Saturday, October 8, 2011

Terrible Advice is terribly underwhelming

There's something to be said about finding yourself in your 40's and wondering what the hell happened to your life. There's also something to be said about settling for someone just for the sake of saying that you have someone. These things are brought up in Saul Rubirek's play debut Terrible Advice at the Menier Chocolate Factory but are never fleshed out.

Let's first take a look at how this "dark, dirty and dangerous play" is being marketed - because what is advertised does not resemble anything I saw.

"Stanley (Stinky to his friends) and Jake are best friends. Hedda and Delila are best friends. Jake loves Hedda; Stinky loves Delila. Stinky plans to marry Delila….until Jake shares some secrets and then gives him some advice"

Um Stinky does not love Delila, in fact he's bangin' his pregnant ex and saying inappropriate things to his students. And all of a sudden he decides he wants children - something Delila can't give him.

As for Jake. He loves no one but himself. When Stinky comes to him with his "I want children and I can't stop fucking my pregnant ex and then sharing my sad pitiful life with my pretty female students" woes, Jake rightly advises that he break up with Delila. Probably the best advice Jake has ever given as he himself is a former baseball player turned alcoholic sex addicted prat. Did he sleep with his best friend's woman? Of course he did. Does anyone care? Not really.

Jake does not love Hedda - he's merely settling as he can't afford to continue being a womanizing ass. And in fairness the middle-aged no BS-taking Hedda is settling too. Jake must be amazing in bed. Now everyone is talking about this terrible advice as coming from some deep seated love - Jake is obviously in love with Delila and he tells Stinky to make a clean break so he can swoop in with his smarmy smarmness and achingly bad poetry. Because women love smarm. And bad poetry. But the truth is Jake is an idiot and is incapable of really loving anyone. So this storyline falls flat. Nothing is real. Only pretended.

Over all the direction from Frank Oz matches the sitcom-esque writing. Some of it is well conceived and some of it detracts from the story. It's also apparent that the Menier has access to a car slicer as a side of a car is rolled out onto stage where Hedda does the cleanest and easiest flat tire change I've ever seen. She should work for AAA.

I'm mostly disappointed in/for Sharon Horgan. She's talented, hilarious and beautiful and I will always love her show Pulling. She deserves a better role than this. And she also deserves a better dialect coach as her sexy Irish accent morphs into a confused American accent. I had some issues with the other Brit actors at points too, but I'll let it slide as the acting overall was well done.

Overall, the story is simply not interesting and I could care less about the characters. Although there are moments of genuine laughter and I think once there was a glimmer of tangible characters, I left the theatre empty.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Kevin Spacey as Richard III

Richard III is my favourite of Shakespeare's history plays primarily because Dicky is one of the best villains of all time. He's deformed, has a chip on his shoulder (and  hump), conniving and manipulative and is able to woo the woman whose husband and father he had murdered in a matter of minutes. Needless to say Dicky is the guy you love to hate. And Kevin Spacey in this simple, modern and beautiful production helmed by Sam Mendes brings a twisted and captivating performance as the murderous villain.

Spacey completely owns the stage. He's assured, clear and captivating. Richard grew up in a corrupt and violent world where his father and siblings were killed whilst chasing the thrown. It's know surprise that this 'valiant crooked-back prodigy' turns to manipulation and ruthlessness to get the crown, even back-stabbing his brother.

Equally captivating and chilling is Gemma Jones as Queen Margaret who curses Richard and his posse and haunts the stage as her miserable grief and cold-hearted grasp on the Plantagenet family grips tighter as her curses come true. She howls and groans and silently marks her territory with an "X" as each victims meets their end.

And then, there's the second half - after Richard is crowned - which is filled with war and battle cries. We lose the intimacy of Richard's soliloquies as he's now yelling and battling it out like his father before him. It's long and boring and not nearly as sophisticated. We had such a build up with a psychological thriller and then is turned into a generic action genre. But here I blame Shakespeare, not Mendes nor Spacey - they did what they could in modernizing this classic. It's moments like this where I think our infatuation with the Bard is blinding. What's clear, however, is that this story of villainy is still relevant.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Woman Killed With Kindness

Re-staging a classic play is a perfectly viable option. Cutting it, adapting it, throwing it around, trying on new eras, fleshing out relevant themes, finding continuity between then and now - are all things to consider when bringing an old drama to a contemporary stage. That is, after all, what art is about - finding, exploring, pursuing connection. But, sometimes a bold vision falls flat. And unfortunately Katie Mitchell's re-envisioning of Thomas Heywood's 1603 domestic drama A Woman Killed With Kindness fails to achieve any continuity. The tale of two women trapped in a male dominated world certainly still has relevancy, especially in Mitchell's 1919 suffragette setting.

