February 22nd was Edward Gorey’s birthday. Of course, he is D for Dead. No matter; we still have his drawings and weird stories. All week, we’ll have Gorey posts in anticipation of a nice, little party that celebrates the man who brought us poor Xerxes and cloven Kate (whom we miss): yes, the Edwardian Ball.
I is for Interactive, Improvisational and Immersive. Also, Immolative. One of the Ball’s many attractions is the Mystic Midway. Meet its purveyors with these 5 questions and thorough answers. If you are brave. And curious.
1. I’ve watched all the videos on your website and read your About section. It all looks very shady to me. What’s really going on at Mystic Midway? I’ve noticed Something Wicked This Way Comes on your recommendations list; is that the kind of situation we’re dealing with here? Should we be afraid?
Scott Levkoff – Hello Last Bookstore – Dwarf+Giant readers!
Mystic Midway is a community of improv character performers, Clowns, Shamans, Fools, Mystics and Creator Culture Activists dedicated to unleashing experiences of fierce whimsy and playful reflection, hopefully revealing the GOLD at the heart of everyone’s stories or at the very least a modicum of mirth & merriment!
We bring immersive theater, playful social games and rollicking fun to events, fairs, festivals and hidden alleys everywhere. STORIES OF GOLD our most recent performance at San Francisco’s Edwardian Ball on January 26th and 27th awarded over 2,500 pieces of custom ‘Story Currency’ to event attendees for daring to engage with ‘MagicalTerribleWhimsical’ challenges presented by our ensemble of Midway characters. Guests earned currency by sharing stories, visions, confessions and doing whimsical deeds. Earned currencies could then be kept as a keepsake, used to instigate connection with other players or traded at our GOBLIN MARKET for collectible trinkets and treasures. Midway Ensemble characters would assist our guests in introducing their creative personas, diving into their personal stories and engaging in whatever manner was comfortable. Tales both sad, triumphant, ridiculous and deeply insightful created a ‘charge’ to the air of The Midway. The fantastic themes, narratives and archetypes of our Midway gave PERMISSION to the modern adult sensibility to open up to playful exploration. By surrendering to the surreal spectacle of The Midway and the mysterious allure of ‘What If…?’, guests found permission to connect with total strangers, celebrate commonalities that make life precious, magical and yes, even sometimes terrible. With ‘STORIES OF GOLD’ our intention is that EVERYONE comes away with an epiphany, discovery or reflection that can assist them in their lives, or as we say, ‘strike gold at the heart of THEIR stories.’
Is The Mystic Midway darkly foreboding?
But of course! We fully embrace the concept of ‘Carnival as Shadow Mirror’. We hope that the characters, themes and narratives that inform our Midway might act as ‘clarifying reflections’ of our guests own challenges, that they may better recognize, name and heal the SHADOW STORIES that we all hold within us.
We presented a ‘Mythical Carnival Mirror’ at the Burning Man Festival’s Carnival of Mirrors-themed event last fall, with a Funhouse Labyrinth populated by Midway characters who lured, cajoled, taunted and tempted guests to journey deeper into the story of their desert experience. The Dark Harlequins that dance in The Carnival Mirror of The Midway pose the reflection: What INNER GOLD can be claimed by facing the challenges in our lives? We embrace the role of the TricksterClown/Dark Harlequin who waits in the shadowy wings of Midway, as an ally who can show us invaluable dark reflections.
Ray Bradbury employed the device of ‘the dark mirror’ in Something Wicked This Way Comes to make his characters face such themes as mortality, fear and age.. In Charles Finney’s 1935 The Circus of Dr Lao, a mysterious circus appears at the edge of town, cast with a motley of strange, archetypal characters, each which offer a gift of reflection to the guests who enter. (Tony Randall playing a hilariously non-p.c.version of Dr. LAO in the film adaption The Seven Faces of Dr Lao) In Terry Gilliam’s 2009 The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus we see the Carnival Mirror thematic employed once again with an actual ‘magic mirror’ presented onstage by Doctor Parnassus himself, a mirror that once stepped through affords they who step through it a jaunt into phantasmagorical landscapes conjured from their very own psyches, subconscious fears and desires. The Midway; with its archetypal characters and ‘Hero’s Journey’ infused inquiries, exists to serve guests on their journeys as Heros’ all. Our Midway mirror does not judge, rather shows guests that ”quality of play is a direct reflection of HOW we play” to quote James Carse, author of Finite and Infinite Games. Self-reflection and evolution being integrally linked. We embrace our immersive theater craft as a means of achieving TRANSFORMATION, both Ensemble and audience together, celebrating a constant process of uncovering the inner gold to which we dedicate our storied Midway, our THEATER OF THE MARVELOUS.
2. What are the origins of Mystic Midway? What are your backgrounds (of founders Scott Levkoff and Marty Caplan)?
Scott Levkoff – Stories of dark carnivals held a particular fascination for me as a young, nerdy roleplaying gamer and have played a large role in influencing the development of THE MYSTIC MIDWAY. Being the child of nomadic hippie parents (attended 20 different schools before college), a psychic-channeling Mother and with constant exposure to gurus, communes, pagans, New Age spiritualists and devoutly iconoclastic fringe society dwellers rubbed off on me and led me to my own dilettante pursuits of Alchemy, Magic, Paganism, Gnostic practice, Hoodoo, Vodou, Psychedelic Medicines and what i call ‘Cosplay Shamanism’. I also discovered a love for immersive worlds and the lineage-rich celebration communities created by The Living History communities of The Northern Renaissance Fair, Dickens Fair, Nor Cal Bay Area Costume Societies and countless European Fairs and festivals. After working as a puppeteer, costumed character actor, sideshow barker and event producer for many years, and paired with my love for creating immersive worlds of celebration, it all came to a nexus about five years ago, during a month-long exile on ‘the Tramadol couch’ after a serious back injury. It’s amazing what a month of forced physical debilitation and substance-induced revery can yield. I was seeking a new project to work on and was given the luxury of reflecting on my life’s work. In my revery-stupor, I asked my Muse ‘what if i combined everything I’ve ever studied and loved into one project? What would THAT look like?’ That was when the MYSTIC MIDWAY was born.
