Sunday, April 14, 2024

2023 Thea Awards: Shaking things up

The Lisbon Earthquake Center’s Quake exhibit earns a Thea Award

by Gene Jeffers

There never was a finer morning seen than the 1st of November; the sun shone out in its full luster; the whole face of the sky was perfectly serene and clear; and not the least signal of warning of that approaching event, which has made this flourishing, and opulent, and populous city, a scene of the utmost horror and desolation…

So wrote Rev. Charles Davy, one of the survivors of the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, an event which killed thousands, ruined the city of Lisbon and contributed to the downfall of the Portuguese Empire.

Jora Vision, a leading design and production company, was contracted by Ricardo Clemente and Maria João Marques, founders of the Lisbon Earthquake Center, to create Quake, a museum environment that would put visitors inside that massive event. “We love unique and meaningful stories and were excited to harness our design and production skills to bring this story to life,” Jan Maarten de Raad, Jora Vision CEO says. “We were confident we could find the right team to deliver Quake as a great experience.”

The time travelers emerge to find themselves walking the streets of Lisbon as they were just prior to the Great Earthquake

Upon arrival at the Center, visitors are ushered into a reception room and welcomed. Suddenly a hidden door opens and leads the group to an abandoned laboratory. There, a recording by “Professor Luis” pleads for help in researching the Great Lisbon Earthquake and asks for volunteers to join a team that will travel back in time to retrieve important missing documents. After several stages of training on seismology and the history of earthquakes, the visitors step into a time machine and, within a few moments, emerge to find themselves strolling the streets of a peaceful Lisbon early in the morning of November 1, 1755.

It is All Saints Day. Many Catholics are gathered in churches to attend early Mass. Those who were planning to attend services later in the day were busy preparing meals, lighting candles in their homes, or perhaps cleaning the gravesites of their ancestors.

After exploring the quiet streets of Lisbon and learning about the lives of its inhabitants, church bells call the intrepid time travelers to a nearby Church. Seated in pews, they watch as the priest conducts the sacred rite. All seems normal. But then, at 9:40 a.m., as Rev. Davy noted:

…in a moment I was roused… being instantly stunned with a most horrid crash, as if every edifice in the city had tumbled down at once. The house I was in shook with such violence, that the upper stories immediately fell; and though my apartment (which was the first floor) did not then share the same fate, yet everything was thrown out of its place… the walls continued rocking to and fro in the frightfulest manner, opening in several places; large stones falling down on every side…

The scene inside the Church becomes equally chaotic. Pews shake and rattle. Great stones can be seen tumbling from above. Flames ignite and then rage. Voices cry out for mercy and shriek in pain. Everything is moving and crashing as the time travelers are rushed outside to escape the collapsing structure. Per Rev. Davy:

All whom their mutual dangers had here assembled in a place of safety were on their knees at prayers, with the terrors of death in their countenances, every one striking his breast and crying out incessantly, Miserecordia meu Dios!… In the midst of our devotions the second great shock came on, little less violent than the first, and completed the ruin of those buildings which had been already much shattered.

The time travelers watch from the street as aftershocks, tsunamis, fire and looting assault the city. They hear the words of other survivors: A German merchant who wrote that “No words can express the horror. Dust and smoke from the fires surrounded me, and I could barely breathe. Darkness was around me, and I found myself surrounded by a city falling into ruin, with crowds of people screaming and calling out for mercy. This city will never be able to recover!” A Jesuit priest, his faith shaken, who recounted “With the mercy of God, I survived the shakes. What had started as a beautiful day became a scene from Hell. Roof tiles were blown away like feathers, and dust covered the sunlight… survivors almost entirely smothered in grime… mothers carrying dead children, and on every corner, mutilated, unrecognizable corpses. It was as if Judgement Day had finally arrived.”

The team is witness to the destruction that killed tens of thousands of people and forever altered the history of Portugal. They know they must complete their mission and recover the missing documents for Professor Luis.

While Jora Vision was responsible for the full design development and turnkey production realization of the 90-minute tour that explores the Lisbon earthquake, and seismology as a modern science, right from the beginning they partnered with specialists Painting With Light (PWL), Mr. Beam, and Kraftwerk Living Technologies (KLT). “The project needed to be educationally relevant, historically and scientifically accurate, as well as respectful,” says Marco Ruzza, Jora Vision Creative Director. “But we wanted to offer visitors more than the traditional museum execution, so creating a story-driven journey built around actual events was crucial. The presentation needed to engage visitors with a beginning, middle, and end.”

