December 9, 2021

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Shelby Bond Discusses Creating Virtual Immersive Theater Experiences Through ‘Adventure Parties’

BWW Interview: Shelby Bond Discusses Creating Virtual Immersive Theater Experiences Through 'Adventure Parties'

For those of us (all of us) who are missing the joys of experiencing a live performance, actor and producer Shelby Bond has the perfect solution. Bond has created the exciting and interactive Adventure Parties, bringing immersive theater directly to you on Zoom. Adventure Parties serves as a fun, virtual, collaborative choose-your-own-adventure, combining elements of quiz, escape rooms, scavenger hunt, and role playing games. Participants can travel through the Scottish Highlands, enter a Wild West adventure, battle dragons in a fantasy quest and more while bonding with their friends and family.

Shelby Bond, who received his MFA at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in experimental and alternative theater, is an expert in engaging an audience and creating bespoke theater experiences.

For more information about Adventure Parties, visit: https://www.adventure-party.com/

We spoke with Shelby Bond about his background in immersive theater, what Adventure Parties can offer, the joy of virtual experiences and more!


Tell me how you first became interested in Immersive Theater!

When I came out to Los Angeles to do film and TV twenty years ago- because I’d grown up in the theater- my goal was to do film and TV, and before I knew it, I was doing theater full-time. It was what I understood, and honestly, as much as I love film, it’s a very different process. There are a lot of gatekeepers and there’s a lot of time spent organizing all the things that aren’t the creative parts that I wanted to be involved in. But, with theater, I could write and produce and tour and create pretty much on my own. Luckily, I found other people who were very much interested in theater. So, I started touring twenty years ago, and I’ve been doing theater at festivals like Edinburgh and Adelaide, and doing a ton more traditional theater, but we often broke the fourth wall and had a lot of fun playing with the audience.

Three years ago, I decided to go to London and get my Master’s in experimental and immersive theater at the The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and as much as New York is the center of so much theater, I think London really takes pride in being the center of immersive and interactive theater in the world.

How did you come up with the idea for Adventure Parties and how did you go about putting it all together?

When we’re watching Netflix, which we all do, way too much, we don’t have the same experience, and certainly not a shared experience. We’re a spectator, we’re often doing other stuff, reading our phones, we’re not engaged in an active experience. After nearly coming to the end of Netflix, I started wondering what we could do to have a shared experience again. Because I’d even been to some online shows where you’re watching it, and enjoying it, and it’s happening live, but the most you can do is maybe chat in the comments during it. You’re still a spectator. So, I thought back to what it is that we like about theater, that we want to be a part of a story. Because even if it’s happening on a stage in front of us, we’re still a part of it, we still fully engaged in it. So, how do we get that? How do we get that online?

I wanted to create a show, an experience, where people are active, and the outcome depends on what they want. If you’ve been to any Punchdrunk shows, you’re deciding how you engage with the show. And so, “How can we do that online?” That’s the place I stared.

Can you break down for me what Adventure Parties offers and the different story options?

The first one I did was the Scottish adventure, partly because I miss the Edinburgh Fringe, I go there every year. So, I thought, “I wish I could go there,” and then, “It would be so much fun to go back in time and go to the Highlands.” And I thought, “It would be fun if I could take a group back there and we could go back in time.” So, I started working on a show that was a story with different choices. In a way, an Adventure Party is kind of like ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’. The audience is making decisions about where they want to go next. And they step into a narrative, but it’s a playable narrative where they’re making the choices. So, I tell people when they start any Adventure Party, “I’m your guide, but whether or not you succeed or even survive is up to you and the choices you make!”

So, that was the first one. And then I thought, “Oh, wow, you know what, I love the Wild West, it would be so much fun to take a group back to old saloons and shoot-outs and Cattle barons, taking over old Texas towns.” And then I started doing horror, because I’m a fan of immersive horror that we do a lot of in Los Angeles. And the next thing I knew I was just expanding on different stories and themes. I love it because I get to create a new story, but the people who come to these adventures write it with me by the choices they make and what they want to do. It’s not just me telling a story.

Throughout the adventure they have to find different objects in their house to be able to use in the adventure, and if they can’t find the object, like a rope to get down into a cave, they might not be able to get down into that cave! They’re actually running around their house finding things, and they’re doing it as a group, as a team. It’s almost like they feel like they’ve actually gone somewhere together and accomplished something together. That’s the best thing about a story, when we feel like we can put ourselves into it, and that’s what I’m trying to do.

Who typically takes part in these immersive experiences?

I was watching my six year-old nephew go to Zoom school, and teachers are working so hard right now, I feel for them, but he was bored out of his mind. And then, after Zoom school, he was watching YouTube videos, and then he played some video games, and then he watched movies, the whole day passed with screen time. And he couldn’t do stuff with his friends, he couldn’t play. So, the first thing was, I started doing these for kids. I started taking kids on these ‘myths and magic’ adventures where they could go back into these fantasy worlds with their friends and make all these choices. But, unlike a video game, they’re actually talking to me and saying what they want and helping create the story and the setting.

So, that was going great, and I thought, “Maybe it’s a thing for kids.” Next thing I knew, parents of those kids were saying, “I want to go with my friends!” So now, I’d say it’s about 65%/70% adults. For a lot of the parties that I’m taking adults on, whether it’s a Gatsby party or a horror party, a lot of them are in the evenings after the kids have gone to sleep, and we even have a drinking game. It gives us a good excuse to have a beer in our hands while we’re drinking alone at home. But it doesn’t feel like we’re alone at home!

There are so many exciting options, you seem to have covered every genre. Are there any ideas that you’re floating around right now that you would still like to do?

Completely. Right now, I’m writing a sci-fi one where there’s going to be mutiny on a starship and the people have to try to save the ship before it’s taken over. Right now I could write an Atlantis one, I could write a mythological one. That’s what’s exciting to me, is I can continue to create new stories, and people who have done them before, they say, “Oh, I want to go on that one!” and get together with a new group of their friends. My hope is that this transcends the pandemic. That some of what we’re learning to do online with entertainment goes past, “We’re stuck at home, so we have to do this.”

Say, you live in New York, but you have relatives in Florida, and you’ve got friends in Idaho, this way, you can get together, and instead of just all hanging out on Zoom and saying, “How are you, what have you been doing?” you can go on this adventure together, with your friends from all over the world. And then afterwards, I make one of the people that was on the adventure the host, and then you hang out with your friends, and you can hang out for as long as you want. But it’s a way to have a reunion and have an active activity together wherever you are in the world.

What has been the best part for you about creating Adventure Parties?

I really like seeing people be open to new experiences. When the pandemic first started, I think we were all just like, “Alright, a couple months, I can stay inside, no worries.” And then it just kept going and going. And now, people are willing to try new things and get involved in new ways. I think what I’m doing people are just game for, because we’re just tired and we want to be excited, we want to have that shared experience.

What are you looking to do with Adventure Parties once restrictions have lessened? Are you going to continue to keep it online, or will you be making this an person experience?

I think what the whole world is doing right now is experimenting with the way an audience wants to be a part of the experience, and the way they want to be immersed into a show. I was on tour full-time before this happened, and I was also creating immersive experiences of ten people or less, it was called The Shadow Space. I just want to create new ways for audiences to play within theater, new kind of permeable fourth walls and things like that. So, what this will be, if this doesn’t continue as Adventure Parties, which I think it will… my whole life I just want to find new ways for people to play. So some of the ways in which I am doing these experiences right now will translate into live, in-person experiences when we can get back together again.

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