The Least We Can Possibly Do
Updated: Aug 7
This starts with me.
But I unlocked the door via Le Guin.
In a passage about the rise of interactive adaptations of classic literature, Le Guin writes:
“Interactivity in the sense of the viewer controlling the text is also nightmarish, when interpreted to mean that the viewer can rewrite the novel. If you don’t like the end of Moby Dick you can change it. You can make it happy. Ahab kills the whale. Ooowee.
“Readers can’t kill the whale. They can only reread until they understand why Ahab collaborated with the whale to kill himself. Readers don’t control the text: they genuinely interact with it. Viewers [emphasis mine] are either controlled by the program or try to control it.”
She goes on to write about how an interactive version of The Little Prince allows the viewer to click the right buttons until the fox is tamed. Yet the book, by describing something for us to observe: a fox choosing to be tamed, so it may love the wheat fields the colour of the boy’s hair, by wordlessly sitting together at the same time each day, rewarding the boy with the words “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed” does something more valuable. It “offers [readers] absolutely nothing but a charming story with a few charming pictures, and the chance to face fear, grief, tenderness, and loss.”
Quotes from The Question I Get Asked Most Often, collected in The Wave In The Mind, pg. 270-272 (Shambhala, 2004)
The Central Problem
Whisper it, but London is about to be treated with yet more interactive immersive [game] theatre on a scale beyond what has been seen ever before.
The form has grown and grown.
So now I want to ask, because I am an artist: what is the smallest thing we can do in the form?
I do not like loud or big a lot of the time. I want small and delicate. The flower, not the techno-forest.
I first encountered Mouth from Beckett’s Not I at school, performed by an A-Level actor.
I did not like Beckett. It seemed pretentious, confusing, and as I now realise, astonishingly difficult to perform to an audience not able to be brought into the shared agreement of concentration Beckett asks for.
For those not familiar, Mouth is solely a mouth, sat high up. Mouth speaks a strange, repetitive text testifying about… something. It is ambiguous, though fragments of meaning are possible to discern.
No More Than A Mouth
With the exception of audio-only works, I would argue Mouth is near the limit of how little is possible in conventional(ish) stage theatre. Text, part of an actor, space.
On first wandering here, I found myself wondering about a show where the only performer was a protruding finger. It could point, gesture, dance - all enough for interaction of a form.
What it would do, I am not sure.
Achrome & Japan
A recognisable example of a minimal design is the flag of Japan. A red dot on a white background.
Symbolically, a sign of the sun for the Land of the Rising Sun, a key object in mythology, tied to Japan’s history.
I also discover, only officially the flag since 1999, within my lifetime.
But very definitely very little, doing a lot.
One does not have to do so much.
In the Tate Modern there is a room devoted to white paintings. The one I find most striking is Piero Manzoni’s Achrome.
I am not an expert on modern art, though from the notes I see that he wanted a focus away from narrative content via removing colour (rather than proactively seeking pure white). This would bring attention to the material quality of the object, without outside content.
He was anti-expressionist.
This may be relevant later.
For I have spent a long time staring at that object.
Peter Brook often defined theatre as an empty space, an actor, and an audience. He noted that Jerzy Grotowsky tended towards thinking the audience was not necessary.
Brook’s definition is often a useful rule of thumb. And for interaction, we must have some sort of witness.
But need we see the actor? What if they are only heard? What if the actor is not there, but was there five minutes ago?
Could an actor perform via a still-warm coffee cup, a bookmark in a novel, and a pair of playing cards left behind?
A fine tradition in tabletop roleplaying games’ more artistic outputs has been lyric games.
The last of which states “I wish you joy of them, but they were intended (at least to some degree) to hurt people and they might still do that.”
We Are But Worms consists of one all-important word.
Game Lamprey probably does the best job of defining what lyric games are: “driven not by what a designer should make, but what they could make.”
They do not want to be playable. Or if they do, they do not want to be played in anywhere except beyond the longest horizon of the concept ‘play’.
Linda H. Codega usefully argues that a lyric game, above all, wants interaction. All are valid ways of playing the game itself. They are about metaphor: a space for the player to inhabit a different, non-normal space of normal experiences.
Above all: a broad concept of interaction = play.
Lyric game makers often dance playfully around whether what they’re doing is meant to be some sort of playable experience or not.
Some people have definitely played them. Other games are more interested in being objects.
They are close to art - but we are interactive theatre makers, and theatre is art.
What is the smallest form of interaction needed for theatre to be interactive theatre?
Surely more than ‘the audience sit and watch’, but also a lot less than ‘we form and simulate a whole world’.
Le Guin Again
Return to the top of this blog. Re-read what le Guin has said about interactivity. Once done, return to this point.
What is the least we can possibly do to be interactive immersive game theatre?
To let the audience be, seeing someone we cannot touch nor help nor save, not in understandable language (so not involved in understanding of words).
For what Le Guin, lyric games, and conceptual art have in common is this: an understanding of interaction as an internal form, by understanding ourselves or our ignorance.
I have not yet obeyed the one word of We Are But Worms. I have learnt a lot of myself by not doing so.
But there is the gulf of Le Guinian interactivity, which would confidently include installation art, and the game portion of interactive immersive game theatre, which wants some sort of play.
Rock, paper, scissors is a simple form of play. Lyric games would call a non-played-on chess set a form of play also.
As the anti-joke, perhaps also the anti-game.
So, our someone is surrounded by a game that might make sense, if eternity was there to solve it. The audience have the choice to engage or not.
A chess board mid-game with no possible legal moves. Piles of copies of one poem that’s not any form of cypher, riddle, or otherwise, merely gorgeous. The bottle of bleached labeled “Poison. To win, die.”
Lots of things to change. None change anything. What changes anything is what goes on inside you.
The object speaks. We do not understand. You cannot win, but if you want to, be brought into the space.
It is what is hollow in some theatre. It does not want its audience to interact, but to sit silently, obey, observe, and be told.
Watch the fox for the same hour; your responsibility, forever.
The least we can possibly do is change what it is for someone to be human.