January 31, 2019
There is perhaps no better word to describe Cole NeSmith than visionary. At its core, a visionary is someone who thinks about and plans the future with imagination and wisdom. Cole literally brings ideas to life. These aren’t small, singular ideas. He orchestrates beauty and music and magic to create meaningful, interactive experiences … and he’s only just begun. He has a vision of turning Orlando into a major arts scene. Read on to find out how.
I used to listen to a sports radio show host that would always comment about how some professional athletes “make America more interesting, which is better than most people (who don’t).” For some reason, this quote came to mind when I first saw what Cole NeSmith is doing in Orlando. He’s positively making this city more interesting and there is no denying it.
Creative City Project, Cole’s company that he founded in 2012, has the vision to become the premier destination for performance and installation artists from all over the world. You can’t get bolder than that and given its recent trajectory, this may be coming sooner rather than later. Its signature event, Immerse, turned downtown Orlando into a stage for 1,000 performers and 100+ artists over an eclectic two day period. Given the heavyweight sponsors it has dialed up, it’s safe to say this project, originally created on a whim, is being driven with intention and momentum.
Peering into his background, Cole is a true Renaissance man when it comes to entertainment and it all makes sense why he would be taking on this bold endeavor. He’s an entertainer, entrepreneur, and community activist. In many ways, his profile is a blueprint for the person that would create a vision like this!
We got together for this interview inside one of the Instagram-worthy environments he created and frankly, I don’t think there will ever be a more outrageously remarkable setting for my blog. Without further ado, I bring you Cole NeSmith:
[Setting: We conducted the interview on a Friday afternoon. My photographer, Carlos, arrived shortly thereafter and started to see the visual treat we were in for. We sat by this Corkcicle display structure and started to chat…]
Dean: Cole, I get irritated when people say, “I’m just not creative.” So, I wanted to know what your take is on this. Do you think people are born creative or do you think it’s an acquired skill over time?
Cole: Yeah, creativity I think is something that we are born to exhibit, but I do think it’s definitely something that we exercise. I think creativity is a muscle and I think people think of creativity in terms of creative disciplines and that those are certainly creative because they involve making something from nothing. But, anytime we solve a problem that involves creativity, the world is going to get better because people exhibit creativity and whatever it is that they do, so I think if you’re an accountant, you can be a creative accountant. Not in a way that you’re like cooking the books, but in a way that exhibits doing things in a new way to save your customers money or to, you know, cut away some of the chaff or whatever it is to solve problems. Creativity is essential.
Dean: How did you become so creative?
Cole: I haven’t, you know, I haven’t taken a test that affirms your assessment that I am so creative. So, I’ll just take your word for it, but you know, expressing creativity in my life has been a lifelong fight. I grew up as a musician, I grew up as an actor in a family of people who didn’t necessarily know what to do with creative disciplines. And so, I wasn’t surrounded by it, I wasn’t ultimately nurtured in it. I think it’s something that’s been a fight for me and it’s something that has emerged over time as I’ve been more comfortable trying new things. I think curiosity is a huge part of creativity and then another piece of it would be being somebody who is okay failing. So, there’s failure involved in a lot of creativity and I think my upbringing was ‘we do what’s right and we do what works.’
… do a dance on the street corner …
Creativity does not operate in the box of we do what’s right and we do what works. Creativity operates in the box of ‘how do I take my talent and apply it to a thing in a way that has an unsure outcome.’ And so, I’ve had to fight to be okay with the unsureness of life and trying. Everything that we’re doing with Creative City Project started with me calling some friends and seeing how that went. And then saying okay, we had some people play on the street corner or do a dance on the street corner and it went alright. What can we learn from that? In the first year, we did anything, it was every day during the month of October in 2012. Year number two, it was okay, well that was really difficult and even if the Orlando ballet comes down and does a 10-minute dance at Chase Plaza, that is amazing, but it’s not necessarily compelling enough for somebody to fight the traffic of and find parking in downtown Orlando. So it’s like, okay, well, let’s take all that, condense all of it down to one day, we’ll bring it to life and then it’s a more compelling offering with all this stuff happening at one time. So that for me has been the process of creativity. It’s trying stuff, being okay with trying stuff, and not knowing the outcome. Wrestling through learning from it, making tweaks, editing it, trying it again. So, it’s just been a fight.
Dean: So, to get creative and sort of get in the zone, is there any kind of quirky thing you do? Or anything ritualistic that puts you in the zone?
