Swamp Motel knows how to put on a show. Founded by Ollie Jones and Clem Garritty, alumni of the experimental theatre troupe Punchdrunk and members of comedy group Kill The Beast, the London-based company has made its name with sell-out events that blend immersive storytelling and brand tie-ins with West End production values.
Since its launch in 2017, Swamp Motel has built a zombie-filled police station for the launch of Capcom’s Resident Evil 2 remake; brought a sinister 19th-century circus to present-day Shoreditch for Verizon; and transformed Dishoom’s Kensington restaurant into an Art Deco den of jazz, dance and violence. Guests are cast as both spectators and performers, solving mysteries, plotting escapes and adding to the atmosphere. “I think that’s really key to actually feeling immersed,” says Jones. “You’re not inhabiting a character; you’re not stepping through a door and becoming someone else. It feels like it’s happening in your life as you live it. You just enter into a world.”
2020 was meant to be a turning point, the year Swamp Motel finally launched its first independent productions. Fundraising was well underway for their first show, “a new take on an old favourite,” imagined for a large venue and a large audience. But when March’s coronavirus lockdown made public events untenable and 95 per cent of their commissions were cancelled, they knew they’d have to either pack it in or pivot to something entirely different.
Ultimately, they chose innovation over closure. “We thought, ‘Why let [the pandemic] stop us?’” says Garritty. “Usually when we’re making events, there’s an auditorium where audiences are normally sat, and we want to drag them out of their seats and give them something more thrilling. So we just started looking at Zoom as that auditorium.”
In May, Jones and Garrity launched Plymouth Point, an immersive theatre experience designed for the Covid era. Inspired by Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic tale of voyeurism gone wrong, and Netflix’s online sleuthing documentary Don’t F*** With Cats, the 90-minute play invites groups to log in and play detective on Zoom, watching pre-recorded videos, hacking social media accounts and trawling the internet for clues to get to the bottom of a missing person’s case tied up cults and conspiracies – a thrilling escape room for the socially distanced.
“We tried to make it intuitive and immediately understandable. You don’t need to be good at anything, you just need to know how to follow the link to the chat,” Jones explains. “It’s another way of socialising and playing a game without having to leave your house, which we did like to do even before we went into lockdown.”
While the show was well-received (The Guardian called it “seriously gripping stuff” and awarded it four stars), the initial execution was shaky. Crafting the narrative was fun and familiar, but the tech side brought unforeseen headaches. Their initial reliance on live moderators to guide each group’s experience, for example, limited ticket sales; and hundreds of failed password guesses from around the world eventually raised red flags with the provider they’d used to create a fake email inbox.
There also seemed to be no way around the inevitable frozen screens and dropped connections, so Swamp Motel tried to spin that in their favour, adding pre-planned glitches into the story. “It doesn’t remove you from the world at all, but it does get us out of a lot of difficult questions as to why [a character] isn’t listening, or why she’s suddenly gone off screen, or hasn’t responded for a while. It’s like… that’s tech,” Garritty explains.
In October, they launched the more refined second chapter of the story, The Mermaid’s Tongue, which revolves around a missing archivist guarding a shocking secret. This time around, Zoom has been replaced with a bespoke video platform, where an AI classmate provides timed, automated clues to help players along. (A live person still monitors each game, and will jump in to help the truly desperate.) Swamp Motel has also expanded the playing field, creating their own webpages and hiding clues in ever more obscure corners of the internet.
So far, Swamp Motel’s pivot to digital seems to have been a success, with more than 15,000 players from around the world having joined in the who-dunnit. The third and final chapter of the trilogy is set to launch in February 2021 and, due to the series’ popularity, all three will be available to play until April – much longer than the modest three-week run the team envisaged when Plymouth Point was first conceptualized.
While they’re looking forward to making real-world productions again, the duo insists the end of social distancing won’t mean the end of their digital offering. “This has opened our eyes so much to just how we can engage with people, how we can partner with new people, how we can reach new audiences,” Garritty says. “Going forward, we’d obviously love to get back to building live events again, but I don’t think it will be instead of [the digital shows]. I think this will now become an extension of everything we build.”
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