The first is Anne Frankfort who has recently married John and is the virginal and virtuous woman - the perfect wife. John invites his best mate, Wendoll, to live in the house and whilst John is out on business Wendoll helps himself to his wife and Anne easily gives in. John, of course, catches them in bed together and instead of killing Anne, he sends her away, never to see her children again. She chooses self-starvation to lament her adultery, which sends her to her death bed. The other woman is Susan Mountford who's brother, Charles, prostitutes her out to their enemy, Sir Frances Acton, to whom he is deeply in debt. She refuses but in the in is forced to marry Acton.

Katie Mitchell put's these two story lines on equal par having the two household share the stage. The set is amazing with the Mountford's dilapidated Georgian home to the left and the Frankfort Arts-and-Crafts manor to the right. Throughout the piece Mitchell has introduce beautifully choreographed movements indicating the passage of time and the solitude these women share. But it felt, much like the split set, that I was experiencing two completely different texts - Heywood's text and Mitchell's vision. They were not cohesive, but rather played in cuts - as if Mitchell cut and paste chunks of Heywood's text into her contemporary, existential production. And it felt entirely dogmatic - oh look at how badly women are treated! And still are, this play is so relevant still! This is most evident by Mitchell giving the last line originally spoken by John at Anne's deathbed to Susan, who delivers it full of contempt "Here lies she whom her husband's kindness kill'd".

Although there were some beautiful, poignant and even charming moments they were not enough to lift up the whole. In the end I cared nothing for the characters, thought the acting was inconsistent, the direction even more inconsistent and felt like I was being preached at.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Hello, my name is Ashley and I like to play pretend.


My name is Ashley and I like to play pretend. I also like to play games, especially games where I get to play pretend. Lately, I've been playing games with a strong element of risk - a risk created in a safe environment whilst instilling a sense of thrill and excitement. These are game played in the real world and with other people - games are always better when they're real. When playing together there's collaboration and cooperation as we all want to play the game and keep it going. After all, anyone that cannot pretend that the games matters is no fun to play with.

Games typically happen within a specific time and place and must end at some point - however the affects of the game can linger long after the game has ended. I've broken into buildings, raced past guards, cracked codes, chased after characters and clues, and run away from zombies. I've experienced things from the silly to the scary to the exhilarating. Why? Because they're fun. And exciting. That is why we play games, and have evolved to play pretend. We take pleasure in the experience; even when that experience is challenging or even painful. Within the play-sphere the codes of everyday life are laxed, making us less self-conscious and more open to improvisation and creativity. Anything is possible....or is it?

With these immersive games I've played one major thing to remember is that they take place in the real world - not in a virtual digital world or cyberspace. That means we all must abide by laws of physics and the laws of the land. For instance, just because you're pretending to fly does not mean that you can jump off a building and expect to fly. If you get hit by a car and die in the game, you die in real life. Or if you're playing a zombie chase game you can't whip out a machete and cut off a zombie's head because that zombie was really a living person just pretending and you've just committed a very real murder.

What are ways that you still actively engage in pretend play?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

How Affect was Created and Transferred in From Playful to Sadistic: A Deviant Lecture Series by A.L. Steed.

[This was my essay about my final performance project]

Shaking in the back room, I try desperately not to make any noise. I want to get this fake blood out of my nose but I’m preoccupied with listening – listening to the silence. I think I’ve stunned them. Peter Brook in The Empty Space talks about two possible climaxes in a theatrical event – that of cheering and that of silence. Rather than being deafening, this silence sounds like music to my ears. A stark contrast to the all-consuming bodily and emotional experience I’m having in the back room. Finally, there’s applause interspersed with nervous laughter – a welcomed release from the silent tension.

As the audience files out, I eagerly rush to my bowl of soapy water, still shaking, to get the horrible fake blood out of my nose. Eventually the shaking dissipates, but my mind buzzes relentlessly – a typical post-performance high, but this is the most intense high I’ve ever experienced.

