top of page

'Surprise!'

Updated: Jul 28, 2021


It happened long ago, in what feels like a galaxy far away… I was working as a theatre manager at the time, and our marketing agency had just delivered the eagerly-awaited production shots that would be displayed outside the venue. Only one of the photographs could be given the prime location, the visual sweet-spot, where it would greet audiences arriving from around the world to see our brand new West End production, an all-star revival of an established Musical Theatre classic. Two of the images were attractive enough in their own way, but the third was an absolutely ravishing shot which perfectly captured one of the highlights of the show; a spectacular transition combining a dazzling display of glamour (made possible by a Star-Wars scale budget!) with a breath-taking feat of stagecraft on a par with the fly past of the Death Star.


“Which one should we use?” asked my boss, holding all three up in turn.


“The third one,” I replied without a moment’s hesitation, ‘it’s absolutely gorgeous.”


“Yes, but we can’t use it, can we?” was his immediate, and not-a-little irate, response.


“Because it gives the surprise away, doesn’t it? So we can’t use it, right?”


“Right, Boss.”


Flashforward a dozen years, and a continent, and we find another ‘Boss’ taking his eldest child to visit a prospective university. The cosy Father’n’Daughter bonding excursion is momentarily interrupted when ‘Dad’ spots an old acquaintance at a petrol station. Fabian “Febby” Petrulio had gone into the witness protection programme several years back after ‘snitching’ on the Mob, and, as the newly-minted “Fred Peters,” he has just had the great misfortune to be spotted over the gas-pumps by Tony Soprano. Affable Anthony escorts young Meadow to Colby College, makes a few calls, and then pops off-campus to strangle Peters in a gruelling one-minute-and-sixteen-seconds scene that ‘surprised’ the bejesus out of HBO viewers (and altered expectations of TV drama for all time coincidentally).


Surprise! and her sister, Novelty, are a key part of the stock-in-trade in The Business of Pleasure.


Remember the jaws-within-the-jaws of the Alien. In cinemas everyone could hear you scream.


And of course, nobody expects The Spanish Inquisition.


Some major works have Surprise and Novelty running through them like a stick of rock; think of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, with its inside/untold story of Hamlet. Ditto Wicked’s take on The Wizard of Oz.


Or the multi-award-winning I Claudius that both contemporized and humanized Suetonius’ Lives of the Emperors (…even Caligula/John Hurt) while Claudius’ Nazarene contemporary, Jesus Christ, became the 70’s most surprising Superstar.


Some works are born to surprise. The ‘mantra’ of the team commissioning Madmen was that their new series should have “No doctors, no cops no lawyers.”


Some have novelty thrust upon them. The writers of Jersey Boys found it impossible to reconcile the totally different ‘real-life’ recollections of the individual protagonists, and were about to ditch the project entirely, when ‘the lightbulb went on’ and they knew they had to tell the story from each of the different perspectives.



Surprise! and Novelty can be a double-edged sword, of course, in some areas of The Business of Pleasure. Imagine traveling fourteen hours across Europe to find that some nostalgic Russian Oligarch/Property Developer has built ‘Stalinland,’ a Soviet-themed leisure-park, on your favourite Aegean beach, and Costas’ Taverna is now the Siberian Salt Mine Experience. Similarly, Rock and Pop audiences may delight in advances in staging, from laser-shows to synchronized drones and CGI, but the same fans will be upset if the band plays all new material and none of the classic back catalogue that they have primarily come to hear.


Either way, it is hard to overstate their importance to The Business of Pleasure. You may have missed our fabulous coup-de-theatre in the West End show above, but what about…


The incredible moment when the swans fly in Billy Elliot The Musical


Bert’s ascent of the Proscenium Arch in Mary Poppins


The elephant’s arrival at Disney’s The Lion King


With Cats at The New London we had at least four major surprise staging FX going for us…


The ‘moving platform’ at the start of show.


The tire taking off and going up through the Heaviside Layer.


The Cat-scaled props (giant tins of cat-food, a boot, etc.) in the junkyard set (itself a

‘surprise’ for the literary set because it placed T.S. Elliot’s Jellicles in The Wasteland)


The Cats mingling with the audience -although not so much of a shock to Rocky Horror fans- and never quite surprising as when the Rum Tum Tugger patted a patron on the head and said patron’s wig flew off across the auditorium. Fortunately an usherette found the fugitive hairpiece beneath a seat and handed it back to the completely bald patron in the interval.


