Hedonism with heart
Wake the Tiger at the world’s first ‘Amazement Park’
Luke Mitchell is one of the amazing brains behind Boomtown Fair and Wake The Tiger festivals. Here, he discusses creating wacky otherworldly arts experiences grounded in the need for real-world change
In the end we are all dreamers in an endless universe.
There aren’t many people whose job description includes ‘worldbuilder’. But Luke Mitchell is one of them. He’s co-founder of two immersive arts experiences taking visitors out of everyday life and into alternative realities.
Those experiences are theatrical music festival Boomtown Fair and Wake The Tiger, the world’s first Amazement Park™. Both are, in part, a product of Luke’s knack for hatching new worlds, underpinned by elaborate storytelling.
“It’s always been there,” says Luke of this love for conjuring up fictional worlds. As a dreamy kid, drawn to fantasy realms like Narnia and Middle Earth, he was already getting in practice as a landscaper of imaginary places, in assorted shapes and sizes. “I was into building giant tree houses which went on forever, that you could lose yourself in. I’ll never forget spending days on the beach, head deep into building worlds in the sand. And in winter it would be mega Lego cities!”
Sign up for A WORLD OF GOOD
Get TOPIA in your inbox – new features fortnightly
Anyone who’s raved inside the dizzying, dazzling pop-up city that is Boomtown Fair will be thinking “ah, makes sense”. It is set in the rolling hills of Matterley Estate, a working dairy farm in the most westerly point of South Downs National park, near Winchester in the UK.
Every year, the festival throws a thumping party in an incredibly detailed multi-district set, built by artists. A cast of eccentric characters roam the city’s streets, ready to drag you – Boomtown citizens – into the action. The whole escapist affair is soundtracked by a musical line-up that, in terms of variety, gives Glasto a run for its money.
This is hedonism with a socially, environmentally conscious heart, though. Boomtown Fair’s ongoing storyline holds a house of fun-style mirror up to reality, reflecting on real issues with a wacky twist. Each festival marks a fresh chapter in the narrative, themed around everything from artificial intelligence to political greed. An ambitious green agenda is also moving Boomtown towards becoming a circular festival. “The mission for Boomtown was always to be a place for pure celebration, in this really wild and expressive way, but with respect for ourselves, each other and the planet,” explains Luke.
When the pandemic put a pause on usual festival operations, Luke and the team had a chance to bring to life an idea that had been brewing for some time – a permanent attraction. Wake The Tiger opened in Bristol during summer 2021 and is like an art gallery, theme park, escape room and film set rolled into one epic walk-through experience. This is an Amazement Park™, and amaze it does.
The immersive element kicks off from the get-go with a presentation by the Meridia Luxury Homes marketing team. Pitching their new development, the robotlike representatives reel off a spiel about their streamlined, high-tech flats – aka the epitome of soulless, modern life.
Something is afoot, though. You’re nudged to take a closer look at an ancient tree radiating a powerful energy that’s causing trouble at the development site. This, it turns out, is a portal to Meridia – the parallel world Luke and his team have dreamt up. Things take a through the looking glass-style turn here, as you step through to a maze of 27 surreal, enchanting and interactive environments.
Like Boomtown, there’s more to this sensory wonderland than being a fun and trippy place to while away an afternoon. Wandering around Meridia, you observe and play with abandoned experiments, left behind by local inhabitants (Meridians) attempting to solve their world’s greatest problems. It’s an experience designed to send you back into the real world fired up to tackle our own ecological and societal crises – or at least mulling over how we approach them.
This is hinted at in the name, ‘Wake The Tiger’. Playfulness meets a serious message about facing Earth’s problems and “igniting a fierce part inside ourselves to bring about change”, as Luke puts it.
“The Park was inspired by how we’ve lost our connection, in many ways, to nature. We’ve fallen out of love with the Earth and essentially ourselves,” he says about what’s going on beneath Wake The Tiger’s shimmering, psychedelic surface. “The idea is that we use creativity to inspire a kind of healing journey and reconnection to the natural world, to the land and ultimately back to ourselves.”