Perhaps it’s because of the intense vulnerability of the piece. In investigating the spectrum of deviance from playful to sadistic, I had to allow myself to go into the deep, dark scary place within myself. The progression to the point where I destroy the laptop needed the proper build-up.  So I went there. And it was terrifying – which, oddly enough, goes back to my initial lecture where I killed my classmates/professor with boredom. If I wanted to recapture that terror I felt in boring people, I would have to make the audience uncomfortable – make myself completely vulnerable. I have strong feelings when it comes to vulnerability. I don’t like it. At all. Which is a problem. I feel it holding me back both artistically and in life. And throughout this process, I could feel myself holding back – so I felt it was crucial that I go to the depths of darkness within me and share that with the audience. Granted what I presented was exaggerated or heightened but the thoughts, fears and sentiments are 100% me. I wonder if the audience sensed that.

I wrote these words not long after my performance, allowing enough time for the post-performance high to wear off enough to articulate what I had felt. My hope was to capture my feelings in the moment, but I must admit that I lack the proper mastery of the written word. This does poor justice to the thoughts racing through my mind, and the uncontrollable shaking that took over my body – a body responding to a high intensity atmosphere. The same atmosphere that was responsible for the silent tension and the nervous laughter. In order to properly unpack this atmosphere and the sensations going through my body during and after the performance, we must go back to the beginning of this process.

Having researched lectures and wondered why some were engaging and others were not, I determined that it had nothing to do with the content but the delivery. Boring lectures were presented in a dull, non-engaging manner. So I decided to give a boring lecture. I must say, I succeeded brilliantly on being ill prepared – the most important element in giving a terrible lecture.

With the laptop hooked up to the TV, I set up four chairs for my classmates and professor and a small table for myself with water and my notes. Equipped with my remote I began my lecture on deviant behaviour. After giving a concise sociological definition, I stumbled through slides, didn’t speak with confidence, avoided eye contact, said “um” innumerable times, and read off of my text-filled slides. In other words, I was boring. I mean really, really boring. I could see the blankness in my classmates faces, saw my professor’s eyes glaze over. They were in a boredom-induced coma. My tactic had worked. But internally I was Freaking. The Fuck. Out. Their boredom sent my mind into a panic. Feeling like I had surpassed my 10 minutes (although, I’m sure I hadn’t) I quickened my pace just a little and fast-forwarded through a few slides. I had a failed attempt to engage with them when I asked if they had heard of the Stanley Milgram experiment and gave a quick and muddled explanation of the famous experiment. Finally at the last of my slides I ended the lecture and then got out of character as quickly as possible and transformed back into “Ashley.” The Ashley that loves not just performing, but also entertaining. “Ha-ha – I’m not really boring, I fooled you!” I tried to explain with fervent nervous energy.

This moment of terror, of panic, of uneasiness was a defining turning point in my process. In order to recapture this affect, we need to break down step by step exactly what happened during this presentation.
1)    I intended on giving a boring lecture.
2)    I was successful in giving a boring lecture.
3)    I know this because the audience was bored.
4)    I know the audience was bored because I could see and feel their boredom.
5)    Seeing and feeling their boredom sent me into a panic driven frenzy.

If I a) intended on giving a boring lecture and b) was successful in doing so, then why did I have such a visceral response to boring my classmates/professor? Why did I feel the need to immediately explain my intentions after presenting? Where did this feeling come from, and why were all my “danger” synapses firing? Why did I feel the need to get out of that situation as quickly as possible? If I had planned this boring execution, then why did I feel so out of control?

The answer lies in the audience’s reactions. I had been focusing entirely on the production aspect of performance without giving proper consideration to how people would respond. There is only so much one can anticipate in terms of live performance. Thus the interplay between me as experience creator, audience as responsive, and me as a reactive performer became a defining feature of my research-based performance. If, as in scientific studies, research is a way to predict and control, then in a performance context it’s a way to test the audience-performer paradigm. I’m interested in unravelling that relationship, in how they affect one another and how that relationship affects both the performance experience as a whole and the creative process.

Admittedly this interplay didn’t become obvious until my first scratch performance. Now having begun building the deviant character into my presentation I could feel the audience responding. I was no longer playing to a black hole of participants in a boredom-induced coma – they were laughing, responding, engaged.

