Audience, Experience, Desire

Oh dear.  I’ve been away from this blog for a while, which is a pity.  In part it’s due to holidays, commitments, that sort of thing.  In part it’s because I haven’t been to see anything recently – I really ought to get booking again! – and in part it’s because my research focus is now narrowing dramatically as I head into serious rehearsal for my final research performance.  So there may be fewer reviews and more thoughts on how interactivity and narrative work in practice as I keep working…

Anyway, for now, you should check out this link to a conference I’m going to (and presenting at) this weekend, all about interactivity and participation in contemporary performance.  There should be pdf copies of papers going up once the conference is over, so potentially lots of interest will start appearing!



Interactive Theatres: stories and narratives (part 2)

Yesterday I took part in CoLab’s Hostage: a spy-run where you are given a radio earpiece and a mission, and for an hour run around trying to stop the bad guys – tailing enemy agents, searching for clues, and so forth. All perfectly fine and fun.

The company have specifically asked us to avoid giving spoilers, and I’m going to respect that, so I won’t be giving a review, as such. It struck me as I left, though, that I’ve done a number of these kinds of shows now, and I’m starting to see a pattern as to how they handle storytelling, and I think it has implications that leak into all interactive performance forms.

Put simply, I don’t think these spy-run / city-dash events deal with story very well. Perhaps that’s not the producers’ concern, and they’re more interested in the visceral experience, but I’m not sure that’s sustainable. Certainly I’m starting to lose satisfaction purely from the novelty of running around pretending to be a spy, but once you move beyond that superficial layer there’s not much propping these pieces up. In particular, they’re lacking strong and in-depth storytelling.

I became very aware of this last night, which followed the same general pattern that others have: we meet a contact, who then proceeds to dump the entire plot on us in one big exposition monologue (including telling us why this impacts us – i.e. why we should care – by saying something like “You’ve all been negatively affected by the nasty things this organisation has done”). Then we’re off doing the mission, running through several tasks which keep us occupied, but which don’t actually advance, enhance, or expand the story in any meaningful way. Partway through, there’s a plot twist – again told to us via an info-dump monologue – and then a little more running around and it’s the end.

The thing that bothers me about this is that it’s very lazy storytelling. There’s a lack of integration between story and activity which is ultimately quite unsatisfying. The puzzles that I’m solving don’t actually reveal anything new about the story-world that I’m in, or advance the plot of the particular adventure I’m on. It’s busywork: an arbitrary task that needs to be overcome in order to move onto the next bit – which is probably another arbitrary task. When the narrative does progress, it’s through heavy info-dumps which are effectively disconnected from the actions we have been performing.

This wouldn’t be acceptable in a thriller novel, play, or film. Even something as action-oriented as James Bond gradually leaks its plot through the results of various fight scenes and sexual conquests. There’s a puzzle that needs to be solved, and each action reveals another piece. Not so with so many interactive experiences, which give you the action, and often a localised puzzle, but don’t connect these puzzles or pieces of action to the wider story-world, whether through an increased sense of understanding, meaning, character development, or narrative progression.

This may sound like I’m being picky. You might ask why it matters if there’s weak story development when the whole point is about the visceral experience. And this is where the importance of the matter really lies, because once the novelty has worn off you need a good narrative drive to maintain experience. For one thing, if I start to feel like I’m just doing meaningless busywork, I drop my investment and am much less likely to suspend disbelief.  But it goes deeper than that. It’s through story – not just “this company is bad and must be stopped”, but the ongoing development of cause and effect that impacts not only the events, but the people and characters involved – that suspense is built.

Suspense is massively important, particularly in thrillers, but it can be very hard to manufacture in an experiential manner. For example, I’ve had quite a lot of guns held to my head. I’ve been shouted at, frisked, held up against walls, restrained, threatened… but never have I ever forgotten that fact that this is a show, I am an audience member, and no matter how much the nasty man shouts at me, he’s not actually able to hurt or kill me. It’s not suspenseful, because I already know the outcome: I will be fine.

