Thursday, November 30, 2023

UCF/Meow Wolf Writers Workshop serves Themed Experience grad students

Meow Wolf and the University of Central Florida (UCF) Themed Experience graduate programs started a unique collaboration in Fall 2022 called the UCF/Meow Wolf Writers Workshop. Graduate students and Meow Wolf creatives meet virtually and in-person at intervals over the semester to learn about creating cohesive narratives for interactive installations and environments.

The workshop planners sat down for a virtual coffee to tell the story of the program.

Meow Wolf is a unique artists’ collective that has brought innovative and influential new models of attraction development and business culture to the industry. Meow Wolf venues include House of Eternal Return (Santa Fe, NM – honored with a Thea Award in 2017); Convergence Station (Denver, CO) and Omega Mart at Area15 (Las Vegas).

The UCF Themed Experience graduate program headed by Peter Weishar is a leading program for creatives training to become attractions industry professionals, or build upon their existing careers. Weishar is also Steering Committee Chair of TEAAS, the Themed Experience Attractions Academic Society.

This discussion between Weishar and Meow Wolf’s Todd Richins, Ken Neville and Michael Wilson addresses the role of writing and narrative in the design and production of themed experience, and how the workshop will unfold.

Peter Weishar [Director of Themed Experience at the University of Central Florida]: In our Themed Experience graduate programs at UCF we emphasize the importance of narrative in the creation of a themed experience. We talk about how narrative creates a deeper, richer experience. Meow Wolf is known for stunning interactive visuals, how does narrative make the experiences more compelling?

Todd Richins [Meow Wolf, Head of Creative Execution]: Meow Wolf works in many different artistic mediums and certainly writing, place making and storytelling are integral to what we do. We know a lot of guests will dive into our story and want to figure out the mystery.

Ken Neville [Meow Wolf, Manager of Story Experience Interactive]: Story creates the infrastructure of the experience. It gives context and meaning to things that might otherwise feel isolated.

Michael Wilson [Meow Wolf, Senior Story Editor]: It’s what grounds our guests within the loudness of our art.

Weishar: We often talk about process and best practices in the classroom but often with the caveat that the production pipeline varies from company to company. Meow Wolf has such a unique product and origin as an artists’ collective. Can you talk about your process and how writing is integrated into your pipeline? 

Richins: The Meow Wolf process is very collaborative and incorporates a ‘big tent’ approach to collecting ideas about what kinds of stories we want to tell.  We then look at setting up the rails of what a particular exhibition team needs to work within – we want it big enough to encapsulate many ideas, but not so prescriptive that artists feel stifled.

Neville: If a story is too prescriptive, it can handcuff the design process. It has to be iterative. Everything has to be malleable at the beginning. You are just setting the direction at first by creating the world, and then you build from there.

Wilson: In Omega Mart – our Las Vegas exhibit – we started with the company that owns the store. Who would create this place? A constellation of characters fell into place around the design work for the various rooms and the answer to that question. We had a science-y lab space being designed, so we created a research arm for the company, for instance.

Weishar: When I’m working with students we have some assignments that are blue sky, original work without most commercial constraints and collaborative projects with specific budget space and production parameters. Meow Wolf works with many individual fine artists. How have you so successfully enabled them to work together within a narrative framework? Do you adapt sections of narrative based upon artists’ styles and chosen medium?

Meow Wolf’s Todd Richins shares his craft with themed entertainment students at UCF.

Richins: One of the challenges of opening Convergence Station in Denver last year was incorporating the unique stories and experiences of over 110 outside artists into the core story of the exhibition. Sometimes the stories blend, and sometimes they stand on their own.

Wilson: It’s one of the harder parts of what we do! I think about it as the individual artists are creating short stories or poetry that are related to or additional to the larger story. Our worlds are novels with a ton of appendices.

Neville: Once you accept that art doesn’t have to be in a rectangular canvas hanging on the wall, everything changes, including the art itself and the story supporting it. You have to be flexible.

Weishar: We’ve been talking about a collaboration for almost a year now since we first met at the IAAPA Expo and then at the TEA Summit. Meow Wolf is so innovative that I wanted to do something different from the usual industry class visit or project. I suggested a writer workshop and then you crafted a really unique experience for the students. Can you talk about the structure of the workshop and your goals?

Wilson: Writing for immersive experiences is so different than writing for the page or even a script. We wanted to attempt to mimic the experience of creating a world both visually and narratively at the same time. So we are going to do a few rounds of share out and ideation with the whole group to help give that feeling of collaborative creation.

Richins: I’m excited to see what comes out of the workshop because we are always looking for folks to join our team and finding those that can really connect with the Meow Wolf team is important.

Neville: I want the fantastically nutty storyteller. I am looking for the writer who absolutely refuses to follow the instructions – but is a genius going the other direction.

Weishar: A few years back when we were proposing our graduate Themed Experience programs at UCF, I remember telling committees that a graduate program is about adding to the body of work in the field and expanding the field in new and innovative directions. In fact, I used Meow Wolf as an example of the kind of work we could do. 

Personally, I love theme parks and I could not be prouder of our graduates who have launched their careers working at the major themed entertainment firms. But, I’m also incredibly excited our students get to work closely with Meow Wolf that has such a different perspective. I always envisioned grad candidates exploring options creating installation experiences like Meow Wolf. Most of you come from themed entertainment, did you envision yourselves doing this kind of work? What do you think programs such as UCF Themed Experience should be doing and teaching students to prepare them to do the kind of work you are doing now?

Neville: I went to film school many years ago so I am a fan of the traditional three-act structure and the power of a well-told story. But I also love how interactive experiences can empower audiences to take an active role in the unveiling of the story, subverting the expectation as much as possible. Teach creative thinking and world building and great experiences, not formulas. I never thought I’d be doing this exact thing, but my work has always been about stories and experiences at the intersection of creative and technology.

Richins:  I started in this industry as a ride operator at Disneyland right after I got out of high school.  It is an industry that I’m very passionate about.  I spent over 25 years with Disney, a couple with Universal Creative and now a couple more with Meow Wolf.  I think themed experiences are having a bit of a renaissance period – the “experience economy” as it is now called.  I think programs like this help prepare students for the many different opportunities in this industry.  And understanding story and guest experience are at the heart of all of this.

Wilson: My background is in poetry and literature, I definitely never saw myself as working in this field. But I think that is a perfect setup for this kind of work. A good immersive experience is going to pull threads from across disciplines and media so that it feels real. So that a guest can lose themselves in it.

The story of the Writer’s Workshop has only just begun, but the team is building the world and shaping the narrative for the future. And the rest of the story looks engaging…

Peter Weishar
Peter Weishar
Peter Weishar ([email protected]) is a Professor of Themed Experience and Program Director of the Themed Experience Graduate track at the University of Central Florida ( degree/ theatre-mfa/themed-experience/). He also serves as an Associate Member of the TEA Eastern North America Division Board, and is chair of the steering committee of the Themed Experience and Attractions Academic Society. Previously, Weishar was Dean of Fine Arts at FSU and Director of the Themed Experience Institute. He also served as Dean of Entertainment Arts at SCAD where he founded the first MFA in Themed Entertainment Design. Weishar has authored three books, Digital Space: Designing Virtual Environments; Blue Sky:The Art of Computer Animation; and CGI:The Art of the Computer Generated Image.

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