On Being The Dead: Interactive Theatre & Historical Figures
Introduction: On Being Survivors
A major part of my creative practice has been creative outreach projects for UCL’s Hebrew & Jewish Studies Department, with a particular focus on modern Jewish History.
A foundational concept within Holocaust education is this: the Holocaust was a unique event. No matter what we do, we will never truly understand, simulate, or otherwise know what it was to ‘be’ in the camps. I forget the proper term for it, though a good summation is here.
TL;DR: don’t ask schoolchildren to write diaries imagining they were in Auschwitz.
Based on this, I would generally argue that an actor approaching playing a victim of the Holocaust (for an example, Primo Levi) should not use tools based on trying to ‘become’ the character, or simulate their inner state. Such efforts will not succeed, and might even lead to dubious claims of having simulated the un-replicable. Other tools will be more appropriate and effective.
While nobody has tried do an immersive interactive show set in the Holocaust, I think some of the ideas developed to approach dramas in the Holocaust are sometimes applicable elsewhere. When we try to present the past with verisimilitude-realism, and especially when we try to present specific figures in such a way, we all likely agree that there is a point when such efforts break down.
What is the point at which they stop working?
Travelling Into History
There are various kinds of interactive event dealing with the past.
This is not about historical reenactment societies, seeking to recreate the reality of (typically) past battles as ‘correctly’ as possible, as long as nobody gets hurt. Often criticised for a focus on very particular past realities (of battles by white men), there is often a high level of attention to accuracy of costume, movement, and so on.
Some historical reenactment societies draw on elements of LARP in their recreations; I have read about the Harmaasudet group in particular. People have characters, with major characters being based on actual historical figures, and while the outcomes of battles are pre-determined, the fates of specific characters are not. Historic gender roles are maintained, though with an openness to historic gender roles that differ from modern expectations (Nordic Larp, 281-287).
I would say such things are not theatre because there is more expectation that participants prepare; theatre audiences expect to rock up on the night.
However, this is also not about shows like For King And Country or Crooks: 1926 which show fictional characters, or fictional pasts. While there are interesting conversations about both (some of them on this very website!), I’m particularly interested in shows explicitly seeking to represent actual historical events and/or characters.
Instead, what I am primarily inspired by are two interactive theatre shows that offered the chance to meet historic characters: Illicit Signals: Bletchley and Hidden Figures, both of which I enjoyed at Parabolic Crypt (and subsequently blogged about).
Illicit Signals offered the chance to join the WWII code-breakers at Bletchley Park, meeting a range of colourful characters drawing on detailed research into their lives and habits. In particular, Alan Turing’s persecution as a homosexual man was a key strand in the narrative of the piece, as was the treatment of women involved in codebreaking.
As interactive theatre, it started in a Parabolic-style ‘resolve situations using these tools to get different narrative results’ before a more Punchdrunk-style second half of ‘there are lots of narratives going on at once; follow the characters around and piece your own show together’. Audience members could talk to the characters throughout, uncovering various pieces of information. Even if an eternal challenge of such forms is the need for characters to therefore all want to share information to some extent. Right at the end, audience members read obituaries for the characters the actors had played.
Hidden Figures explicitly focused on a range of people during WWII, who had been marginalised for reasons of race, sexuality, gender, and otherwise. Audience members were ‘railroaded’ (very well) through a sequence of rooms as an assessment to join the Special Operations Executive. The rooms each allowed the actors to give a sense of who each character was, and the audience were were able to slowly piece together certain truths about the marginalised figure they’d been assigned. The actors played other marginalised figures with their own stories and histories. It had a more overtly edutainment approach, with ongoing delivery of pieces of historic information.
For the subject of this essay (the implications of efforts to make real histories come to life), I think the three key elements of such work are:
Actors Playing Real-Life Historic Figures, Who Are Then Met By Audiences: Both
Audience Entering Real-Life Historic Worlds: Illicit Signals, primarily
Historic Discrimination, Persecution, And Allegiance: Both
To approach these things in turn:
There are many approaches to acting.