Now, let’s think about traditional theatre. We know that the actors are actors. We know that they’re not actually killing each other. And yet, we willingly suspend our disbelief and read the performance as if they are. We look past the actors and read onto them the characters that they represent. We grow to care about them through coming to understand who they are, how they have been effected by the world in which they live, what their motivations, passions and flaws are (and – in good storytelling at least – we’re neither given flat-out good or bad guys, nor outright told “this is why you should care!”) And anything can happen to these characters. So when a gun is held to the head of a character we have become emotionally invested in, we feel suspense in a much more tangible way, because the character can die.

Of course, characters can die in spy-run shows as well. But they don’t all that much (possibly because, aside from the villain, there’s usually only one main character who is acting as your guide), and when they do the dramatic or suspenseful impact just isn’t there. Why not? I suspect it’s because we haven’t had a chance to become invested in the story-world, or in the character. The piece has focussed so much on our experience and involvement, it’s forgotten to make the world three dimensional.  It’s so concerned with constant momentum, that it forgets to slow down and allow the necessary breathing-room that deep character development requires.  So instead we get stereotypes: the evil corporation, the resistance group, the contact who leads us around, the nasty villain… all of which are impossible to emotionally connect to or invest in, because they aren’t real people. They lack depth, subtlety, or nuance. They’re strawmen more concerned with constantly pushing us forward than developing a world. And when they are threatened, I don’t really care, because I never cared about them to begin with.

It seems to me that, if this format is going to survive, it needs to evolve. There’s a limited number of audiences out there, and if like me they start to lose enjoyment purely through the novelty factor, then something else needs to take its place. And well-structured and developed storytelling may well be the solution. I can envision a show where, rather than meeting an agent who dumps the plot on us in one big pile, we slowly piece together story, motivation and world through the uncovering of clues and solving of puzzles.  Where we discover that all is not necessarily as it seems, rather than the villain telling us. Where the main characters aren’t glorified shepherds, leading us from task to task, but fully-fledged and complex human beings whose lives, beliefs and world-views are challenged as we progress; who grow to be different people by the end.

And of course, this all has to link in to what I am doing as a part of the story, as a member of the story-world. Have the actions I take make a meaningful difference to character, story, and environment. I’ve been to too many events where, if I don’t solve a particular puzzle or achieve a particular task within a short time, our guide does it for us and we’re on to the next thing, making my involvement fundamentally irrelevant. I understand why this happens, of course, but it diminishes the world. Diminishes consequence. Diminishes suspense. But if you can make what I do have consequence, then I become much, much more invested. It’s hard, I know – very hard – but who ever said good art comes easy? If this evolution happens, it could push this genre from something a bit fun and silly, to something with an incredible ability to examine some very difficult issues, and put its audience face to face with the consequences of their actions, made all the more real by happening to characters they have come to care about.

Ultimately, that’s what it has to come down to. We can only suspend disbelief when it comes to ourselves so much. I know I’m not at risk. I know this organisation isn’t really spying on me. I know that the outcome of my actions don’t matter to my life at all. But give me a character who I invest in, give me a story-world I can believe in, give my actions the ability to meaningfully impact on both of those, and make those decisions morally complex… then we’ve got something worth exploring again and again.

By the End of Us

Block Stop
Southwark Playhouse, London

One of my most memorable experiences at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe was Block Stop’s Dead Wait. Somewhere, out in the field, an intelligence agent was tracking a kidnapper / killer. She wore glasses containing a camera, sending a live relay to a control room where I sat, giving her instructions via a microphone. Everything she did was on my say so: turn left, turn right, try the key in that door, try to tackle the woman with the knife… Would I stop the killer? Would I save the hostages? It was tense, engaging, and left me feeling incredibly guilty about the mess I made of it.

So it was with great anticipation that I attended By the End of Us. Essentially an extension of this format, the show promised to add an extra dimension: while a single audience member would be controlling an assassin, as in Dead Wait, an opposing audience team would control a second operative, attempting to stop them. This time I’m in the group audience: can we beat the other player?

