Playing With All Ages: Interactive Immersive Theatre For Mixed-Age Groups
Updated: Aug 7
Having been to a few mixed-age shows of late, I am having thoughts and erupting into Blog. By ‘mixed-age shows’, what I mean is shows like Illicit Signals: Bletchley and The British Resistance Museum where adults in the audience also brought along their children, aged about 9-13. By Interactive Immersive Theatre (IIT) I mean the thing that you hopefully know about if you’ve read this blog, where audiences enter a world they have influence over.
To be clear: I’m not a specialist in children’s theatre at all (though I’ve done a few projects aimed at kids and/or family audiences). Nor am I a parent, though I am sometimes a teacher and have picked up a few things about what children like and engage with.
But it was an interesting experience watching those children playing in the space, seeing how it shaped what the adults did, and then thinking about how we might design in order to facilitate that.
To quickly summarise my experiences:
ILLICIT SIGNALS: Set in Bletchley Park, two children (brothers) came. The elder was very excited to be cracking the codes with great success, but alas, the younger was tired and they had to go home.
THE BRITISH RESISTANCE MUSEUM: Two children (again siblings) came to this alternate-history set in Parabolic’s For King & Country timeline. They easily slipped into being the lead protagonists, taking point on most challenges offered to us - not least because the adults tended to step aside and let the kids take the lead.
To me, there are various possibilities that are immediately quite interesting.
First, children play more freely. It’s a basic point, but in a theatrical format that is well-described as ‘a place for adults to play’, being someone who assumes we are allowed to get over-enthusiastic and into character really helps. Especially at the sillier end of worlds.
Second, children are way more comfortable with non-naturalism. That is to say, if a kid sees that ‘oh, that bit of electrical wiring is very 2022, and we’re meant to be in 1941’, the child will not care. Children are happy to play on the shared understanding that a stick is a sword. It is adults whose willingness to see magic in the world is interrupted by reality.
Third, diversity in audiences is a good thing ethically, but also creatively. Having a new type of audience will allow new dynamics and subjects (an obvious example here would be a show set in a school environment). Physically, having size differences between people creates a potential for challenges where adults need children and vice-versa (a small doorway, a high shelf). Intellectually, the assumed knowledge is different - adults may have a better knowledge of current affairs and history, while children may be better creatively and with technology.
Culturally, the assumed power dynamic and roles between adults and children creates interesting flavours in a world - in Illicit Signals, the cast treated the children as child prodigies; in The British Resistance Museum, they were children on a family trip. What if they are treated as adults? What if everyone is treated as children? What if, to the aliens, it doesn’t matter what age the humans are?
(Because this is a blog, so I want to consider the other side).
There are a few challenges.
First, a major appeal of IIT is ‘play for adults’ - you can come and be a 1970s politician/WWII commander/space pilot. I suspect that’s why it tends towards traditionally ‘serious’ topics quite easily - adults are happy pretending to be serious adults - but might struggle getting them to be members of an action-packed 1980’s vigilante unit - adults are often a bit awkward singing Happy Birthday, let alone playing with LEGO in public.
When children enter the space, that dynamic changes - in both instances I’ve seen, adults stepped back to let children play and take the lead. There are good reasons for that - in general, people want children to have fun and put that ahead of adults’ fun; adults recognise that even if a task is easy for them, they shouldn’t steamroller over a child working hard to accomplish it; adults can be a bit awkward around children they don’t know (more below). However, it then interrupts an obvious appeal of IIT.
How can we manage that? A few options might be:
1. Adults are spectators/safeguards for child-protagonists (the adventure playground model).
2. Adults are supporting roles in a space (the Young Adult school adventure book model).
3. Adults and children are equals in the space (a fairly utopian society).
4. Adults in command (this is a bad option, as it describes a rather un-fun situation).
Of these, I think 1 is interesting, and allows child-focused creation. 2 gets weird, because then you have to work out how to make that a form of play that is still interesting enough but not so distracting that people can’t keep an eye on their children. 3 is my favourite , because it allows a fun activity for families to do together - and, indeed, the goal of making a utopian setting in which (if well executed), a mixed age group can work well together.
For reference, I’m saying ‘mixed age’ rather than ‘family’ because I think a show designed so kids and adults can come to, be together, and all have a good time has a different goal to a show specifically designed for heteronormative family units.