My longtime friend and colleague Marty Caplan, who is also an avid gamer and game producer, shared my love for role playing games and has also helped design the social game aspects of The Midway which we’ve been honing and distilling for the past 5 years.
3. Not having had the Mystic Midway experience myself yet, it looks like a 4 dimensional, live action, Choose Your Own Adventure novel in a corset. Is this the next evolution in storytelling? Are you building towards something specific or just exploring?
Scott Levkoff – The Mystic Midway is based on a deck of ‘Mystic Midway Storycards’. I guess you could say these cards incorporate a majority of the topics that i personally find of critical importance, topics related to the pursuit of ‘crafting amazing stories and experiences’. These cards present storytelling building blocks designed to prompt inquiry. Current Storycard types: Midway Concepts, Midway Characters, Midway Attractions, Midway Objects. We currently use these cards to give readings to our guests as well as guide the development of our shows. Ensemble cast members also embody these characters live at events. Further content in these cards reflect what the Midway community learns from each of our shows, generating constant refinement and iteration.
In the very near future we will be offering Mystic Midway Storycards on our website, with an accompanying rule & interpretation booklet (with storycard art by Ted Naifeh, our lead artist noteable for titles such as Gloom Cookie, Courtney Crumrin, Polly and the Pirates, Princess Ugg and others) These cards can be used to give readings the way you might consult any other Oracle or Tarot deck, as well as used to play Storytelling games with friends. Also in development is a gorgeous Mystic Midway Storyboard with popup paper sets, also with art by Ted Naifeh, Jeanne Ladeaux, Lee Harvey Roswell and others.
We are also currently considering invitations to appear at Festivals, Social Gatherings and Celebrations of every variety.
WE LOVE INVITATIONS, please do contact us!
4. Let’s talk about your reading list. You have economics alongside theater alongside fiction and sociology and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. That’s just the first few titles. Would you talk about your process for synthesizing (shoehorning?) all of that into a single experience for guests? How does it start and how do you know when you’re ready for the public?
Scott Levkoff – As an only child I read a lot and found solace in the alternate realities presented by fantasy literature. (A friend and I in High School took a road trip our senior year just to visit the birthplace of H.P. Lovecraft, one of my youth fave authors). It is no wonder that I have drawn upon these rich worlds years later, as an adult. Trusting my curiosity has also played a huge role in deciding the strange path my MUSE has taken me on. The Midway is a celebration, a tribute to the many worlds and Surrounding oneself with others who are more interesting, smarter, ambitious or weirder than yourself is also an excellent tactic in discovering new inspirations and resources. Courting lazy, golden, Absinthe-fueled afternoons and Bohemian Salon picnics – it’s all ART, ultimately, the process of exploring the many components that go into the creation of amazing experiences. Ideally, we want people to come away from the Midway not only wanting to create their own magical experiences, but with the tools and fire to do so.
5. It’s challenging to see folks doing what you do: pushing the definitions of immersive experience, storytelling, theater, gaming, etc., combining genres and technologies and so on. What advice could you give to people who want to develop their own projects?
Scott Levkoff – Start with something, anything, and try it out with friends. Don’t over-think it, and be willing to fail. Trust the creative process to reveal things to you that you could never have imagined sitting at your writing desk. Trust your MUSE to lead you down paths that may make no sense at the time, paths that may just end up yielding MIRACLES. Having fun with the process is also a big part of the Alchemy of discovery Be a STUDENT, forever and always be willing to be surprised and humbled by the things others have to show and teach you. Be a Steward for amazing experiences; in other words, create social containers with an intent on achieving magical results for others and discover how YOUR experience will rise along with them.
Look for MAGIC and you will find it. Believe in the inherent GOOD in others, that people WANT to step up and be the best version of themselves they can be, but also explore concise social boundaries with your creations. Hold space for MYSTERY at the center of your creations, or ‘keep the center empty’. How else can you be surprised?
Never forget: you are not the only one that harbors a secret belief that Reality is far stranger and amazing than we can understand.
Marty Caplan – Keep it loose, find the fun, and keep your head out of your ass! Though we draw on plenty of occult and esoteric work by past and current geniuses and magi, we feel that the Science of Celebration we pursue, honed by ‘constantly creating good social works’ is paramount in making effective performances
Specific advice? First make a dice game, a card game or a board game that other people can play and have fun with after you leave the room with instructions on 1 sheet of paper. In my opinion that’s the bar for me personally to be qualified to make larger efforts into any game design. Making a RL immersive experience with whatever theatrical elements will benefit from a core game design mechanic that is easy for performers and audience to understand without you being there to explain it.
The only way to visit Mystic Midway this week is at the Edwardian Ball. It appears and disappears without warning, so get in while you can.
(Cover image from the work of Leonard Greco)