“There’s nothing quite like it”: Histrionic Productions’ Adam McKenzie Wylie on developing the Peter Rabbit Garden Adventure

Histrionic Productions founder Adam McKenzie Wylie on why the company’s recent immersive experience will have a profound effect on Peter Rabbit fans.

Adam, it’s great to catch up. To kick us off, how did you find yourself working with brands?
It was a natural evolution, in retrospect. I spent almost my entire career in advertising, advising brands how to attach themselves to lifestyle properties, sporting properties and entertainment properties. I’ve also always been a great lover of live performance and theatre. When I was younger I wanted to be an actor, but I didn’t have the courage to follow that through… Well, I didn’t get into drama school – and then I didn’t have the courage to follow it through!

There’s still time! So how did you come to transform that love for theatre into a job in immersive experiences?
After I sold out of the industry and was doing a bit of consultancy, I came across my first experience behind the scenes of an immersive theatrical show, which was a small vampire show I was involved with in the East End of the London. I took the advertising executives perspective on it and interrogated it pretty hard as we were going through it, even though my job was just to bring in commercial partners.

“We exclusively wanted to only work with the most popular IP in the family and adult space.”

It’s perhaps the hubris of the ex-ad guy, but I couldn’t help but think ‘I could do this!’ My experience up to that point had been aligned to producing things and I understood the way that consumer demands had changed over the last 10 years.

And part of that change was a growing appetite for immersive experiences?
Yes. We’d been talking for the last 20 years about the growth of the experience economy. It’s something that we, as advertising folk, felt we were at the vanguard of, but the reality is that it’s not a commercial sector; it’s being led by artists. That’s why first-generation immersive companies like You Me Bum Bum Train or Punchdrunk were well ahead of more commercial enterprises.

But yes, that’s how I fell into the immersive space, and I soon set about creating the blueprint for Histrionic Productions.

For anyone new to Histrionic Productions, talk us through that blueprint?
When we set up the company, the thing we thought was most important was the quality of the production. I know that sounds silly, but rewind to three years ago when we launched the business and there were a lot of average quality immersive theatre going on. There was quite a lot of esoteric titles that were a bit homespun.

I don’t mean to draw a broad brushstroke over the entire industry – what I’m saying sounds quite pejorative, and it’s not meant to! It’s just that the majority of the work wasn’t to a standard that I knew we could reach with the right creatives behind us.

“One of the great theatrical devices in a theatre is the fourth wall, but in an immersive show it’s actually very easy to suspend your disbelief.”

One of the first things we did was go out and find two figures who embody the spirit of Histrionic Productions. They were our two Associate Creative Directors: Sean Holmes, who is also Associate Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe, and his design collaborator Jon Bausor, who is a feted stage designer across opera and theatre. Between them, these West End luminaries helped us set our stall out to raise the benchmark when it came to the quality of the productions we were keen to put on.

Quality first, great stuff. What else made up the blueprint?
Well, the great challenge of traditional proscenium theatre is that when you go for a night at the theatre, you tend to meet friends for a drink beforehand – not in the theatre… You then go to the show and you might have a drink there, but it might be a bit rushed, the ice cubes might be a bit small, for those of us who are a bit fussy about that kind of thing, and the lemon might be a bit thin, for those of us who are a bit fussy about that kind of thing…

Ha! Noted!
Then after the show, you run out of the building’s doors. Now I’m a big fan of these theatres and I’m not knocking that industry, but it’s difficult for them to capitalise on revenue streams beyond the ticket price. They can sell you a very expensive programme and they can sell you a very expensive – not very nice – gin and tonic, but they can’t sell you much more than that.

One of the things we thought we could do by only operating in ‘found spaces’ was to provide ourselves with a real estate space that enables us to hang onto our audience for a little bit longer. In some respects, it allows us to benefit from the broader ‘evening out’ budget. We can provide good quality food and drink and a merchandise and retail offering. We actually have a third strand to that with our children’s shows, which is activity areas. It means kids can dwell ‘in world’ and enjoy arts and crafts aligned to the show.

Adam McKenzie Wylie, Histrionic Productions, Peter Rabbit

Was there an idea in place around the sorts of brands you wanted to work with?
We exclusively wanted to only work with the most popular IP in the family and adult space; brands that needed no introduction. Peter Rabbit and Paddington fit squarely into that.

Yes, and you’re at Blenheim Palace for the Peter Rabbit Garden Adventure, while Paddington Marmalade Messiness has a home at Dalkeith Country Park. Not all locations will be experienced at housing these kinds of experiences… Was there a bit of a learning process around who you went to with opportunities?
It’s interesting. We thought we’d always have to be on the front foot, persuading venue partners to accept our offer and twisting their arm about the appeal of immersive experiences. But our biggest surprise has been the warm reception we’ve got from a range of different stakeholders. I’ll give you a few examples.

Brownfield sites and developers see theatrical experiences as a brilliant means of promoting their building sites. You can only put certain types of shows in these environments, and it helps if they’re a bit dystopian. We have the rights to 1984, so there’s a good example of show that would fit nicely into that kind of environment.

“Our job is to be faithful to the brand owners long-established, crystal-clear vision of their characters, but to bring it to life in incredible environments.”

Shopping mall operators have shifted their extensive focus on retail to being really about a broader offering underpinned by entertainment and dining. That transition is only speeding up, and we’ll see more of that as the likes of Debenhams and John Lewis are redeployed as hotels, restaurants, theatre and location-based entertainment.

