Golf: The Ultimate Interactive Theatre Lesson?
Updated: Aug 7
That tile was clickbait nonsense. But hey, you clicked anyway.
So, let’s be serious: almost all interactive immersive theatre is what I’m going to call ‘simultaneous theatre’ - we have multiple events happening simultaneously, and we cannot see all of them at once. If we go and watch the Blue Hedgehog Dance, we cannot also see the Red Badgers’ Argument.
I have, recently, had a reason to be examining ‘old chap’ sports for a thing. And then I encountered someone watching golf on television; I started to realise that the idea of ‘simultaneous theatre’ was maybe useful to specifically say, and that golf - unlike almost any other sport - shared that quality.
Golf, for those unfamiliar with it, is a game in which people hit a small white ball with a special metal stick in order to try and get it in a hole with the lowest number of hits. There are eighteen of these holes, collectively known as a ‘course’, and they must be completed in a precise order. This task is made more difficult by various lakes, sandpits, trees, and other obstacles in the way, not to mention that the holes are often a very long way from the place people have to hit their first ball from.
There is, of course, a competitive version of this game. The top level is called ‘The Open’, and many people play the same ‘course’ at the same time. Two people play each hole at the same time, and when each of them has got their ball in the hole, they move onto the second hole, and two more people start playing the hole behind them. Once everyone has finished every hole, whichever person has completed the entire ‘course’ in the fewest hits is considered the champion.
To outsiders, this ritual is bizarre and boring, but I am assured that it is a test of a skill. That the skill lacks any practical application reflects the society’s prizing of luxury and wasteful pursuits.
[I really enjoy describing well-known activities like a bad anthropologist.]
The crucial point in the above is that during the Tour, many people play on the same course at the same time. They are watched by spectators in-person and at home.
How golf deals with this gives me three ideas that I think may be interesting:
1. What do people watch?
In immersive theatre, we tend to assume people will follow actors around (the Punchdrunk model). The most ‘linear’ path will be to follow one actor, while a more chaotic path would be to follow one actor and then, if they have a conversation, follow who they suggest.
Often, interactive immersive theatre actors will be anchored to a particular location, facilitating a task; it depends on the show.
In golf, spectators have two choices and either is equally good: follow two players as they go around the course, getting a sense of their entire experience of the course OR stay on one hole and see how many different players handle the same challenge.
That is an option because there is a third character on the course - the course itself. Because the course itself poses an interesting challenge that can be overcome (or failed) in a variety of ways, it is interesting to watch the ‘room’ in which the actors perform.
What can we do to give interactive theatre rooms an interesting personality that meaningfully shapes and limits the actions of those within it? Especially when we don’t have enough money to fill every drawer with interesting tchotchke?
2. How do they know what’s happening elsewhere?
In immersive theatre, an often-interesting dramatic effect is created when the audience, due to them lacking complete information, do not know everything else going on - if you went to the dance, why is the Red Badger missing a finger? If you watched the fight, why is the Blue Hedgehog crying?
In interactive theatre, this can be manipulated to create a sense of urgency or crisis - there is too much information pouring in to follow. This is, in fact, largely due to how that information is presented, and the lack of information circulation, and is very effective.
[Sidebar: one of the things in Come Bargain With Uncanny Things I’m most excited to share is a set of ‘coordinator’ roles to try and remove this element of drama and replace it with something more community-focused.]
In golf, the sort-of problem is deal with by identifying core information (how many hits has each player taken, over how many holes?) and easily broadcasting it on scoreboards (for viewers watching at home or online). This means that even a person following one player, or staying on one hole of the course, can easily gather information to contextualise what they are seeing; players can theoretically access such information (though I’m not sure if they actually do) to inform their decisions. I can see a definite advantage to being able to decide risk-appetite based on how well other players are doing.
In interactive theatre, doing more to make it easy to access across-the-board information might remove an interesting source of drama, and interestingly open new possibilities.
3. The room is interesting
As mentioned above, in golf people are willing to watch many, many people play the same hole again and again, because how each approaches the challenge, and how successful they are in doing so, remains interesting.
In immersive theatre, this becomes interesting because in the fixed form (e.g. Punchdrunk) the room is generally not an active source of drama but a crucial bit of context. In the interactive form, it’s generally the audience who are ‘playing the course’, though some people do enjoy watching others playing more than joining in themselves.
I was going to ask how immersive theatre could learn from golf in this regard - that is to say, how could the attempting to overcome a room’s challenges become as interesting as the characters making the attempt - and then I realised that I’d essentially reinvented challenge-based reality television shows.
Possibly with better characterisation.
Or, in my ‘default fantasy show concept’, a dungeon-based show with different teams of actors improvising as a party of adventurers.
And now I want to see that show.