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What Is Interactive Theatre About?

Bizarrely, this blog was written and not published, and in the intervening space of time one of the core conclusions has become a show in its own right. Therefore read on, to find part of the origin story of Paradise Craved.


Interactive theatre is a magnificent, flourishing form. There’s plenty of discussion about the difference between it and immersive theatre (broadly, in interactive theatre the audience have agency over the path of the show), and between it and LARP (broadly, in LARP the audience-participants have more time and support to prepare their characters*).


But you’re reading this, which means you know that interactive theatre is, broadly, “the stuff that people like Parabolic and COLAB theatre do.”


Or, indeed, that I make, given that you are reading my blog.


Given that, what’s it about?


Opera, for example, is usually a form that’s very good at doing stuff music can do: exploring big emotions, religion, and so on. It’s rarely good at exploring big, specific ideas.


Theatre is usually very good at exploring the relationships between people, and less good at inspiring people to dialogue (in contrast to, say, the Theatre of the Oppressed).


At this stage, the Big Question of interactive theatre seems to be:


“What do we want to do, and what are we willing to do to achieve it?”


That is to say it


a) asks the audience, who have agency, what they want to do within the world of the show. While this is sometimes pragmatic (get as much money as you can! Horses, theft, or blackmail?), my favourite interactive theatre often includes a philosophical angle (what is the right goal to pursue?).


b) gives the audience a number of options within the world of the show. Most shows have a range of fairly obvious options (Did any Crisis, What Crisis? audience not use Concorde?) and more ‘optional’ options. If it wins the war, are you willing to abandon an agent? If it saves your leader’s brother, are you willing to threaten a child?


Some shows treat such things fairly lightly; the rich questions offered by such scenarios are skimmed over. But by giving people space to discuss these things among themselves, reflect on how they actually reacted under the simulated pressure of a show, and laugh about it afterwards, something interesting does happen.


Unlike most forms of theatrical performance, the audience does have responsibility. They might not take it seriously, but they do have it.


Sometimes, that’s a source of great entertainment: be the biggest, baddest bastard you can, because this is the time to indulge that fantasy!


And at other times, it’s a chance to get people to ask: but what would you do, really? Is that principle really worth it?


And that’s a very exciting place to be.


What Might Change?


This question may well change. If I had to point at one thing interactive theatre generally does very badly, by giving the audience the reins it tends to neglect its actor-characters. After all, a focus on the actor-characters would detract from the importance of what the audience are doing.


A slower form of interactive theatre, where the audience choices mattered not because of their world-changing impacts, but their value in small and little ways, might be of interest.


Two small and rhyming shows to that idea: the audience are sprites of some sort in a house where two people who once loved each other are to meet. Some might gather knowledge to share with others from old letters and cyphers; others might perform fey music that alters the people’s emotions a little, or asks them to reveal types of truth; others might watch and record what happens for glorious pictures and songs. None of what they do matters; it might tilt the balance one way or another, and they are a part of it, but mostly it is just slightly tilting the tables of a longform romantic improvisation.


After all, the two people cannot see the sprites, nor hear the music.


A fallen angel sits, stuck in a prison beneath the earth. You must comfort them as they recount tales of their fall. No further mechanics, and nothing you can do will restore them to heaven or change the outcome of the Fall, but plenty of interaction possible with a small enough audience.


What becomes of such characters? What do we learn about them? How might they break our hearts, and make us cry?


I think that is the glove I would throw down at much interactive theatre (somewhat unfairly, since I don’t believe all of it is trying to do either, and is very good at what it is trying to do). But it’s on the first page of Come Bargain With Uncanny Things, so I think I’m allowed to share it:


Is this work ever beautiful? Will it ever make me cry?


Because I’d like it to. Batter my heart, interactive theatre.


*For drawing this distinction, I am indebted to Chloe Mashiter’s work.



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