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Interview: 13Exp's Mikhael Tara Garver Creating Immersive Events for River LA

Mikhael Tara Garver, creator and experiential director of 13Exp, will team up with RiverLA for RIO REVEALS, a series of immersive, online events on the Los Angeles River

Interview: 13Exp's Mikhael Tara Garver Creating Immersive Events for River LA

Mikhael Tara Garver, creator and experiential director of 13Exp, will team up with River LA for RIO REVEALS, a series of immersive, online events on the history and future of the Los Angeles River. River LA donors will have access to the in-person FIREFLY NIGHTS, first of their RIO REVEALS series October 23 through 26, 2020; with the second immersive event RIO RECORDS opening to the general public for a six-week run beginning November 19, 2020.

I had the chance to toss a few questions to Mikhael between her many ongoing 13Exp projects.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Mikhael!

How are you doing in these stay-at-home times?

Thank YOU for taking the time, Gil. I'm doing ok. There is this podcast I loved that came out at the beginning of COVID called "Staying in with Emily and Kumail" and they called this time "The Weirds." I like that. It's surreal and it's the weirds. My nephew was born during The Weirds in New Jersey, and normally I would have been there. And yet, I'm healthy! And I have a COVID rescue dog, Maddy, to keep me grounded.

As 13Exp's creator and designer, you must be a real people watcher. What have you noticed in the streets of where you live that remarkably differ from six months ago?

Oh, that couldn't be more true. I am a people watcher and get super curious about how we LIVE. How we attempt to connect in the everyday. Like how we walk down the street now is different. In a weird way, our masks mean certain people are more physically open. They are using their bodies to show greeting. It's like they're pushing through the mask to telepathically say, "Hey! Hi! I'm in this crazy experience too! And, yeah, I am just in line at the grocery store. And I still want you to know I see you!"
That's a seismic shift from seven months ago. It's like when we are in public spaces, we are hungrier to put our phones down. One silly reason is our masks make it harder for me to see. But the more human reason is I think we at least need to connect with eyes now.

I think a lot about working on SLEEP NO MORE over a decade ago and watching the way people participate differently when they are wearing a mask. And now -- it's our norm. There is so much on this. As you can see, I can get a little obsessed with my excitement and fascination with how it's not that we are DISconnected. We are just being required to connect differently.

What cosmic forces first brought you and River LA together for this new endeavor?

When I got a call from Z (Krisztina "Z" Holly, project lead and board member of River LA), it felt like kismet. I am obsessed with big pluralistic story spaces. What I mean by that... is I believe there are places in our world that let us live in multiple stories at once. And multiple times. I've made work for post offices, libraries, historical sites, subways. Step back and think of the millions of stories over time that live in these spaces. They are RICH with life. And who we are. And now more than ever, we need that. And over the past few years, I had become fascinated with the L.A. River. It's like the spine of this city. And frankly, it connects all of the past, present, and future stories into our cultural relationship with the environment. And again, timely. The river and its stories are there EVEN in a pandemic. And the vastness of a space like that gives us the opportunity to safely bring it to life and bring a city together. When Z called, this was the kind of project I dream about. The kind of magic that I feel can exist.

Since 13Exp's known for its immersive productions, can one expect to see the banks of the Los Angeles River being used as the site of project?

Oh, yes. That's what this is about. I keep saying if you imagine that there was a snapshot of some part of the river, or even from a drone above. And back in the olden days where we used to go home and develop that photo. What if when you did, it came out with images and characters over time. Colors and spirits. Tonga and Latinx languages. So the River is not just our scenery. It's our physical and story source!

What challenges of these pandemic times have you had to overcome in producing this story of the Los Angeles River, with 30+ artists, no less?

Immersive and experiential always require the coordination and orchestration of artists who work and create in multiple ways. This is the way of this work. And artists are adaptive. So sure... to many, my process of orchestrating 50+ moving parts at once to create an overarching series of experiences seems challenging. And sure, safety constraints create new boundaries. But frankly I think in work that intends to be freeing, safety and constraints allow people to feel safer. So my team and I have been approaching these as creative challenges that spark ideas.

So the challenge is mostly the fatigue everyone is feeling. Not just artists. Teaching their kids, creating new revenue streams, heightened civic and political activity... This is emotional labor for all of us. And so my challenge is to make sure that, even with the speed, safety needs, and ambitiousness of this project; my collaborators and I prioritize taking care of each other first and foremost.

I DO think this is going to impact the future of how art is made. I have always been (albeit more and less successfully) obsessed with how we can take care of our human selves as we try to create experiences around what it is to be human. And how we take care of audiences... And I am hopeful that the requirement of this thoughtfulness now is going to change funders and producers expectations for the future.

What location has been the most challenging and therefore most rewarding for you to stage?

So experiential, at its best, should feel like there are light invisible buoys gently leading you in a massive body of water. You feel like you could go anywhere. And you also feel like you are taken care of to trust that you are ok. And experiential meets audience on, between, and through digital AND physical performance.

