By Walter Hickey
Last May, hundreds of students from the College of William and Mary colluded on a museum heist orchestrated by alumnus Adam Stackhouse ’05. Hundreds of participants aided and abetted the thieves, who sought to abscond with the signature piece of a local art exhibit. Directed by a crack squad consisting of a professional thief, an actor, an inside man and a mime, the crowd of William and Mary students snatched the loot and made off with it after the meticulously-laid plan paid off.
These events are hardly criminal, though. The AVAdventure, Stackhouse’s brainchild, seeks to utilize the availability of new media and MP3 players to develop interactive games that anyone with an iPod and a free Friday can enjoy. Directing crowds through recorded messages downloaded the day of the event, the AVAdventure has become a staple at the College, and its meteoric rise compelled Stackhouse to turn his concept into a business to reach larger audiences.
The company develops a media file directing students to rendezvous at a common location to start off, rance—short for simultaneously running and dancing—to an assembled playlist, and race to keep up with a storyline that can span campus.
“It’s like a concert without live music,” Matt Herdman ’12, a veteran of two AVAdventures, said. “The feeling of experiencing music together, the feeling of experiencing something together, it washes over you in a rush as you go out and rance through campus. Or whatever it is they are telling you to do.”
The adventure is different each time, which encourages repeat participation. Chelsea Marotta ’12 has been on three of the adventures. “My favorite was a time travel adventure where they didn’t tell us that there were two audio files.”
Stackhouse himself is very proud of that particular feature.
“I have a soft spot for the time travel AVAdventure we did in the spring of 2010,” Stackhouse said in an email. “We managed to hide two groups of 400 people experiencing two different but parallel stories from each other on old campus for about a half hour, before merging the groups with some fun set pieces and absurd narrative logistics.”
The events are designed to surprise and foster unexpected interactions.
“They had hundreds of people doing a bunch of activities together pretty seamlessly,” Marotta said.
“The heart of it lies in getting together with a whole bunch of people—friends and strangers—and doing silly things together,” J.T. Fales ’12, who participated in The Heist adventure last May, said.
The concept came from humble beginnings.
“The AVA was originally the ‘Audio Adventure’ series that I started as an experimental project in 2007,” Stackhouse said. “We got actors as late as the night of the event, some people used discmen with CDs, and we advertised only with a Facebook event. That first event introduced around 50 people to the game. The next one saw 100 [ancient campus legends theme], then 200 [spy mission with video iPods], then 400 [tracking an evil taxidermist, a UCAB event].”
The fifth event entailed the famous time travel sequence, involving 800 people in two groups.
Since then, AVAdventures has outgrown campus. Stackhouse, who has won two Emmys, has brought AVAdventure to the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas to rave reviews.
“The AVA team — Liz Sykes ’06, Kelley Quinn ’09, Michael Weissberger ’05 — went to Austin to present,” said Stackhouse.
The group is aiming big. “Prior to SXSW we did ‘The Declaration of Codependence,’ an AVA that took place simultaneously in CW, on the National Mall in DC, and worldwide streaming over the net.”
Stackhouse and company also are experimenting with new ways to utilize the medium. On their website, AVAdventure Productions describes one adventure that is part mixer and part social event. Another concept is a silent prom held in a single large room.
While Liz and Adam are operating AVAdventure Productions LLC out of Richmond, this year they’re going on tour. After the National Association for Campus Activities conference, the two will head to Buffalo, Myrtle Beach, Covington, Ky. and Hartdford, Conn. to pitch AVAdventures to prospective clients.
“There are four pre-recorded shows available for schools to book, with the option to develop custom programs as we did with the City of Williamsburg, Tribe Athletics and AMP this past August for the WM Orientation AVA,” Stackhouse said.
They plan to bring this to other colleges.
“The bulk of our work over the next several months will involve this series of touring college programming, with some space available for custom-AVA programs,” Stackhouse said.
Despite their global ambitions, the event has plenty of fans on campus craving more.
“I really hope I do another one before I graduate,” Marotta said.