Cole: I think creativity happens in the negative space. So I have learned that I need to be very intentional about calendaring or scheduling moments where I can stop and not have things that are, you know, scheduled, but like scheduling creative time with the intent of being creative around a topic, a subject, or an objective. So, for me it’s like my mornings are really great because I can literally wake up, stay in bed, sit up, and pull out my computer without the interruption of all the things that happen when we leave that sacred space, and think through in a very strategic way the things that we need to do as an organization or I want to accomplish as an artist. So for me, it’s in the morning before all the interruptions start trickling in.
I love fire and so I came back …
Dean: My friend, Ben Hoyer, who I’m sure you probably know as well, I remember him saying that big things often start with small, insignificant steps. What is the first small step that you took before the inaugural Immerse? And what sparked it?
Cole: In 2009, I went to Valencia, Spain with a friend, now our production director. His name is Jake Ellis, and we went to this festival called Las Fallas that happens every spring in Valencia and the residents of the town and professional artists build hundreds of these statues all over the city and then the last day of the festival, they set them all on fire. A million people come to this festival, there are tens of thousands of fireworks going off overhead, and it’s the last day and this 90-foot statue in the middle of the main square in Valencia, Spain is on fire. The Flames are going up 130 feet in the air, there are a million people who come to the city for this thing, and I’m standing there in the heat of the flames of this statue and I’m thinking we don’t do this in America, but we should. That, for me, was the literal and I guess proverbial spark because it was literally involving fire and I love fire and so I came back with this desire to … what I took away from that was the value of meaningful shared experiences around unique happenings.
And so, I started thinking like what can we do? Who do I know? What are my resources? What are the things that I can do with what I have? And at the same time, you know, I was wrestling through this reality of the transience of Orlando, especially when it comes to creative people, who feel like they have to go here or there to do this or that as a creative person. So, you know, my friends were leaving and moving away and I started thinking like, I think our city would be better off, and these artists would be better off if the city knew the amazing people who are here and what they were creating. That was kind of the genesis of me calling these creative friends and saying just come do something on a street corner in downtown Orlando and it’s grown to what it is now in 2018. A thousand artists, 40,000 people over two days. And for me, it really does show like there’s a hunger for those meaningful shared experiences built around unique creative encounters.
Dean: So if you were to kind of brief a tourist coming to Orlando for Immerse 2019, what can they expect?
Cole: Immerse is a performing and interactive arts event in the streets and public spaces of downtown Orlando and we thrive on creating meaningful artistic experiences that audiences can’t have anywhere else. So, that’s acrobats hanging from cranes and singers singing from balconies and an immersive orchestral experience where audience members can stand amongst the sections of the orchestra in these cross-genre collaborations with electronic musicians with a hundred piece orchestra. So, it really is embodied in this idea of artistic experiences that you can’t have anywhere else and ultimately leading to meaningful experiences that encourage us to live a life of creativity and adventure every day.
… like a 45-minute Super Bowl halftime show …
Dean: What’s the boldest vision you have for Immerse?
Cole: So, our 2020 objective is a four-day event that platforms international and national performing artists, alongside our local and regional arts organizations, for an audience of a hundred thousand people.
Dean: Like a living and breathing art festival type of thing?
Cole: A four-day global destination experience is what I would call it. I mean, I think right now we have a living, breathing art festival. I think that doesn’t necessarily sum up the vision of what we want it to be. That idea that being a global destination experience where people come because it is a compelling unique thing that they can’t experience anywhere else.
Dean: Can you fill us in on and maybe a couple of things in that 2020 vision?
Cole: So, I mean one of the things that we talked about kind of summarized in the concept of something like a 45-minute Super Bowl halftime show where it’s an original production, a collaboration with multiple artists across genres and styles. So, what would it look like to have a hip-hop artist with a rock artist with a hundred piece orchestra with live dancers on a hundred foot or a hundred yard long runway stage along Rosalind Avenue that allowed the audience to experience those artists in ways that they’d never be able to experience them on their tour or in another venue?
Dean: Okay, so I have kind of a random question, so if you had a million dollar budget to transform downtown Orlando …
Cole: So, how could we take a million dollars and invest that in the transforming downtown Orlando …
Dean: To make it more engaging with unlimited permits. You can do whatever you want.
Cole. Oh, man, there’s just so many options like the list is endless. Let me give you a good answer. I mean, one of the visions I’ve had is illuminating every building in downtown Orlando with essentially like RGBW, like unlimited color option variations. Every building Illuminating them from the outside and creating a way for audiences to manipulate the tones and colors of the skyscape of downtown Orlando. I don’t think we could do that for a million dollars though. It would take more than a million dollars.