It’s an ambitious ask, and unfortunately it doesn’t come off. Dead Wait relied on the tension created by being the sole controller: it’s a very task-oriented role, and it is this problem-solving element (it feels a lot like a computer game) which carries the piece. The problem with translating this to a larger audience is that the tension vanishes. As direct and tangible influence is reduced, so is a sense of responsibility, and once those disappear and suspense vanishes, suddenly the cracks in the veneer appear.

The major problem is our decision making process: it’s audience-vote, using keypads. This just doesn’t work for a fast-paced, quickly moving scenario. This isn’t pre-scripted: the actors have to react to whatever the controller makes them do, and this means that as the piece goes on, it depends more and more on improvisation. Unfortunately, that’s anathema to a voting system which requires that options are written into a computer programme, projected onto a screen, voted on by the audience, and then relayed to the actor. The technician trying to handle this does as good a job as he can under the circumstances, but it leads to multiple technical errors, and often by the time we’ve voted, the decision has been made for us as the action has already moved on.

This is compounded by how few decisions we’re asked to make in the first place. A single controller has to make every decision. They see everything, hear everything, choose everything. The dynamic is incredibly different for the group audience. To begin with, the screens we’re watching actually show our opponent’s video feed, and we can only connect to our agent via audio. This results in us spending most of our time watching someone else play a game. Which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except that in this case it just doesn’t work as something to purely watch. It switches between dull and ridiculous.

The problem is that we’re being asked to suspend too much disbelief. During dialogue, for example, the assassin is waiting to be told what to say by her controller. Only that means it takes 30 seconds for her to respond to every question or statement, while the other character just… waits. Staring. This is doubly problematic when both agents are facing one another, both waiting for instructions. Similarly, the need to talk to her controller means that the assassin often says incredibly dangerous or damning things clearly in earshot of other characters, who conveniently ignore them. Once we can see our operative, his earpiece is incredibly visible, yet the seasoned assassin doesn’t seem to notice this. And who are we to be making these decisions, anyway? The show puts us in the position of ‘various employees of the British Intelligence Agency’ – from ops to HR – but this just compounds problems of believability because… well, why the hell would an intelligence system operate on this basis? Or why, when we’re trying to stop a computer programme, would the woman who absolutely does not want it to be stopped set up a convenient puzzle for us to solve, to be able to stop it?

This may sound like I’m splitting hairs: after all, every audience-vote piece has to find some kind of conceit for who its audience is, and every game has puzzles. However, this piece relies a great deal on audience investment in the scenario. It’s not a Brecht play to remain removed from, sit back, and analyse. It depends on us suspending our disbelief, getting involved, and feeling the tension. And there are too many holes for me to be able to do that. Instead, it just becomes silly. There’s a lot of laughter in the audience, and I’m not sure there should be. Admittedly, there is one very funny consequence of a choice we made, but for the most part I feel like the audience is laughing at the piece, as our clearly exposed agent tries to bumble his way through. It’s a real shame, and it all seems to come down to a poor choice of format. There are probably both economic and technical reasons for it, but the audience-vote method is just not appropriate for this piece. Perhaps if it were two sole controllers facing off against each other, that crucial tension would have remained intact. But as it stands, it misses the mark.

A House Repeated

Seth Kriebel
Battersea Arts Centre, London

You’re in the foyer of a building that sounds remarkably like the Battersea Arts Centre, but feels somehow different. You have a choice of where to go: up the main stairs, down a small spiral staircase, or down the west corridor. Where do you go?

Like We This Way – another of Kriebel’s performances I saw earlier this year (forming, with this piece and The Unbuilt Room, something of a loose thematic trilogy) – A House Repeated allows its audience to explore a mysterious location by choosing where to go or what to do, and having the results narrated to them. Whereas the system in We This Way was based on majority-rules voting, the system at play here is rather more complex. To begin with, there are two groups taking it in turns to explore. Both can hear what the other is doing and seeing, and it quickly becomes clear that the place they are exploring is both the same as ours, but also different…

Decisions as to individual actions are technically down to one audience member at a time, with the narrators refusing to recognise instructions from anyone else. The group may talk amongst themselves, but the instruction to action can only come from the designated person. It is very interesting to see how the inter-audience dynamic changes in light of this throughout the piece: at first, most people are silent, simply allowing the assigned speaker to make a choice. However, as it becomes clear – through our own exploration and listening to the other group – that there is a puzzle to be solved, the level of discussion gradually increases (particularly with those one or two people who start to get quite competitive about it!), until each action is based more or less on whole-group agreement.

