Mission Impossible: can PY1 make us put our phones away?

Words by Katie Puckett

PY1 unique experience in Montreal

From the team behind Cirque du Soleil, PY1 is one of the most technologically advanced venues in the world

Ticket holders for PY1 will have little idea of the experience that awaits them as they approach the mysterious pyramid on Montreal’s docks. But its creators don’t really know either.

“Something we talked about really early on was ‘what is the audience going to feel?’” says Mike Anderson, production director at Lune Rouge Entertainment. “To be perfectly honest, we’re not exactly sure how they’re going to react because it’s so new. We’ll be watching carefully.”

Lune Rouge is the new venture of Guy Laliberté, founder of Cirque du Soleil, and the hope is that it will follow the same trajectory from cult secret to global phenomenon. Having opened in June this year, PY1 is a touring venue with “multiple personalities”. By day, it hosts Through the Echoes, an interactive 60-minute show that will take visitors on a multimedia journey from the Big Bang to the present day; by night, it becomes a nightclub with themed live music experiences and 360º projections. It can also be rented out for anything from corporate presentations to yoga retreats.

“The first time a train came through the screen in a movie theatre, audiences ducked. It’s going to be the same for the audience in here”

Calum Pearson, Lune Rouge

PY1 is one of the most technologically advanced venues in the world, but its novelty derives in part from a more mundane reason: its unconventional shape. “The audience have never been in a venue like this and so they’re going to be experiencing something in a way that they never have before,” says Calum Pearson, Lune Rouge’s general manager.

Both Pearson and Anderson are veterans of Cirque du Soleil’s spectacular touring productions, but that proved to be no preparation for a 125ft square with 85ft-high slanting walls. “For my entire career of 30-plus years in entertainment, we’ve always worked inside of a box, where things go up and down in a linear way,” says Pearson. “Here that doesn’t happen — everything is at an angle and we don’t have the traditional ceiling. So we’ve kind of had to throw away everything that we knew. It presents completely new challenges for a lighting designer, for example. How do you light the floor to create a certain mood, without lighting up the projection surfaces on the walls?”

As well as projections, shows feature lasers, kinetic physical elements and of course, state-of-the-art sound and lighting, and it is augmented reality-ready too. There is no traditional seating, and the audience is free to sit, stand or roam.

Interactivity is essential to hold a modern audience’s attention, says Pearson. “Even in the 90s, the challenge was always how you break down that fourth wall. But now people have access to technology that surrounds them and stimulates all of their senses just from their own couches.”

“You can put on an Oculus Rift headset and go into a virtual world, but physically it’s just you in there. We wanted to create a way to be in that world together”

Calum Pearson, Lune Rouge

The goal of PY1 is to offer the same level of immersiveness, but in a communal setting. “Today, you can put on an Oculus Rift headset and go into a virtual world, but physically it’s just you in there. We wanted to create a way to be in that world together. Human beings are still very social creatures, we want to get out and experience things together.”

As storytellers, their ultimate job is to give the audience goosebumps, says Pearson. “The story has to take them on a journey. It has to have moments of adrenaline and moments where you just get to breathe, and the venue has to be able to support that.”

The communal element is crucial, adds Anderson: “If you think back over the times you’ve experienced the hair standing up on your arms, you don’t usually get this feeling watching television or looking at your phone. It’s a social, interactive moment where there’s five people, or 1,000 people, or 100,000 people in an arena and it feeds off itself.”

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As fathers, they have a more personal goal: getting the younger generation to look up from their phones, for a short while at least. “We have both lived through them growing to the age of living inside of their cell phone or living inside the video game,” says Anderson. “My daughter has friends literally all over the world, but she’s never actually spoken to or met any one of them. One of the coolest things I ever experienced was at a high-school robotics championship in St Louis. There were 70,000 teenagers in this gigantic football arena, all engaged in what was going on, and not one of them had their cell phones in their hand. That was a goosebump moment for me.”

Here, the pyramid’s unusual shape is again their secret weapon: it will be very difficult to capture such a multidimensional experience on a phone screen. They want people to want to try — and then they want them to give up and just be in the moment. “If we have an ambition left to fulfil, it’s to bring everybody from the Millennials and younger out of the seven-inch world to the 360º real world,” says Pearson. “Just for 60 minutes, you’re ours.”

“And then,” adds Anderson, “we want them to go out of the pyramid, pick up their cell phone and talk to their friends about it.”

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