…because I could feel the audience responding, I no longer had the terror of presenting to an essentially dead space. I’ll never be able to capture that terror I had which is both incredibly sad and retrospectively beautiful. Now I finally understand the ephemerality of performance. I understand that no two performances are ever really the same from my personal experience as a performer; but as a performer, I’m supposed to capture emotions and sensations and then reiterate them time and time again. I’ve found the responsive repetition of performance quite soothing and relish in the ability of skilled performers to make that repetition feel new, instant, spontaneous. There’s something curious about the affect of repetition on the real emotion rather than the imitation. I’m not imitating myself and, therefore, will never truly capture that raw terror again. I don’t know how I feel about that.

Although I had determined that recapturing that terror as no longer possible, in that moment I had failed to recognize the possibility of another mode of transmission. And even though I had mentioned the role of a skilled performer, I had failed to recognize that a skilled performer also affects the atmosphere. I was also failing to properly interpret the cause of my initial emotional state of terror. I wasn’t actively feeling panic or fear and therefore concluded that due to the new shift in audience responsiveness I would never be able to attain that unexpected fear. Again, it goes back to discovering the impulses of fear and panic I had felt in that initial boring lecture. That feeling of panic came from a sparring between expectation and anticipation. I as a creator must play with and anticipate audience’s expectations. With this scratch performance, although I had begun playing with expectations, I hadn’t anticipated their reactions and thus lost all the uneasiness of my boring lecture. In other words, I was presenting new material but expecting the same reactions. Therefore the interplay between creator–receiver–reactor needed a proper playground to explore the audience-performer paradigm. If I wanted to recapture the uneasiness felt in the boring lecture, I would have to actively place it back into the fold. In order to do this, I replaced the fear of feeling out of control with my own fear of vulnerability. Therefore, I made myself vulnerable, uncomfortably so, and invited the audience into that vulnerability and state of uneasiness.

In creating the final project, I was now actively working on what I call the triangulation of affect, a play on Teresa Brennan’s seminal work on the language of the body and its Transmission of Affect. Although I was doing a solo piece, I had created two distinct characters and their interaction relied heavily on audience responses. These reactions were anticipated in order to create the characters. Although the deviant character of the PowerPoint was fixed, the lecturer, performed by me, was not. I was able to react to the audience in real time while simultaneously anticipating and playing out the sequence of the piece.

According to Brennan, affects are overwhelming emotions and the only thing salient about them is that they are transmitted. She privileges feelings over affects, because affects are thoughtless and not attuned to language and sensation. This inability to properly communicate affects troubles Brennan and although I was sceptical in this inability to process the physiological change that affect has on the audience it wasn’t until I actually performed that I understood her concern. After my performance, those I asked had trouble articulating what they just experienced. Many mentioned feelings but weren’t able to communicate exactly what feelings were felt. It’s as if the affect of my performance somehow short-circuited Broca’s area of the brain – making language production difficult. My own physiological shift immediately after the performance was completely short-circuited as my autonomic system shook my body ferociously until the energy eventually dissipated.

What happened in my performance to cause this? Where in my triangulation of affect allowed for this build up of energy or ‘energetics’ as Brennan discusses, i.e. ‘the study of the energetic and affective connections between an individual, other people and the surrounding environment’?  The connection between myself, the audience and the environment was made explicit in the structure of the piece. Using my basic understanding of the audience-performance paradigm to my advantage, I slowly shifted and shaped the audience’s responses. Whenever they would laugh or respond to the presentation, I would acknowledge it, thereby encouraging them to continue responding openly. Then came the shift from a cognitive interaction to a physiological or visceral response. As Brennan argues, we don’t just read bodies with our eyes, we read them with all of our senses. We smell fear, are attuned to the quickened heartbeat of nervousness, we tense up with others’ tensions. Affects are material things, meaning they have a physical impact, albeit an unconscious one. In other words, they created a physiological shift through a chemical and energetic response in the nervous system. It’s only after the affect has occurred do we become aware of them.

As my nervous energy grew, so too did the tension in my body – this tension transferred to the audience. They grew tense with me. They became increasingly uncomfortable in my own discomfort. Not only does my energy transfer to the audience but the charge continues within the audience as well. With the climactic crack of the laptop against the corner of the table, the audience shared a cathartic moment, a communal release. In inviting the audience to respond, in playing with their expectations and creating a highly charged atmosphere of uneasiness and nervous tension, I was able build affect into my project and able to facilitate it bodily, physiologically and thus transfer my energy to the audience, and in turn build upon their energetic responses. It’s as if, momentarily I had created a perpetual motion machine of affect as we continued to build off of one another. Although I am the creator of the affect, I still rely on the audience’s collective response – without it there would be no concentrated tension, no build-up and thus no subsequent release.  

