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  • Writer's pictureleodoulton

The Sleeping Protagonist

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

The King of Saving Cats

Earlier this week, I had an excellent time at the Interactive Experience Network Huddle listening to Owen Kingston (of Parabolic Theatre), Chloe Mashiter (of many things, from Time Heist to Shield & Torch), and Robert Morgan (of KCL).

All said many interesting things, and of the two whose work I know - Chloe and Owen - make excellent work.

But I have been making work inspired by Owen’s for a while, and am starting to find out where I sit in relationship to it. So I’d like to try and articulate a response to, mostly, Owen, whose ideas shape quite a large chunk of ‘game theatre’.

Owen divides immersive theatre into four key models: free roaming voyeurism (Punchdrunk), sandbox-filled-with-toys (Secret Cinema), Carousel (You Me Bum Bum Train), and Game Theatre (which I’ve often referred to as ‘interactive immersive theatre’ on this blog).

His work with Parabolic Theatre emphasises meaningful audience agency via ‘adaptive narrative’; using improvisation and live curation to create fully realised worlds.

One way the Parabolic team create effective shows is by using filmic structures such as ‘Save The Cat’, whereby the audience experience is structured around certain emotional beats, which give shape to the events of the show, and allow each audience member to feel like a protagonist, even as the whole group is also the protagonist.

Making the audience-player-guest feel like a protagonist is often the goal of interactive experiences.

All of the above leads to fantastic shows.

But I’d like to reflect on my own path, building on Parabolic’s work (and, admittedly, influenced by some of Chloe’s thoughts, which noticeably refer to ‘participants’, and Nordic LARP’s “everyone trying to lose”).

Individuals and Communities

TL;DR: while ‘Save The Cat’ is a model, others are available, especially from non-Western forms. That might be exploring the essence of a particular person, interlocking short narratives around a central theme, or a world as the real subject of a story.

TL;DR: Many things, but in particular, the idea that an interactive theatre audience might be made up of individuals, but when present in the space, they actually form a community. From a broadly left-wing perspective, we might decide that the agent in the narrative (if it has one) is the group, rather than the individual subject.

This can allow shows to be slow and quiet, with fewer rules as the main mechanic is relationship-building, an idea expanded here:

That is to say:

1. The idea of the individual audience member as ‘protagonist’ already implies a certain amount about the type of show you’re creating.

2. There is a space for work that is more about being than doing. This might be easiest within leftist/feminist/queer/post-colonial perspectives.

3. There is space for work that is about the relationships between the guests.

During a conversation about romance in interactive theatre this week, I joked that of the options, one was clearly the most exciting challenge (actor-actor is easy, actor-audience dangerous, but audience-audience basically means you’re designing a show to be the perfect singles’ night, and ‘Mr Darcy’s Dress-Up, Drills, Dancing & Dining, with just enough event to count as theatre’ might be the closest I’ve ever had to a really commercial idea).

Magic For Loners

But more generally, something magic happens between the audience at an interactive show, and fostering it leads to the thing I think of as the real magic of a Parabolic show.

Partly because, by opening up that space between guests (a term I tend to prefer to ‘audience’ or ‘players’), you open up space to change them.

We live in the 21st century. We are an isolated generation, by all accounts.

Once we have that space of a temporary community, we allow the audience to find something entirely different to the fantasies we’re usually given of being powerful, or having agency.

I think some game theatre starts in a great theatrical place, wanders into a mechanical place, and then gets a bit distracted from something it loves in the ‘theatre’ half of the equation.*

The audience effect the interactive show, which is fun and distinctive.

But plenty of shows, for all that the creators prize the invisible work around themes, feelings, and subtle backstories, find their external mechanics form a wall blocking off those fine things for the internal part of many audience members [yes, I’m borrowing another concept from a previous blog:].

The show can (not necessarily should) effect the audience as much as they effect it. I suspect we’ve got space to run there.

The thing I realise explicitly while writing this is: themes are nice, mechanics are great, but it is storytelling (not necessarily the same thing as narrative) that moves people

This is a tentative theory, but: narrative models are a useful tool, but the feelings the protagonist has are not always the same as the feelings the audience have.

By using a narrative model in which the audience-guest takes the place of the protagonist, we need to be mindful of what we lose.

And, indeed, of narrative models more designed to allow for lateral impact. The multi-character model of the Mahabharata, in which each strand shapes the others while being its own thing, might be a useful touchstone for how we might have the audience-protagonist strand, while also the audience-recipient strand.**

It’s a tension with the NPCs of interactive theatre. Are they there to aid the protagonist, or move the audience? Normally, a bit of both. But as theatre-makers, we quite often find ourselves wanting a bit more of the latter.

Back To Ritual

All of the above is why I’m increasingly interested in ritual as an influence on interactive theatre, in much the same way that others look to narrative models. It’s built around community, effecting its audiences, and performative.

It can be anything from sombre funerals to enthusiastic bacchanals.

The best example is probably singing in a group, whether that’s a choir for a requiem or bawling Bohemian Rhapsody with friends. It’s not about you, and that’s fine.

It’s about who you’re doing it with.

Ritual sits somewhere close to game theatre’s delightful coming-together-to-do-things, while providing tools by which it can shape the people attending.

Meanwhile, I look forward to saving a cat.

*Please notice use of the word ‘some’. Some other game-based interactive theatre is lovely, and I am by no means wanting to throw the baby out with the spoonful of bathwater highlighted here.

**As an alternative, less-perfect analogy: imagine The Lord of the Rings, but with loads of those moments when Frodo almost bumps into the main Fellowship after leaving, and he actually does speak with them.


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