Some focus primarily on representation: on working out how best to represent something’s external elements. For example, an actor might put on a stutter, stoop their shoulders, and continually rub their hands together to represent a nervous character.
Others focus on immersion: on working out how best to make the actor’s internal state more like the character’s, in order to use that as a tool to create an external presence. For example, an actor might draw on memories of being bullied at school to ‘access’ the feelings of their character being persecuted, and use that to inform their performing choices.
Regular readers will know that I am generally averse to immersion-focused techniques, especially those schools that say someone ‘becomes’ the character.
This is partly because of those formative influences in Holocaust education drama, where the utter impossibility of an actor empathetically understanding what happened from their own experiences of persecution meant that representation became much more useful (in particular, since the first job was presenting cabarets written in the camps, and the non-reality of comedy means that simulation is not the goal).
However, World War Two drama is not the same as Holocaust drama. It is actually possible and acceptable for an actor to use use immersionist approaches. Many aspects of the experience of World War Two were not unique in the way the Holocaust was.
In dramatic terms, it is a realm where there is space for films like Jojo Rabbit and Inglourious Basterds. While some might question whether they’re in good taste, in general there is clearly room for creative license.
From a scholarly perspective, however, I’d still want to be clear about one key question:
Does the actor acknowledge that what they are doing is an imaginative act and the limitations of that act?
To begin with, do they make the (sometimes extraordinary) claim that they have gained special understanding of a (usually dead) historic figure through ‘becoming’ them theatrically, or the more mundane one that they have used a set of tools to form a creative depiction of that historical figure as an imagined historical character?
While there are insights to be gained from detailed engagement with historical figures and texts for the purposes of acting (indeed, this is the purpose of much practice-based research I have been involved in), it is always important to note what can and can’t be learnt.
Yes, an actor’s needs and perspectives will often draw focus to areas historians might not notice, such as emotional comments, or literary tendencies in a historical text. They can bring a past to life for people, even if they are not ‘real’.
Our problem is that our way of talking about actors’ work (whether within or without the industry) is one often based on the idea that it is ‘real’ in a sense; that it is an (at least emotionally) accurate representation of the past due to the close engagement with a dead figure.
Alas, no, an actor’s approach does not allow them to ‘become’ a past figure. We do not believe in ancestor-spirit possession.
It will not let them leap to accurate extended conclusions about “in this situation, Bob would have done that”, though they might have an informed guess. Nor can they learn what it was to be alive at another time, merely gain an understanding of that.
To return to the central example around which this blog is based, nobody would reasonably say that, by experiencing antisemitism today, they can understand what it was to survive the Holocaust.
Indeed, I would argue that it is fundamentally difficult to emotionally understand what it was to be unable to communicate immediately with somebody in days before the telephone, let alone more complex experiences.
Actually, an actor turns a historic figure into a dramatic character based on that figure. This is their imaginative act.
A further problem emerges here. This work is focused on performance for today, and thus is inevitably inclined towards being presentist: focused on things we are concerned about in the present day.
Moderns might focus on the categories of gender/sexuality/ethnicity/emotional life as our initial focus points, thus creating a performance that brings out a relationship to those modern aspects of persecution.
We’d not notice that actually, a historic figure’s membership of a bureaucratic-sounding local agricultural association was actually an important social hub, and gave them access to a library that informed their theological thoughts.
But we and our audience are not especially concerned with the Cathar heresy, although once upon a time people were. We wouldn’t really be able to bring the vital energy to that debate around how to save one’s immortal soul to a more-or-less secular society, though we might be able to represent it.
Therefore, the claim we cannot make for an actor in an interactive theatre show is that they provide an authentic/verisimilitudinal/accurate historical experience.
What they can do is provide a dramatic representation of certain aspects of a historical figure that they have selected, and that is a very fine thing to do. The historic figure Napoleon becomes the character Napoleon, and it is an interesting act indeed (as in War And Peace; not entirely historically accurate, but dramatically brilliant).
