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Trivial Pursuits: An Interview With the Guys Behind Portland’s Geek Trivia Night

29 Mar

Awhile back I set the goal of attending every trivia night in Portland. To me it’s an ambitious but worthy goal, and I intend to see it through. My favorite event so far has been Geek Trivia at the Kennedy School, though I did very poorly in my first showing (does that mean I’m not a geek? Wait…am I cool, guys?).

Masterminded by Andrew McIntire in 2009, this event brings together hundreds of geeks fortnightly for friendly, nerdly competition. I had the chance to ask Andrew, along with current co-hosts Bobby “Fatboy” Roberts and Cort Webber, some questions about the behind the scenes goings-on at Geek Trivia. Read on for a healthy dose of insider knowledge about the makings of a great trivia night.

Everybody’s Invited!: How did Geek Trivia start? Did you feel the useless knowledge competition needs of geeks weren’t being met?

Andrew McIntire: I have always enjoyed quiz nights at the pub, but was having difficulty convincing my friends to join me. For the most part their complaints were based on the not inaccurate notion that the questions were primarily about sports, current events, and other topics that they were either not interested in or uninformed about. So I was sitting in my neighborhood bar lamenting the absence of nerdy comrades, and got in an alcohol fueled argument with another patron about which heroes were in the Super Friends. The ensuing feeling of geek pride upon crushing this would be contender to my knowledge of nerd ephemera got me thinking “We could channel all of Portland’s nerd rage for good, or at the very least for our mutual entertainment” and lo, Geek Trivia was born.

EI!: Nice. What do you provide that other trivia events don’t?

Bobby “Fatboy” Roberts: The prizes are pretty damned nice, for one, thanks to Things From Another World. Regular Geek Trivias routinely feature over $200 bucks in combined prizes, and Special-Edition Geek Trivias have featured prizes that include trips to San Diego Comic-Con, an original Pong machine, the Doctor Who box-set with all 11 doctors, etc.

It’s also probably one of the comfiest Geek Trivias, in that it’s located at the Kennedy School’s theater, where the seating is largely old, soft couches and sofas.

Also, Geek Trivia incorporates some game-show elements here and there, with visual puzzles, audio clues, video questions, that sort of stuff. We settle tiebreakers via Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, which then completely transforms the event from a pub quiz into a sporting event, complete with impassioned geeks leaping to their feet, lustily shouting for KO’s, Fireballs, and Fatalities.

Cort Webber: I would agree with Fatboy and add that we also offer something a little more entertaining, less serious, more raucous and more interactive. We try to write the questions in such a way as to get a laugh or tap into some deep-seeded fanboy sentiment. Also, we typically allow a considerable amount of good-natured heckling.

But what really sets us apart is the concept of “mob rule.” Most trivia hosts put themselves in the position of arbiter to decide whether someone’s marginally correct answer is right or wrong. But we decided the best way to end the argument was to turn it over to the crowd. If the people say your answer is good enough, it’s good enough. But the crowd rarely thinks your crappy answer is good enough.

EI!: What’s your definition of geek? What’s your definition of trivia?

BR: Geek is getting sort of increasingly hard to define, and that’s largely due to the numbers of geeks consistently growing. It’s hard to create, or stick to, a hard definition of what Geek is, because it’s constantly churning and roiling as new geeky things become beloved and obsessed over. Basically – if you treat pop culture with reverence, in the same way that Batman reveres the concept of justice, you’re a geek.

Trivia is simply stuff that you probably shouldn’t know, but you do know because you care so much about whatever your geeky pursuit may be, and you’ve somehow absorbed the knowledge behind it.

CW: A geek is someone intensely interested in any something. You can enjoy watching Star Wars, but once you get to the point where you’re going out of your way to discover the names of the other bounty hunters in Empire, you’ve drifted into geek territory.

We cover everything from the more traditional sci-fi and fantasy aspects of geekdom to movies, music, gaming, internet trends, books, science and more. Pretty much, if it’s something we’re into, it’s fair game for questions.

