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Interview: Owen Kingston and Tom Black on Bridge Command

Following our recent hands-on preview of Bridge Command, we sat down with Owen Kingston and Tom Black of Parabolic Theatre to find out more about their immersive starship simulator experience.


Bridge Command set from Parabolic Theatre

Photo: Alex Brenner


Thanks for taking the time to speak to us. We'd like to start by asking about the initial version of Bridge Command that ran at COLAB Factory in 2019/2020. Can you tell us about the experience of creating that version and what you learnt from it?


Owen Kingston: I first had the idea back in 2010, and even at that point I was like "This could be colossal. We just need the resources to do it." I hadn't even started Parabolic at that point, I was experimenting with some immersive-style work, but I started Parabolic Theatre in 2016 so it was several years after that before I ever had an immersive theatre company.


A couple of years into having that [Parabolic] we started to think we had the resources to maybe do a very cheap trial of the show. Bertie, who ran COLAB Factory, had space in the basement. Another show had pulled out unexpectedly, and he said "Do you just want to come and make something? Use it for R&D. If you make something and it's cool, sell some tickets for it in the autumn." Initially, we were just going to set up the computers as a tech test, then we thought "We should maybe put some walls around it..", so we put the walls around and then it was "We should make it feel a bit more like a spaceship..." and we just got carried away.

That was the initial moment where I put it all together and thought "This is really cool. If only we had the money to do it bigger". We didn't know anybody at that time who might be willing to invest in something that was completely untested.


Initially, we were just going to test it for a week. We put some tickets on sale for quite cheap and just sent it out to our mailing list. It was our fastest-selling show - within 72 hours, everything had gone. So then we thought, "Okay, we'll put another week on." And that sold really well. So we did those two weeks of testing, and it went so well - people really enjoyed themselves, even in a very janky piecemeal type set. We thought, "Let's just run it for as long as we can run it and test out our idea of episodic narrative when we do different shows in this world."

Bridge Command set from Parabolic Theatre

Photo: Alex Brenner


We took a couple of weeks break to fix a few things and make the set a bit more robust and add a few things that we wanted to try, and then we put a month's tickets on sale. Then we just kept adding another month, another month, another month, another month. What we found was that there was a fall-off - probably about 50% of people who came once didn't come back - either because they didn't like it or because they did like it, but the production values were pretty poor. But for the 50% or so who did come back, nearly all of them came back for every single episode that we made. We did nine episodes in the end, and basically everyone would come back for all of them. That's when we realised, "Oh, there's a business model here which works in theory. If only we can make a set that's incredible"


So how did you come about securing the funding for this new version of the show?


Owen: It was November 2019 - this group booked in, just people who had heard about us from friends of friends. They came along, played the show, and the next day I had an email that said "I played your show yesterday - the set is awful, but we loved the idea. We're an investment company, we would love to talk to you about investing in this and making a really high production value version." I was a little sceptical, but I emailed back and said, "Well, that sounds great, let's have a meeting." I went to their very posh offices in the City, and that's when I was like, "Oh, okay, maybe this is real." I sat down with their head guy, Sonny, for a couple of hours, and hammered out a deal. I was bowled over by their enthusiasm and readiness to be involved, not just by putting money into it, but also wanting to learn how we make this kind of work and then help shape the world of the show and all that sort of thing.


We signed that deal in January 2020 - while we were still running the cheap version of the show. We ran it right the way through to the start of the pandemic, and when the pandemic happened, I thought, "Oh, that's it. This deal's going to fall apart." Sonny phoned me up one morning right after the pandemic started, and he said, "Look, don't worry about anything. Keep working on it. Keep doing everything you're doing. Eventually, this pandemic's going to be over, and people are going to want this stuff more than ever".


Zoe Flint (L) and Tom Black (R) from the cast of Parabolic Theatre on the set of Bridge Command

Photo: Alex Brenner


One of the common threads that runs through a lot of Parabolic's previous work is the idea that the audience has real agency to control and shape the world they are in through meaningful decisions, with the world responding to them. How do you go about integrating that into a show of this scale?


