Come Bargain With Uncanny Things - some early reflections
Updated: Jul 31
First: it worked. You can make an opera without a score, where the audience have genuine control of the outcome, which can adapt to unexpected audience decisions and give something that is genuinely fun.
Second: it worked. You can make an interactive theatre show about doing magic through musical ritual, where the audience feel like they are doing something akin to genuine magic, and can steer the show in very different ways.
Third: once again, I am trying to clarify my thoughts by writing an essay. I love the marks of my educational system.
Things that worked:
As above, we achieved our main goals: a piece of interactive immersive opera where the audience both had genuine control of the outcome, and it could meaningfully be called opera.
Early on, I’d decided that if (as immersion usually requires) the audience would be in the same world as the singers, but also that they would not face the barrier of having to sing, the best way to do so was through fantastical sung ritual. I like such things, and it seemed to work for people.
Our first audience interacted in largely predicted ways - we gave them problems, they solved them (one way or the other). Our second looked at the problems, decided they’d rather solve other issues, and we were able to bend the show in a very different direction.
I was pretty sure that the structure and mechanics theoretically worked. With limited rehearsal time, I’m glad they worked for the audience too (more or less). Most immersive theatre I’ve seen uses a ‘Save The Cat’-type linear structure; I went with a dendritic structure of three sections reflecting on a single theme in different ways.
Low-key mechanics like humming and stamping let shy Witnesses be part of the group ritual without having to expose themselves. The sincere engagement of a person who knelt before and bowed to the Uncanny Thing was wonderful. Other people came up with fascinating, beautiful, and surprising responses - to be offered prized bracelets, maps, and even fresh-plucked hair was not expected, but was delightful.
The challenges always have two elements; the ritual allows only one to be solved unless you’re very clever. This meant that, even when audiences had a ‘win’, it felt bittersweet; it came at a cost. My TTRPG players will know this, but I quite like such bittersweet flavours and bargains. So I’m actually pleased with that, while wanting to ensure audiences don’t get disheartened.
Things to improve (in brief):
The audience were brought into the world very quickly, but empowering performers to worldbuild through natural-feeling conversation that continually invites the audience to respond, not feel lectured-to (“Hello, how are you? I’m Graham, what’s your name? How was your journey - any trouble with the Flood?”) will take rehearsal time.
Explaining the precise mechanics through song and handouts was a bit harder. More rehearsal time to practice this will help, as would an easier ‘level 1’ ritual. There are rituals of teaching (whether for harvesting corn or the Cha-cha Slide) which will be useful models.
With less Covid, people can be given only the handouts relevant to their interests, and be taken to one side so it’s easier to ask questions. Also, token-passing will be a more elegant affair than a dustpan on the end of a pole.
Opera audiences seem to find the concept “here is a lever that will change the show one way or the other. Pull it. Really. That's why we said you could pull it.” near-impossible. Interactive theatre audiences do not. One must have some of the second to induct the others.
I started with a world, then the characters, then the challenges. It felt like the singers were ‘main characters’ around whom the story was built, which reduced audience agency.
A dendritic structure (with more time) should allow the audience to choose which ‘chapters’ to explore, much like retellings of The Mahabharata select sections.
The show could have a stronger ritualistic feeling, and possibly be more abstract, and less pseudo-naturalistic. Does immersion require naturalism?
Frankly, some mechanics were underused (stamping side-effects especially). As the Operator (a GM, essentially), I need to practice more.
Others were too vague (even I’m unsure about what abjuration does at this point). Offerings clearly confused people, and need to be simplified or clarified.
The whole thing could be much more varied in its outlook - drawing on the old model of “the opera is the hub of the event, but you can do other things in the side-rooms”, one could have rooms for dealing with the district, additional characters with their own ends, and more.
I have a sheet explaining how all the mechanics fit together. The audience would benefit from visual representations of that (for example, the Uncanny Thing’s feelings towards the Witnesses are narratively and mechanically significant; that could have a physical visualisation; rising or falling wyrd could have a sound-representation in the world).
There’s a barrier in unreality - unlike political interactivity, where we loosely know what happens if we declare war, audiences don’t have experience with what happens if you do magic. So that must be better-established.
It worked, people had fun and deeply emotional engagements with the UTs, and it oozed with uncanny flavour. I know I shouldn’t take “your laugh will haunt my dreams” as a compliment, but…
“That was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen, and it made total sense that, of course, it came from Leo’s brain” falls into the same category.
There is much work to be done. I want it to feel like a true ritual. I want it to be expanded into a wider world; one where the audience get to see and control a little more of what is going on around them. And I desperately want to ensure that we find a better way to communicate how the somewhat esoteric levers audiences pull work and change the world.
But last night, there was a moment where two audiences got to find a space where they could be a part of a ritual, together. Where they could have fun, be challenged, be creative, and be emotionally moved.
Even if it is only the Mortal of Oblivion; Dancing Mortal; the Mapmaker - it is a space that was worth making.
Thank you to all our Witnesses, Bargainers, technical and administrative supporters at Tête à Tête and The Cockpit, and to those who inspired this work. It is greatly appreciated.
There’s more to come, so stay tuned!