Monday, June 6, 2011

I got turned into a zombie all in the name of research

I had the pleasure of spending last weekend with people who take fun very seriously. People who design and play games outside in the urban environment. A reclamation of sorts – not just the streets, but of games. Games aren’t just for kids, a lesson well learned at Interesting Games Festival (igfest) organised by Bristol’s own SlingShot. I tagged along with the Fire Hazard crew to do research on games involving risk and playing pretend.

Saturday I worked as a guard for Fire Hazard’s City Dash – a game where players must run around the city searching for and texting in codes while trying to avoid guards who will text in the players alpha numeric code (players must wear a number plate at all times) thus making them lose points. I had fun as a guard but my area was a park which made sneaking around to catch players near impossible. Luckily I had a new Canadian friend to keep me company as we watched people hide behind trees and run sideways (so as not to show their number plate. Overall things ran smoothly and people really liked the game. So yay Fire Hazard!

Later on I played a game called Mr Smith by Yao Song Ng. The premise – me must catch Mr Smith, who wears a white mask, and collect ribbons, but he can teleport (by removing his mask) and reappearing somewhere else in the city, in which someone else puts the mask on and becomes Mr Smith. A lot of running is involved and keeping an eye out. Oh and there’s also an evil Red Masked Mr Smith who will take your ribbons. My friend learnt this the hard way – we were following Mr Smith down an alley when he turned into the Red Mask and took her ribbons. We heard her yell “run” and took off. It was a fun game and perfect for the crowded market and surrounding area making spotting Mr Smith and then chasing after him difficult. I even ducked into a restaurant when running away from the Red Mask. Overall it’s a simple but well executed game.

Afterwards I did this thing called the Stimulator by Susi Glatt. You choose which stimulation you want (I chose Mexican Busride) and then you’re taken into a tent and step onto an elliptical. Her assistant throws a ridiculous hat on me. Then the madness begins. For mine, the music starts, there’s stuff blowing in my face, people are screaming, giant bugs attack me, and I so much more – I run faster on the elliptical thinking that I can get away which is stupid because obviously I’m not going anywhere but that doesn’t stop me from trying… I loved it. Totally absurd and silly – the two people running it are completely committed which obviously is what makes it work. I also enjoyed sitting outside the tent watching people queue up and wonder about the strange screams and sounds coming from inside.


Saturday night I played the main event: 2.8 Hours Later – a zombie chase game. I teamed up with a few of the Fire Hazard crew plus my new friend Sophie who I met while playing Mr Smith. As the name suggest – it is basically an epic version of tag where zombies chase after you and if you’re tagged you become infected and at the end of the game are turned into a zombie. This is seriously the most fun I’ve had playing a game ever – it’s exhilarating, fun, funny, scary, exciting, silly and serious, and definitely intense.

Before we started we were given the rules: If you see a zombie, run. That’s pretty much it. We were given points throughout to go meet the different characters to get to the Resistance – the end a point, but basically it was running away from zombies. We all had to repeat, “I am deluded” as to remind ourselves that this is taking place in real life and that we are not invincible so if we want to prevent ourselves from turning into jam we should avoid stepping out in front of cars. So our team of six (Nick and Alexis, Gwyn and Viv, and Sophie and me) gets set, ready and goes to the first point. We’re told were our first checkpoint is and start running for it. As soon as we turn a corner we spot zombies and immediately lose 2 of our team. The four of us plug on and spot another zombie. This one is fast too. My team runs on and I lag behind hiding behind cars and wait for the zombie to chase after others. I see my chance and run for it, catching up with the team.

We make our way to the first checkpoint, eyes open and watching everyone, anything that moves. There’s an infect girl inside a storefront window with her father outside who looks like he’s seen better days. He yells at us and tells us to go to the church – and so we do. We walk down the street and see the intersection has zombies so we go round to another street and see the church. There’s a zombie guarding it, but we manage to race by and get in to safety. We walk down the dimly lit aisle to a shrine for all those who are missing. We then turn the corner and see the priest who’s been tied up. He’s infected and is mad (as in cray cray) and shouts the coordinates of the next location at us. Upon exiting we catch up with the two people we lost in the very beginning and joined in with another group.

