I remember once listening to an interactive theatre maker talking about one of the most disappointing immersive shows they’d ever seen; one on the ‘carousel’ model, where the audience went through multiple rooms in a set sequence, and any deviation from the expected interaction was a problem for the show. This is what is known in game parlance as ‘railroading’, forcing an audience down a pre-set path.
Unfortunately, this mirrored my experience, but no more.
Hidden Figures is railroading done right.
Spoilers abound. I don’t review shows (why would I want to put myself in that position in relation to my peers?), but I like writing essays about ones that interest me, into which category this falls.*
In it, you walk in, are assigned a code name, and go through a series of ‘assessment exercises’ to test your character’s fitness for the Special Operations Executive (SOE). What is known from the start is that your code name refers to a person involved in World War Two who was neglected in the historiography for some reason of discrimination; across the course of the show, interactions with the cast slowly reveal details of your persona.
Good onboarding often makes or breaks a show. Common tricks Hidden Figures used well include:
Give easy interaction options like buying a drink, or talking about an easy topic like why war is a shame’
Be clear about what is currently expected of the audience, such as having a drink and discussing the war
Build the world through your early interactions, such as a sense of roguish glamour or military peril.
As you can see, some of these overlap very neatly.
An additional trick Hidden Figures used unusually well was ‘be clear about what attributes you’re giving the audience, and your actors can reinforce them’. This is something gamemasters in TTRPGs often learn: that if a player wants their character to be clever/a leader/funny, the best way to do that is have non-player characters treat them as clever/leading/funny.
In Hidden Figures, I was told that my persona was known as a bit of a flirt. I am… not inclined to be overly flirtatious with actors who are a) sort-of friends and b) actors, because ye gods I’ve been on the receiving end of audience flirting and it’s not nice always. By a long way.
But Hidden Figures then had characters treat me as though I was a charming flirt. My confident friend, whose historical avatar was thought to be nervous, was treated as though she was nervous. It made it far easier to reinforce what characters were like, and involve us in the mystery of who we were.
Also important: the order of rooms in Hidden Figures was very good, slowly unveiling what was going on while we learnt more of our characters and encountered new people in the fictionalised SOE.
It started with meeting in the bar with some small talk, then a ‘lie detector’ test where if we accidentally lied in response to a question (i.e. we said something that was not, in fact, true) we found out and learnt something, then a medical assessment targeted on certain aspects of our pasts, and then an exercise that was more like an escape room, more giving a sense of the world than our individual selves. A final tactical-ethical exercise followed before a debrief/cooldown.
As you can see, there is an obvious escalation in the amount of knowledge required. Small talk was general, lie detectors told us when we were wrong about ‘our’ pasts, medical allowed social reinforcement of such errors, and escape room-tasks was more open. This meant that our initial efforts were guided, and by the time we had more freedom we knew where we stood and what our ‘characters’ were.
I’ve found in other railroading shows that one stays on rails, never quite having the chance to be independent. My experience with Hidden Figures felt much more like an increasingly open world, finally culminating in an exercise with no obvious win or lose state i.e. one with proper, real-world-type freedom.
I liked that.
The strand uniting both of these ideas is simple, really: that while one is on rails, one is also being given an intellectual puzzle.
“Who am I, and why am I here?”
By working out what character I was (my memory forgets the actual name of ‘Billy’) while also being passed through the railroad, I was engaged with what was coming about in front of me. I could try and learn more about the person that I was, and why the others around me were so popular/renowned/doubted.
By having multiple balls in the air of ‘what is happening in this scene?’ and ‘who am I?’, the balance of drama and freedom was created, because we had freedom to beat and contest the puzzle, but also restriction in the tools available to do so. Once interrogation was done, medical began, and so on.
Sleight of hand is an old trick, and humans only being able to concentrate on so many things at once a useful tool. While never overwhelming-amounts-of-information, I think it’s what made this railroading quite so fun.
Some other things that may sprawl into blogs:
1. Fondness for, rather than glorification of, their Hidden Figures. Some World War Two shows steer a bit too hard into jingoistic ‘boo hooray’ history for my taste; Hidden Figures felt more tasteful, understanding them as people first, not unthinking, war-doing monsters. Something very interesting happens in interactive theatre using real-life figures, and I might write about it more.
2. I was, in fact, a black WWII pilot. I’d never play a black character onstage (certainly not in any naturalistic context, although if, say, someone said they were doing a colour-rich casting of an epic Ethiopian myth… another conversation), but was interested to see how all our Hidden Figures were ones unlike ourselves, while the actors were indeed cast to ethnicity. It’s an interesting touch to be put into the shoes of someone being racialised, while not being of that ethnicity. I think it worked because it was a thing put on the audience member by the cast, rather than something the audience chose, providing a sense of a different experience of the world.
I’d be very interested in what the plan is for if someone responded to being told, for example, that they were from Jamaica by putting on an accent.
3. One very gentle comment: when doing a show strongly motivated by a desire for diverse stories and inclusion, I’d encourage alcohol-as-option, not-default; it’s always welcome to be given an automatic option to not drink, rather than having to ask for such. Acknowledging that I knew almost all the people involved in the show, I wasn’t uncomfortable or made to feel uncomfortable for doing so, but I might gently comment as above.
Overall, this is a really good show, and I’d recommend it heartily. By eclectically feeding off lots of different immersive forms (escape rooms, murder mystery, drama…), it managed to not only mitigate the potential pitfalls of needing a fairly rigid pathway to control exposition-flow, but turn that pathway into an asset by placing the the core entertainment in human relationships and establishing what sort of a human you were, rather than the Doing Things one might expect in other shows. Do go and catch it if you can. Runs until 24th September at the ever-excellent Parabolic Crypt.
*I might well be tempted to write one about yours, so do invite me if I can be of service. Even if I reserve the right to not write rather than write ‘enh, not a fan because ___.’ I might comment privately, but I don’t quite see the point of writing such an essay in public.