Then there’s the reaction of existing attractions. Blenheim is a great example. It gets thousands of visitors a day in the summer and is a very successful enterprise. The opportunity is for us to work with them to augment the great programme of events they draw new demographics of consumers into those places. Peter Rabbit’s younger demographic at Blenheim is a good example of that.

The last one is countries. We’ve had an extraordinary reaction from sovereign wealth funds and states. They see what we’re doing as a very substantial part of their post-Covid rehabilitation. We couldn’t possibly have known this when we launched the business, on the eve of Covid.

Adam McKenzie Wylie, Histrionic Productions, Peter Rabbit

Let’s dive into your development process. Talk us through how you approached bringing the world of Peter Rabbit to life in the Peter Rabbit Garden Adventure.
First of all, it’s been a tremendous honour to be able to explore how to bring Peter Rabbit to life in his very own walled garden environment. I don’t think it’s ever been done before.

On the one hand, it was a no-brainer. We set out to create suspension of disbelief. One of the great theatrical devices in a theatre is the fourth wall, but in an immersive show – where there’s 30 of you, filled with agency, discovering a beautiful garden and engaging with Beatrix Potter’s key characters – it’s actually very easy to suspend your disbelief.

Adam McKenzie Wylie, Histrionic Productions, Peter Rabbit

I saw it with my own eyes when we ran a pilot show last year – Percy the Park Keeper’s Autumn Adventure at Chiswick House. I watched children’s faces light up as Percy and his friends came to life in that extraordinary environment. Lots of people have been to panto or been to shows, but very few people have stood five feet away from one of their favourite characters in an environment where they’re absolutely at home.

So, on the one hand, it’s easy because we’re putting Peter where he belongs. On the other hand, in order to create a show that engages, functions and allows groups of around 30 people to pass through it efficiently, it takes a lot of thinking about. That said, the beauty of what we do is its simplicity. We take a character and bring them to life in an unexpected environment; not unexpected because you don’t expect to see them there, but unexpected because you’ve never seen them there before.

I think it’ll have a profound effect on Peter Rabbit fans and live long in the memory. There’s nothing quite like it.

Adam McKenzie Wylie, Histrionic Productions, Peter Rabbit

Were they any core elements of the brand that you felt it was important to get right in order to craft an authentic experience?
We went back to Beatrix Potter’s canon of work to be inspired by the characterisations, but we also felt there an opportunity to educate people as they go through the show about what Peter eats and why vegetables are a really important part of his diet. We sell fresh fruit and veg from the gardens in Peter Rabbit’s farm shop at the end of the show, so there’s a nice circular narrative there.

Adam McKenzie Wylie, Histrionic Productions, Peter Rabbit

The other thing to mention is that this show does feature Beatrix Potter. She’s one of the characters. There’s a lovely, subliminal message of creative inspiration as you learn what inspired Beatrix to write these timeless stories.

Amazing. Your Paddington Marmalade Messiness is also on at Dalkeith Country Park. What can folks expect from that experience?
This show is very much about Paddington’s great love of marmalade. It’s about him travelling to the home of the orange sticky stuff, discovering its roots and getting into a terrible pickle! It’s a really fun show. Its highly evocative of the Paddington brand, and his kindness and generosity of spirit sits at the heart of the narrative.

Adam McKenzie Wylie, Histrionic Productions, Peter Rabbit

Fab. For any IP owners reading, what does a brand need to thrive in location-based immersive experiences?
Our job is to exert high levels of creativity to that particular problem: how do you bring beloved characters – animated or otherwise – to life within a theatrical experience?

We tend to operate our shows as promenade experiences, so there’s six to eight set pieces. We give small groups of people a really intimidate experience, but I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules to it.

One might’ve imagined we’d open Peter Rabbit in the Lake District because that’s where Beatrix Potter was inspired to write the stories. We haven’t. We’re not doing Paddington in London… We’re immediately confounding the provenance of the story and that’s the beauty of what we do. There are no rules about location, staging or performance, but there are some clear guidelines around the characters that we are inspired and informed by.

Our job is to be faithful to the brand owners long-established, crystal-clear vision of their characters, but to bring it to life in incredible environments.

Adam McKenzie Wylie, Histrionic Productions, Peter Rabbit

We’ve spoken a lot about characters. Are you interested in also working with brands outside of character and entertainment, like food & drink IP for example?
Without a shadow of a doubt. What we’ve created here are some extraordinary platforms for much beloved IP to spring into the real world, and all sorts of brands can accompany that journey. We’re tremendously flexible. For example, we have partnered with a Scottish marmalade manufacturer, Mackays, for our Paddington experience – so brands can dovetail into what we’re doing in smart, creative ways.

Adam, this has been great. I have one last question. How do you fuel your creativity?
The key thing is to elevate oneself above the drudgery of business administration. If you’re always running the business, you can’t guide it. That’s challenging for a small business but it’s critical. I undoubtably have better ideas when I’m away from my desk. Staring at a PC is not conducive to creative thinking.

The outdoors is also a creative inspirer for me, but the most important thing is to surround yourself with creative people who you can creatively spar with openly. You need people who will tell you when an idea is a bad idea, but who are receptive to any idea and who can shape ideas and improve them.

Great stuff, thanks again Adam.

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