After a while of exploring and puzzle-solving, the dynamic suddenly changes. I don’t quite want to spoil it here (but probably will, so beware!): the audience’s role is changed from an exploratory one, to a creative one. Still using the one-person-at-a-time rule, new areas of the building we have been exploring begin to appear, built by the room’s collective imagination. It’s a really interesting moment: the rules are simple and obvious, but provide space for an infinite variety of spaces to appear, and despite not getting to contribute myself it was great just to discover these rooms as they were being created. I’d love to know what other groups built…

One (probably inevitable) consequence of this change, though, is that the inter-audience dynamic returns to its earlier state of silent separateness. No longer are we conversing amongst ourselves – each called-upon person makes their contribution un-hampered by anyone else. And it was interesting to see people slightly freeze in that situation. When faced with a very open choice, people’s imaginations got a bit stuck. Certainly a running theme emerged: once food was established in one room, it kept cropping up again and again… I wonder if, had it continued longer, we would have loosened up again?

It’s worth crediting the performers here on their improvised narratological contributions: of course, the audience-created rooms could not be pre-rehearsed, and the additions of descriptive flairs attached to them as they were narrated helped to make them feel more ‘real’ or creatively satisfying than when the audience created them. Similarly, during the earlier exploratory section, attempts by the audience to do something that was perhaps unexpected were dealt with in creative, often funny, and always on par with the rest of the simple but evocative narration.

Ultimately, A House Repeated is an interesting off-shoot of the typical ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ model. Fun, engrossing and as much about the process as the ‘product’, I’d be happy to go back and do it again, just to see what happens this time…

The Forest

Frozen Light
The Old Fire Station, Oxford

“Today is different.”

Today I saw a show made for teenagers and adults with profound and multiple learning disabilities.  This is something of a first for me, and I went in wondering how much of a useful write-up I would be able to contribute, given that I know little of what makes for meaningful and engaging work and with PMLD audiences.  As it turned out, I didn’t have to know.  I could see.

The Forest uses a simple narrative framework to immerse its audience in a succession of sensory experiences.  Every sense was given a range of stimuli: from confetti paper raining down on us, to sound, music and song, to scented logs to smell and feel, to rain sprayed over us, wind blowing in our faces, even a couple of moments of taste… and the list goes on.  That’s not to say, though, that the show is simply a succession of sensory moments tacked together at the last minute with a story.  What really struck me about the piece was how integrated everything was: the story acted as a driving force behind each new experience, which then (in part) functioned to place the audience within the story.  So, for example, when the characters got cold and wet, we got cold and wet.  It helps to maintain a flow and cohesion which really makes this a piece of coherent theatre, and not a series of ‘set pieces’, as it were.

Of course, I was not the primary audience for this piece, and what was fantastic to see was how well the company worked with their PMLD audience.  The wonderful thing to watch was how the actors were genuinely happy to have the opportunity work with them, to engage with them in very honest terms, and to share with them.  There were many moments where they came to each audience member one by one, to offer an experience which was treated with a meaningful, gentle, but playful focus.  It might be a moment of song, it might be offering food, it might be a scented lotion rubbed on the hands, but whatever it was, it always became a reciprocal exchange: not just something offered from company to audience, but often something offered in return from audience and accepted by company (and quite often with genuine laughter).  There was a moment when the man next to me held out his hand, and the performer singing to him simply took it, and kept hold until she had to move on – offering him thanks as she did.  I’m trying hard not to come off as patronising here, but it was a very powerful thing to see such simple moments of exchange clearly meaning a great deal, both to the audience and the performers.

