finest clothing, and enjoying this thing we created out of nothing. My brain child grew into this exquisite creature, bringing joy and delight to nearly 100 others!

OI: Is there anything you would do differently if you could do it again?

LOB: I would have given my creative team another full year to hammer out all of the details. I would have also done significantly more advertising.
OI: ARE you planning to do it again? At this same event (if it is a recurring one) or a different event?

LOB: I would like to do it again, yes. I'm not sure it will be at the same event, or if we will do a different time of the year. But, I keep saying "sometime in the next decade, when we've finally recovered, we'll do it again." I'm keeping the domain name, just in case ;)

We’re so grateful to Lady Olivia Baker for taking the time to share her expertise and hard-won knowledge, and for inspiring us from afar! Huzzah!