A Peek Into TrailOff

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.


Heinz Wildlife Refuge, Photo: John Hawthorne

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.


Schuylkill Banks, Photo: John Hawthorne

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.


Swim Pony & Toasterlab near Bartram’s Garden,  Photo: John Hawthorne

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.


Jenna Horton on the Delaware River Trail,  Photo: John Hawthorne

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.


Brainstorming notes, Photo: John Hawthorne

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?


Adrienne walking Gateway Park,  Photo: John Hawthorne

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!



Talking with someone who you are thinking about working on a project with is a little bit like dating. There’s a chemistry, a way of similarly talking about what you want and how you want to do it that is so tricky to define. Seeing someone’s work matters. But not always. Someone who can talk a good game is important. But it’s not everything.

Sometimes it feels like you just know. And sometimes you’re right. Other times you are super duper wrong.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I bring people on in various kinds of capacities for a whole host of projects. There are the collaborators I’ve worked with in the past, people who may not at first blush seem right for the thing I’m asking them to do, but damn it something just says, if you want them do it anyway. There are people that I don’t know at all, who might be crazy or unstable or un-collaborative, but something in my gut just says to do it.

There are people I have made things with that turned out really really well and for some reason the process just didn’t feel right. So even though the outcome was fantastic, something internal keeps me from bringing them back.

There are other people who feel like the open my brain up and make me see things that I could never have imagined. They are creators that I feel like talk the way I talk about work. As if I can be more honest about what I really want and how I want it. I still don’t know exactly what that feeling is or how it happens, but I know when it’s there. And whether it results in the best work I’ve ever made or not, I seek it hungrily.

And then there’s everything else in between.

It’s hard to know sometimes exactly what you’re looking for, and in what proportion: some combination of intelligence, kindness, initiative, talent, confidence. And of course the balance of these things in one person can often smooth out the deficit in another. It is a strange alchemy, this practice of creating something with a group of people. It’s a kind of cookery I’m often feeling just a step behind on.

In high school I co-wrote a musical review with my best friend at the time. We spent months in secret creating a script for “What We Did For Love” (remember that post where I said I could never go to a college without a musical theater program?). The show was a pre-Glee high octane rom-com high school musical fantasia with a loose homage to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. We were a phenomenal writing team. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve been quite as passionate and diligent about a co-collaborator. And recently, when I went back and looked at the thing I was still more than reasonably impressed with some of the snappy, silly, and oh-so heart-felt-edly genuine words we poured our efforts into.

As co-directors (the only time such a thing has ever been functional for me, btw) we were compliments of each other in an easy and comfortable way. While I preferred to look at the big picture of staging, structure and transitions, Tracey was super smart about the details that really mattered, especially when it came to the wry smile of our ingénue or the right delivery of the male lead. Nowhere was this eye for detail more needed than in casting. Which was unfortunate when Tracey came down with chicken pox and had to miss the entire audition process.

The leads we could convene on. These were folks we knew and had strong ideas about going in. But it was those smaller, bit roles, the ones that weren’t large, but really made our script what we imagined it to be. This is where we stalled. We talked, but there wasn’t any substitute when it came down to it, and she just had to go with some of my impulses.  Some of which worked out, others not so much.

The problem with me, I think, is that when confronted with something, I am often swept up by imagining the potential of the thing or person rather than what is actually in front of me. I imagine what, given infinite time and ideal circumstances and a bit of luck, could be the best version of a collaboration. And in some cases, the more underappreciated I see someone to be, the more I really want to be the one to put that person in a position to really shine, surprising everyone with the potential I envision so that their undiscovered artistic superpowers might be brought out.

This works fantastically in some cases, especially when I am thrown into a situation where I have little control over the people I am involved with. I have often agreed to create with those I know almost nothing about and been open enough to discover a multitude of amazing and creative things about them. When I have to make the best of an unknown, I am generally pretty great at mining for the gold.

Sometimes though, that ability to imagine the possibility of such a discovery can get in the way of objective assessment. I often find myself in love with a strange or small quirk in a performer or potential collaborator. Many is the time I realize I am measuring them not against some impartial standard but against themselves. When I see them grow, it feels amazing because I have been on that journey with them. But this is not always the experience of the audience. They most often only see the end result, which may not seem so impressive without the context of the starting point.

There are days when I wonder if I’m a lucky fool. Or some kind of idiot savant. I have had the fortune to hook up with some amazing artists. But I don’t know if I always knew what I was doing. There are many times when I wonder if I actually know what “good” is.

Which is why I am often at such a loss for how to choose new co-creators. Which is why I like to stick so close to the chest and hold on to those people I know and love. I do think they are talented, but more than that, I know they are interested in the way that I happen to create. Which is a hard to define mix of forthrightness and listening. Which requires an open mind and relatively flagrant disregard for how things are usually done. A maker whose mode of making includes a hearty belief in their own artistry but is able to apply that in context of a group discovery and naïveté. I need each process to feel like we are finding it anew together. I need artists who know they will find something worth doing because they know they’re awesome. But for the result to be a real discovery, none of us can be sure exactly what that awesome thing will be. Which is perhaps why I so rarely begin in the usual fashion from a script. Which is why Swim Pony’s work is often me asking people to do anything except what I’ve seen them do before. Which is why I tend to like performers who tackle things from an odd angle that I don’t totally know how to deal with.

So back to Tracey. It was rough, and I didn’t like that I had to cast the show mostly without her. There was one, a kind of mannish gym teacher, role that I gave to a freshman. It was, in the end, not the most shining part of the play. And I realized halfway though the process that the person Tracey wanted would have been a lot better.

But I think I cast that freshman because I liked the idea of giving her space to be huge and loud and in charge. I wanted her to have a chance to be brash and funny because she wasn’t really that way in person. I liked the idea that she could, some day, be that character, even if she wasn’t right now. And It wasn’t the best in the moment choice, but it was a kind of long view tactic at creating a space in which people get to express all kinds of sides to themselves.

That kind of vision of theater requires community that invests in its creators over the long haul. It requires us to want to allow people not to display talent but develop it. To break the stereotypes of what we see people already capable of in the immediate takes time and a lot more leeway to give them room to grow.

I don’t know which is better.

But it’s why I continue to surround myself with lots of opinions, so that I have balance in the way I evaluate the people with whom I will work.