Genre As Onboarding
Updated: Aug 7
This article is riffing off the above Chloe Mashiter Tweet, especially a conversation in the comments about being a Tourist or a Resident (capitalisation mine), as applied to ‘grokkable concepts’ - “rather than tools that you naturally understand how to use, scenarios and situations that people typically understand their role/power/agency in”.
For example, a tool might be “here is a piece of paper and a pen; you need to write a letter to persuade them to help us.” Most people have a sense of how that works.
A scenario or situation might be “you are in a job interview. If you impress the panel, you get the job.” Many of us have done such a thing, understand the expectations, and can be a resident in such a world.
In particular, I want to think-through-essay-writing about how interactive theatre often uses genre as a shorthand for a scenario/situation, the pitfalls of such an approach, and other possible categories that could also be useful for grokkable concepts.
Genre As Shorthand For Grok
If you’ve been to any interactive theatre, you’ve almost certainly been to a genre-y show - World War Two, a Bank Heist, Peaky Blinders-y gangs, 80’s Action, Golden Age Detective Fiction…
They’re a lot of fun, sometimes beautiful in their own right, and offer immediately grokkable concepts as long as people are vaguely familiar with the genre. We know that in our criminal gang, there’ll be the brains, muscle, and charm.
Aside: I suspect that part of this tendency towards genre tropes is related to the fact that several notable interactive theatre makers also really like TTRPGs from the Forge school, which prizes genre emulation in games like Apocalypse World, Monsterhearts, and so on.
They also, practically, offer a clear hook to audiences: come and be an action hero! Command the armies of WWII! Negotiate through a hostage situation! Then audiences come and spend money.
But most importantly, they offer world-rules. Going back to our gang, we might be meant to be ruthless, but we are still subservient to the gang boss, and still loyal to the ‘family’. Indeed, the strength of that genre trope is said to have changed the actual US mafia after they saw The Godfather.
Pitfalls Of Genre For Grock
The most obvious one is those rules. First, people have different expectations of genre. If my mental image of a World War Two movie is Inglorious Bastards (hyper-violence, big bold risks) and yours is Dambusters (plucky Brits against the odds), and theirs is The Imitation Game (intimate exploration of what happened behind the scenes), we all will behave in different ways.
This is only intensified if - as is especially likely in London - we have people from very different backgrounds. For many British people, the pleasure of World War Two is being straightforward good guys killing those pesky Germans. For an audience member from Berlin, they may well want and expect a clearer line between the Nazi regime and Germans (while having been schooled in a way that focuses on the complex entanglement of all Germans with that regime).
Second, those rules create a constraint that can only be flexed so much. We can tell the audience of our sci fi show that teleportation is a long-held dream. We can play our gang boss as having an unexpectedly soft side. We would struggle to easily convey a collectivist gang all working together to make decisions (even though, practically, that is what interactive theatre gangs tend to do).
Most importantly, if we want the gang leader to suddenly go “SKREE!” and ask to be fed a baby rat as black ooze erupts from his mouth, we have entered a space partly outside the tropes of the genre, also sitting in a body horror vein. Suddenly, our audience don’t know which set of rules is most important for their role, agency, and power - the gang rules of “defer to the boss” or the horror rules of “deal with the monster”?
The above are problems for Come Bargain With Uncanny Things, the interactive immersive opera I’m working on. It’s broadly speaking gothic fantasy - power at a price, rituals to achieve magic - but no two books in the genre have the same rules of magic, nor of world-building. So it is very difficult for that show to lean on genre rules to be grokkable.
Other Possibly Grokkable Categories To Base A Show On
These are not well thought out categories. But they feel interesting, if clarified:
Everyday Life Situations: As in the original Tweet-thread, situations like job interviews and going to the shop are easy to grok because we all do them.
The not-insurmountable challenge I can see is that even in those situations, people experience them differently. At a basic level, some people are happier doing job interviews than others. More deeply, I remember an interactive show where a left-wing rabble rouser was asking people what their worst ever job was. As I flashed back to cleaning Air BnB toilets, a fellow audience member said it was working in a bank. The type of social improvement called for from the different woes was different.