Owen: It has to be built in from the ground up, and that was something that was a real challenge in the beginning - working with incredible theatre professionals who were used to working on linear narrative. So, the lighting designers, the sound designers, all the tech teams, were used to building a show that people progress through linearly, and that isn't as flexible as this.


Getting that thinking into everybody's head at the beginning was a challenge because it really is a seismic shift in how you think about planning and how to make something. But if you build it in from the ground up, then actually it becomes very natural, and it becomes the natural endpoint. It's all about shifting that thinking from, "We are going to tell you a story, which is going to be fixed and will always happen the same way every time." It's changing from that to being, "We are going to tell a story together, and we're going to take what your decisions are and we're going to make them meaningful by bending the world of the show around it."


How do you manage and keep track of all the decisions guests are making throughout the show?


Owen: Really the main tool for that is the back-end database - which is built in Notion - that we use to track everything that the audience decides to do. So long as you can track it, and so long as you can feed back to the audience what the consequences of their decisions are, then it works. The important thing is that you have a way of managing the data and feeding back to the audience the consequences of that data. It's all very well making a decision, but if you never see the impact of it, you might as well have not made it. So we can track all that stuff at the back-end - we can make it meaningful - but unless they know that what they've done - X has produced Y - the whole exercise is pointless. So the feedback mechanism and then the method of data handling, Tom has been the pioneer for that...


Tom Black: We did a show a few years ago called Crisis? What Crisis?, which was a politics simulator. That was powered by a spreadsheet that did all of that. It had the cause and effect, and it crucially gave us a way of feeding back into the room "So here's what's happened because of this." With this show, we've commissioned the building in something in Notion, which is much more impressive - it's cloud-based and it's going to have thousands of people in it. It saves not only what your crew did, but what you did. Let's say you come back with none of the same people, all the things you did on that previous mission are saved not just to the crew, but also to you. If you get mixed and matched with some people that did some other things, the Gamesmaster running the show can be like, "Okay, right, it's interesting, we've got a mixed crew - this person went off and did this before and made some enemies in this sector, and these guys have an alliance with these other guys. Let's make a little scenario where they have to maybe be in conflict with each other in an interesting way". But as Owen says, it's knocking over the domino and telling people that's why this happened.


Christopher Styles from Parabolic Theatre Bridge Command

Photo: Alex Brenner


And it's that level of responsiveness that really makes the entire thing fluid right?


Owen: Yeah. It's the thing computer games can't do on their own. Computer games have got to have a decision tree. The developers are not going to be sitting next to somebody, editing the game on the fly for them to accommodate what they want to do, you've got your pre-baked choices. That's what I think is unique about interactive immersive theatre - the live actor, present in the room, who's got a brain. That's why it bothers me that so many immersive shows just make an actor follow a script. Why are you wasting your unique thing that nobody else has? Why not empower that actor to be able to make meaningful decisions about the world of the show?


Having done a bunch of other shows before, we've been able to test these things in the small scale. That's enabled us to scale it up really. Tom runs his show, Jury Games, and some of those principles are really evident in that. We've made shows like Crisis? What Crisis? and For King and Country - we've had thousands of hours of being able to test that, being able to pivot the story around audience decisions, so we've got good at it. But I think that makes it difficult to imitate this well because there are so many pitfalls, and it's only really through doing it that you learn how to avoid those.


Bridge Command set from Parabolic Theatre

Photo: Alex Brenner


You've developed quite a detailed backstory for the shows world. Can you tell us a bit more about the world visitors to Bridge Command will enter into?


Owen: What we're trying to do is deliver on the promise of shows like Star Trek, where it's not just about flying around and 'pew-pew, we're going to blow up a load of bad guys'. You are a representative of an Earth government, and you're there to try and be responsible. Initially, the show is centred around an asteroid belt 22 light-years away from Earth called the Adamas Belt. In the backstory of the world, humanity fled to a planet close to that asteroid belt when Earth's environment completely collapsed and they went to that planet to hopefully start again. They then discovered that the planet wasn't as habitable as hoped, and was stuck in this asteroid belt for a number of years, trying to figure out what to do next. Eventually, they crack a new power generation technology that allows everybody to return home to Earth and fix the environment.


