Versailles, Marie-Antoinette… those words make us dream! Frances Vieras Blanc has created an immersive experience set in the era of the legendary queen specifically for tourists! She tells us how she created Let Them Eat Cake, a cross between LARP and theater, and how, with her team, they reinvented themselves during the lockdown.
What is your background? How did you get to immersive experiences?
My big dream was to be a playwright and Broadway star! So, I studied performing arts, cinema and screenwriting and I worked in the world of show business in different capacities such as dance, theater and video games. When I was at university in San Francisco, I was part of an artist collective that created immersive shows, even though it wasn’t called that at the time!
Then, after a lot of changes, moving to Paris and some burlesque creations later, I discovered the Immersive Design Summit. I discovered their world, watched their videos and that was the revelation! I had finally found a label, a word, and a community for what I wanted to do.
Which was to create immersive experiences?
Exactly! I wanted to create a hybrid of show and interaction. The first idea I had was an “immersive experience bar”, with 2-3 different rotating experiences. I had some coaching sessions: it was a good idea, but even at the conceptual level, it seemed far too expensive to create! So I had to think about creating experiences in a different way. As I also worked a bit in tourism and I’m American, I figured that I could create an experience just for tourists who come to Paris, to offer them a unique format.
What is this experience? Can you present to us Let them Eat Cake?
It’s an experience that takes us back to the time of Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI! The participants come, play a character from the court, and get all dressed up in order to play a part in the show and become close to the King and the Queen. It takes place just after the storming of the Bastille. At the beginning, it’s a party, there’s a lot of talk about the revolution, but nobody really believes in it except the Marquis de Lafayette. As the experience unfolds we discover that the Bastille has been taken, and everyone starts to worry… Then we find a revolutionary pamphlet, with the list of people to be killed, that is to say all the nobles… all the people on this list are at this party!
Now it’s time to escape! At that time in 1789, many nobles had escaped abroad. This escape marks the end of the experience.
How is Let Them Eat Cake a different experience for tourists?
When I used to do guided tours in Paris, tourists often would say to me, “if only we could see what it was like back then!”. This is the case with the show: they’re really immersed in history!
When they buy their ticket, they are assigned a historical character: “You are the Duchess of Savoy, you are a widow, you have a daughter, you are afraid of losing your status and you want to find a husband for your daughter”. This already allows them the opportunity to take ownership of the experience.
Upon arrival, they are dressed and made up as they were in the 18th century! This is a key point for the experience. We chose to integrate the costume, even if it adds a significant cost. For the participants, it would be quite complicated to require them to find costuming especially if they are tourists; the costuming are a very strong immersion factor! Here, our participants play characters in the story, it wouldn’t make sense if they were in jeans…
There are a lot of logistics before and after the experience! How did you work these key moments?
For the “before experience”, as I said, there is this first email that gives them a role; afterwards they receive another message that gives them indications on the court etiquette. This is a way of giving them reference points (how to address the king, etc.), but also the rules of the experience (like no telephones once you enter the party…).
Entering the experience is complicated! The costumes, in particular, are quite the organization: we have to have enough of them, for several body types. Also, we have planned three dressing sessions. The VIPs arrive first, and this first half hour of preparation is already part of the experience. Their valets and chambermaids dress them, they hear rumours about the court, gossip, and the revolution… It’s also the “Instagram moment” because we know how important it is to be able to leave with a nice picture of yourself in this outfit! It’s the last moment when the phone is allowed. While the next participants are getting ready, the previous group enters a party. There is an opera performance, a ball where they learn choreography, and a card game of the era. When all 24 participants are ready, the actual theatrical part begins.
Then the question was how to end the experience well. The exit of the nobility through the escape marks the exit of the experience, but we couldn’t push them out so harshly! So we created a “landing moment” for the end: a moment to debrief and share one’s experience, ask questions, have some tea… and receive a goodie bag! Inside the goodie bag, there is the tea that Marie-Antoinette used to drink, her macaroons, chocolates… It offers a tangible souvenir of the experience the audience gets to take home with them.
We know that finding a business model is quite difficult for immersive experiences… How do you do it?
It is a difficult balance to find! The experience is expensive: there is one actor for two participants, many period costumes to rent, a specialized make-up artist, wig designer, the rental of a venue that makes sense, in the heart of Paris or Versailles, a total experience for VIPs that lasts 3h30… It’s a heavy cost!