We use creativity to inspire a kind of healing journey and reconnection to the natural world, to the land and ultimately back to ourselves.Luke Mitchell
While Luke and the team relish rebuilding and reworking Boomtown year on year, Wake The Tiger serves a different, equally exciting purpose in terms of creative opportunities and accessibility. “We wanted to take our unique way of creativity and storytelling to a much broader audience. Because the festival is for people who like specific types of music, can afford a ticket, who like camping, for instance. Wake The Tiger opens it up to everyone. It allows us to perfect and tweak and evolve throughout the year, rather than it all landing on that one weekend to get it really right.”
Pulling off a four-day immersive festival is quite an endeavour, as is turning an abandoned warehouse (it didn’t even have doors when the Boomtown team got the, somewhat useless, keys) into an Amazement Park™. The imagination, scale and attention to detail of both projects wouldn’t be possible without an enormous bunch of creatives. More than 100 installation artists, robotic experts, costume-makers, architects, videographers and prop-makers put their touch on Wake The Tiger.
As you can imagine, wrangling the big, bold ideas of these eccentric creative folk into a cohesive vision isn’t always easy. “Working with so many artists is a nightmare, I’ve got to be honest,” laughs Luke. “It can get quite difficult and emotional at times.”
He describes the mindset that helps him keep his cool. “It’s like sitting in the centre of a whirlwind. If I can hold that central space, while everything is flying on the outside around me, I sit in a relatively still place. And it’s about touching things in a delicate way but also with clarity and power. If you push too hard, you get swept up in that whirlwind.” Being an early bird helps too. “6am is a good time for me! I wouldn’t say I meditate as such, but I’ll sit in a calm place where I can visualise things on a big, broad scale and look at things from a slightly under-the-surface level.”
For the end results, working with such unique, expressive and forward-thinking artists is worth all the chaos and challenges, he says. “It’s where the real magic comes from, the rich and raw creativity. There’s not really a platform anywhere else for these artists to create this style of underground art. The kind that fuses together certain materials, often recycled, that wouldn’t often be fused together.”
As well as relying on moments of stillness and calm to help him stay focused, Luke is a big believer in seeking out wisdom from elders. These relationships shape his style of leadership and in turn, the whole team’s way of working. “There’s a serious lack of eldership in our society. But it’s so incredibly important that we have role models – both men and women – that we look up to. I’m lucky enough to have two elder men in my life who are very wise, full of honesty and integrity and etiquette.
“I’ve also sat in ceremonies with Indigenous tribes from the Amazon jungle. Hearing and understanding their connection to nature is just incredible. Many of these tribes don’t have a word for nature because it’s who they are. I think being able to bring teachings from them into the work we do in a creative way, allowing them to swim through and infiltrate all the different strands of the business, is a really grounded and beautiful way of doing things.”
When I ask about what the future looks like for Luke, it’s clear he’s keen to pay it forward, describing something akin to an elder role. “I would like to be able to share teachings, pass down knowledge, create change directly in the real world. I’m very intrigued by community. I believe community will save the world. I’d quite like to build something along those lines.”
While that might be to come in future decades, for the time being, you’ll find Luke with one foot firmly in the imaginary worlds he’s helped create. “Right now, full focus is the organisations we’ve built and how we can use storytelling for shifting and inspiring alternative ways of thinking.”
What’s so good about this?
While there’s always a place for facts, figures and serious debate, aren’t most of us more excited by ideas presented with fun and creativity? That’s what makes the work of Luke, his fellow co-founders and the rest of the Boomtown crew powerful. We learn from stories. And the narratives in their mind-bending immersive arts experiences are the perfect place to weave in messages about kinder, more impactful ways of being.
Meet the writer
Kavita Ashton is a freelance writer from South West England, who’s drawn to stories about people and organisations making a positive impact. After three years as content editor for her local tourism board, she’s currently spending time being a tourist herself, travelling alongside writing. Adventurous as that sounds, she’s also a creature of habit: work days always start with coffee and Lauren Laverne’s 6 Music breakfast show. Find her on Instagram at @kavita_ashton.