[Sidebar: it might be fun to do interactive theatre with period-appropriate acting. Watch a film of Olivier acting around WWII. Imagine what might happen if someone attended a show set in that time, but the actors were so explicitly representational as that? Would it be good?]
These questions are accentuated in many ways for interactive immersive theatre for a very simple reason: its audiences are (usually) a part of its world. They are the code breakers, SOE operatives, gang members, and so on.
The actor’s role in historic interactive theatre involves a unique relationship to an audience; they are their guides through a real(ish) world.
What are their responsibilities in such a role?
What are the responsibilities of the show to the history it represents?
The “oh, calm down” answer is:
The audience are able to acknowledge that they are engaged in an imaginative act; they know they are at a piece of theatre.
I hope neither company would object if I were to say that their marketing did, to a greater or lesser extent, guide audiences to view the experience as a chance to get as close as possible to being a part of a historic world.
I also hope that this blog will be viewed in the spirit of enthusiastic commentary in which it is intended, rather than as criticism. Both were very good shows, which I think raise interesting questions about how interactive theatre interacts with the past.
Once at Illicit Signals, audience members were enveloped by the world. The audience were treated as though they were (possibly inept) code-breakers at Bletchley Park. That is to say, the audience were presented with a scenario that, to a greater or lesser extent, presented itself as ‘real’.
When I see people talk about attending interactive theatre of this style, they tend to pick up on such cues to say things like “I fixed a horse race” and “I helped the KGB”. That is to say, good interactive theatre deliberately encourages and guides audiences to feel a part of the world, and therefore audiences follow through with it and do so.
This creates a level of emotional truth, in which audiences believe they have an authentic experience of something.
What is that thing? Drawing on how we might talk about films set in WWII, it seems best to say they have an experience of a dramatic representation of an authentic era, and expect most of the era-representation to be accurate.
As we all know from period movies, the tensions between ‘dramatic’ and ‘authentic’ then creates a fuzzy area where audiences are misguided about what is ‘real’, because they tend to act as though their experience is of an accurate simulation of the past. Viewers of Darkest Hour likely have a slightly less-than-accurate idea of what Churchill did, simply due to the needs of its drama.
In interactive theatre, the emotional engagement of being in the world emphasises this fuzziness. It leads to an idea of a unique understanding of the past by having been in a near-simulation of it. While in other historic dramatic forms there might be confusion about facts, interactive theatre offers the chance to form less-than-accurate ideas about the nature of being in a different time.
Some Problems For Unprepared Time-Travellers
Many of the challenges here overlap with the actor’s challenges above; those of never quite being able to enter the minds of past figures, and being inclined to presentist interpretations.
Additional challenges raised by the audience members are rooted in their lack of preparation.
First, they are given less structure for their imaginative techniques. While a creative team can support actors and maintain awareness of what is and is not possible in a dramatic process, that support is missing for an audience member.
Second, audience members’ lack of preparation means that they can tend to reach for stock characters and assumptions about what they can be in a world. With limited knowledge (assuming they haven’t all done advance reading), this can exacerbate whatever preconceived notions they have walking into a space. Audience members who want to play a brash air force pilot, or a boldly homosexual code-breaker, may each embody inaccuracies and distorted histories in their own way.
A more common manifestation of this tendency has led to several WWII-themed shows explicitly reminding their audiences that sexism is not allowed, even if it did exist in the period. Because ultimately, some people want to use a distorted past as an excuse to be awful; to play at being a bigot, or to revert to bigotry now.
[Sidebar: Hidden Figures subverts the idea of walking in and picking up a role wonderfully by giving the audience a character to play, but not telling them what it is. It’s an interesting approach.]
Neither of the above challenges for audiences is inherently a problem. However, given that audience members already have a tendency to conflate interactive experiences with actual ones, interactivity raises the risks of them believing what they encountered - factual and emotional - is a more accurate version of history than it is.
If a show draws people towards a sense that it is an accurate simulation, that makes it more likely people will accept it as accurate.