[Sidebar: there’s absolutely another blog about the challenges of IIT for mixed-age audiences between 20 and 80, and the different expectations each brings. But I suspect that the Crisis: What Crisis? lot would be better at writing it.]
Our utopian option leads to the second challenge: what are the rules of a mixed-age space? We don’t have many spaces in our world where unfamiliar adults and children interact in the same space. There are good reasons for this (safety), and it is also a bit of a shame in some ways (in an ideal world, we would have a means to act in the confidence that such risks were not there).
In the context of IIT, how can we make the experience of being in a mixed group fun, safe, and with a shared sense of social rules?
Fun: For the children, a confidence that the adults are not going to try and stop them having fun unreasonably. A child’s definition of ‘unreasonable’ can vary, so to some extent this probably leans on the actor-characters being given ultimate authority on that, and urging adults to let children do what they want to do, or guide children away as equals if they decide to do something ridiculous in-world.
For adults, actively endorsing that they are there to have fun too is important. That might be giving adults encouragement or individual tasks to do that they can thrive in, as with most IIT, and it might be encouraging other participants to work with that adult.
Safe: This is the nightmare scenario: that a child comes to harm as a result of attending an IIT show. Physically, we assume a risk assessment has been done. Personally, we risk an unsafe adult entering the space and using the opportunity to exploit or harm a child.
Is this a risk we consider likely? No, but it is significant enough that we must mitigate the risk. I would suggest, as a starting point, that any IIT aimed at families should make sure that nobody is ever left alone with a child that they are not responsible for. This protects both the child and the adult. An open design is fairly straightforward from a design point of view, and may be possible to reinforce in-world.
[Sidebar: we are protecting the adult from false accusation, as with chaperoning in theatre; I suspect that this is especially a challenge for IIT that is for families (i.e. all adults are expected to be accompanying a child) rather than mixed-age i.e. some adults might come to it alone. A lone adult might be seen with suspicion by some).]
Another useful guide might be giving a way for children and parents to voice their comfort interacting with stranger-adults. Possible a hand-sign to say “no strangers, please” or similar might be useful, though that’s an idle thought I don’t yet understand
Shared sense of social rules: In LARP, we might see briefings and pre-show information. In IIT, we might have specified in-world roles to help guide rules (e.g. a headmaster figure in a school setting), or clearly-stated rules around behaviour (such as ‘no condescending to the children’ rules, or the classic of theatre chaperones ‘no, you can’t talk to them outside rehearsal in the venue without a chaperone, I know they seem nice but there are rules’).
While this might seem onerous, it seems necessary to ensure any IIT for mixed-age audiences is a success.
Finally, there are the rules of IIT - both literal and unspoken. Child-focused LARPs often use simpler rules (e.g. ‘you die after two hits’ rather than detailed rules for ‘if you get hit THERE with THIS weapon, THAT happens’). In IIT, making sure that mechanics are designed in a way that is truly accessible for all ages is important - the challenge should not always come from things that adults will usually be better at than children (e.g. reading complex documents quickly).
[Sidebar: a recurring challenge in IIT seems to be that some people read much faster than others, and so compulsory text-based challenges lead to some fast readers being able to dominate by digesting all the information quickly. And, as one of those apparently fast readers, it can equally be frustrating the other way.]
A further challenge for children is the ‘invisible rulebooks’. A term used in TTRPG design, it essentially refers to the idea that we know what genre expectations exist in a space. Within IIT, we often see shows leaning on genre to set expectations - in Crooks 1926 we can send the gang around to break someone’s legs, which we (usually) can’t do in Crisis, What Crisis?’s political world.
Children don’t necessarily have that assumed knowledge, so we may have to design in a way that reduces the need for that assumed knowledge - partly from giving a lead via characters in the space (I’m sorry, Mr Harlowe, you’re going to ask MI6 to do what?!?), and partly from designing shows that break away from genres that children are unfamiliar with.
To be clear, that includes office work. Anyone who’s ever asked a child what they think adult work is like is in for a treat.
I’d also be rather interest in the inverse proposition, in which someone makes a piece of IIT that follows fairytale genre rules.
The short version of this is that I think accidental/coincidental IIT for mixed age groups has been rather cool. I think the above offer some useful questions for those wanting to design deliberately for that.
If you’ve any thoughts, they’d be gratefully heard.