EI!: What’s the process for coming up with questions? How much time do you put in before each event?

BR: Cort and I come up with the questions the Saturday/Sunday before the upcoming event, and for my part, it consists basically of putting on some music, sitting in front of the computer, and letting my brain just wander. A topic will pop into my head eventually, and at that point, it’s just a matter of asking myself what random facts I know about that topic, and then forming it into an amusing question.

CW: I typically stare at my bookshelf and DVD shelf and trawl Reddit looking for something to spark in my head. We try to steer away from questions that are too obvious, but also from questions that are impossibly hard. We know we’ve hit that “just right” sweet spot when we there’s an audible “oooo” after we ask the question.

Cort and Fatboy doing their thing.

EI!: What do you think makes a good trivia night host?

CW: I think the key is remembering to keep it entertaining. Most of the 200+ people in the room won’t win anything and a lot of those won’t even come close. The idea is to give those people a reason to come back every two weeks regardless. If they’re laughing and having fun, they’ll forgive the fact that they’ve never even come close to the top three.

BR: A sense of humor, and patience. Someone in the crowd is going to want to claw at your questions, revealing a mistake or a loophole that will let them score that one extra point that might put them over the top and get them a spot in the top 3. You’ve also gotta admit when you’ve goofed up, so humility comes into play as well, as does an ability to be self-deprecating.

EI!: I love trivia, but I can’t explain why. What, in your opinions, makes trivia so appealing?

CW: It’s validating that something you spent so much of your time learning is valuable after all. Sure, it won’t get you a college degree or a good job, but it might get you some really cool comics or a t-shirt.

BR: I think its appealing because it’s a way to turn a bunch of otherwise useless knowledge rattling around your brain into a reason to celebrate. For a lot of competitors, they never really got into sports as kids. Trivia nights are a way to scratch that competitive itch while using a completely different set of tools. Knowing the difference between a Cardassian and an Andorian MEANS something here, and my proficiency at setting someone on fire with a dragon punch in Street Fighter will earn me a theaterful of cheers.

AM: I also think that, at our event in particular, sharing your trivia knowledge is a means of self-identifying yourself as belonging to a community of like-minded individuals. At each event, I look out on the audience and see rival teams and complete strangers joking, laughing, and bonding over their shared love of these ridiculous bits of pop culture knowledge. That’s pretty special.

EI!: Some people hate trivia. Who’s right?

BR: Those people are weird, and I distrust them.

Geek Trivia happens every other Tuesday from 7-9pm at the Kennedy School in Portland, OR. Show up early to get a seat. It’s free.

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Me, the Computer, and the Cubes: A Conversation with Rubik’s Cube Artist Pete Fecteau

2 Feb

Last month several people sent me links to this amazing Martin Luther King mosaic made up Rubik’s Cubes. I knew I wanted to talk to the artist behind the Dream Big project, which placed in the top 50 out of more than 1700 entrants in the 2010 ArtPrize competition. Pete Fecteau is a graphic designer who literally dreamed up the idea of creating the 1000-pound tribute to the world’s most famous dreamer, and then fought hard to get it made. In the conversation below, he describes the process he went through and what he’s been doing since, along with offering up some advice for young artists (Rubik’s Cube or otherwise).

From PeteFecteau.com

Everybody’s Invited!: What’s the story behind the Dream Big project?

Pete Fecteau: I came up with the concept literally in a dream. I’d been taking some hits, trying really hard to find work, and wasn’t having a great time professionally. This dream came about, and I just felt like I needed to do it. So I fought for eight or nine months to try to get anyone to pay attention to it. And no one did. I had actually set a due date for myself. And a week after the due date passed, I got a call from Rubik’s asking me for details on the project.

EI!: That’s awesome. What were the biggest challenges in putting it together?

