Storytelling is all the rage, as is narrative design, online experiences, the desire for travel and tourism, and all things immersion. Frances Vieras Blanc is a one stop designer with the background of champions doing utterly incredible things. I sat down with her to pick her brain about her pivot from in-person immersion experiences to virtual immersion tourism experiences. This is a bit longer than our normal 10-15 minute episodes at 25 minutes - but it is definitely worth it and an episode you do not want to miss!
We will be following up with Frances for a live Q&A session that will be posted on our social media pages. To ask her your questions to be answered live - make sure to leave a comment on our Facebook post!
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Dr. K: Hello hello and happy thursday! In today’s episode I am doing an industry interview with one of my dear friends Frances. We met a year ago and have been non-stop following each other since. She is joining us today from Paris! Thank you so much for joining us today Frances. If you would, please introduce yourself and what you do for a living?
Frances: Sure. Well, thank you for having me. I'm really excited to be here. My name is Frances, and I am a mother of three. I am an American expat living in Paris, happily married to a Frenchie. And I am co-founder of an experience design studio. It's an all women run experience design studio dedicated to redefining storytelling and audience engagement. So at our core, we're all, we all come from either the performing arts world or theater or video games. So we're all really story based And our passion is story. So our goal is to try to really infuse story in everything we create, be it anything ranging from, you know, a business based event to, you know, a marketing brand activation or actually live theatrical production. And we do it all in that realm. Our goal is to really create these highly engaging, highly memorable storyfied experiences. And that's our passion.
Dr. K: Thank you. So my experiences with you have really been before COVID or focused a lot more on knowing your background in terms of theater. Do you want to talk about some of the live performances you did and then how you've moved those online because of COVID?
Frances: Yeah, COVID as I'm sure we all know, COVID was quite a head turner. It made us all really kind of shift how we approached what we were doing and honestly, I have to be, like, you know, fully, fully honest with myself and with you and everybody….I think it was actually a really great thing that happened. Because I've learned so much, my team and I have learned so much these last few months, probably more than we would have had we stayed a “normal” course. So, for my background, I was kind of born and raised into a performing arts tradition. So my, from my family, we have a lot of artists. And I knew at a very young age that I want to be a Broadway star, that was my passion, and I was gonna be on Broadway. And so I really at a young age, really started doing, you know, acting, dancing, singing, don't have a great singing voice that I leave for my sister, but grew up kind of just in that universe, in that world. Also, from a writing standpoint, you know, at a young age, writing screenplays and having all my neighborhood friends act in it and inviting their parents. I can't count how many times my parents sat for a homemade rendition of, the hills are alive with the sound of music like hundreds I have to say. Anyway, so all of that kind of kept growing and kept growing and then I actually did my studies in cinema, film and television. So I specialized in directing and screenwriting. And then I really went into kind of a cinema tradition and working in that world. And my passion really is in creating stories, that's when I really discovered that passion or, or kind of tapped into it from when I was a kid. Because as a child, like I was saying, I'd love to write stories, and really tapped into it. When I went to school in San Francisco, I graduated from the Academy of Art University, and really fell in love or reconnected with storytelling, and screenwriting and then worked in that realm for a long time. And then at some point, realize like you know, many years later, I saw a performer on stage doing a cabaret and burlesque and I was like wow, that's that's really cool. Like I want to reconnect with this theater, but I'm really busy and you know, in screenwriting and directing and you know in the film world. So how can I bridge this gap, and then I decided to start producing, you know, becoming an burlesque performer and producing burlesque shows, which I did for 10 years. I started in San Francisco and then brought that here, my troupe here, reconnected and recreated a troupe here. And then we built an entire world around our burlesque brand at the time, and we were doing monthly burlesque brunches, which at that point, we're actually now using the term that we all know better - immersive. So you know, it was really, a really intimate setting kind of theater in the round, but you know, that the dining tables were around us. And we would invite the audience to come up and learn moves and, and you know, take off a glove or, you know, do different things, which now we attribute to like, oh, that was kind of the beginning of these immersive experiences. At one point, you know, being an American in France, if you're just learning the language, there's only so much you can do in French. I ended up finding a fantastic job as a screenwriter at a video game company, and became a video game writer with an amazing team of expats as well. And so that got me into understanding narrative design and interaction in a different respect. So really how to design mission, design narrative, design how to design with an interactive