Rituals, Obligations, And Customs: Customs offer space to be collectivist, rather than the ‘each individual is in the team, but feels like a protagonist’ model of a lot of interactive theatre. Customs might be ‘we are here to respect the dead’, ‘we said we would help build this house’, ‘it is midwinter, and we are preparing the feast to mark that we are still alive, when will share stories.’ I think such an approach does something slightly different to genre-focused approaches, while still being grokkable to an extent one can feel Resident.
With Come Bargain With Uncanny Things, the hook is that this is a ritual to help our community; we must do it together. There are expectations of behaviour (we will help others, we will be respectful of the Thing), function (we will do the ritual if we deem it wise), and power (you have it if you’re working with the group). But they come more from the custom/obligation to help one’s community without antagonising the Uncanny Things, not from genre, or a form of real-life experience people know.
In some ways, I was influenced by Molleindustria’s Rules and Roberts, a Dungeons and Dragons-like game where the mechanics are influenced by and designed to teach tools for organising discussions in left-wing activist groups and unions. It does not matter that we know the situation, so much as that the expectations of how we deal with it are clear. However, it can be difficult to convey customary expectations even in the real world, let alone imagined ones.
Moral Quandaries: Everybody has a sense of ethics, and a sense that one should do the right thing. Giving people control of an ethical situation (A set of trolley problems, deciding where to allocate hospital resources, The Authority has just declared the successor will be their son without election) gives a clear concept. A complex enough question could fill a whole show.
The challenge is giving people a sense of their role in that situation. In a LARP, they can prepare for a specific role. In an interactive show, you’d have to communicate it through name badges, briefings, or similar. Perhaps you’re all angels, trying to do good. Or this is the entrance exam for heaven. Or this is the Department of Applied Philosophy. Or, perhaps, you’re just people in a non-specified, which comes close to the Jury Games model of ‘you are yourself as yourself’. In none of them does genre matter - the grokking comes from the sense of ‘we should do right in situation X’. However, people may well feel more Tourist than Resident.
Aesthetics: This is a weird one. But writers in straight theatre can start with aesthetics and beauty - symbolist plays, modern dance, and more all offer abstract examples.
Focusing on Symbolism, what if we offered an interactive theatre space that was simply abstract? There is a tree, a pair of antlers, a well with a crown at the bottom, and a weeping woman in pale blue. Each audience member is given a token, some of which have questions about the space (what is written on the crown? What is the woman’s name?). She gives enigmatic answers; as the space shifts, so too does the symbology. Slowly, they uncover more messages, hear more strange answers that hint at a deeper meaning, and yes, this is an interactive Pelléas et Mélisande.
What happens next? Is this interactive theatre? It’s much less game-like, and yet - for an audience familiar with 20th century art - likely a familiar aesthetic style. I want to call it interactive theatre rather than a Happening or similar, but I’m not sure why.
I do hope these thoughts were of some interest. I may clarify them at some point.
Bonus Irrelevant Doodles To Flesh Out Later
Mechanics And Mecha - I really want to do a mecha interactive show - some people get to be the pilot, using a Kinect-type device to control the mecha on a screen, and so on. Others come up with the strategies. Most importantly, some people get to fix and customise the parts.
Why is it that so few interactive shows involve manual elements? Is it that they’re difficult to give narrative/dramatic importance to? That the makers tend towards being university-educated nerds who might not expect DIY skills in their peers? That they’re expensive?
Anyway, I’d like to do a show that involves some sort of manual element. And big bloomin’ robots punching each other and being sad.
Interactive theatre with kids - how does a form defined by play change when those we encourage to play watch it with us? That is to say, when I’m at interactive theatre with other adults, we let each other play. With mixed company, adults tend to step back to support children’s play. I suspect that interactive theatre for children exists, but I’ve never seen it. How can we do that second category really well?
Using history interactively - I finish writing this on my way back from Illicit Signals: Bletchley. A cracking show, and yet I also want to spend some time wondering about bringing the past to life in an interactive medium. Is it respectful? Is it possible? Does that matter? What does it do to our relationship with the past? And what does it say about our view of what history and acting is, assuming we’re not suggesting possession by ancestor spirits?
Do we need more critical essays on interactive theatre (and I should I write them)? I definitely don’t want to be a reviewer, but is it possible to be a commentator while still being a maker? Is there a use for it in the sector, and is there someone better than me to do it? Is that a thing anyone would… want me to do?