And if we leave the theatre and look up into the Heavens (after the matinee so it’s still daytime) we can see the skyline punctured at every turn by ‘surprising’ shaped tower blocks where the only rule appears to be that no two towers can look the same.


Or we go home and turn on the TV to see the latest twist (surprise) in a box set, soap, or those most calculated of surprise suppliers …the whodunnit. The first show to open after the lockdown was the longest-running show of modern times, Agatha Christie’s 69-year-old The Mousetrap, whose tagline ‘keep the secret’ could better be expressed as ‘save the surprise.


Oh and by the way …I am your father


But it’s not just The Business of Pleasure which relies on Surprise! and Novelty.


They are fundamental building blocks of learning (both human and machine learning). We are hard-wired with a reward-system to encourage us to leave our comfort zones, to seek out new worlds and new sensations. To boldly go…


So let’s take a closer look at these extremely valuable commodities…


Surprise! and Novelty both encompass a number of neurophysiological changes, each explained in part by competing (or complimentary) academic theories centred on mysteriously overlapping areas of brain activity. But to keep things simple…


“So first your memory I’ll jog, and say a Cat is not a Dog.” Equally, ‘Surprise’ does not equal ‘Novelty’


Most cats and dogs have four legs and a tail, but have you tried whistling for a moggy?


There are, very broadly speaking, two types of ‘Novelty.’ The simplest is when we come up against something ‘new,’ or find ourselves in a situation we haven’t encountered before. A little flag will be raised “…this feels unfamiliar” and then our on-board ‘novelty-detector’ will assess whether it is ‘novel’ by scanning our memory to see if we can recollect a similar event or situation.


A second kind of novelty is when we encounter something familiar in an unfamiliar way, e.g. in the wrong place (the shoe in the sock drawer) or the wrong order (finale before overture) or paired with a wrong object (a sardine and banana sandwich) or the wrong context (Hamlet’s soliloquy might pack them in at Stratford, but you really wouldn’t want to open an IKEA flatpack instruction manual that opens with the question: “to be, or not to be?”).


All these types of novelty involve checking the newly-encountered event or situation against what we can remember from similar (or associated) previous events and situations. Our memory store.


Surprise! on the other hand, doesn’t involve scanning memory. It is an emotional reaction. An event or situation clashes with what we expect to happen, and the comparison of the mismatch between expectation and actuality is …Surprise!


To put it another away, the new event or situation has triggered (or summoned up) some kind of mental representation in our little grey cells. An expectation is generated (or predicted). If that expectation is really close to what is out there, no cigar! If there is a big discrepancy …Surprise! It’s like all the lights flashing on a row of Vegas slots.


So what are the three key supplementary benefits of Sister Surprise and Sister Novelty that we can, if we’re canny, include in the price of a ticket?


1) Encountering novel and surprising events and situations increases the sum of our stored experiences/memories. These allow us to update our view (modelling) of the world and help us to make more accurate predictions


2) They can lead us into new areas where we may discover new treasures, or perhaps allow us to make a richer connection with old ones


3) Responding to ‘new stuff’ increases our responsiveness to new stuff (if you don’t use it, you lose it) and, most importantly, our ability to learn. To quote one of the pioneers in this field: “…organisms only learn when events violate their expectations.”


Perhaps audiences only really learn to love us when we do the same?


But of course, not everyone is an Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock or Roald Dahl.


One of the most ‘surprising’ episodes of my life was following the transformation of The Prince of Wales Theatre. Nick from the Arts Team who led the project believed that (and I paraphrase) “A building should be like a performance. Just like an audience, visitors should find something surprising and delighting at every turn.”


It goes without saying that not every organisation can afford to spend tens of millions on dazzling their guests. But it should be possible for most players in The Business of Pleasure to be able to squeeze a few minutes out of those meeting agenda, somewhere between ‘apologies’ and ‘AOB’ and add ‘Surprise?’ What are we doing this week/month to surprise our patrons/clients? After all, ‘exceeding customers’ expectations’ is just another version of violating their expectations, or …surprise!


On the island that I visit in the Aegean there’s a sleepy little street of traditional bars and pensions (unless the Oligarch has snapped it up) and in the gap between two seventeenth century buildings there’s a sculpture made entirely out of stacked brightly-coloured taverna chairs, each with a plaque remembering (from memory) a great work of literature.


As the lights go down for the start of Mamma Mia!, patrons ‘of a nervous disposition’ are warned that ‘white Lycra features heavily in this production.’


Have a think about how you could surprise your guests next week?


You might surprise yourself...


Copyright David Thomas 2021

All Rights Reserved


30 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page