PF: Planning it out and convincing people was a huge process. I’m a graphic designer by day. I spent about two or three weeks designing the artwork in Photoshop and Illustrator. There weren’t really grant opportunities for it, but I applied for grants all over the place. I talked with a bunch of people, including manufacturers in China. I ended up renting the Rubik’s Cubes, though, because there’s a trademark and copyright issue with knock-off cubes. So I avoided jailtime.

EI!: Nice. How many did you rent?

PF: Just over 4300 Rubik’s Cubes.

EI!: So, how did you put it together?

PF: The venue that I used was the First Park Congregational church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The church wanted it on a stage. They gave me the entire room behind the stage, so I could work for three weeks at all hours. It was hot. It was a little smelly. I’d come in for 5, 6, 7, or 8 hours and just kind of zone out.

EI!: Did you need to actually solve the cubes yourself?

PF: I’m just solving one face. It takes about 20 seconds per cube. Someone could probably do it faster than me because I’m not a very fast cuber. I came up with a process where I could very quickly look at the cube that was on the screen, and remember the colors that I need to orient the cube. I was doing about 100 cubes every 45 minutes. Then I’d go take a break, and come back and do it again.

It was really quiet. I didn’t have a lot of distractions. It was just me, the computer, and the cubes.

EI!: Since then, you’ve been doing more Rubik’s Cube-based stuff?

PF: Yeah, we set up a partnership with You Can Do the Rubik’s Cube, which is an organization that puts kits in classrooms for kids ages 9 to 15. They learn how to solve the cube, and they apply math and life skills during the process. Part of the agreement that we had was that I would develop some educational material for them. So I developed a 12-page guidebook that teaches kids how to create a mosaic. I think it’s doubled their program. We’ve gotten a ton of requests from schools. We did one for Odyssey of the Mind.

EI!: I remember Odyssey of the Mind! So, is this taking up most of your time right now?

PF: This has always been a side project. I’m planning another very large mosaic in 2013. It will be twice the size of the MLK one. It’s got a math and science theme to it. And hopefully we’ll take it on tour.

EI!: Have you considered working with other games? Like Jenga.

PF: I would love to do that. Rubik’s is probably the most complex mosaic medium. I’m actually not a huge Rubik’s Cube nerd. I’ve met some speed cubers, and I’ve seen collections and all that stuff.

EI!: Yeah, some people are crazy.

PF: Yup, and that’s great. We need them, too.

EI!: So true. What’s one piece of advice you’d give to a young, struggling artist?

PF: Don’t be afraid to explore. You might really like to do pencil drawings, but you might have a huge gift with water colors. For me, I was trying to do enamel work and graffiti-style stuff. And I just stumbled into doing Rubik’s Cube stuff.

EI!: Another lesson is to pay attention to your dreams.

PF: Yeah, and it goes beyond that. There were so many times with the Martin Luther King mosaic when I was ready to throw in the towel. I had fought so hard, and fell short so many times. But, in the end, it was like the mosaic itself just needed to be finished, and I was just a pair of hands. When you really apply yourself to a passion that you have, and if it’s genuine, I think that will always be the case. There will be times when you want to pull your hair out, but if you keep going, it will turn around.

More than Pork and Shellfish: An Interview with Ian Framson, Co-Creator of Taboo Jewish Edition

17 Dec

I recently posted a blog entry referencing the amazingly fun party game, Taboo Jewish Edition. It’s just like regular Taboo, except it makes you feel guilty when you don’t call your mother. JK. One of the creators of the game, Ian Framson, kindly agreed to answer my questions about how it came to be. I love that Ian and his business partner Seth were able to take a simple idea that originated around the board game table and turn it into a viable business opportunity. Inspired? Yes indeed. Now, I wonder if there’s a market for TabVark

Kosherland is also a thing!

Everybody’s Invited!: Why do you think the world needs a Jewish version of Taboo?

Ian Framson: I’m not so sure the “world” needs a Jewish version of Taboo. There are 7 billion people in the world. Only a small fraction of them are Jewish board game players. My general business philosophy has been if you can find 1 person who wants your product/service, you have a customer. If you can find 1,000 people just like them, then you have a market. We found a niche market.

