When a UFO Lands on Campus

by Linnie Schell, e5 student

With an opening pitch of “Let’s fake an alien invasion,” I invariably was greeted with either excitement or abject puzzlement. I was always confused by the later reactions. It’s art! And space! And aliens! Who doesn’t, deep down, want to plant a shiny metal UFO on their front lawn? They were confused: why would I want to spend all this time and effort organizing this? Was it performance art? Who had given me permission? Was this some sort of elaborate practical joke? Fortunately for me, as it turned out, far more people at Rochester are Team UFO than not. 

I should back up. I am a fifth-year student as part of the e5 (formerly KEY) program. For the unfamiliar, the e5 program is a scholarship for a free year of tuition at Rochester to develop an entrepreneurial project and take classes related to that project. My e5 topic is immersive theater, which are installations that take the audience inside of the story and invite investigation and exploration. For my project, I am developing a portfolio of events and creating connections with the local Rochester community relating to immersive theater.

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The most recent event was one called Homeworld, which opened in the Barbara H Burger iZone. My team and I told the story of a sudden UFO crash landing on Wilson Quad and the shadowy government organization that attempts to cover it up. But after the combination of an escaped extraterrestrial and some clueless henchmen, suddenly all their secrets were open to the public… We mixed art, theatrical lighting, sound, original music, acting, and some floating donuts to let people truly feel like they were a part of the narrative. 

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But that bring me back to these two types of people. Some people in the latter group could be swayed, admittedly. “Immersive theater” is admittedly a little unclear, but when they walked into the installation, they got it. That my installations can only be experienced in the moment, don’t Instagram well, and require investigation are some of the things that I am most proud of. I want people who are skeptical to be drawn in and feel like they’ve experienced things that they couldn’t anywhere else. When people are required to own their participation in a story, anything is possible. 

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But on whole, one of the most amazing things about any of these projects has been the overwhelming positive response from anyone that I asked to participate. Everyone was completely on board for whatever strange and bizarre art or theater things I asked of them. Walking through campus painted like an alien? No problem. Load in during the worst snowstorm of the year? Sure. Covering an entire floor in plastic? Fantastic.