Sunday, 22 December 2019

Making The Timekeeper's Return: The Big Day

Printing and cutting out QR code stickers in preparation for the event

I told myself that I’d get at least 7 hours of sleep before the big day, but who was I kidding?

Instead I spent several hours printing and cutting out about 10 sets of 18 QR code stickers (I needed spares), as well as over 200 stickers with the astrolabe design on, as rewards for those who completed the treasure hunt.

In the end I think I got between 3 and 4 hours of sleep. This obviously wasn’t ideal, but I knew adrenaline would carry me through the day.

On the morning of 20th October I got into town at 7.50am, and the first thing I did was walk around the Cathedral Quarter and stick up the QR code stickers while there were as few people around as possible.

It was a good job I printed spare stickers, as I managed to stick one up in the wrong location at one point! Thankfully I realised what I’d done straight away and was able to replace it with the correct sticker.

After these early morning exploits, I had a bit of time to get some breakfast at McDonald’s and take things easy before the real work began.

The first task was to meet and prepare the three paid actors who the Cathedral Quarter and I had employed for the day.

Arranged by a contact of ours in the Canterbury Christchurch University Outreach team, the actors were there to facilitate the running of the game and, like the participating businesses, help forge a link between the past and present Cathedral Quarter and reinforce the participants’ sense of immersion in the narrative. Dressed in plain clothes, yet acting the roles of characters in the story, they became part of the ‘secret society’ that players entered into as they explored this part of the city.

The actors were briefed by me in advance of the event, which gave them a back-story to their character, some suggested lines they could use in different circumstances (e.g. based on questions they were likely to be asked, or problems that could arise during the game), and some key adjectives to describe how they should portray themselves in front of the participants. Everything else was open to improvisation.

On the day, I gave them all a tour of the relevant parts of the Cathedral Quarter too, to make sure they were aware of where the key locations were, and what to expect in the different sites.

Our first actor played the character of Mia Augustina’s research assistant, Rose, who stood at the starting point for the treasure hunt at the compass in Longmarket Square. Her job was to introduce herself to those who had turned up to take part, present them with the opening QR code, and provide guidance on installing a QR code scanner, how to scan QR codes, how long the treasure hunt would roughly take to complete, and any other general information about the event.

Rose positioned at the compass in Longmarket Square, where the treasure hunt began

Then there was another assistant, Max, who was asked to float around Burgate and the Buttermarket where some of the early points of interest were. She was on hand to provide any guidance to participants who weren’t sure what they were supposed to be doing, were lost, or were having problems with mobile internet coverage.

Finally, there was Mia Augustina herself, who was positioned at the end point of the treasure hunt. As well as letting the participants know that they had finished, she was responsible for giving out the small rewards earned by each participant who completed the game, taking down contact information for those who wanted to enter the larger prize draw, and making a record of how many people finished the trail in total.

Once the actors had been fully prepared, I had another group of people to meet. Thanks to the brilliant people in the Media Arts department at Royal Holloway, I managed to enlist the services of a small student film crew to capture footage of the event (at very short notice!), as well as interview me about the process of making The Timekeeper’s Return and the story behind its inception.

After making sure that all the actors and businesses were fully set for the event’s start at 10 am, the film crew and I went to Antoine et Lili, where we had been given space to shoot the interview. Having set up the camera equipment, they hooked me up with a microphone and asked me questions such as “how did the event come about?” and “why Canterbury?” to prompt the monologues that would provide narration for the film.

Knowing how difficult it is to edit films filled with broken speech and hesitations, I did my best to make sure that my responses flowed clearly and steadily. Thankfully, we therefore didn’t have to do too many takes.

After the interview, we also decided to record a segment of me talking about digital storytelling while walking through part of the Cathedral Quarter. This proved much more difficult than we imagined, however, as Burgate was so busy with people (and occasional cars!) that it was impossible to get a clear run. In the end we moved to the slightly quieter Butchery Lane, but it still look us four or five attempts to get passable footage. The cobbles were also a unique hindrance because of how difficult it is to walk steadily on them while carrying a camera.

The film crew on Burgate

After the filming with me was complete, the crew went off to capture the game in action and to get some B-roll footage of the Cathedral Quarter.

Meanwhile, I set about checking in on all the actors and participating businesses, to make sure that everything was working without a hitch. I also visited all of the QR code locations, to ensure that all the stickers were still in place and intact.

Most of my time during the hours of the event was spent like this – running around like a headless chicken in my directorial role, to make sure that everything was running as smoothly as possible.

The wonderful cake made by the staff at Lakeland for The Timekeeper's Return, complete with the astrolabe logo

Participants read one of the story passages after scanning a QR code 

I did find some time to pursue other opportunities that came up during the day, and give myself some much-needed breaks.

At one point I met with another local artist, who I had connected with online as a result of advertising The Timekeeper’s Return on a mailing list. Then, later in the afternoon, I shared lunch and caught up with friends who had purposely travelled to Canterbury – some travelling quite significant distances – to try out the game I’d created and to support me.

It was very touching, and part of what made the day such a special one for me when I look back. It helped me to recognise how I wasn’t just a designer or director who had been brought in to run an event, but a valued part of these wider communities of artists, friends and local businesspeople.

A participant put a sticker with the event's astrolabe logo on her smartphone!