I love playing Taboo (and many other board games). With all of the mobile and online games out there — board games have really become a lost art. While playing Taboo with Jewish friends, we found ourselves drawing upon references to Jewish camp experiences we shared, songs, holidays, and other common Jewish experiences that enabled us to better play the game.

After one such session, I went online to search for “Jewish Taboo”… and I couldn’t find anything. At the time (mid-2008), my friend Seth Burstein and I had been tossing around various business ideas. Seth shares my passion for Taboo and we both agreed we should create a few Jewish-themed Taboo cards. “A few” quickly turned into hundreds.

EI!: How did you go about pitching the game to Hasbro?

IF: We started by researching Judaica product distribution channels. We spoke with a few dozen folks who run temple gift shops. All roads led back to Abe Blumberger, Owner of Jewish Educational Toys (a specialty Judaica products manufacturer/distributor). As it turns out, Abe had been trying to create this game but found it challenging to create the 1008 Taboo cards required to have a complete game. We struck a deal whereby we would provide the content for the game and Abe would negotiate licensing rights with Brian Hersch and Hasbro. 3 years and 24 redrafts later, Taboo Jewish Edition became a reality. Our family friendly game is now sold in hundreds of brick and mortar Judaica shops, through online retailers like Amazon, and seasonally at big box retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond.

EI!: Did you do extensive user testing on the guess words and the taboo words? Did you test with both Jews and gentiles?

IF: During the 24 redrafts of our game content, we worked extensively with the team at JET to make sure the content met their strict quality control standards. Through play testing with Jews and gentiles, we determined it would be best to have an easy side (blue) and hard side (green) to each card. We also chose to write Hebrew and Yiddish words as English transliterations and, when possible, provide a definition for these words in parentheses. Our goal in making these design decisions was to increase the play-ability and broad appeal of the game.

We leaned heavily on our family and friends both in creating the content and during play testing. One of my favorite play testing sessions was during my family Chanukah party in 2009 where all of the cousins, aunts, uncles, and even grandmother played our early cards which were printed on my home computer and hand-cut to roughly appear like Taboo cards. After each card was played, I took notes regarding which Taboo words should be modified.

EI!: I think a Jewish version of Monopoly would reinforce harmful stereotypes, but the idea of a Jewish Jenga kind of makes me laugh. Are there other games for which you’d like to see a Jewish version?

IF: JET has Apples to Apples Jewish Edition which is quite fun. I would love to see (or maybe even help create) a Jewish version of Pictionary. However, I fear that consumer appetite for traditional board games may be declining. There are lots of high tech distractions that compete for our time and reduce our attention spans. Family dynamics and the amount of quality time families spend together is also changing.

EI!: What advice do you have for an aspiring board game maker?

IF: As an entrepreneur, I am extremely cognizant of the effort I expend and the corresponding impact. The light must be worth the candle, as the expression goes. I would encourage others who are interested in creating games to closely examine the market, consumer demographics, distribution channels, and the overall business environment before launching a product.

Taboo Jewish Edition would make a great Hanukkah gift. Buy it here.

Attention Muggles! My Interview with Harrison Homel of the International Quidditch Association

2 Nov

The Quidditch World Cup is coming up very soon. On November 12th and 13th, 100 broom-wielding Quidditch teams from across the United States and four other countries will convene in New York City for the annual celebration of Harry Potter lore and top notch athleticism. I so wish I could be there. To me, the Quidditch World Cup, and all those who play the game, truly embody the spirit of this blog. Everybody’s Invited! is about treating silly things with the respect they deserve, and that’s exactly what Muggle Quidditch is all about. (For those who don’t know, Muggles are non-magical people. Like you probably!)

A Giant Stuffed Otter and Harrison Homel

The World Cup is organized by the International Quidditch Association. That’s a thing. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Harrison Homel, who serves as the Western Regional Director for the IQA. Despite being occupied with both World Cup preparations and mid-terms, Harrison was kind enough to talk with me about how the game works, the role of the IQA, and what makes Muggle Quidditch so magical.

