In our latest Member Spotlight interview, we sit down (albeit virtually, in separate parts of the country) with Ollie Jones, co-founder and director of multi-award-winning theatre and experience creation company, Swamp Motel. We talk all things immersive, the Americana aesthetic and what the future holds for the experience industry, which has had to turn so quickly on its heels from live entertainment to online events as a direct result of the COVID pandemic.
Fed: Tell us more about Swamp Motel…
Ollie: In short, we’re a creative production house that makes immersive experiences. We were originally dedicated to live experiences, but when the pandemic happened, we started playing more with online experiences and that’s what we’ve been doing for the past couple of months.
Fed: I’m curious and I’m sure other people will be… where did the name come from?
Ollie: When Clem and I started the company we were on a mission to enliven some of the immersive and experiential work we saw marketing companies doing. We thought, with our background in theatre, that we could add some real value to these activations and events. However, at the time, we were just two theatre-makers with some meritorious comedy shows behind us with our other company, Kill the Beast. We found ourselves suddenly trying to land all this corporate work and going up against established marketing companies.
So, in lieu of having a showreel or existing client list , we decided to just create a real sense of mystery about the company. We came up with the idea of Swamp Motel, hoping that in its own way, it would draw people into wondering what it is and what it’s about. It’s also an aspirational thing we’re working towards – our dream is to one day actually build the live Swamp Motel and turn it into an experience of its own.
Fed: The branding has a very Bates Motel the Netflix edition vibe – where did you draw your inspiration from?
Ollie: We like that old Americana look and when we thought of this mysterious place we had created, it seemed to sit in a vacant place, off some highway somewhere. It felt American rather than British. As I said, we wanted to create an aesthetic that suggested a bit of a story and a bit of a mystery within it. There’s a universally recognised element of faded grandeur and fantasy that’s quite unique to that look. There’s something otherworldly and exotic about that motel, that Americana look.
Fed: What does a day in the life of your role as creative director & founder look like?
Ollie: Get up, read the headlines, feel sad about them, have breakfast and then have our morning meeting where everyone checks in and updates one another. Then it’s a mix of working on independent projects, commissioned projects that we’re doing for clients or collaborators; pitching, shoots, remote casting, read-throughs, working with costume design – all things like that. We used to even do rehearsals and site visits and so on, but we don’t do that so much at the moment.
However, we are still doing some cool things that we’ve never done before – working in some new digital formats with some very exciting partners to build something original and new.
Fed: Why do you think it’s so important to give the audience a pivotal role in a story?
Ollie: We feel that if something is going to be truly ‘immersive ’then the audience must become, or at least feel like, a major character with a role to play in the story and be in a place from which they can affect the world. It’s the keystone of the experience. They can be bystanders too I suppose, but we really enjoy trying to make them more pivotal and make the story they’re experiencing bleed into and blur the edges of the real world they’re in.
Fed: Was working in immersive entertainment something you always wanted to do?
Ollie: Working creatively was always something we always wanted to do. I’ve personally always really loved video games and I studied theatre at university so immersive makes a lot of sense to me. However Clem – who’s my co-founder – and I also love writing for stage and screen and podcasts and coming up with stories for all kinds of media. Our focus has always been on achieving the most fun for the audience in whatever medium we’ve worked in.
We saw a gap in the marketing world where big budget events were claiming to be immersive or experiential and falling woefully short of delivering on either. We saw that our background and experience in theatre-making was of value to brands who were working in this way e so we started to try and get some of that kind of work. The hope by doing that was always that we could build a base of a company from which to build our own independent projects – something lockdown has bizarrely helped us achieve in a strange, roundabout way.
Fed: How did you come to team up with Clem and build your team?
Ollie: Clem and I went to uni together, along with Dan who’s our managing director. After we graduated, me and Clem were always working on projects together and while we were doing that, we started working on a show called The Boy Who Kicked Pigs, which we ended up producing for The Lowry Theatre in Manchester. Working with three of our friends, we formed a company called Kill The Beast (which I mentioned earlier) and we still work together today. In 2017, we got invited to write a script for a Bombay Sapphire experience and that’s where we had the realisation that theatre can work in a business environment too. So, we started trying to get more corporate work to make ends meet while we continued being creative on the side lines.
Dan had been working as a management consultant and came in to help us run the business and give us the basis from which to build a company. We needed someone who could help us focus as a business, lay the groundwork and structure for growth and bring some element of responsibility to the chaotic world Clem and I tended to inhabit. As we have grown, we have brought a few more people on. We’ve now got a head of production, a producer and a marketing team, so are at a really exciting point.
Fed: Do you think COVID will actually have a positive impact on the future of immersive online experiences moving forward?
Ollie: It has certainly put them more centre stage and has made them something to be considered much more carefully. It’s really hard to tell and I wouldn’t claim to have the answer because everything is so unpredictable right now. Is a vaccine on the horizon? Will it work? If it does, there are thousands of jobs that depend on people getting back to the old world of live events and into theatres and experiences and I’m sure huge amounts of people will be desperate to return to experiencing live entertainment once it’s safe to do so. Having said that, video gaming has been enormously popular and isn’t going anywhere and there’s definitely an appeal to jumping into an experience from the comfort of your own home, with your friends, at short notice. It makes it a lot more accessible.
Fed: What would be your advice to other companies trying to diversify into more online offerings?
Ollie: We were kind of despairing a bit, thinking ‘what are we going to do, our entire business is now defunct’. We started thinking about how it could be done online and I think it all began from the whole idea that there was some fun to be had in finding someone’s Facebook profile and realising how easily you could guess their email password from the content on it. That’s one of the early puzzles in our experience, Plymouth Point. Things just took shape from there for us.
My advice would be to just open your mind up to the online world which most people understand and most people have access to, that can be used in the same way a physical space can.
Fed: On the other side of the fence (or screen), what would you say to a traditional theatre-goer unsure about branching out into the world of immersive online experiences and experiential entertainment?
Ollie: Give it a try! It’s different from traditional theatre but has its own totally unique qualities. It’s also a way you can take part in the action without feeling self-conscious about an audience watching you. You can be the main character and have an impact on the story, which is not something you get in traditional theatre so much. It’s also a communal, shared experience and a really nice way to socialise with a group and to connect with friends and family who may be distant at the moment. It’s a new way of telling a story that might just break up the monotony of lockdown life, where everyone can have their own role to play.
Fed: Why did you guys decide to become members of the Creative Industries Federation and what are you enjoying about it most?
Ollie: As we went into lockdown we saw so much of the creative world (including ours) fall apart and everyone panicking. It felt like a really important time to do everything in our power to get behind a united creative community. We draw upon all kinds of creatives for our work from magicians and animal performers to costume designers and videographers and we’re loving being part of an organisation that fosters all walks of creative talent. We’ve been ‘creatives’ all our professional lives and are well aware that the creative landscape across the UK wouldn’t be what it is without the crazy determination of its community. Plus, we all need all the help and support we can get at the best of times, let alone at the moment. We’re really enjoying all the events organised by the Fed and we’re actually going to be leading a session called Immersive For All during the Creative Coalition in November.
To find out more about what Ollie, Clem, Dan and the team are working on, head on over to www.swampmotel.co.uk.
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