… as what they would experience when they go into Avatar …
Dean: You could beta test it though, right?
Cole: Yeah, you can do that with like five or six buildings, but for me, it’s how, even what we do with Immerse, it’s how do we create meaningful shared experiences in the public space to transform the way people see and experience the city. And so, the next iteration of that would be how do we do that in a way that’s permanent and ongoing, in such a way that when people come to Orlando, there is a compelling reason for them to come and experience the culture that you and I experience Orlando all day.
There are 72 million people who come to one of our themed entertainment offerings. We, as a city, I don’t think we understand that if we’re talking about people’s attention and time and money and resources, that’s our competition. Now, I don’t think the theme parks are competition, I think that they are a wonderful opportunity, but when it comes to people’s time and attention, it’s competition. They have to choose one thing or the other, so what are we as the people who call Orlando home and are building and developing the cultural landscape of our city, what are we offering someone that is as compelling as what they would experience when they go into Avatar, you know, Pandora at the Animal Kingdom. I think that, for me, helps put in perspective the kinds of things that we have to create as a culture that offers something compelling to diversify the audience experience for those who are coming to visit our city. At the same time, I think, you know, we are, as an organization, continually trying to ask how are we creating meaningful experiences. So, going beyond something that’s just cool or just spectacle to integrating depth to what we’re doing.
Dean: Can you tell me a little bit more about that with ‘meaningful?’ When you say meaningful, do you mean like creates conversation?
Cole: Yeah. So, here I’ll say there are obviously different levels of meaningful. Like, we have this giant ball pit with 200,000 balls in it downtown right now and people are jumping in that they’re having a lot of fun and kids and parents are having a meaningful shared experience together, just having fun in that ball pit. So, I don’t discount the value of just doing something because it’s fun or interesting or beautiful. At the same time, I think for us to have the most impact and for platforming artists to have a voice around the things that they think are important is a high value for us. We, as an organization, have been building momentum on spectacle and wow and fun and beautiful. And again, those are great, but how do we continue to perpetuate that level of meaning and add a deeper level of meaning that is here’s what’s happening in the culture, here’s what’s important, here are the conversations we need to be having, and here’s how creativity is a vehicle to facilitate those conversations. That, for me, is kind of my philosophy on art. Art helps us practice depth for everyday life. So, I go to a play and there are characters and there are scenarios and there are situations and maybe I see something of myself or my own experience or my own situation in that and it helps me reflect on who I am, or it gives me an opportunity to leave the theater with the person that I go with and say, you know, this happened in that play, or this character said that, and that was meaningful to me because … And so, I don’t think we will be of most service to humanity as an organization if we’re always just beautiful and fun. We will always be beautiful and fun, but we also want to help facilitate some of those deeper levels of meaning.
… my long-term objectives is to engage at least 1% of those 72 million people.
Dean: So I want to go back to the point that you mentioned that the theme parks are not the competition and I totally agree with that. One thing I talk about all the time is the inertia in the universe and how can we can use the inertia to our advantage. Just getting people off the couch with their phones is the hard part, but if they’ve already flown here [to go to the theme parks], I think it would be a big step if Orlando [downtown and arts scene] was a staple complimentary experience …
Cole: We had 72 million visitors in 2017, more than any other city in the United States, other than a marketing problem and an infrastructure issue, there is zero reason we do not have as vibrant a theatrical community as New York City. So, it is the responsibility of the arts community, as well as a lot of other players, to build a diversity of offerings that are high-quality, interesting, and meaningful, and one of my long-term objectives is to engage at least 1% of those 72 million people to become a ticket-buying patron of one of our arts experiences or organizations, not our Creative City Project, but of Central Florida. When you take 720,000 people and they all become a ticket-buying patron to the tune of $40 per person, that is when you see radical transformation in the creative landscape of our community. That’s when you see, you know, resident theatrical shows in Orlando because producers want to launch their show here because they know there’s a sustaining audience to do that because we have it, we just don’t have a good marketing team for it and because of that, our existing arts organizations don’t have that increased revenue to continue to expand their operations and infrastructure. For me, when I look at it, it’s 100% a marketing problem. We have the talent. There’s no doubt about that. There are just, I would say that there’s a lack of creativity and vision in the way our city is marketed globally.
I don’t know if I have a hero.