[Editor’s Note: This interview assumes the reader is familiar with the sport of Quidditch as depicted in the Harry Potter books and movies. If you need a refresher, go here.]

Everybody’s Invited!: For people who don’t know how to play Muggle Quidditch, can you describe how it’s played?

Harrison Homel: It’s a combination of soccer, rugby, tag, and dodgeball, all sort of rolled into one and going on at the same time. If it sounds chaotic, it’s because it is. It’s full contact, and it’s surprisingly athletic. It works pretty similarly to the way it does in the books.

EI!: Except for the flying.

HH: Yes. There’s slightly less magic involved.

EI!: But players are on brooms, right?

HH: Yes. All play must happen on a broom. That’s a holdover from when the league first started. And the reason we haven’t gotten rid of is…we love it! That’s what makes Quidditch Quidditch. There’s a definite sense of tongue-in-cheek.

EI!: I have always thought that the scoring system in the books was fundamentally flawed because the snitch seems far too valuable. 150 points! That’s crazypants. Have you found a way to address that in Muggle Quidditch?

HH: Well, first of all, when Quidditch is played by Muggles, the snitch is a person who we dress up all in gold. It’s usually a track and field or wrestler type of person. Their job is to not get caught by the Seekers. They have a much wider area where they can run in; they’re not restricted to the field. They don’t have very many foul rules, so they can pretty much do what’s required to not get caught. I’ve seen snitches bodily throw seekers to the ground. I’ve seen snitches get on bicycles and ride away. During the final match of the World Cup last year, all of the participant snitches who were watching the match helped to run a diversion for the actual snitch. They all got together and spread out, so the seekers had to find the real snitch. They can pretty much do what they please. It’s perhaps the most fun dynamic of Muggle Quidditch.

The catch is only worth 30 points, though, which addresses the problem you’re talking about. And it does end the game, like in the books.

EI! Is Quidditch kind of dangerous?

HH: The snitch is bound by common sense restrictions. But play on the field is full contact. You’re allowed to tackle with one arm. You’re allowed charges. You’re allowed to create separation with a stiff-arm.

EI!: Is there any protective gear?

HH: There isn’t. The IQA recommends lacrosse goggles. And a lot of teams have mouthguards. But…no. Also, one of the important facets of this game is that it’s co-ed. There’s a rule that says that two genders must be represented on the field at any time. In Quidditch it’s equal opportunity in terms of giving and taking hits.

EI!: Is it a very competitive sport?

HH: It absolutely is. There are teams that have been training five days a week for months, getting ready for the World Cup. It’s serious business. One of the really cool things about this, as opposed to other Harry Potter fandom areas, is that we draw in people who aren’t only book nerds, but also athletes. So we get a lot of former football, soccer or basketball players who maybe read one of the books, or saw a couple movies, but who came to Quidditch because they respect the sport. There are people who love it as a game, and it has nothing to do with Harry Potter for them.

EI!: Where are you on the spectrum of Harry Potter fan to athlete?

HH: I’m such a nerd. I organize because I’m much better at it than playing.

EI!: Tell me about the International Quidditch Association.

HH: The IQA is a registered nonprofit, started by two Middlebury College Students in 2005. We have a few different bodies in place that dictate different things. There’s a Board of Directors, a management team, a Rules Council, and a League Management Council. That’s the top level, and it breaks down by region as well. There are 400 teams in the league right now, and it’s growing.

EI!: This is so legit. Do you know of any other sport that was derived from literature?

HH: No, this is really unique. And it’s really exciting. We’re developing this in a way that no other sport has been developed. Sports don’t get invented very often. There are rule questions every day, because we’re still very much in our early growth.

EI!: Part of your mission is to “create, connect, and enhance our communities.” How do you achieve that mission exactly?

