Two Canon Sins
Updated: Oct 11
I have been examining my imagined dramaturgical structure for interactive immersive theatre of late, and accumulating a pile of concepts, mostly lurking in unpublished blogs.
Today, it has led to me articulating two common and flawed justifications used by makers of interactive immersive shows when explaining what they’ve written or performed:
“If you look at the canon…”
“It just makes sense that, if X, then Y!”
The first is flawed because if I’m having to look at the canon, then whatever is being justified was not justified by the narrative and visible part of the show.
The second is flawed because if a decision was made as a logical extrapolation from the world of the show, then it was not made to serve the theme of the show.
“If you look at the canon…” (and not the visible narrative)
For example, in a show about political intrigue at the high levels of government, we might unexpectedly learn that a senior political opponent has died.
On exploration, it emerges that this is because a supernatural being killed them.
If you look at the canon, it makes sense. After all, there have been a number of heavily-veiled hints in obscure places that this is a world with a supernatural presence. In this world, the actors say, the government controls said supernatural beings, as in other shows.
But if you look at the show, and what we see in narrative, characters, set, and other sources of information, it is baffling.
The death comes out of the blue.
The supernatural element seems at odds with the general tone of the show.
In another context, we could call it an unknown unknown. While the creators know the show inside out, sometimes I suspect they forget that the audience don't, in much the same way as makers of conventional theatre forget that while they know why the protagonist wore a fishbowl on his head, the rehearsal room train of thought that led there is not shared by the audience.
For most audience-guests, there was no reasonable way to know it was there without having studied the canon (i.e. the lore of the world) in advance.
For those who do not read my blogs on opera, I do not like having to do homework in advance of attending a show.
Other common examples of ‘if you look at the canon’ include characters behaving in mysterious ways, or with dark secrets known only to them, or offstage forces suddenly making decisions because actually, they’ve been enemies/allies all along. The audience don’t know.
If the audience don’t know, and can’t reasonably find out, is it canon? Or is it a shared pretence in the minds of the performers and creators?
Much ink has been spilled about the question of whether, when exploring a dungeon in Dungeons & Dragons, there is anything behind the door not opened, until it is opened.
If the Dungeon Master running the game believes there to be a pile of treasure there, is it true before the players open the door and are told there is treasure there?
Can a thing be canon even when that knowledge is not knowable to, or known by, all parties?
I would argue that, in many cases, it is de facto not canon. Thus events, consequences, and facts based on that canon will not make sense to the audience, and make the show seem confusing.
“It just makes sense that, if X, then Y!” (and not N that serves the theme)
For example, in that same show about high levels of government, a character might be developed that is competent, therefore it makes sense that they went to an elite university, therefore it makes sense that they have interpersonal connections with members of elite circles, therefore it makes sense that they have particular friends in those circles, therefore it makes sense that they want matters to be tied up so they can go fishing with said friends at the weekend - that being what people do in this setting.
It is often not the first Y that is the problem. It is the X, Y, Z, A, B, C… pile of dependencies that totter on one another.
At a deeper level, this often looks more like:
This show is about the feud between two powers, therefore one is authoritarian and one is democratic, therefore the authoritarian one has a secret police, therefore everyone in the authoritarian world is paranoid, therefore the democratic one has strict laws about state surveillance, therefore there’s a movement supporting those laws against state surveillance, therefore members of that movement probably has a symbol, therefore they probably have pictures of closed eyes, therefore when their protests got shut down by the democratic government (that being what makes sense to happen at some point, especially since it makes sense that at some point there’s probably some sort of treaty to have a feud over, maybe ten years ago so it’s fresh, we can call it the Treaty of MadeItUp 2013 and it just makes sense it has these clauses) closed eyes became a big symbol of dissent, therefore someone wearing a badge with closed eyes is obviously radical.
Many interactive immersive shows seek verisimilitude; an attempt to simulate a world.
Some mistake this for trying to build a world that follows ‘rational’ rules of history, politics, economics and so on, as in the above examples.
Both have a clear internal logic, and conform to my idea of how the world works.
1. The train of steps that lead to the conclusion is far too long. It dives into ‘if you look at the canon…’ and multiplies it, creating a sprouting of fungal lore for people to get lost in.
2. The ‘rationality’ of these steps usually reflects the biases of the creators. Does it really ‘just make sense’ that oppression in one state lead to regulation of the same in a rival power? Does it really ‘just make sense’ that a character wants to go fishing with a powerful friend, or is that merely how one performer sees the world? A Marxist, a Native American, and an oil magnate all have very different ideas of what ‘just makes sense’.
3. Most crucially, ‘it just makes sense’ is a naïve way to construct imagined worlds. “I want a laser and a pirate and a dinosaur, and the pirate and the dinosaur are going to fight…”
It’s merely given grown-up, rationalist clothes. “This is how I think society works, and therefore it is how society works.”
The world of Middle Earth is not written on any rationalist logic. It is made to tell a story in; a story about light and dark, hope and enduring, technology and innocence. It is these themes that haunt every nook and cranny of it, and why it feels so alive.
Yes, Tolkien creates vastly detailed worlds, because he is interested in history and how it shapes language and culture, and above all in creating a modern imagining of epic sagas.
Thus the logic of his iconic worlds is not that of economics or politics (though for Middle Earth seen through those lenses, I recommend The Last Ringbearer). It is that of saga - which is to say, of his themes.
His history is written to serve the themes, and not the other way around. It means that we encounter lore and history that reinforces his narrative, rather than his narrative bending because it ‘just makes sense’ that with Mordor’s growing industrial power, the practically-minded Men of the West would seek a trading relationship with Sauron.
It still feels coherent. But that is because of his strong sense of theme; something he shares with the universe-with-holes-in-the-elbows of Le Guin, or Pratchett’s sprawling and chaotic Discworld.
All of the above, I realise, is merely expanding upon Sondheim’s dictum ‘content dictates form’. The theme of your show should determine the rest of it - the narrative, the world, the characters. Thus:
Have less lore.
Make sure what lore is there is visible-by-default. Where it is not visible, make sure that it has a vital reason to not be obscured.
Make sure that all the lore serves the theme(s). No caveat on that one.
It might just make sense to you. But you’re making a show, not a world.
Let the world serve the show, not the other way around.