Intrepid fans of Swim Pony, founder Adrienne Mackey here with some exciting updates!
You might have heard that we here at Swim Pony HQ have been busy with research for our newest project TrailOff, created in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) to bring original audio stories to nature trails throughout the Philadelphia region.
Since getting the funding go ahead earlier this year (Thanks NET, William Penn and Barra Foundations!) we’ve been delving deep into that funky space between digital and analog, between the mind’s imaginary space and the natural world. Some of the goals behind TrailOff are practical: for example, how we might offer experiences akin to immersive and site based theater to a wider network of audiences. However, on the macro-level we’re also looking at creative and philosophical questions that reimagine how we experience what form stories can take and who gets to tell them.
Before we get into all that, let’s start with a few quick words we’ve been using to explain what the heck this thing will be:
TrailOff is a brand new mobile app, designed to re-imagine how people interact with recreational trails and, by extension, expand the diversity of users that seek them out. The core of this work lies in the creation of 10 unique narrative walks: intimate journeys that use GPS to link audio storytelling to physical attributes along a mapped route. Each selected path will feature text from a local writer along with underscored music and sound design, all tailored to sync to the movement of a listener as they travel along a trail.
TrailOff grows out of two lines of inquiry that have been simmering in Swim Pony’s pot over the past several years. If you’re even peripherally aware of what the company has been up, you know that we’ve been keen to explore how the design of games and other interactive media might teach theater makers something about how to structure immersive works. The lessons learned in works like WAR OF THE WORLDS have spurred us to dig deeper about what it means to place an audience in the center of an experience. Similarly, projects like WALK AROUND PHILADELPHIA have spurred a curiosity about what it means to curiously explore the tangible world in relationship to one’s own personal narratives and experiences, with the moving body as the medium through which these two collide. In THE END we got a first chance at blending these impulses, and with TrailOff, we’re also aiming for the process and product to create space for a wider variety of Philadelphia’s voices. In short, this new work is a creative process that will examine the narratives of place – who dominates the meaning we make about the natural world and how we might re-imagining those stories from new perspectives – while simultaneously giving its eventual audiences a visceral experience of literally walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.
While we can’t yet share the actual stories that will be part of the project but we can share some creative insight we’ve gained in exploring what aspects of a story best suit this particular format.
In July, Swim Pony and Toasterlab, our tech partners in the TrailOff app creation, undertook a narrative workshop, visiting potential trail sites across the area to explore writing specific to trails. In the same way a novel, screenplay, or standup comedy set all include language but utilize hugely different techniques to best serve their medium, we wanted to learn what kind of story is uniquely heard best while walking and listening through headphones.
We took away a LOT from that workshop but a few things stood out. The first lesson seems obvious in retrospect: when writing to place you have to spend LOTS of time there doing the same thing you expect the audience to do. When writing for a form that will eventually require you to move as you listen, it’s best to write in motion and on your feet as well. We spent tons of time walking trails and noticing the stories that made sense there and what we found is that there’s a balance between density of language and the ability to stay connected to what you see. Useful silence is key.
We also found that simple details that connect the listener to the world they are surrounded by are hugely powerful. One of the most effect pieces of language was also the most humble: standing in Heinz Wildlife refuge hearing someone talk about wind washing over reeds.
Our last big summer takeaway was that while this form is tricky on plot-heavy stories – relatively little happens or changes on a trail – it is uniquely well suited to putting you in another’s state of mind. We found language that traversed that space of internal thought or invited us as users into contemplative spaces of our own super exciting.
In November, we brought sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman into the mix to delve deeper into the aesthetics of sound as well as an overarching narrative structure for the app . We brainstormed and begin to define how sound will influence the user experience. We also strategized questions about how audio triggering might work. We shared research on other projects that felt inspirational to this one and finally started trying out ideas again in real space.
A few key takeaways from this workshop centered on the interface experience the user will have. We began wondering narratively who it is that the user is interacting with when they first download TrailOff. Some questions that guided that process:
- Is there a guide that has put together the overall experience?
- What is the aesthetic that one encounters as they interact with the app?
- What is the journey from the first story to the last? What is gained? What is the narrative connection, if any, between each trail?
We began developing a character we’re currently calling The Ranger, a mysterious curator and guide who will over see the experience that each user will have. In tandem with this development we started thinking about the difference between a piece of immersive theater and a pre-recorded audio tour. What is it that makes “liveness” so palpable and special? Why does the story “being there” with the audience matter?
Finally, we began very functionally playing with ways that sound might overlay story content and actually began testing sound scores underneath previously generated text from our summer workshops. And if you’ve made it this far, I’m guessing you might even like to experience it yourself.
Below are three pieces of audio we experimented with. Stream or download one of files above and play it while you take a walk. Each of these files are an little tests in pairing different kinds of language, music and soundscape. To assess what “works” and doesn’t think about the following:
- Is the experience you connect most to located in your ears, in the world, or somewhere in between?
- Are there places where your thoughts are in conversation with what you hear?
- How much (or little) does the language feel connected to the place you are in?
- What about this experience feels uniquely suited to this format?
- Is this even a “story” at all?
A Horror Inspired Creature Story
A Banal Convo About Appliances and the Future
A Nostalgic Tale of Cicada Pee
If you give it a try, we’d love, love, love to add your creative thoughts to our own. Just throw a few thoughts quickly into the box below!