HH: We have college teams, community teams, high school teams, and we have kidditch, which is exactly as adorable as it sounds. We have separate sets of rules to make it applicable to different ages. Because there’s a spectrum of people who play Quidditch, it really serves to bring people together. People who might not interact at school, or in life, will get together because they love this ridiculous thing. There’s a broad appeal here. You’re on a broom! You can’t be taking yourself too seriously when you’re on a broom.

EI!: Word. What’s the World Cup like?

HH: The World Cup is an incredible event. It’s a 100-team tournament this year. It’s a combination of sporting event and festival. There’s music and food, and in the past we’ve had live owls, fire breathers, dancers. There’s this culture of competition because it is the World Cup, but the dream is that it’s not just that. We hope it’s an enormous, magical weekend of community and fun. It promises to be an extraordinarily good time.

To buy tickets for the World Cup, visit http://www.worldcupquidditch.com.

To learn more about the history of the IQA, check out http://www.internationalquidditch.org.

To get caught up in the magic of Harry Potter, visit your local library.

Game On: An Interview with James Brady of Cloud Cap Games

26 Jun

About a month ago, while I was visiting Portland, OR, my friend Russ invited me to a game night at Cloud Cap Games, a well-stocked local game shop that can be rented out for parties. It was hard choosing which games to play, but in the end I had a blast playing Reverse Charades, 7 Wonders, and Word on the Street. The staff at Cloud Cap are awesome (and demonstrated a great deal of patience as we tried to understand the somewhat complicated rules of 7 Wonders), and the shop itself is like a candy store for your brain!

James Brady is the owner of Cloud Cap, and he generously agreed to answer my questions about the shop, what makes a good game night, and how to use games to get out of a bad mood.

Everybody’s Invited!: Why did you open Cloud Cap Games? What was the inspiration?

James Brady: 
I opened Cloud Cap because I love games and game stores, but I did not like any of the game stores in the Portland area. I have fond memories of a few different game/toy stores in the neighborhoods where I grew up. The game stores in Portland are very good at what they do, which is cater to customers whose primary hobby is playing games. Unfortunately this creates stores that scare off more casual gamer players and families. I wanted a game store that felt like a toy store, with comfortable play space and a focus on games for a wide variety of interests and ages. [Editor’s note: This is exactly what I loved about the store!]

EI!: When you host groups of people in your play space, you provide a selection of games to choose from. What’s the thought process that goes into selecting that group of games? What advice would you give to someone who is planning a game night?

JB: Choosing games for different groups is never easy. Age is of course our first consideration. After that, play time, complexity, and player interaction are major factors. Shorter games with significant player interaction and limited choices are best for most groups. For groups that prefer games with more complexity, we consider the number of options a player might have on a given turn, and try to match that with the group’s level of game play experience. Some games provide lots of choices and can be a bit overwhelming for many.

As far as advice to someone planning a game night, I guess I would advise to start by first identifying whether the group is at all interested in playing strategy games. If even one person is not interested in strategy games, attempting to play one could ruin the evening for that person. In this case I recommend playing some party games (like Apples to Apples [Editor’s note: I previously reviewed Apples to Apples here], Dixit, or Telestrations) or some short card games, especially ones with a sense of humor (like Guillotine or Killer Bunnies). For a group that is interested in strategy games, I recommend getting a sense of the types of games they have played before and choosing a game to play based on that. Pay very close attention to the game duration, more than 90 minutes is not enjoyable for many.

EI!: You specialize in board games, card games, and puzzles. How do you feel about video games?

JB: I really enjoy video games, but I also feel that they can be dangerous for some. They provide a level of stimulation unmatched by any other form of entertainment, they are very passive, and they provide no valuable social interaction. Having said that, they are a blast to play. But given the choice, I’d rather play a tabletop game with friends than stare at a screen all night.

EI!: What has been most surprising to you about running Cloud Cap?

JB: I think the most surprising thing about running the shop is the immediate and overwhelming positive response. The community has been extremely supportive and we have actually had to pace our growth. Despite the novelty of our products, many are willing to give them a try, many more than we expected at this point.

