I meet Jeff Leinenveber and Jarrett Lantz on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Despite the rain, we sit outside. A fire dances across the stones of a fire pit, and I can’t help but recall the feeling of sitting in front of a campfire.
The Origin of Scout Expedition Co.
Jeff and Jarrett are the founders of Scout Expedition Co., a new immersive theater company born in early 2017. But despite the relative newness of their company, they have been involved in the immersive theater community for years. Jeff and Jarrett met at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) during a student competition. “We were both finalists,” Jeff explains. But Jarrett cuts him off, “Excuse me, I was only a semi-finalist!” We laugh at this, and the relative ease of these two friends is apparent. They tell me that they became friends through work and both experienced Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More in New York, but at different times. They both connected to it, and “immersive theater perfectly captured [their] interest in video games, film, and theme parks. It brought everything together.”
They took on a role for WDI showcasing the best ideas for the company. With a limited budget they built a 1950’s camp theme and a traveling magic show. “We tried to add in elements of immersive theater where we could,” said Jeff. When a set design class held by Punchdrunk was held in London, they jumped on the opportunity. This four day workshop helped open the doors of set design for them—so when they returned, they emailed Jon Braver of Delusion, offering their assistance on his projects. He connected them with his production designer and they went to work designing the sets for 2014’s Delusion: Lies Within. This continued into 2016’s Delusion: His Crimson Queen and various experiences from Third Rail Projects.
The Beauty of Set Design
I stop them to ask what exactly set design entails, and Jarrett laughs. He leans forward and explains, “We start with an idea of what we want to be in this room—we know it’s a bedroom and we know who the character is. But it’s all about what’s available. It’s all about wandering around flea markets and thrift shops.” Jeff interjects, “And Craigslist!” Jarrett agrees and continues, “For Imagineering, we are required to map out an entire room and exactly what is needed. But for Delusion, you read through the script and determine what is essential for the scene (a hero prop) and what creates a mood. We look at color palettes, ambiance, and the general state of decay.” Jeff takes over and adds, “We create the psychology of the room, how it should feel. It’s more than just what’s in the room though. When you come into the room, how do you enter it? What mood do you feel?”
Play to your Strengths
“We had helped all these great shows with great people, but now it’s time we take what we’ve learned from Delusion, from Third Rail Projects, from Punchdrunk, and from Disney Imagineering, and put our own twist on immersive theater.”
So in crafting Scout Expedition Co., Jeff and Jarrett played to their strength: set design. Both admit that they don’t have a traditional theater background. But that’s what makes them wonderful. They are providing a different lens through which immersive theater can be experienced. They are approaching an experience from a set design perspective, which influenced their first show: how do you use just a set to tell a narrative?
They did comment that as they grow, they will incorporate more traditional immersive theater elements (e.g., actors), but for now, they are focusing on their strong suit—the sets—to tell their story. And narrative is just as important to them. Jeff cites story-driven video games, such as Firewatch, Gone Home, and Oxenfree, as inspirations.
Imagery and Branding
Browsing the Scout Expedition Co. website, the first thing you notice is how striking their imagery is. It is reminiscent of nature, of camping, of discovery, and of adventure—and there’s a distinct reason for this. “We wanted it to be very obvious that our shows are supposed to be fun over anything else. That being said, there may be some tense moments and mature themes, but not outright horror. Overall, we don’t take ourselves too seriously.” I can tell this from their demeanor as well. Jarrett says most of this with a smile on his face.
I ask if there’s a story behind their name. Jarrett thinks for a moment and explains, “We’ve always loved that mid-century camping era; those feelings of exploration and discovery. Scout [Expedition Co.] just evokes that feeling to me.” Jeff expands on this, “We are offering something a little bit different than what’s out there. Our other shows could be a Wes Anderson type adventure—and we didn’t want to hold ourselves back with a branding or a name that took itself too seriously… because we don’t.” Jarrett adds one more point, “the name suggests that you will get your own individualize journey. Different expeditions that people can have.” And I agree. The name is something unique—and something very different from what’s on the market, and their imagery supports that.
Scout Expedition Co. knows their strengths and their tone, but what kind of stories do they want to tell? Jeff has a clear idea on that too: “We’re telling stories about everyday people in everyday language, similar to games like Gone Home.” They aim to focus on an approachable narrative that isn’t lost in abstraction. Rather, they want to focus on relatable characters and give the audience something to connect with.