But the public is willing to pay a price for this kind of experience that takes you back in time. Travelling is often accompanied by a large budget, especially for American clients whose imaginations are very much influenced by historical Paris. For the moment, our tickets are at $200 for general admission and $250 for the VIP entrance. At this price, apart from the experience, the participants leave with a portrait photo, amazing memories and a goodie bag filled with partner products. The participants who come want to buy souvenirs from Paris, to bring back gifts for their friends, and they have a budget for that!
Have you thought of other, more affordable formats?
Yes, absolutely! Let Them Eat Cake is, of course, the full immersive experience that lasts 3h30, but we want to create a complete brand and a universe. I’ve been interested in transmedia for a long time, and how we can extend a universe across multiple platforms, and make it live differently on each of these platforms.
I reproduced a format that worked very well when I was working in burlesque: the “burlesque bachelorette party”! It’s not just for bachelorette parties, but it’s the main market. It’s an experience that lasts two hours, for 4 to 10 participants, in which they are pampered: have their hair done, have a mini make-up tutorial, get dressed up, with champagne and cakes… and ends with a professional photo session! The participants learn a little more about Marie-Antoinette, who she was, her daily life, the times, and then each one chooses the noble identity he or she would like to embody. There are no actors and no story, but the participants are regaled and become the stars of the moment!
Let Them Eat Cake was supposed to have its first performances this summer… With the lockdown, how do you do it?
We had planned to launch the experience for two months starting the 4th of July. As soon as the lockdown was announced, we thought about what we could do to take the concept online. After all the work we’d done to create our universe, our characters, we couldn’t give up! Neither did we want to fall into a depression because of show cancellations.
Our first reflex was to continue our approach on Facebook and Instagram to make the brand known, but we wondered how to go further. And so “Cocktails with the Court” was born! These are 30-minute live shows on Facebook with characters from our show, our “court.” Participants can have cocktails and interact online with Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, the Marquis de Lafayette… or characters that we have invented, like Angélique de Potin, who is a big success!
We’re inventing and testing formats as we go along: we added a bingo because we saw that bingos were going around a lot. We’re also going to test a slightly different format with two people: one of whom is in charge of dealing with the questions coming in from the audience, reading them to make the actor’s job easier.
Who attends these cocktails?
Our community that is building up little by little! The majority of participants are here in Paris, either Americans or French who speak good English. Our cocktails are at 6pm French time, 12pm on the East Coast and 9am on the West Coast. There was even an online “date” with two people from the US who came to virtually attend our event!
Do you have any other “special lockdown” projects around Let Them Eat Cake?
Yes, we have two, which we are working on right now: an online experience for Airbnb, and a “choose your own adventure” interactive story, also online.
How do you perceive this very strange period?
It’s difficult, of course. We had finally found the perfect place: the perfect pearl, in the heart of Paris, which was financially feasible and that perfectly matched the spirit of our experience. The whole team was on the starting block! But we had to totally turn it around. After a year of design, it’s hard!
But we stay positive and keep our creative spirits high, to find alternatives. Like a lot of people, we are exploring artistic creations from a distance. Right now, I’m testing every possible remote or online experience I see going on! There’s a whole field to explore ! It’s both a new artistic constraint that can be a source of creativity, but also a necessity for all artists. Unfortunately, the art and entertainment world is going to be hit very hard. We need to find new viable models, and this is a real challenge.
What are the main difficulties for the creation of remote works ?
There is a first “technical” dimension, which is “how to create an experience behind a screen”. That’s the creative part! But the other big topic is how to succeed in monetizing all this work. No one is willing to pay the same for an in person/physical experience as for a remote or online experience, which is understandable. First, because there is so much free content on the internet. Then, because there are no sets, there appears to be a greater distance from the actors… Yet there is a lot of work being put into the conception, design, acting… But this value is not often perceived by the public.
So I really wonder how we can manage to create online work that is comprehensive enough for the audience to be ready to pay for it? And what is the right price? These and other questions will take time to answer.
Thank you, Frances! And finally, if you had one last piece of advice to give from your creative experience?
To surround yourself well! You can’t be an expert at everything, especially when creating such a large immersive experience! We’re a great team at Eat the Cake Studio: Maddy comes from video games, Jen and Elena from theatre and event design.
You also have to find the right partners: we work with the Director of Research at Versailles, a doctoral student in musicology specializing in music of the court of Louis XVI, our make-up artist has already worked on several 18th century projects where she has recreated Marie Atoinette’s iconic look…
Picture credits : Rachel Calvo Portraits, Hela Staniszewska Photography