This is not inherently a problem; such an illusion of accuracy can be dramatically useful, or unimportant. The problem is when it starts to distort perceptions of history in ways that then influence how we see our past.
Of which more later, but just to give an extreme example we’d all agree on for now: if everyone started to believe that World War Two was won solely by the United Kingdom, with no help from others, that could lead to a sense of British identity based on a lie.
Historic interactive theatre makers have a duty of care to their audience members, via the duty of care to historic truth. Where the line is drawn is a tricky matter.
Because, to take an extreme example at the opposite end: if everyone started to believe that the day before D-Day, Churchill ate beef, not chicken, I think we’d generally agree that it wouldn’t matter much if a writer decided beef felt more symbolically satisfying. There is obviously room for creative license, and to some extent stories of our past are myths for the present day.
Where is the line?
My question is, essentially:
What does entering an imagined version of a historical world do to our relationship to the past?
It does more than just watching a film, after all.
First, it allows us to act as described above, imagining we are in the world and acting as we would hope we’d act.
I use the word hope advisedly.
Second, it allows us to meet people in that world.
Some of them might be figures we have heard of, such as Alan Turing, while others might be people we have never heard of, and whose names we’ll forget (At least, I will. I’m bad at names.).
Third, it allows us to alter, even if in small ways, that world.
We might contribute to breaking a code, unearthing a spy, or helping someone feeling sad feel better about themselves.
Beyond merely being in the world, which has the risk (from a historian’s perspective) of leading to people forming inaccurate ideas about the past, audience agency wanders into a very particular problem for narratives in the past that centre the victims of discrimination.
Another key concept in Holocaust education is this: don’t over-focus on the people who helped save Jews. While they were heroic, brave, and rightfully well-remembered, a focus on hero narratives offers the calming examination of a tiny, exceptional fraction of people who resisted at enormous personal risk, rather than the horrifying majority who stood at varying degrees of tacit acceptance to active support.
This can lead to a distorted perception of history; one where everyone believes they’d have actively resisted, rather than the reality. While there are conversations among historians about small resistances, such as not following certain Nazi protocols in ways that were subtle signs of discontent, these are not the fantasies of the “of course I’d have fought the Nazis” brigade.
That is to say: if you’ve ever sat in a room of big, burly men all boasting about how they, of course, would have fought the Nazis: that’s almost certainly incorrect. Odds on, almost all of them would at least have accepted the regime, and unfortunately it is a truth we must remember above dramatic tales of derring-do.
Often, edutainment makers will argue that by creating an emotional connection to a piece of history, they act as a gateway drug to learning the more detailed truth. I would argue that there are examples where, in fact, this is exactly the problem: that the choices made to facilitate the emotional connection are those that distort the history. In interactive theatre especially, this is an issue if the audience are invited to enter a dramatically satisfying world, but one that strives (due to dramatic necessity/verisimilitudinal principles) to appear and/or be more-or-less accurate.
Few would argue that WWII is a neglected area of history, although certain areas are less well-trod than others. It seems unlikely that there is a need for drama to remind people of what happened; there is no need for the gateway drug. But, being honest, it is dramatically and commercially very potent as a setting.
How does this relate to interactive theatre?
Everybody wants to meet Alan (Turing).
He’s a modern legend for his work on computers and his persecution. He appears in both Illicit Signals and Hidden Figures; the night I went to the former it was very noticeable that he was an attention-magnet. Not due to the show’s structure so much as the very weight with which the name and actor’s exquisitely sympathetic portrayal of Alan Turing pulled on a show.
People wanted to alter the past, slightly, by showing solidarity and open support. For them, their fantasy was being better than the people of WWII Britain; of being brave in that time.
It’s a good fantasy.
I hope it will not be taken amiss to say that it’s important to remember that, once again, it’s important to remember that in most cases, it is a fantasy.
There were many brave campaigners, radicals, and outsiders in the past, but we must not forget why we call them brave. Most people under fascist regimes did not save their Jewish neighbours, and a focus on those who did might lead to a false understanding of the horror.
