I am, at some point, going to stop being astonished that I can make a show and have people like it. Apparently, I make experiments that work.
Apparently, I have a very solid sense of how to construct narratives, mechanics, and general tone to create the kind of thing that I, and other people, will like.
And I’m really happy with that. There is a part of me that shies away from engaging with that; the amount of fondness and celebration at the end felt like… perhaps quite a large part of what I’d craved when I was at the Edinburgh Fringe ten years ago, seeing shows that changed how I saw what I could make. I’m quite confident that I had at least one audience member who felt that way about me - or at least, they said as much (and if they’re reading this, do get in touch; would genuinely be happy to chat more).
And that’s something to sit in.
So, initial thoughts.
I think I have fans. Or, at least, people who keep turning up at my shows and getting excited about them.
They are really appreciated. Someone chose to come to me for their birthday party!
I cannot explain how much that means to me.
Because sure, some people do it for the art, and I like to think I do, but I think art exists in a conversation with people, and if people are feeling like they can rely on my taste, then I will be pleased with that.
A combination of fun, beauty, and good intent.
The show had four mechanics.
First, ‘Explorers’ guided an ‘Avatar’ on a journey through the Dreamlands, much like in a tabletop roleplaying game (with one person making the final decision, who could be replaced).
Second, ‘Maintainers’ did a chant. While there was rough guidance for it, it was essentially 20 minutes of unstructured musical improvisation for amateurs.
Third, (other) ‘Maintainers’ made art - maps, records of events, pictures of events. Some were incredibly beautiful. Both sets of maintainers got tokens which they could use to give the Avatar powers.
Fourth, there were puzzles. I hate puzzles, as they generally feel forced, but written on some of the scrap paper were hints towards secrets in the world, and perhaps a conspiracy. Some people said, with great excitement, that they’d started to piece together bits of the puzzle, but never reached the end.
The fourth thing, therefore, worked really well. It made people feel like they were touching on something, while equally not being a focus of the show in any way. A vague hint that something was not right here. That is to say, it was a diegetic puzzle (someone is trying to tell you something while not being caught; therefore they have obscured the information), which leant into social interaction (if you need information on somebody else’s scrap paper, you have to talk to them without them realising you’re doing something weird). That is to say, the puzzle is not only a hard puzzle, but the challenge is reinforced by other audience members in a very pleasing way.
The third thing was fun. It’s the Come Bargain With Uncanny Things craft table again. I cannot emphasise enough that more interactive immersive shows, with very neurodivergent audiences, would benefit from chill-vibes activities like ‘draw what is happening’.
The second thing was amazing. I am unable to ‘paint’ well with sound design (it’s not a thing in opera, and my feet are in opera, so I don’t understand it as well as, say, lights), and I desired the ritualistic sense of a religious meeting. That is to say, participatory sounds. The guidance was essentially ‘react in this specific way to events’. For example, get louder if you think it feels dangerous, quieter if safer. And as groups of up to nine amateurs, people created gorgeous music, swapping parts, creating new sounds in response to the story (excellent cat-noises) and generally using the music as a way to focus on the show and shape it in turn. If the music felt creepy, the show became creepier, and vice-versa. If someone had described that to me, I’d not have believed it possible, but inviting people to play with their voices was excellent (especially once they were given specific ways to shape the show with ritualistic texts as well).
The first thing was very open. Some people seemed to think I had pre-planned the content. I had not. I knew the world, and let people do stuff in it. When they seemed interested in something, I made sure there was more of it. Constantly, Explorers whispered to the person controlling the Avatar, having their chance to express their opinion… and therefore also I, the performer, could hear what people wanted and make it happen.
That is to reiterate one of my basic principles of interactive theatre: if you’re not going to trust the audience, why make it?
Either they can be free, and you can trust them, or you can decide you don’t like that.
The actor:audience ratio on this show was absurd. 1:46, in the end.
Interactive theatre makers will wince at that. We’d ideally work with 1:10, or 1:3 in a fantasy circumstance.
But if you look at the above activities, they’re largely self-maintaining. The Maintainers are being given activities to respond to and then shape the world, so can take care of themselves. The Explorers are mostly heckling their Avatar-lead to try and express an opinion. And the puzzle people are quietly hunting bits of paper. Again, this is rooted in trust, but there's a practical element too:
Suddenly, it becomes possible to do a show where, other than an actor and a technician (and not really even that), there is room for a real profit margin. Which may be important.
I’ve been working on this line of experimentation for a while now, and while the art is great, and the affirmation of craft exquisite, finally being able to confirm that I can do a situation-room-type show with that actor-audience ratio is the confirmation of years of effort, and is pretty delightful.
Because the art doesn’t exist without money, and I’d rather make cheap shows for lots of people than expensive shows for a few.
Well. Maybe a bit of both. But definitely not just the latter (this show occupies a key place in The Key of Dreams’ efforts there).
Doing a single-handed show, GMing 50 people at once, is exhausting. The mental effort of concentration is… intense.
There has to be presence and projection of self at all moments, or the show withers. I did well, but not perfectly. Some characters worked better than others at reaching the whole audience (cat-guide great, weird frightened person in a tower not). It’s something to work on.
Also, acoustics of the space so everyone can join in, and accessibility baked-in for participation.
So I am drained, as I write this. But very happy.
Several years of getting better come together: as a GM, as a performer, a writer, a director, a facilitator, and I’d say, a person. That’s where the trust can be gained.
So thanks everyone - especially the London Lovecraft Festival and The Key of Dreams team for their support, and tonight’s guests.
Until the next time, dream well.