But then, maybe I shouldn’t worry about it being patronising, because I loved it too.  I’ve been to a few sensory experiences, and I have to say that this one ranks quite high on the list.  Not only did I feel like I had a wide range of sensory stimulation, but the combination of how well it integrated to the story, the playfulness, and the welcoming nature of the exchange between performers and all audience members made it a hugely engaging and satisfying experience.  And some of the moments are just beautiful: in particular, a sequence using torches and small screens to create shadows – first for the audience, and then with them – was lovely.  By the end of the show there was an incredible warmth in the room: everyone, from performers, to the PMLD audience, to their carers, and the odd observer like me, seemed to radiate a pleasure and a satisfaction that I don’t feel nearly enough at the end of a theatre event.  It’s led me to wish there was more of this kind of work: I intellectually knew it was important before, but now I’ve felt it.  We need more.


Shoreditch Town Hall, London

Absent is a double-exploration: of a hotel under renovation, with fragmented, shabby, worn and broken rooms, and the life of an old Duchess, whose life seems similarly fragmented, shabby, worn and broken. A promenade installation, the tale of the Duchess is something of a trail of breadcrumbs: we keep encountering video footage, newspaper clippings, items from her life, rooms from her past, all of which act like pieces of a jigsaw gradually coming together.

The piece is richly atmospheric, and it is extremely enjoyable to explore. The image of the hotel room is pulled apart – quite literally at times – and we are constantly given different perspectives on the same few rooms. Each room seems to correspond to a part of the Duchess’ life, so as we are dissecting and examining these rooms in different ways, we are also seeing the Duchess, from childhood to old age. There are some wonderful moments, such as seeing a miniature of a ruined ballroom (accompanied, as ever, by referential footage of the Duchess’ relationship to it), only to open a pair of heavy doors to walk into the life-size room. It’s a great moment. Pieces of preparation and call-back pepper the piece in this way, and demonstrate an incredibly intricately thought-out space.

However, I can’t help feeling there isn’t quite enough. I was in an out within 25 minutes, and I certainly wasn’t rushing. I’m not sure what the company could have done to increase the experience – I’m not sure “the same, but more of it” would quite be the solution – but it did leave me feeling slightly deflated when I realised that was it. I wonder if there is room for a littlle more performative exploration: the first couple of sequences involve some clever trickery using video screens, two-way mirrors, and a live performer, and these had a slightly different quality to the rest of the piece. Admittedly they are something of a ‘rabbit hole’, in that they bring you into the world, but I wonder if the piece could have been book-ended with something similar (as opposed to the rather abrupt and somewhat un-subtle conclusion we are given). Certainly, given the plot that is in there, and how the final room – which I didn’t know was the final room until after I left – is presented, I suspect there’s space to create something that feels a bit more of a rounded conclusion.

Another slightly unexpected problem is the immersive touch of turning the Shoreditch Town Hall into the ‘Shoreditch Town Hall Hotel’. I’m familiar with the venue, so this wasn’t an issue for me, but my companion had never been there before and wasn’t aware that the experience was based in a fictional hotel. Consequently she nearly missed it as she arrived, thought she was in the wrong place, and went off in search of the venue. As we were leaving, we passed a similarly confused man at the reception desk. Now, I’m all for creating fully immersive worlds, including in foyers and entrance points, but this highlights an interesting issue I’d never considered in this kind of work: how can you retain the immersive story-world but still signal that, yes, this is the right venue? Something to think about there…

Overall, this is definitely worth catching if you’re able to get there easily enough: I wouldn’t recommend travelling too far for it though (certainly not all the way from Oxford).

Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Day 5

In which our hero is murdered, visits another sex worker, and touches a stranger.

Richard III
Brite Theatre
Just Festival at St. John’s

Come in, get assigned a character, and most probably end up dead by the end.

Richard III is a one-woman show, taking place in the space of an hour. That’s a hard task for anyone, but Emily Carding pulls it off with ease. Greeting the audience as we enter, and assigning us to a seat and a character (I was Edward, Prince of Wales), the play is boiled down to, essentially, an extended monologue from Richard. There are very light moments of interaction, gently but deftly guided by Carding; for example getting the audience to crown Richard, or to murder one another (done in a very simple and amusing manner). But for the most part, she carries the show on her own shoulders, delivering the sinister machinations of Richard at times only inches from your face, and seeming to imply your complicity through a smile, or a nod.