Dean: I spend a lot of time visiting businesses all over the place as part of my day job. Selfishly, I like to ask questions pertaining to things that I think about a lot. Like in this case it’s you know, I wanted to know what is your definition of a creative office space for let’s call them desk job folks? Any thoughts on how maybe a boring office space can be made more conducive for creativity? I visit a lot of boring offices.
Cole: Hmmm, I don’t know. I feel like it’s so tied to the objective. I mean, again, going back to my practice, which is I need quiet to be creative, so like there’s a lot of open floor plan. For me, it would necessitate that even working in an open floor plan office … Like we have one other full-time employee, his name is Chris, and he and I worked together most days of the week. I discover that in order for me to be most productive, Chris and I being in the same room together all the time is not awesome. So, it’s how do we manage our time together? How do we manage our time separately? I think it has more to do with somebody’s mindset and what they’re deciding to do with their time than it does with like whether the couches are orange or white. Like, I don’t know if it really makes all that much of a difference to me.
Dean: Okay, I actually just moved away from an open floor plan, and so everyone has more space, I call it focused space, and then there’s another collaborative space so you’re collaborating with intention. This is kind of a personal question, but who’s your hero?
Cole: Geez, who is my hero. Gosh. I don’t know if I have a hero. There are people I admire for what they’ve done, but I don’t know, I think back to that idea of like spending a lot of my life fighting to have a voice, I feel like most of the time I’ve been in environments where I’ve just had to fight for stuff and I wish, like I honestly, I wish that I had been surrounded by an immersed in environments that were inspirational all the time and … Like wow, look at that and, oh that’s cool! That just hasn’t been my journey. So, I don’t know.
Dean: Let me ask it this way, is there a mentor that has helped me most in your career?
Cole: No, no. [Dean laughs] I feel like literally, I feel like everything that I’ve done has been a fight. I don’t like that, but when you ask me that question, no there hasn’t been somebody who’s been like, oh Cole you’re really great at … One time, I mean I remember this, it was a writing teacher my sophomore year of college who said you’re a really great writer, you should think about doing that more. Like when it comes to people saying like you’re really great at this, you should do it more, that’s maybe the one time where I think I experienced that.
Dean: It sounds like it had an impact on you because you remembered it.
Cole: I remember it for sure and I’ve thought about that a lot, but I’ve never had somebody that I feel like is innovating in the space that they’re in who said like, “Cole I care about you and I care about your future and I’m going to take you under my wing and help you do whatever it is.” I wish that I had that because I think I would be way farther along right now in my life had I had that, but I just don’t think those are the environments I’ve been in or the people I’ve been surrounded by. I mean, I’ve been in rooms where I walk in with a passionate vision for something and I spend 45 minutes or an hour convincing people to let me do what I want to do. So, yeah, I wish it was hey, there’s this talented kid over here, his name is Cole, we should give them a million dollars and permission. But it’s been like, no, I fight for every dollar that we get and I fight for every yes that we get, and man. I wish it was easy and there were people who were like, “Go for it kid!” That just hasn’t been my experience.
… romanticize about the grass being greener in a corporate job …
Dean: Don’t you think though that is just a factor of when you get groups of people and they have to agree on something, you just water things down to the lowest common denominator, right? And so I think to do things that are on the edges or beyond the edge, naturally, I think people are going to be resistant because they’re going to tell you every reason why it’s not going to work, or why it could fail. So I would say keep doing that fight. Don’t stop.
Cole: Yeah, and I will. I mean, there are definitely days where I like, you know, romanticize about the grass being greener in a corporate job where I could go work as a Disney Imagineer and have 60 million dollar budgets and do one thing. And none of those things are marketing or fundraising or, you know, like selling tickets or screwing together pieces of wood or throwing stuff in the dumpster.
Dean: Putting out fires …
Cole: Well, no, you do have to do a lot of that I’m sure, but it’s like you’re here to lead this creative vision, or you’re here to coalesce this team around a common objective. Like there are definitely days I romanticize, and I know it’s a romanticized picture, of what it would be like to go get paid a lot of money, way more than I’m getting paid right now, to do one thing with a team of other really well-paid, very talented people.
Being on tour is really hard.
Dean: Well, you know, this is funny because I had this question in my head that kind of goes along those lines. If there was a parallel universe and you took a fork in the road earlier in life, what would you be doing right now? And can you think of that fork in the road that you took that brought you to where you are right now?
Cole: I have like ten answers for this.
Dean: Okay, what’s the first one that comes to mind?