EI!: What’s the best game for getting out of a bad mood? Best game to play while taking a break from studying? Best first date game?

JB: Hmmm, currently the best game for getting out of a bad mood is probably Telestrations because it can create some hilarious situations, especially when people try to crash the game. For taking a break from studying, Dominion is hard to beat, its plays quick and requires a good amount of thought to pull off a win, just enough concentration to get your mind off the studies, but not so much as to be exhausting. For a first date, I would highly recommend Yikerz, which is a fairly new game for us, but its a fast physical game using magnets that easily creates laughs and screams.

Pie Maker: An Interview with Tricia Martin, Creator of Pietopia

31 Mar

Some readers might recall my excitement when I participated in last year’s Pietopia contest, an event that asks the important question, “What does your life taste like, in a pie?” and challenges participants to answer with words and baked goods.

In honor of this year’s event, which promises to be more delicious than ever, I spoke with Tricia Martin, the creator of Pietopia, about how pie helps us communicate, and why pie makes a better metaphor than cake.

Everybody’s Invited!: What was the inspiration for Pietopia?

Tricia Martin: Connecting community, food, and design. I wanted a way to embrace all the things that were important to me and manifest it as a shared experience.

EI!: Pietopia was originally a local event in Portland, OR. What made you decide to open it up to a national audience this year?

TM: I wanted to “taste” a broader audience, if you will. I also have some great sponsorship from the lovely women over at The Creative Connection who are helping out with lots of logistics—a huge help for me!

EI!: The contest combines food with words and even art. Why do you think it’s important to make these connections?

TM: Food, words, and art are all forms of communication; each literally says something but they are just in different formats. I feel it is important to make the connection clear for people because more often than not, people are saying similar or the same things. One person may express themselves through writing, another through a painting, and another in the kitchen. Calling out the basic underlying message between these three seemingly very different approaches was an interesting challenge that I loved and still love. Food is the most accessible format of communication for the masses to understand—no matter what language you speak, what socio-economic background you are from, your education level, your race, your age, or your gender. I thought that if I could make the link between this highly accessible format of communicating, with those two other formats of communicating (which can be more exclusive), that would be pretty cool.

EI!: This would never work with cake. What is it about pie, do you think, that lends itself to personal storytelling?

TM: The metaphor of a pie is also cross cultural and understood by so many people. The crust—as the outside, the shell, the holder, the container—and the filling—the surprise, the inside—are unmistakably metaphors for people and mankind; without mankind, there would be no stories or memories, thus the pie as a metaphor for people and their lives/stories/memories. Cake, while it holds a special place in my heart because it’s delicious, could never hold the metaphor of pie because it’s too straightforward; what you see is what you get and this is rarely the case with human beings. Pie historically has lent itself to storytelling via the community aspects it evokes. I’ve been privy to hearing stories of generations of pie makers in small towns helping out each other in times of need, dropping off pies to families going through a rough time, where pie is an expression of love and giving. And what comes around goes around—so I believe that when edible love is given, good stories and warm memories are given back.

EI!: Do you have a favorite pie-related memory?

TM: Pie memory? Honestly, I started making pie because I was told pie dough was too hard to make by hand. My pie dough has evolved into what it is today from lots of practice and sharing pie recipes and stories with countless people across the country—all of which I am forever grateful for. Pie wasn’t particularly something that was a family tradition or made too often—in fact, I come from more of a cake family. But I think the challenge of being told “pie dough is too hard to do,” discovering that I loved all pie, and then realizing how it is the perfect metaphor for people and life (and that other people think so too), my personal pie story is still en route and growing.

Entries are now being accepted for the 2011 Pietopia Contest. Winners will be flown to the event, which will be held in conjunction with the Creative Connection, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Everybody’s Surprised: An Interview with Tania Luna of Surprise Industries

14 Mar

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Tania Luna, a woman whose job is to create amazing and memorable surprises. Seriously, that’s her job. Tania is a co-founder of Surprise Industries, a New York-based company specializing in producing one-of-a-kind surprise experiences for individuals and groups. So far, they’ve produced over 800 surprises, and this year they’re introducing a new kind of experience that’s sure to blow your mind.