Now, there is a gulf between the Holocaust and WWII-era homophobia; they do not bear comparison. One is a horrific attempt to obliterate an entire people in an act of genocide, in a manner that expressed centuries of antisemitism; another, while awful, was not.
(I was raised on the internet, and like anyone who was, I know when not to compare something to the Nazis. If you’re sitting there going “but what about XXX, wasn’t that as bad as the Holocaust?”: if it’s not an actual successful state-sponsored genocide campaign, no. If it is, I might consider it, but probably no.)
While the persecution of (to focus on the Alan example) homosexual men was not comparable to the sufferings of the Holocaust, some of the same analytical ideas are relevant. An imagined world in which most characters are, in fact, more or less aware of Turing’s homosexuality and accepting of it (even those involved in the state persecution of it) might strain the limits of historical accuracy.
Likewise, we might look at how people interact with a world in which there is sexist discrimination of overt and economic kinds. I’ve seen audience members eager to bring their modern values, taking pride in the brave anachronism of chiding the dead (as embodied by actors).
However, they’re all getting something out of it:
The chance to imagine that we might be better.
Approaching Historic Traumas
There are benefits to this imagining, but let’s start with the problems.
As I said above, we can’t understand fully what it was like to live in another time. Once we leave a show, rehearsal, or otherwise, we leave that world and know we can escape to a different time; one with its own problems, but in some ways better.
The knowledge of escape is a great hope in the world. One that changes our experience of it, and limits our understanding.
On the other side, it is also important to acknowledge that, dramatically, we don’t necessarily want to simulate all of the past.
Why would we offer people the chance to come and experience a world in which traumas, the legacy of which continues to this day, are emulated for homosexuals, women, and ethnic minorities?
There is an argument from the drama side of the equation for softening those blows rather than replicating them; one rooted in making the show accessible and pleasant for people with similar modern experiences so they can enter that sub-community’s history.
I would want to see a very strong argument presented to me before I thought the call of accuracy outweighed the duty of care to an audience. At the very least, they’d need to be warned (and thus likely some would not want to come).
Sidebar: there is an interesting tension for character creation between what we find villainous now and what was normal and non-villainous then (e.g. homophobia).
However, I think that this reduction of past bigotry then creates a tension between drama and muddying the river of truth; a muddying that might reasonably lead to the conclusion that such works just shouldn’t exist. The imagined histories of For King and Country and Crooks: 1926 might be better places for our audiences to visit.
But what does work?
I’ve already argued that there is room for inaccuracy; we are merely negotiating where we allow it (somewhere between the Holocaust and Churchill’s evening meal).
What is the point at which we want to draw a line?
Honouring History With Theatricality
The first question here is simply this: does it matter?
For the reasons above, I think that there are circumstances where it:
1. Does matter, over and above any other consideration (we will never make a show that distorts the history of the Holocaust to make people believe it was simply caused by a few bad people and lots of misguided ones).
2. Possible to weigh against other considerations, but likely representing historical truth correctly matters more (did people of this type face discrimination in the era being simulated? Or are we going to depict an Empire-era fantasy of colonial masters and their subjected chums?)
3. A reasonable honouring of historical accuracy is needed, but precise details may be blurred (do we amalgamate these two lives to create a single character who is more dramatically satisfying?)
4. Possible to weigh against other considerations, with a fair chance that drama matters more (we do not need to replicate historic bigotry onstage, unless it is important to a show)
5. Honestly, doesn’t matter (were their pants green or blue?)
Making this decision is a huge responsibility to bear, and one that creators are very aware of. There is often a need to respect the past.
As a starting point, I might begin with “at what point would you stop the show coming back? What is your line for respect?”
To try and clarify my own thought, I asked myself the question: would it matter if someone had a black actor play Churchill in an interactive theatre show?
My lack of botheredness comes from two sources:
1. Churchill has strong brand recognition. I strongly doubt that anyone would sincerely walk away thinking the historic Churchill was black.
2. As a result of that, it is an overtly theatrical choice. In many ways, it reminds us that we are in a theatrical, imaginative setting in ways that prompt interesting thoughts.