If you’ve never seen the play, of course, there’s a potentially bit of a problem: it may be very hard to follow. And this is where the use of the audience comes into its own. Being able to see Richard addressing the relevant characters, or to gesture to them, and to watch us one by one being killed off provides a crucial context that helps keep the narrative clearly moving forwards, and avoids losing us in the constantly ongoing prose.

Ultimately, though, the show is made by Carding’s performance. It is intelligent, strong, confident (including the odd ad-libbed response to an unexpected event, such as a latecomer entering), and thoroughly engaging: in particular, Richard’s monologue before the battle of Bosworth had my heart in my throat (even though I knew what was – or wasn’t – going to happen). The choice of venue also deserves a mention: in a small chapel, it not only places the audience close to and surrounding Carding, but provides a suitably regal setting which helps to pull the piece together. Well worth a look!

Underbelly, George Square
Lucy Tafler presents

Another day, another play about sex workers…

Ménage is the ‘something’ I felt was missing from Hula House. A show for one performer and two audience members, it eschews all shock tactics and instead focuses on simple, honest and gentle dialogue, combining several verbatim accounts of the lives of sex workers into one character. A site-specific performance, it takes place in the bedroom of a flat, and the intimacy of this location is hugely important: entering, there is a slight edge of tension (what’s about to happen?), but this is quickly diffused with a clever opening line designed to break our preconceptions, and the offer of a cup of tea.

Rather than being provocative, this performance is very warm, friendly, and safe. We’re asked a little about ourselves – nothing major, fairly standard get-to-know-you conversation – and this combined with a few laughs helps to relax us into a position of comfort, from which we can begin to address some complex issues.

Not that this is a desperately dark or depressing piece. It’s just honest. There are good things and bad things about being a sex worker, and this addresses both. It isn’t overt in the questions it raises, but leaves an implicit space for us to ask them to ourselves. Treating the dialogue with tenderness and respect, it doesn’t reduce the women concerned to political tools or ideologues, but simply shows us a person: a human being doing what she can, trying to shape a good life for herself, and hoping for the best. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s sad, sometimes it’s heartwarming, but it never stops being engaging. I came out wishing it had been much longer. Wonderful.

Ciarán Myers in Association with Asylon Theatre / Universal Arts
New Town Theatre

I can’t think of a pithy one-liner to introduce this show. Everything I try seems too frivolous.

Touch is a very gentle show, addressing mental illness not from a medical- or education-based perspective, but just from one woman’s account of her past and present experiences. Welcoming us into the space, it becomes clear that we are in some kind of institution, and she explains that in order to have visitors she has to give these talks. Initially seeming reasonably composed (but tremendously emotionally exposed, as if she’s got no armour), we find out a little about Jacky’s life, both outside and inside. Gradually, it becomes clearer and clearer that she’s a very vulnerable woman, unable to cope with her sense of disconnection from the world, and desperate to feel the touch of another human being.

The constant motif of human touch repeats and escalates throughout the performance. There’s another patient who hates to be touched, and of course Jacky becomes infatuated with him. She tries to forge moments of connection with the audience as well, each time graduating the physical connection up a step, and each time seeming more and more desperate to need it.

Like Ménage, Touch is also very gentle, simple, and honest. You cannot help but feel for Jacky as she stands wide-eyed on the small stage, eager to connect with us but clearly terrified of the possibility. The escalation of intensity and trauma is well-paced, and never sensationalised. And each time there’s a vulnerable request for contact – “would anybody like to hold my hand?” – there’s a part of me that fears for what will happen if nobody complies. I came to care about Jacky by the end, in my own little way. Hopefully plenty of other people will too.

And that’s it. I’m now back in Oxford, nursing a bit of a festival hangover, but very inspired and excited by the slew of ideas this year’s Fringe has thrown into my head. Roll on 2016!