experience. So going from theatrical and cinema, which is, which is a very traditional experience like there's, there's a spectator in a seat, and they are watching something. To then, that cabaret experience where we started really interacting and bringing people on stage. And then, video game which was like okay, how to really create multiple storylines that all feed into each other. And then on top of that, really understand a player's perspective. So now we're shifting the experience from like the creator but to the participant, the gamer. The person receiving information and how to build that kind of co-creative or symbiotic relationship. And then after a few years there, I realized, I'm going to take everything I've learned, my entire life has now built up to creating experiences. And realize I've been doing it along the way in just different formats. And now that there's this experience industry or immersive industry emerging, I can actually, I have a label to add to what I want to do. And not just like a Jackie of all trades, but someone who's like, listen, I know all these great skills that I've perfected throughout my life. And I'm going to put it all into this one container called experience design. Even though in experience design, we try to break containers. And at that point, I took one of my partners from burlesque, my previous manager, or lead designer, lead writer at the video game company, and our admin Maven who has a Master's in Business Administration and we decided to, you know, I brought together this team so we could create an Experience Design Studio. And our very first project, our very first experience of what we wanted to do was an immersive tourism experience. And that is taking all that we know in story design, narrative design, live production, and bringing it all together. And that is called Let Them Eat Cake. And that is, we invite the audience to come and become part of Marie Antoinette's court on the eve of the revolution, and experience the last few hours that Versailles was the court of Versailles, because at that specific time, which was actually the show takes place the 17th of July 1789, the vast majority of the nobles of the aristocracy left Versailles and Versailles never really had a hay day again. And so we, we love those kind of like turning points, like where are those experiences that had those moments of like everything is shifting, what causes that shift and how does that shift feel? And so what made us choose this is the fact that we are (A) not only are we all Anglophones, we have one French person on the team, but she speaks English as well. Umm...There's a big industry already emerging, inexperienced and immersive design for the French public. But there was nothing for either expats or tourists that speak English. I also was a tour guide for three years in Paris. And so I realized, in many of my years, I’d have a lot of people, or many of my tours that a lot of people ask or say, Wow, wouldn't it be really nice to know what it was like back then? And in whatever tour I was giving. And so my thought was, you know what, let's see if we can actually give a glimpse of what it was like back then. And so we spent a year building the show. Since February 2019. I had just confirmed our venue, on the 11th of March, we had just finalized our terms of agreement on this beautiful venue in the heart of Paris, and we had just confirmed our launch date. Our open date was supposed to be the fourth of july of 2020. And, of course COVID happened. No launch, no tourists, no launch, no show. So, the moment that, literally the moment that the French President came on TV and it was like, confinement, you know, as we, as we're calling it here confinements that are really quarantining confinement, I was like, okay, we, we have to pivot. We have to, we have to go to where the audience is. Let's find, let's see where they are. And if everyone's going to be in front of their computer, let's bring them something on their computer. And so that's how we decided to take Let the Eat Cake and bring it online. And we decided that we started testing things. We started putting some Facebook Lives, you could interact with the court members, you could, you know, then we created a virtual experience that we launched in July for a month. Our first version, or prototype to test that. And it was really using our characters that we already built and the universe we had already built, but creating kind of these transmedia spin offs. And a lot of it really was A) let's, let's continue to build a brand. Let's get people to know our name. So that way when the show can run, people already have an idea of who we are. And we've already produced work. B) let's have the actors continue to rehearse. Immersive is all about improv, in many cases, I should say, improv and connecting with the audience. So what better way than to put them in front of an audience raw, having to stay in character and interacting and see really about staying sane? You know, instead of us wanting to kind of wallow in the misery of like, we spent a year building this show, and it's a big show. And now we can't run it. It was like, you know what, let's stay connected. Let's stay creative. Let's, let's keep focusing on something so we're not focusing on what's happening outside and not really kind of fall into depression. So we just shifted, pivoted and were busier than ever during confinement. Actually, I had not been that busy in months. So um, so yeah, that's how kind of, my story, our story and then how everything just shifted in confinement and we went to the virtual space.
Dr. K: And now, you were telling me earlier, you were saying that Let Them Eat Cake and virtual has become so successful that you think it shifted what you think the future of your company is going to be?