Cole: Throughout college, I toured as a full-time musician with a band and we played clubs and played rock and roll and I did that for many years full-time and I loved it and I’m so grateful for that time in my life. There was a time where I sat down with one of the other musicians in the band and we had a very straightforward conversation and we ended it. I didn’t necessarily at the time realize the implications that would have on my future. I could have definitely done music full-time. There were some very hard parts about it, one of them is traveling all the time. I love to travel, but not all the time. Being on tour is really hard. I don’t envy people who have to do it. But, that was definitely a fork in the road for me that sent me away from pursuing music as a full-time musician. I grew up as an actor and loved that, still love it, still do it. I’m in rehearsals for a show right now in Mad Cow Theater. Music and theater are definitely something that I could have done full-time had I made different decisions and had I decided to do that. I love the radio. I love the power of storytelling and the medium of audio, so I could still in my life definitely go full-time into producing narrative-based radio programming. So that’s another one of the ways that my life could still go.
Dean: What are some podcasts that listen to you regularly?
Cole: I’ve listened to every episode of This American Life for the last 14 years.
Dean: That’s the first thing I think of when I think of storytelling.
Cole: Yeah. I mean, they created the genre, which now there are dozens, if not hundreds of podcasts that emulate their aesthetic, but they created a genre and I’m not sure they get credit for that. I mean, I think in the industry they get credit for it, but I don’t know in the general public how much credit they get for it. A lot of what Gimlet Media is doing, so that’s Alex Blumberg who came from This American Life, he was a producer there, he started his own podcasting network called Gimlet and they have some amazing content. Actually, this month, they released a TV version of one of their podcasts. It’s called Homecoming. It was an old-school style like radio play kind of thing. Amazon picked it up, it stars Julia Roberts, and it just released on November 2nd. So, they’ve gone from creating this little, like, experiment to it now being one of Amazon’s most highly invested-in projects, which is cool. They have another podcast called Reply All that’s really, really great. It’s interesting stories about like internet culture and the hosts of that are just they’re really great at what they do. Malcolm Gladwell has a podcast called Revisionist History and Malcolm Gladwell does what Malcolm Gladwell does and he, like, you know, reforms the way you think about everything he talks about and it’s two seasons of that, which it’s so good. Yeah, I listen to a ton of podcasts.
… it’s him documenting going to these pitches.
Dean: I don’t know how long it was, but I think the one podcast that I just binged like crazy was How I Built This. Next time you’re fighting the fight and you ever feel quitting, listen to that podcast. Every story there, they almost take you rock bottom pretty much every episode.
Cole: Yeah, so actually for me, there be a parallel in another Gimlet podcast called Startup. So, when Alex Blumberg started Gimlet, he essentially documented the process and it was the first season of the podcast startup. So, the first season of Startup is him starting Gimlet, this podcasting company, which now has like 200 employees three or four years later. It’s grown huge really fast, and it’s him documenting going to these pitches, making the pitches, utterly failing, going into the room and having it going well and he’s like, oh I expect to get a call from them in the next week and them invest a million dollars into this thing, and he never hears from him again. And so I was literally experiencing the same thing at the same time where I’d go and I’d pitch Immerse and the vision for it and it would feel like it would go well and I’d follow up with eight emails and never hear back from them and it was like, I was paralleling his journey in my life and it kept me sane.
Dean: So for my last question, I need you to think yourself in the third person and just be objective about this because I think at the very beginning when I said that you are creative, you said, well, I’m going to take your word for it. So, for this one, you have to take my word for it. What is your secret to being an outrageously remarkable visionary that creates engaging experiences?
Cole: Just keep trying stuff. I posted online today like I think the thing that makes someone a successful full-time creative artist is someone who can access their emotions when it serves the art and deny their emotions when it tells them to stop working. So, being totally in tune with inside of me and outside of me and what’s happening in the world around me and how people are experiencing that because that serves the art, but there are definitely days where every person wakes up and they don’t want to do the work that it requires to do the thing they say they want to do and so they don’t do it. And if you’re an artist, you’re your own boss, you own a small business, and small businesses work because the people who run them do the work and so artists who don’t work don’t become full-time artists. So we are where we are because, most days, I’m doing things I don’t want to be doing and I continue to do them.
Dean: I often say, you know, entrepreneurs and visionaries have to be manufacturers of work. The minute you stop manufacturing work for yourself and others is the second when you stop moving forward. You have to keep building the bridge in front of you, so I love that message. Cole, thanks so much.
Cole: Thank you.
Thank you to Carlos Romero for coming by to shoot this interview on short notice. Check out his work here.
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