The current version of the show is set when Earth is being prepared, the environment has been sorted out, and humanity has taken to the stars again, and has returned to the Adamas Belt to recover some of the stuff that it left behind, only to find that a whole human civilisation has sprung up there in the preceding 40 years. So you've got a united government of the entire solar system, Earth and Mars, called the UCTCN. They've arrived in an area of space where nobody knows who they are, and nobody cares. They feel a responsibility towards humanity as a whole, so they're trying to bring these people into the fold, but a lot of them don't want to go into the fold. They're quite happy doing their own thing.


There's a lot of political wrangling. We've got five or six different factions in the Adamas Bely, including a whole bunch of people who live on an old ark ship with forests and fields built into the ship so that they can grow food. There's a whole bunch of space criminals who run a gambling operation out of an old space station. There's a whole bunch of pirates who just go out and steal people's shit. There's a variety of independent miners and different factions who all know each other. The UCTCN becomes a kind of police... trying to make everybody work together for the good of humanity.


By design, every visit a guest has will be different right? You won't end up repeating the same story beats if you visit for a third or fourth time.


Owen: Either on the Military or the Exploration team, we can run a lot of unique missions. You could even repeat the same mission parameters in some cases, but make the actual mission feel completely different. You might be ordered to go on a routine patrol around some mining asteroids - that could be the mission, but what happens then is completely up for grabs. You might get attacked, you might encounter somebody who's got a distress call, and then you've got to get them onboard the ship and see what's wrong with them. You might find a weird anomaly in space that you then have to study. Maybe it destroys the shield generator or something. There are all kinds of different potential scenarios you can run so that the mission objectives can then be taken in all kinds of different directions.


What do you hope the average audience member that comes to this would take away from it afterwards? What do you want them to leave having felt?


Owen: I really like the idea of giving people the experience of genuinely feeling like the best version of themselves. You come aboard the ship and you get to be your idealised self - you get to be the hero. You get to do the heroic thing. You have scenarios thrust in front of you that give you the opportunity to step up. If you'd always imagined, "What would I do if my ship was under attack and I was Captain Picard?" You get the opportunity to test that and hopefully come away feeling ten feet tall because you've nailed it.

If people have grown up watching sci-fi TV shows, we want to try and deliver on the opportunity to do the cool things that you've always wanted to do., like set jets to warp core, trigger the self-destruct, or sit in the Captain's chair and go 'Engage'.


Tom: I really like the teamwork side of it, especially when people who don't know each other play. I've been to immersive shows where by the end I've hugged people, and I then realise after I've hugged them that I didn't know them until two hours before. I'd love for that to start happening. Because of how much you have to work together if you're going to thrive, it really bonds you together.


Owen: The first version of the show, we had people who made friends, they'd come and they'd booked separately - they didn't know each other - they played a game together and then they were like, "I was really fun, should we book the next one together?" And they came back and now they're mates, which is lovely. That kind of thing would be really great.


Tom Black from the cast of Parabolic Theatre on the set of Bridge Command

Photo: Alex Brenner

 

Bridge Command begins previews on 27th March in Vauxhall. Tickets can be booked via bridgecommand.space with prices starting at £40.00.

2 Comments


bluelightning2000
May 11

To the crew of Bridge Command in Vauxhall, on behalf of all crew members of Starfleet ship: the USS Londonium, and in particular, a special celebration of our colleague Donna whom as the Captain of UCS Havock on 4th May 2024 had celebrated her birthday in style, I hereby wish to extend the following thank you message to crew behind Bridge Command:

“View screen opened a cosmic path, in all one afternoon for it came to pass, as the crew of the USS Londonium underwent training, for our intent guided us, true! Seasons past in light years, far from home, as we engaged; though in reality was conceived of the collective beating hearts, so beckoned; designated to respective bridge command…


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magicmerly
Apr 07

I really love what they have going on here, my only worry is that the price is going to keep me from a long illustrious career in space, having been twice already and planning a 3rd, I'm very much looking forward to what this can throw at us.

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