Which ties us back to the fundamental questions:
Is it necessary to respect the past? Some pasts, yes, at any cost. Other pasts, to a broad extent, especially if a show frames and markets itself as an act of respect for the past.
Is it possible to recreate the past respectfully? Ish, but only if some pasts are left off the table.
Where Hidden Figures seemed stronger than Illicit Signals was the theatricality of its premise, as its audience tried to solve the puzzle of who they were. It meant that there was a continuous, obvious awareness of the history-teaching going on, rather than the ‘this is real’ feeling of purely interactive immersive drama.
The moment that Illicit Signals paid off that risk was right at the end, when each character left the room in turn. As they did so, they passed a short obituary to an audience member they had engaged with over the evening’s show to read out. An utter gut-punch in many cases, and I shall remember the experience of having to read out how Alan Turing died for some time.
In short, by breaking into theatricality at the end Illicit Signals reminded us that it was not an accurate simulation, but an imaginative experience. While to some extent this further reinforced the idea that it was reliable edutainment, I thought it balanced its dramatic goals (telling stories of Bletchley Park) with its clearly-felt sense of obligation to the past neatly, ensuring that people walked away with the imaginative act in mind.
The Mythic World War Two
Because World War Two dramas are dramas.
All dramas, and all histories, are constructions that reflect particular concerns.
WWII is itself a great example of that.
The Mythic World War Two, where reality matters less than the story. It was important, post-World War Two, to build a myth in which it was about fighting Nazism, despite our simultaneous knowledge that many powerful figures in the British government were at the very least comfortable meeting socially with fascists.
The camps of the Holocaust were only discovered late in the war, and there were not substantial efforts by the allied forces to prevent transports to them.
But the story helped form a national identity.
World War Two is well-trod ground, and not all of it needs to be hallowed; we just need to be aware of what we choose to honour as sacred, cannot-distort fact, and what not. Sometimes, historical periods are useful backdrops for drama.
When accuracy is not the point, but drama, we remember that drama can be useful today. Especially when we really enter the world, we have the chance to be otherwise. As in Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, we can practice for radical situations, or even just for liberal ones of standing up for our values.
If I were being critical, I might also say that we can also use such spaces to comfortably play, in the warm, comfortable illusion that we might be good, and even ‘win’ against insurmountable odds. It all depends on the show.
If I were being an artist, I’d want to explicitly note that ‘aesthetically, it’s much more satisfying if [inaccuracy] is the case in our world’ is also a good reason. Sometimes.
The spaces for such drama-over-accuracy is contestable.
But in short, where we say there’s room for creative license actually gives a strong indication of what we think is important.
To return to ‘did Churchill eat beef or chicken before D-Day?’, if the answer is ‘he had a vegetable soup’, it might be important if we think normalising vegetarianism, or acknowledging rationing, or emphasising that before modern factory farming meat was generally a luxury, is important. We can imagine worlds in which the concept of Churchill, beef eater, is as important to contest as his racism.
And yes, my dear Marxian readers, I do of course share your general grievance about the focus on individual hero-narratives in drama. But that’s another blog entirely.
For now, theatricality that reminds us that we are in the mythic World War Two helps broaden where we have room for license.
Some Concluding Thoughts
This is a very long blog post, but to summarise:
The places where we say accuracy matters over drama are where the audience believing incorrect things might lead to them reaching harmful conclusions about important aspects of our current world and past.
The places where we say drama matters over accuracy are where, allowing that the above condition is not met, drama allows us to achieve goals in our current world, aesthetic or political. Overt theatricality, reminding people that what they are engaging with is an imaginative act, can be a useful tool.
While these are fundamentally subjective, based on our morals, I hope that it’s a useful framework for people to work with, and the thoughts above have been of some interest and use.
The short version is this: we must always remember that what we do is essentially an imaginative, not historical, act.
It’s a bloody hard topic, but I hope some of the above questions and thoughts are at least of some use.
And hats off to the makers who deal with such questions so well.