Frances: Yeah, so what's really interesting is like it's not so much about Let Them Eat Cake being successful, it was really cool to throw out this version, this version one, this prototype and see what worked and didn't work. Because up until then, we were in live, we were people doing live productions, live you know, live events, live shows, everything had been live except for in the cinema but that's a whole nother, you know, beast. But then to go virtual live was something that was brand new for us. So it wasn't that, it wasn’t that success, that success really came in the knowledge we got from it. And all the information, everything we're learning from it. A) just because it's virtual doesn't mean it's a lot less work than actual live production. It's a lot of work. B) you got to stay on your toes, there's a lot of things that can go wrong. So that's a great, it's like, always had to be a great troubleshooter, creative thinker, how to think out of the box and anything that can happen and how to have options and solutions. And also, it's now becoming our core value as a company. We are now really building our own company operating system as being a remote team. And even though we're almost all Paris based, one person is outside of Paris in another city, we could technically still meet but we've decided we're actually going to really build a solid, highly engaging dynamic remote operating system as a company so that we can share that with other companies. And that would be the base of our business model with other companies. And so now what we're doing, is taking, is learning all these things as a company and how to work remotely, continue to be engaged, continue to build the internal values of the company, to stay dynamic, to stay connected on a small scale, so that we can adapt it on a larger scale for bigger companies.
Dr. K: Absolutely. I know a lot of companies are starting to do that. Maybe not if they're all in the same city, but more dispersed and it's really great to hear that you're doing that as well. So you mentioned prototyping. And that's interesting, because in a couple of weeks, my Tuesday lesson is all about prototyping. The event industry, I feel, doesn't necessarily do prototyping very well. And if you look at standard models or standard processes, there's prototyping for product, there's prototyping for a one to one service interaction, but there's not really prototyping for events. I think traditionally, event logistics or even event coordinating, event planners and event designers at some level, if you have a standard logistics background, you tend to be a little bit more Type A, OCD, I need to know everything I need to know what's going to go well. And if it doesn't go well, that defines who I am, who we are as a company, you only have one shot to make it good. And prototyping events now online has become huge. It’s just exactly what you said with the version one, version two, version three. But I don't necessarily think that the traditional event planner thinks like that. Can you share a little bit more about what you've learned through the prototyping phase? Maybe what your experience of prototyping has been in the past, anything around that topic really.
Frances: You know, and that's it's a great observation cause that's exactly it. When, in the past when putting up a show, we will rehearse a lot for sure. But we're not going to test it on the audience, we're gonna launch and that's our debut, and, and you know, the show is up and running. And then I guess what's interesting is we don't consider prototyping because that's predominantly kind of business language. And then, you know, in the arts or, you know, performing arts, we're like, oh no, you know, we're artists, we don't, we're not business, although we are in show business. And so the interesting thing is that we actually prototype, you're just, we're just either not conscious to it or we're not saying it. Because often if you have, if you're smart enough, you run a show. And everybody knows that what happens on opening night, that show is not the same show you get 100 shows later, because you're tightening up the show as it goes, you're making changes. You're rapidly prototyping along the way, but you don't use the language prototyping. In this case, we decided to shift our perspective on it. And the truth is, you're absolutely right, we probably would have launched and, this is a great COVID lesson, we probably would have launched our show or Let Them Eat Cake the live experience and then prototype in that kind of more traditional way, which is like, we're gonna run it and and tweak and tweak and tweak and it'll get better, bigger, stronger as the days, the weeks and the months go on. And when it came to the virtual experience it, for some reason, it just kind of seemed logical to prototype it. It's also because at this point, when we went into confinement, and we stopped so much emphasis on the show, and we were able to start looking at the other aspects of our business. And we really started pushing that business aspect like that, that the B2B or, for business experiences, because our b2c for the moment had to take a backseat. We went into the business mode. And so then when we created the first version of our online experience, we started looking at it even though it's a creative, live, somewhat theatrical production, we started looking at it as a business model. And we said, okay, what would we do in business and in business, we were going to prototype. And so let's, let's prototype and we actually beta tested first. So we ran a couple weeks of beta testing with people we know, we respected their opinion. And which was great, because we were able to kind of iron out a bunch of different kinks. And then we said, alright, let's launch version one knowing full well that we were going to run a different version afterwards. But we wanted to see how version one ran. And so that was really, that was really helpful. And I think the biggest lesson from that is that we're going to continue to operate in that respect. So, you know, when we go back to live production, we'll, we'll definitely prototype it, we'll run it, we’ll beta test it, we'll run it, we'll prototype it, and before we actually really, like do a official launch. So I guess we'll probably do like a soft launch for a little bit. And then really launch that kind of version two officially.
Dr. K: And then also, to that point, when you think about theater, you automatically think about live, when you think about events, you automatically think about live. But now there's this whole remote or pre-recorded concept that attendees can access it at any point in time or use it at any point in time. Have you had experience with that? Or is that something you're considering?