Everybody’s Invited!: Can you explain how Surprise Industries works?

Tania Luna: People sign up for an experience, and they don’t know what it’s going to be until they get there. There’s a spectrum of surprise complexity. The simplest thing is a mini-surprise. It’s $25 per person (and only available in New York City). They know the neighborhood, date, and time of their surprise, and two days before, they get an additional clue. But that’s it! They show up, and they’re surprised!

Then there are personalized surprises. These are really tailored to the client. We do a thorough interview – we find out your likes, dislikes, and past experiences. We ask if you want to be pushed outside of your comfort zone. These are great for couples, birthday parties, family reunions, and corporate team building.

The highest level of surprise is a new thing we’re trying called “Blow Your Mind.” It’s a week long, totally immersive experience, built into your regular life. Instead of going away on vacation, you let this magical realism melt into your life, where you don’t know what’s normal and what’s part of the surprise.

EI!: Why did you start Surprise Industries?

TL: Me, my sister Kat, and our friend Maya have been coming up with business schemes forever. Hardly a day went by when we didn’t say, “Hey, could this be a business?” When this particular idea came about, we thought it was just going to be surprise classes. It was going to be called “Go Learn Something,” which in retrospect sounds terrible. A friend suggested that we make it inclusive of all kinds of experiences, not just classes. That resonated with us, because we realized that people really want to experience something, not necessarily learn something (even though they usually do end up learning something).

EI!: What’s been the most surprising aspect of running your Surprise business?

TL: What’s been surprising is that just because your business is inherently fun, doesn’t mean that everything about running it is fun. It’s really easy to have a bad day because a mystery car is late, or a clue is delivered in the wrong package. These things sound funny, but when you’re on the other side, when you’re the Agent of Surprise, it can be challenging. We get frustrated. And we’re constantly learning.

We’ve had to learn to really stick to our vision, and focus only on true surprises. We took on some projects last year that weren’t true to our vision. This year we’ve had to remind ourselves that we’re doing this because surprising people is important to us. And teaching people to live a more surprising life is important to us. I thought it was going to be perpetually fun and easy to remember our passion, but it’s not always.  It was surprising to find out that we have to keep reminding ourselves to enjoy our work (just as anybody else does in any other line of business or area of life).

EI!: Favorite surprise you’ve helped to organize?

TL: A woman who surprised her husband who was afraid of heights. She decided to surprise him by helping him face his fear. In 99.9% of our surprises, the surpriser joins the surprisee in the experience. I don’t know if she fully grasped that she would be participating. We arranged for them to take a stunt class. They had to jump from a height of 40 feet onto a soft surface. He picked it up so quickly. The surprise twist was that the wife turned out to be terrified of the situation. We got a chance to be with her as she discovered a fear, and then faced it for an hour (that’s how long it took her to jump), and then we got to see her newfound confidence once she’d done it.

One of my favorite things to hear is,“I never would have tried this, but I’m so glad I did.”

EI!: Do you have any tips for planning a surprise?

TL: Yes. First, do it with the person. Most people think they’re giving the surprise to someone else. But if you do it together, it increases the other person’s comfort, and it creates an incredible memory. People benefit from taking risks together.

Second, tell them that it’s coming. This seems counter-intuitive, but what we’ve realized is that half of the fun is the anticipation. Plus you can then start to play with things like clues and other prep work. Research shows that being in a state of anticipation makes you much more aware and alert and it heightens your senses. So people will get an experience of living more fully before the surprise happens.

Finally, people experience surprise very differently. People have different facial expressions, and different emotional reactions. Don’t expect a particular reaction, because you’re bound to be disappointed. Sometimes surprise registers on a person’s face as a totally blank look.

 

A surprise samurai sword fighting class!