A gathering of participants

Though I was rushing around a lot on the day, on the whole it was apparent that everything was going remarkably well. Every time I entered one of the participating businesses, they remarked at how busy they’d been with people taking part in The Timekeeper’s Return, and how Burgate was buzzing with activity. I could see that myself just by stepping outside onto the street.

But as with all ‘live’ events, particularly those in public spaces, there are always unexpected occurrences that need to be negotiated. When the event is six hours long on a busy Saturday, as The Timekeeper’s Return was, the chances of unforeseen incidents only increase.

Of the few issues that did occur, nearly all of them were fairly mundane and easy to resolve quickly. At one point, I was informed that one of the QR code stickers became impossible to scan. Luckily, the people who first detected the problem were still at the site when I arrived, so I was able to replace it there and then for them with a sticker which worked properly.

I had also been made aware at one stage that a couple of groups of participants had struggled to spot one QR code in particular, and actually managed to skip it and move directly to one of the later QR codes in the story.

My solution simply involved talking to the businesspeople who were responsible for directing the participants at this stage of the treasure hunt, asking them to give a slightly clearer indication of the area where the next QR code could be found.

Perhaps the most concerning incident of the day came about an hour or two before the event finished.

I walked around to where the final actor was positioned at the end of the treasure hunt, only to find that I couldn’t see her anywhere.

The bag in which she kept all the rewards and sheets with contact details was still propped up against the wall where she had been positioned, but the actor herself was nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile, a group of street drinkers were playing music loudly from a nearby bench, to the bemusement of people passing by.

At first, I assumed that she might have just gone for a toilet break, and in the intervening time I filled in by taking on the persona of another one of Mia Augustina’s research assistants. For the couple of groups of participants I encountered, I congratulated them for finding all of the QR codes, explaining that Mia had already left to continue her research, but had left me with some gifts for those who had helped her return home.
However, after a little while someone from one of the nearby participating businesses found me to explain what had actually happened.

About ten minutes earlier, the street drinkers on the nearby bench had been swearing very loudly in front of the young children who were taking part. When my actor approached them and asked if they could tone down their language, they reacted very aggressively, threatening her and shouting directly in her face.
When I spoke to her she was understandably quite shaken up, so I explained to her that I’d be happy to take over her role for the remainder of the event. In the end, though, she decided that she wanted to continue, and just needed a bit of time to regain her composure.
Fortunately, when she returned to her role, the group of street drinkers had since moved on, and everything returned to normal.

Better than normal, in fact, as the numbers of players appearing before us only continued to rise. At one point, there must have been about 25 participants all gathered in the same place, having managed to reach that point of the treasure hunt at the same time.

A large group of participants gathers in the Cathedral Quarter

As the event drew towards a close, I saw a young girl walking the route of the treasure hunt with her dad. They still had a few more locations to visit before reaching the end, but the dad suggested to that they should leave early, as girl’s mum would be finishing work soon.

Clearly, this wasn’t what she wanted, and when the decision was finally made, she got upset and started crying.

Obviously I felt very sorry for her, though I couldn’t help but feel a flash of pride that the event and story I had designed had prompted that kind of emotional response. I had pitched the event as being accessible for all ages, but it’s always difficult to tell exactly how it will be received by different audiences. So it was especially rewarding to see younger participants getting so involved.

In the end, I approached them as they were leaving, and gave the daughter the rewards for finishing the treasure hunt anyway.

Once we were convinced that there were no more stragglers, the actors were free to leave, and I spent some time chatting with a couple of Cathedral Quarter businesspeople.

The overwhelming consensus was that the event had been a huge success, with over 200 people taking part and making the most of what the Cathedral Quarter’s built environment and independent businesses had to offer.

Beforehand, we were saying that we would be happy with half that number.

As the crowds dispersed, I said my goodbyes to those I knew who were visiting Canterbury for the event, and made my way around the Cathedral Quarter to remove the QR code stickers from their positions.

I then shared a celebratory drink with some of my local friends, and returned home completely worn out, but still glowing with an enormous swell of pride at what we’d achieved.

I think what strikes me most, looking back on the day of the event, are the very physical actions and materials that were necessary in order to make sure this ‘digital’ storytelling experience took place and ultimately was successful. From the posters and flyers that were printed in their hundreds, placed by hard-working volunteers on noticeboards, windows and other public displays across the Canterbury area, to the QR code stickers themselves and the surfaces to which they were stuck, the positioning and behaviour of the actors and participating businesspeople, and the smartphones through which the gameplay was largely mediated.

Furthermore, despite some unforeseen challenges on the day, overall we had some very good fortune. The weather remained stunning for the whole duration of the event; the technology stood up to the task (undoubtedly helped by the free WiFi offered by many of the Cathedral Quarter businesses); and the event was able to piggyback on the crowds drawn into the city centre for the opening day of the Canterbury Festival.

While we can certainly acknowledge these turns of fate, one factor that definitely cannot be overlooked is the commitment and hard work of those who offered their help to make The Timekeeper’s Return what we hoped it could be – the actors, businesspeople, testers, web and graphic designers, film crew, and everyone else involved in its production.

The Timekeeper’s Return aimed to foster a sense of community and shared heritage in the Cathedral Quarter, and it's lovely to be able to say that it is this combined effort of Canterbury people that comes to mind when I think back to this big, marvellous day.

The next and final post in the Making The Timekeeper’s Return series considers the feedback the event received, and its legacy.

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