Quake is a carefully choreographed sequence of activities and events designed to transport visitors emotionally to that one fateful day. “Visitors interact with nine timed and show- controlled scenes, immersed in a story-driven, educational spectacle,” says Robin van der Want, Project Development Director at Jora Vision. “The journey takes place across 1,800 square meters (19,000 square feet) in a new building in the Belém area of Lisbon – exactly where buildings were destroyed and people died more than two centuries ago.”

A unique tourist experience, Quake takes visitors beyond the facts and figures found in more traditional formats and into a custom- designed storyline that combines and connects history, science and culture. Modern show techniques blend with a detailed physical environment for a one-of-a-kind adventure. “Light, video and sound are powerful tools when creating an immersive experience,” says Painting With Light CEO Luc Peumans. “On this project, we used these tools to convert visitors into witnesses walking the streets of Lisbon, feeling the shocks, seeing the destruction. This cannot be accomplished with static texts and explanations.”

By creating a story within a story, visitors are engaged right from the start. “That is why my favorite part is at the very beginning, the welcome, the hidden door, the invitation for the visitors to become players,” says Ruzza. “It proposes and sets up the entire experience. You cannot avoid becoming part of the story.”

Called to Mass in a church, the time travelers experience the earthquake through motion seats, AV effects and more. Soon after entry into Quake, guests are led through a hidden door to an abandoned laboratory. There they are asked to help research the Great Lisbon Earthquake. All photos courtesy Jora Vision inparkmagazine

Historical and scientific accuracy were important to the entire design and build of the project. Seismologists and historians provided input throughout the realization. Even the motion- controlled church pews by KLT replicate the 1755 style in the effort to create a sense of authenticity.

“This project was very challenging,” says Céline Cuypers, Manager of PWL’s Projects Division. “We had to create nine very different rooms, work with many different parties, keep to a tight budget all while creating 360-degree projections around surprise AC system intrusions and other challenges. The team solved many problems, but in the end it all came together to create amazing spaces and an incredible experience.”

One of Cuypers’ favorite rooms is the Church, where the motion-based pews combine with floor to ceiling wraparound projections, Mr. Beam AV scenic productions, sound and lighting effects to create the sensations of being inside a building when the earthquake struck. “Working with our partners, we are all very complementary,” she says. “Jora Vision knows how to explain stories to people; we are very good with lighting and AV effects. The other specialties add essential dimensions. We all worked well together to integrate the equipment in each room and yet keep it invisible.”

The sentiment is echoed by Ruzza. “We looked for the right partners when competing for the project. PWL was at the top of the list.” He notes the advantages of having the advice and direction of specialists from the initial concept development right through completion. “When it comes to specific elements of a project, your own experience is often not enough, especially in the detailed design phase. Choosing the best solutions, finding the best technical products, PWL and our other partners’ involvement was essential.”

Involving partner contractors from the very outset provided benefits for the entire creative and production process. “We really enjoyed this project,” Peumans says. “The result is a spectacular experience that combines the most innovative technologies in a beautifully themed environment. This only happens when everyone is working together as a team throughout an entire project.”

The training center is filled with interactives and information for guests of all ages to help better understand earthquakes.

In large part thanks to that cohesive team effort, Quake visitors learn, undergo training, become time travelers, and experience one of the world’s most destructive earthquakes. They seek out knowledge in an effort to better understand earthquakes and how to prepare for and respond to them when they strike. All those years ago, Rev. Davy understood too late the need for that preparation, closing his essay on the Great Earthquake:

I assure you that this extensive and opulent city is now nothing but a vast heap of ruins; that the rich and the poor are at present upon a level; some thousands of families which but the day before had been easy in their circumstances, being now scattered about in the fields, wanting every conveniency of life, and finding none able to relieve them.

Bringing all the elements together to create a must-see museum experience does not happen by accident. It requires great care and coordination. In honoring Quake at the Lisbon Earthquake Center with a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement: Historical Experience Limited Budget, the Themed Entertainment Association Thea Awards Judging Committee noted, in its official remarks, that “Quake strikes an excellent balance between education and entertainment, active and passive participation, and ride, show, and exhibit scenes. It achieves this balance while seamlessly weaving historical, scientific, and cultural facts into an outstanding, story-driven, and unique visitor experience.” So much easier said than done.

For more information:


Jora Vision:

Painting With Light:

Kraftwerk Living Technologies:

Mr. Beam:

Rev. Charles Davy’s account:

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Gene Jeffers
Gene Jeffers
Gene Jeffers, former (2001-2013) TEA Executive Director, is currently serving as a Board member for the Greater San Gabriel Pomona Valleys American Red Cross and serves on the Board of the Historical Novel Society. He continues to write in a variety of genres. Based in Pasadena, Gene and his wife Carol (also a writer) are looking forward to traveling again and spending more post-COVID time with their two daughters, son-in-law and three grandchildren.

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