The hardest part is the between. The space between the live physical production and a podcast, or sim life version. And therefore it's the most challenging. What are the transitional spaces between online and physical performance? How do we make sure these are familiar and magical at the same time? For this project - the most challenging part is about making sure there are buoys and space for our audiences to be curious enough to journey along the river from in-person to online to in-person adventures again and again.

Interview: 13Exp's Mikhael Tara Garver Creating Immersive Events for River LA What originally sparked your interest in pursuing this most creative career?

It's funny. This career was not something I understood I was pursuing. Out of college, I thought I needed a stable responsible career, and so I worked for a group of small businesses coming out of college. And simultaneously started a theater company. I was in Chicago and thought my creative life, my money-making life, and also my engagement with social good causes were separate life compartments. I was most inspired by live music, or loud rambunctious family dinners, or being in cultural neighborhoods that were filled with language and culture I did not know, or the lake. Finding myself in the familiar and the unfamiliar. I didn't really think I was pursuing anything besides what made me curious about the world. Yet looking back now - for the business, I was doing early experiential strategy; for the theater company, we were creating work that put audiences inside of stories, early immersive; and for social good work, I was interested in how different causes were interconnected. And now looking back two decades later, I can see that all of those things made a career across fields I could not have imagined. In some ways because I pursued my curiosity in the connections between people and their goals and desires. But mostly? Mostly because the collaborators, audiences, students, and leaders I have come together with over the years spark more and more of that curiosity.

What form of communication do you find most effective? Visual? Literal? Funny? Out of the box?

Funny...Out of the box...I think the world is absurd. Dark. Magical. Beautiful. Poetic. Ugly. Many things all at the same time. I think when communicating with artists and with audience, laughter sparks comfort. Once we can smile or laugh, we are open to a deeper connection. So I think I have seen transformative communication when it begins with a sense of humor about oneself. And suddenly we are open to the darker and more complex ways of life. We are not as scared of DIScomfort, which is required in any transformative experience.

Do you find you use your same insights and strengths whether you're teaching or directing? Or do you have to wear different hats?

Teaching and directing feed my endless desire to learn about people and consider the multiple ways people encounter the world.

And really in both roles, at its best your strength is your comfort disappearing. As a teacher, you are sparking and pointing out channels for your students' curiosity. And as a director, you are doing the same. And if the center of that is me, I haven't done my job right. As a teacher, I brought in other speakers and teachers (even within the constraints of a university budget) that challenged my way of thinking. I wanted my students to see me be as much a learner as a teacher. And as a director, I build teams of STRONG and talented people who I trust. And I can say I am rigorous in both. And I am ambitious in imagining the potential in both. And I believe that the best work comes when artists and students are taking care of themselves.

Yet I have realized in the past few years that the way I work makes it hard to figure out where my creative SELF lives. Especially in the kind of directing I do, experiential is massive and no individual is the core of the thing. I think I am learning more and more all the time about how to take care of myself differently, as a teacher and as a director. How to embrace my mistakes as much as I do others. I am still always learning.

What gives you more satisfaction -- seeing a student have a lightbulb moment from one of your lessons? Or watching an audience giving a standing ovation to a play you directed?

Well, I am not the standing ovation type. Mostly because in immersive, there usually isn't that moment. I think why I like making and directing experiential is because there is the same potential for a light bulb moment. Good teaching, like good experiential, reveals your tiny unique place in a larger and epic world. That is the moment I crave. I call it the goosebumps moment. And it's not about me. It's about a student or an audience member being open to shifting the way they see the world. And myself and my team have hopefully set up the circumstances for them that to happen.

Any tentative plans for projects post-pandemic?

Interview: 13Exp's Mikhael Tara Garver Creating Immersive Events for River LA Phew! I mean. Yes. I run a studio. 13Exp has a slate of thirteen large, epic experiential projects that come to life in physical spaces, touring, streaming series, comic books, etc. We are right now in development on one called NATIONX with the support of Pop Culture Collaborative and are amidst seeding a few others -- POSTNATION, Janet Jackson SAVES THE UNIVERSE, and others. These are all created by a diverse slate of artists, technologists, makers.

Thank you again, Mikhael! I look forward to experiencing your latest interconnected digital and physical artistic experience that Experiential is known for!

Krisztina "Z" Holly, project lead and board member of River LA, had these important details to add:

The RIO REVEALS campaign will start coming to life October 24th. That means that we're beta testing a drive-through part of it for smaller audiences for two days called FIREFLY NIGHTS, with the intention of producing that more fully in December or start of 2021. On or around November 19th, we will preview and then run RIO RECORDS for six weeks (Tickets have been on sale since Monday, September 17th) It is a live digital and physical production that will run five nights a week. So some people can experience it in other cities, from their home, or in a solo walk along the river. And that's just the beginning. This fall is the kickoff of a multi-year campaign supporting the revitalization of the L.A. River. We're looking forward to how FIREFLY NIGHTS and RIO RECORDS can be the start of a great collaboration with 13Exp and local artists for now and in the future.

For more info and scheduling for the RIO REVEALS series of immersive events, log onto

The first of this series FIREFLY NIGHTS will be live for in-person River LA donors only on October 23 through 26, 2020. The second immersive event RIO RECORDS will be open to the general public for a six-week run beginning November 19, 2020.

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