Matt Conover – Vice President of Disney Live Entertainment at Disneyland – on innovation, storytelling and collaboration

In the first of a two-part interview, Disneyland’s Matt Conover tells us about the shows that defined his approach to crafting live experiences – and reveals the one character he’s yet to crack in the live space.

Matt Conover has worked at Disney for over 30 years, working on live events spanning everything from cruise ship shows to park opening ceremonies.

Now, as Vice President of Disney Live Entertainment at Disneyland, Matt leads a world-class team of collaborators in bringing the magic of Disney to life in innovative live experiences.

In this first of a two-part interview, Matt tells us about the shows that defined his approach to crafting live experiences – and reveals the one character he’s yet to crack in the live space.

Matt, I’m over the moon to connect. Thank you for making time. To kick us off, what came first for you – a love of Disney or a passion for live events?
It was theatre. I started doing theatre when I was in high school. Someone gave me a chance at 14 years old to expand my horizons creatively, and it really sparked something in me. I loved it.

Which aspect of theatre really connected with you? Acting, directing…
It was lighting and lighting design, because of how intangible it was. When you design a set, or a toy, you draw it and decide I want to make it look like this. Lighting is a little more ethereal and thus, more creative in my mind.

I decided to go to college to study theatre and went to a school in Ohio called Denison University. About eight months in, I realised that everyone around me was pre-law, or pre-med or business – real jobs – and I thought that maybe theatre wasn’t something I could really get a job in!

So I changed schools and went to a different university near my home in the DC area. I was a business and political science major because this was ‘the right path’… And I hated every single minute of it!

Oh no! Did you stick it out?
No, I changed again and went to my third college – the State University of New York at Purchase. I did three years there and got my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Lighting Design.

It was a programme that allowed me to do, and not just learn. It was a very conservatory programme. When I started out in my first year, there were 40 students in my area, and by the time I graduated there were eight. The process by which that got whittled down was twofold. Half the people decided it was not for them and chose to do something else, but for the other half, well, you basically had to interview with the Board of Study every semester with your work. If it wasn’t up to speed, you weren’t invited back.

Wow! I imagine that keeps you sharp!
Absolutely. And it was right outside New York City, so I had a lot of exposure to Broadway. My mentors and professors assumed that once you graduated, you’d move to New York City, live in a loft apartment with five other graduates and eat macaroni cheese and ramen noodles… That wasn’t the path I wanted to go down, so I moved home and actually got a job as a draftsman for a convention firm. It was utilising a skill I had but it wasn’t super creative.

While I was doing that, I found an advert in the back of a magazine for a job as a stage technician at Walt Disney World Resort. I applied, I interviewed, I got the job and moved to Walt Disney World in Orlando. Three years in I had my first big opportunity to go to Paris in 1992 and be a part of the team that was doing the grand opening of Disneyland Paris.

Matt Conover, Disney, Disneyland
In Disney Live Entertainment, we create experiences that last a long time, but we also create festivals and holiday seasons that come and go. We also create experiences that are uniquely one time only. Things like the grand opening of Disneyland Paris. That only happened on April 12th, 1992. The thrill and adrenaline of doing an event once where you don’t get a second chance was really sparked in me with that event.

I came back from that event and moved into the world of producing, for different shows at Walt Disney World and then for Disney Cruise Line. Then in my executive roles at Walt Disney World and also out here in California, my function is still as an executive producer, despite the fact my title is VP of Entertainment at Disneyland, I essentially function as the executive producer of everything at the Disneyland Resort.

I imagine I could line up 10 executive producers and each would have slightly different takes on what their role covers, so how would you sum that up?
The responsibility of producers in live entertainment often equates to: She or he who has the money. They fund the endeavour and thus, they have a say – regardless of whether they have creative ideas or not! The reality is that I work for a company that funds what we do, so I don’t have to fund the shows myself. My accountability as a producer is to lead a team of collaborators. Sometimes I have to build that team and sometimes a team is there, and my job is to figure out how to make that team work in a way that gets us the best result in the end.

As you can imagine, working in a large corporate environment, the collection of chefs in the kitchen only grows as you get closer to opening day. From pitching to a few senior executives in a very small room to get buy-off, to the day before the event when there’s safety people, technical people, marketing people, communications people… It grows!

The role of a producer is much like an orchestra conductor. All the different instruments have to function in sequence. That said, we don’t have sheet music to go off! For us, it’s a much more inter-personal collaboration than about us all following the same measures.

Were there any shows you worked on that, looking back, really defined and shaped how you create shows today?
I always talk about my time at Disney Cruise Line back in the late Nineties. We were building our first two ships – Disney Magic and Disney Wonder – and my responsibility was for the development of the Walt Disney Theatre, which is a 1,000-seat theatre on those two ships.

Matt Conover, Disney, Disneyland
We opened three, hour-long musicals that would rotate through your cruise. Like many places in the world, it’s a repertory company – we have one cast that plays all of the roles. We chose to have one creative team build three different shows, which allowed us a unity of focus when it comes to working together. It was an eye-opener for me. The whole experience really highlighted the power of intellectual property and the Walt Disney Company’s ability to tell stories.