But even though the stories are approachable, they still want to provide individualized and unique experiences. “You won’t see the whole picture; you won’t be able to shine your light on the full object; you will only get a certain perspective of it. What you take away from it may be different from what someone else does. Someone else may have a different piece of the story that you never discovered—and this may color their perspective or opinion differently from your own.”
The Nest is the first story that Scout Expedition Co. will present to the world. In this story, you receive the last will and testament from a woman named Josie. Jarrett makes it clear, “You don’t know this person at all. You’ve never heard of her. But for some reason she’s chosen you to visit her storage unit.” Jeff adds, “You’re here to learn more about this woman’s life.” He elaborates, “Because our experience is narrative-driven instead of puzzle-driven, there isn’t a ‘winning’ scenario. When you put that idea into someone’s head, all of a sudden, the narrative no long exists to be absorbed, but rather, it’s a device to get to the next puzzle.” In this experience, they want you to spend time with the set, with the narrative. They don’t want anyone to rush through it.
To help facilitate this, Scout Expedition Co has “created too much content for you to tackle in a single show.” The show will focus on a set of audiotapes that Josie has recorded detailing milestones in her life—and the medium of audiotapes were chosen for a distinct reason. This forces the audience to listen to the tape all the way through. “There’s really no speed reading for a clue, you have to press play and you have to listen. You consume it exactly as it’s delivered. This also creates a minimum amount of time to consume the dialogue in the show—there’s just no way to consume it all in one experience.” Therefore, you have to pick exactly which part of her life you want to explore.
The Beauty of Choice
“We wanted to provide the bookends of her life and reveal that something has definitely happened to her over the course of her life. It’s up to you to find out what happened in between to connect those dots.” You hear the beginning and the end, but the path in between is up to you. I ask further on this concept. “We’re creating enough content in the core tapes, but secondary and tertiary storylines provide different avenues to pursue—and this will ultimately determine how you view her.”
So how do you choose which path to take? Well it’s as simple as you follow the aspects of her life that intrigue you most. All of the information isn’t available right from the start, so follow clues leading down a path or explore a different aspect of the room if it doesn’t interest you. They will use simple puzzles to help guide you. They stress that this isn’t on the level of an escape room, but there will be some “secrets and hidden items that take some solving to figure out. You may be listening to an audiocassette and Josie mentions a clue and a set of numbers that leads you to a combination lock. Only some will follow that path.” This also adds a level of repeatability. Come back and learn a different side of Josie’s life.
Building a Picture
“You create a subconscious image of someone as you assess and contextualize their belongings through the lens of your own experience.” This is paramount to their first show. You’re digging through the old trunks, the journals, and the photos of someone who has died. You’re building a picture of someone through their things, through what’s valuable to her. Jarrett shares, “you will get a much different picture of Josie if you find audiotapes one, three, and five than you would if you find audiotapes two, four, and six.” Afterwards you digest the information, absorb it, and then meet with your friends, discussing your differing opinions of Josie will be a thought-provoking conversation. Things others may tell you will fit into your view of her based on what you heard, but others may surprise you. “We’re trying to facilitate that dialogue,” says Jeff.
Imagine the entire life of someone: the ups, the downs, the triumphs, the defeats. “This story is one of a normal person, but you are just witnessing it in a very condensed format. There is something about that that is very relatable.” She’s faced the same issues that you may have faced.
So what is Josie’s story then? Well, Josie grew up in the 1960’s. On her twelfth birthday, she was gifted a tape recorder–and began documenting everything in her life. So, scattered throughout this storage room are audiotapes of her at different milestones in her life. But you’ll learn something when you enter the storage unit: In her old age, this once happy kid has changed into a shell of her former self. So what happened to her? Why did she change? That’s up to you to discover.
Exploring The Nest
As their first show, Scout Expedition Co. is not worrying about capacity—it accommodates up to two people at a time. “But that’s optional,” Jarrett explains. “If you want to explore on your own, you can do so—or if you want to go with two people, the price is the same.” This makes the journey a personal one; it removes the possibility of being paired with someone you don’t know. Further, the show will run forty-five minutes and is a self-contained story that bridges her entire life.
This show is a building block for Scout Expedition Co. Harkening back to Punchdrunk, their first show was not the current iteration of Sleep No More in New York City. They had to build up to that, and Jeff and Jarrett seem up to the task. With an exceptional background in set design, they want to continue to expand beyond “The Nest”—adding in narratives, actors, and other surprises. By building on what works and refining what doesn’t, each show will be bigger and better than the last. Jeff comments, “We want to go through an entire project life-cycle. To handle all the things you don’t anticipate.” These wins will produce a credible brand for Scout Expedition Co.