By Martyn Ruks
Once the prison scenario for 2015 was selected and we started to develop it for our storyline, it became immediately clear that we needed something extra over previous events to to take things to the next level.
From personal experience attending Secret Cinema and other live theatre events, the interactions you can have with skilled, professional performers adds to the sense of immersion like nothing else.
So here are the awesome performers, who quite literally lit-up HackFu 2015, to tell you about the experience in their own words.
Q. Would you like to start by introducing yourselves to our audience?
Q. And can you tell us a little bit about your business?
A. Cat and Mouse Theatre was launched in Brighton in 2012 and specialises in creating interactive and immersive theatre: from individual characters all the way to fully immersive venues and spaces.
In the last 3 years we've done everything from creating a real life short span time machine, running a 1920's speakeasy complete with a gangster mob, jazz bands and shootouts, for private events and UK festivals, to speaking and performing at TEDx Courtauld Institute's event, ‘Colouring Life’.
Q. What was your role in this year's HackFu?
A. This year we were invited to Hack Fu as the Prison Guards at RCP Ashwell. Our role was really two-fold, firstly we were there to enforce the rules of the prison as the hackers carried out their daily challenges, ensuring no-one stepped out of line. This was all about creating an authentic prison experience for the contestants, whilst also using the characters to explain the scenario and move the story forwards. This was done through a combination of set-piece and improvised performances throughout the event. At this year’s event a key objective was encouraging the contestants to hand over information that would lead to the capture of the moles.
The second part of our role was equally as important and involved us delving into the results of the challenges, encouraging the contestants to explain how they solved them. Again we were in character and used improvised performances for interrogations and other meetings involving small groups of contestants. These were more intimate performances that were designed to create individual event experiences for those involved. However, the main reason for them was to ensure that the teams were sharing information about how they were solving challenges amongst the team. This helped to ensure that there was no room for “rockstars” who might otherwise solve the challenges on their own and not help the learning and sharing experience. We discovered through our experiences that this aspect of the event is the essence of what HackFu is all about.
Q. What were your initial thoughts when you were told about the event / asked to be a part of it?
A. When we were first asked to be involved - although unsure of what the nature of the event would be - we were immediately excited at the prospect of adopting the characters of prison wardens in an actual prison. From experience we all knew what an amazing benefit it would be to have such a fitting environment in which to adopt these characters, and how much more realistic and effective the event would be for everyone involved. If our experience is anything to go by we don’t think you can fully appreciate what the event is actually all about until you’ve experienced it for yourself.
Q. Were you able to contribute any ideas that made it into the final event?
A. Absolutely. We worked closely with the team at MWR on three set pieces that happened throughout the event. These included an initial brief to all the inmates, a raid on the party and the uncovering of a mole at the end. For these we were given a brief on what was required but were free to improvise and work around that brief as much as we wanted.
For the rest of the event we were completely free to think up skits, interview prisoners, patrol the site and take inmates to solitary confinement - this freedom allowed us to fully immerse ourselves in our roles and, with the inmates, bring the site back to life.
Having seen how much effort and planning went into the overall event you might have thought that it would have been difficult for the organisers to let go that much and allow us the freedom we had. However, even after the short time we had with the MWR team before and during the event it was clear that this approach is a key part of their culture and was quite natural to them. If others are considering doing something like this then we’d really encourage you to do the same thing and let your performers do what they do best, no matter how weird it feels to let go of your control over the event. We know for a fact that producing a strong brief and then granting freedom to improvise will always deliver a better result.
Q. What was your experience at the event like?
A. We had a fantastic experience at HackFu. Everyone taking part in the event immediately immersed themselves in the story from the second they arrived. This not only gave more gravity and excitement to the hacking challenges but also allowed for a huge amount of scope with how far we were able to push the story. Given the receptiveness and willingness to take part of everyone we encountered ultimately gave us the ability to push the people even further. This was a key part of what enabled us to create unique individual experiences for each one of the contestants.
Q. How have your opinions of HackFu changed now you've experienced it first-hand?
A. We didn't appreciate at first what a spectacle it would be. Having now seen the lengths that MWR went to in order to create a genuine environment, and with such attention to detail, we have all been inspired and can't wait to see what next year has in store!
Q. What advice would you give someone who's thinking about being involved in a future or alternate event of this type?
A. Don't hesitate and in order to get the most from it remain totally open to any task or unusual request or situation that is thrown your way.
Q. What would you say to someone who's thinking about attending a future event but is unsure about whether to come?
A. If the unsureness comes from not knowing what to expect, remember that these events are a surprise for everyone, which is exactly why you should go and experience it first-hand!
Q. Sum up HackFu in no more than four words.
A. Immersive, interactive and fun
So if you are organising an event of this type you’ll need people around you who can take responsibility for various aspects of it. Knowing that the storyline can be moved on and that all the participants can be kept informed and engaged in the concept can let you focus on some of the other aspects of the World you are creating.
If your performers are anything like our friends from the Cat and Mouse Theatre group then this aspect of the event will be a huge success.
In our opening article we discuss how we see the problem space and what some of the challenges are so given all of that, what are we looking to achieve with this website.
As we said previously we don’t claim to know all the solutions but we are certainly trying things that will enable us to find them. Along the way we’ll learn lots of lessons, we’ll no doubt have a few false starts but we’ll also get some stuff right. It’s that journey that we’re going to share on this site, including all the initiatives and events that we’re planning to run to support it all.
We don’t know yet exactly what will be on this site but the one thing we’re certain of is that it will be thought provoking, philosophical, challenging and most importantly it will be fun and engaging. We’ll get techie at times, something we make no apology for, as well as extracting the concepts and key points that we encounter along the way.
We also want your help on our journey. We want you to tell us your thoughts and experiences of what we’re doing and hopefully some stories about how you’ve taken our ideas and turned them into your own projects, events and general awesomeness. We want to know the good, the bad and the ugly and to get involved please get in contact via Twitter and then keep coming back to this hub for more insight and information.
So hold on tight, this will be a wild ride for all of us.