Frances: Great. We were actually considering that for version two. Excellent question m’lady. So yeah. We had a really great review by one of the top immersive publications on our version one. And we completely agreed with everything and one of the biggest reviews was that it's hard to manage interaction on a virtual space because you have so many people coming from different areas. A virtual audience is not the same as an in person audience. For me to get to a show in person, I have to want to go to that show. Very much so for me to move from point A to point B. Or my husband or someone's girlfriend bought the ticket and they're dragged along. Okay, great. But um, when it's online, you know, it's just a click of a button. So people are testing more things out. And so that means that you're going to have a more a more varied style audience, or participants. And so not everybody has the same level of interaction. And so what we were finding out, and what was correctly discussed in the review is that the level of interaction from the participants was at different levels. While we had some people come in full costume and makeup, other people came like in jeans and t-shirt. And so then it was like, well, how do we, how do we create an even playing field? Virtually and so, so with that review, we decided okay, really want to think about it. Also live means being there live, it means launching that zoom. It means making sure everything functions, making sure the lighting is good, the sound is good, your tech has to be really good. Because one thing is doing a Zoom meeting where people can maybe forgive if you know the tradition like "Can you hear me?" "Can you hear me?" [sound effect] and people cutting out. And the other thing is I've paid for a live theatrical experience, you know, virtual experience, and I want it to live up to that production value. So we're looking at all of this and thinking, alright, what if we actually decided to create an experience that was pre-recorded? And we're even considering a more Choose Your Own Adventure style, because coming from narrative design background and video games, we had those skills so we can figure out what if we had it as an adventure, keeping our same universe and our same characters but creating kind of a different outlet forum and pre-recording, which means we have way more control over the production value. And the timing of everything. And then people can experience it when they want. It doesn't mean you have to be there because also, we're in Paris, trying to create an experience for either locals, English speaking locals, expats, or like US, Canada based people. So finding a right time was super difficult. Either that meant our actors over here having to be awake later, like 11pm, 12am our time, or having people have to do like a sexy experience with one of our duchesses at like 9am. And you're like, I don't know if I want to drink an aphrodisiac at 9am in the morning. So by pre-recording, it'll allow us to have that opportunity to be like, you know what you can experience at your own pace, at your own time. Because it allows us to scale up faster, more people can do it. We kept our virtual at 10 people. But if it's pre-recorded, as many people can do it as they, as needed, as wanted. But we are also considering having an additional live option for those who want maybe a little more emergent at a different ticket price. So maybe have a basic set like experience that's remote, pre-created, and then alive for those who want a little more of that immersion and connection.
Dr. K: I think you find that also a lot in education, you know, you could see a webinar that was recorded, you could see it for free or a smaller price. But if you want to take the class live and interact with the teacher or the facilitator, then it would be more expensive. So it makes total sense. So for our listeners today, I'm sure everybody can feel your passion and feel your energy through the headset and microphone, however people are listening. You and me have always clicked ever since we first met and we have nicknames for each other and everything. We are the same type of person and so if people want to connect with you, how can they get in touch with you? How can they follow up?
Frances: Yeah, but please do, because more than anything, like Kristin, I love connecting with people, and we thrive on connection. So you can find me on LinkedIn under my full name so Frances Vieras Blanc and I think maybe Kristin you might put some links afterwards. Our company website will be coming up soon but my company's name is Eat the Cake studio. We want you to eat the cake, enjoy life to its fullest. The website will be designed pretty soon so pretty soon that will be available. You can also find our show information at "LetThemEat CakeTheShow.com" or easier "LTECTheShow.com" and there's also just good old Instagram, "Let Them Eat Cake The Show" and Facebook "Let Them Eat Cake The Show"
Dr. K: I will definitely post all of those in the show notes that are posted below the podcast. So thank you so much for being here today and for letting me pick your brain for the benefit of all of our listeners.
Frances: Thank you so much. It's a huge pleasure. I wish everybody good luck. Don't let this COVID stop you. There's still a lot that can be done. Go out there. Be brave. Be courageous. Let's make magic happen in this world.
Dr. K: What an amazing story and an amazing podcast for all of our listeners out there today. Thank you for logging in. Thank you for listening. I know this podcast was a little bit longer than normal, but there was just so much good content here. We didn't want to cut anything out. Thank you so much for taking the time to make the time. I'll talk with you next Tuesday.