What Theatre Directors Can Learn From Airline Safety Videos

Naturalism in the theatre is a familiar and comfortable stylistic choice. Most theatre directors in the United States believe that people can relate to actors mirroring things from our everyday lives.

All too often, naturalism is the wrong choice for theatre. Our audiences may not be able to verbalize it, but they hunger for a deeper level of engagement than the naturalism of Netflix can provide.

A vivid way to see the limitations of naturalism is through this innovative and decidedly not-naturalistic video that turns the traditional staid airline safety video into a performance spectacle:

 

I’ve had this same safety information presented to me before each of the hundreds of flights I’ve taken in my life; but by engaging my brain with expressive movement, repeated patterns, stunning visual effects and unexpected auditory cues, American Airlines actually got me to learn what I need to do in the case of an emergency.

Part of why this video works is because American breaks the passenger’s expectations. The passenger expects the same old safety routine and tunes out thinking, “Been there. Done that.” But, what if this lifeless material is presented in a surprising way that serves up a visual and auditory feast? Like good theatre, this unexpected video pulls you out of everyday life and pulls you in to attention. The director keeps up that energy, giving you one surprise after another so you’re totally compelled to continue to watch to see what happens next.

(And notice, the director keeps the tease up until the end with the final shot being a behind-the-scenes view where you can see the mirrors, the black clad dancers, and everyone else all in a big airplane hanger.)

Air France also embraced non-naturalism in their simpler video that uses costumes, choreography, and a stylized set to create a very memorable — and very French — explanation of the safety instructions:

 

(Although as storytelling goes, I prefer Air France’s Cirque du Soleil-style commercial about French love that was clearly designed alongside the safety video.)

Another way to immediately engage audiences and increase the odds of information retention is with smart lyrics. Part of why half this country knows the story of Alexander Hamilton is because Lin-Manuel Miranda encapsulated his story in unforgettable song lyrics. While I don’t think that Virgin America’s songwriting and pacing rises to the level of Hamilton, after the robots rap about flotation devices at 2:01, Virgin America’s pilots aren’t going to have to worry about passengers not knowing how to inflate their life vests in the case of an emergency water landing:

These airlines know that the key to getting audiences to pay attention to stale material is to use innovative presentation. The airlines were so proud of the innovation behind these videos that they made separate — and fascinating — behind the scenes videos to share their process from concept to execution. This is American Airlines’:

 

In Virgin America’s behind the scenes video, the director talks about how his goal was to break molds and traditions as a way to entertain as well as to engage the audience while still conveying an important message:

 

Making theatre is no different. In my work with Bated Breath Theatre, we produce new theatrical works inspired by museum exhibitions. We want to deepen museum audience engagement while exposing more people to the wonder of theatre. Naturalism would be the obvious choice when dealing with museum artifacts, but when you want to explain why a particular artifact was important enough to come out of storage and on display, naturalism is almost always the wrong choice.

In my view, the best way to reach audiences is to break their assumptions and engage as many of their separate senses as you can. It’s risky, but I like to invite the audience into the storytelling process by using surrealistic imagery and expressive physical movement to evoke atmosphere, tell the story, and let my audience’s intelligence fill in the rest.

Airlines consider their content to be a life and death matter; and some of them chose to take some non-naturalistic risks to very effectively get their point across. Theatre directors might want to do the same.

Mara Lieberman