How so?
Well, we did three different shows. The first show we developed was called Disney Dreams – a modern-day retelling of the Peter Pan story. Peter Pan comes and visits a young girl named Anne-Marie who doesn’t believe in her dreams. He takes it upon himself to help her believe in her dreams by taking her through different parts of the Disney canon and at the end, she and Peter Pan fly.

I don’t want to say it wrote itself because Megan Miller, a very talented writer, wrote it, but we were basically on version two of the script when it opened. It crystallised very quickly for everyone and it’s still running today, which is unheard of in this business.

Matt Conover, Disney, Disneyland
The second show we did was called Voyage of the Ghost Ship – an original pirate musical, before Jack Sparrow was a thing! The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction existed, but the movies with Jack Sparrow hadn’t come out yet. We were telling our own story. We had a talented composer and wrote some amazing songs – some of which are now used in other things – but the show only lasted eight or nine months on the ship. It shows how hard it is to write an original story and have it come to life in a way that then resonates with our guests.

On that, are there traits unique to Disney guests?
I was told by Michael Eisner way back in the day when we did The Hunchback of Notre Dame stage show, that most of our guests know our films before they come to our parks… So for our guests, it’s all about how do we give them something they can’t get in the film? That’s why in that show, we created a terrific live experience that included some amazing puppets created by Michael Curry that helped bring the story to life differently.

Yes, and we’ll dive into some of that in a moment! Now you were about to mention the third show you did with Disney Cruise Line before I leap in there with a question!
Oh yes, the third show was called Discover the Magic. It was an introduction to cruises because we thought many people going on a Disney Cruise Line would be first-time cruisers. We developed it – there was a family and Mickey and Minnie – and we got to a presentation and Michael Eisner said: “Any cruise line could do this show… What is it that only Disney can do?” At the time, Hercules had just landed in cinemas, so he set us off to create a musical around Hercules, which we did… called Hercules: The Muse-ical.

Very good!
Ha! And it was a hit and ran for six or seven years. What that reinforced for me was that when we create experiences, creating experiences that only we can do is key. And that doesn’t just mean using our characters, it also means playing to our strengths from an innovation and technical standpoint. For example, the Bellagio fountains were a thing in Las Vegas, and we took that core idea and expanded upon it as only Disney could to create World of Color.

Matt Conover, Disney, Disneyland
This is your night-time show with the incredible fountain display?

Yes, and now it is not the unique colourful fountain projection show that it was when it debuted. We embraced the fountain technology and took it ahead three more steps, but now the world has caught up and we have to keep innovating.

When we debuted Fantasmic back at Disneyland in 1992, the Maleficent dragon that comes to life was more of a theatrical interpretation of a dragon. The head spit fire and through that theatricality, people believed in it. Eight years ago, we decided to fully re-imagine a 45-foot-tall Maleficent dragon. Now we have the technology that allows us to create this animatronic vision. Now, the fire it spits out travels 45 feet and lights the river on fire – before it travelled nine feet.

Is a large part of the job keeping an eye on emerging tech and looking into what you can do with it?
It’s critical that we pay attention to innovation. People say to me “Matt, who’s your competition? Is it Knott’s Berry Farm or Universal Studios or Cirque du Soleil?” Clearly those are competitors, but I articulate our competitors as being things like the Xbox, the beach and the museum. We’re competing for people’s leisure time and disposable income.

One of the things I’ve learned is that if you’re producing a Broadway show, that’s all you’re worried about… That experience, in those four walls, with 2,000 people sat in those seats. It’s all about show. Entertainment at a theme park is just a piece of the pie. There are attractions, food, merchandise – entertainment has to complement that when it takes place on its own, like inside a theatre, and expand upon it when it happens in the wider space.

The best example of that is the Fantasmic show at Disneyland. It’s not in a theatre. It comes out of the Tom Sawyer Island and Rivers of America that you might have walked past all day long. We’ve found ways to tuck it away and hide it before it comes to life. That’s part of the magic that makes the entertainment part of this theme park pie really organic and special.

Matt Conover, Disney, Disneyland
Does new tech also enable you to do certain characters justice in live entertainment that previously would’ve been pretty much impossible to pull off?

Absolutely. It allows us to bring things to life in different ways. There’s a Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in Shanghai Disneyland that’s all-new; it’s not a replica of the other ones in any way. The combination of scenic storytelling and immersive environments, with projections and ride-control, ensures it all comes together and works as one form.

It sounds amazing – and it is! We’ll put a video in here so people can check that out in action!

Now, as we wrap part one of this chat up, my final question for now is… Are there any characters that you’re still yet to crack?
One of the things we have not yet cracked is how to we bring The Hulk to life. The Hulk doesn’t work when he’s only six feet tall!

Part Two of this interview with Matt lands next week, where we discuss Avengers Campus, Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge and find out about the biggest creative challenge of his career.

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