As we walked along the road we stopped to look at the map. An older man across the road asked if we needed any help – one kindly replied back, “No thank you, we’re playing a game.” The bulk of the group wanted to go round the street and then cut into the park but the four of us decided we didn’t want to do that so we spilt up. Sophie and I then spilt from Nick and Alexis. The two of us climbed up the side and peered into the park. Zombies were chasing down people but we could see the next location. I saw sophie take off and as soon as the coast was clear I took off too. I barely made it to safety. We saw were reunited with Nick and Alexis and soon after Gwyn and Viv come funning around the corner – Gwyn’s been infected (this is his third time playing and first time getting infected). We then go inside, there’s a man cutting up bodies. He’s a bit mental and completely freaks me out. We step over and on top of body parts. It’s seriously gross. He tells us we need to find a girl in the Galleries and so we’re off. We dart out of the building and zombies are everywhere. As we run, I slip and land on my right knee and then slid a bit. Determined to not get caught I jump back up and quickly limp back to my group.

My knee is throbbing and stings. I try to walk it off but it’s not having any of that. Our group of four (Gwyn and Viv are still with the meat man) runs over the next location. I’m trying really hard to ignore the pain in my knee and then I look up. The Galleries is a three-story shopping mall. My eyes light up. “We’re going to run inside a shopping mall!” I squeal. We’re told to go down to the ground floor to find packets of drugs and then go up to the third floor where we’ll find a young woman hiding out. She’ll tell us the next place to go to in our search for the Resistance. I have to say, nothing compares to being chased by zombies inside a massive shopping mall in the middle of the night. By far the highlight of the night. We go in and immediately see a zombie – he looks like he’s seen better days and isn’t nearly as coordinated as some of the others we’ve encounter so we quickly run past him only to encounter more. We see the escalators and race over and down. There’s a zombie blocking the centre and subsequent exit and two others by the other set of escalators and stairs. At this point I’ve lost my team. I run past the zombie and search for the packets of drugs. They’re not easy to find but finally I see one and quickly grab it. I’m right next to the zombies but I hide behind a sign and watch them chase after others. Then I see Sophie. She hasn’t found any drugs yet so I grab another one for her. We try to go up to the third floor, but I lose her again. I’m on my own and run up the escalators. Finally to the third floor I see the safety room is guarded. I wait for the zombie to go after someone and then book it into the room. I’m elated to see Nick and Alexis but there’s no Sophie. A few minutes later she rushes into the room. Our little four-some is reunited. We’re shuffled into a tiny room where we meet the young woman. She quickly takes the packets of drugs from us. There’s a cot and some supplies, you can tell she’s been here for a while and is too afraid to leave. We’re told our next meeting point and are sent back into the zombie-infested shopping mall. Crap. Now we have to go back down to the ground floor to leave. By this time there are people running around everywhere and zombies are guarding all the escalators and stairs. We manage to go down one floor on the stairs and then all hell breaks loose. We split up (again) and I try to race down the escalator, which is going up so I’m not moving very fast. Deciding that trying to run down and escalator going up is stupid I run back and race round the corner to the down escalator and just miss getting tagged by a zombie. I get down to the ground floor and see the rest of my team. Sophie manages to sneak by the zombie guarding the exit ad runs to safety without ever looking back. The rest of us run around the centre. Then Nick says he’ll distract the zombie so that we can run to safety. The definition of a true gentleman. The plan works and we run. And a few minutes later Nick comes running through to safety with a big grin on his face. What a guy.

We then look outside and see a zombie to our left and zombies to our right. Well, we need to go right so we take off. Again I lag behind as zombies chase my friends and I hide and sneak around the corner. Luckily the zombie has trapped someone inside a phone booth and is patiently waiting so I race past and catch up with the rest of the gang. We went around a corner into a courtyard and found a homeless man called the Gatekeeper who told us about zombies in the process of turning and that we’d need to trick them somehow to get by. We go up some stairs and around a corner then down the street. We come up to the pit (a pedestrian underpass) and see the female zombies who are clearly out of it. My plan to trick them is to just act like a zombie. That doesn’t last very long as it’s dark so I freak out and just run for is while aggressively screaming at the zombies. Over in a corner we see a girl and her boyfriend whose been attacked. They beg us for help and tell us were the Resistance headquarters are. We thanks them and continue our journey. By this time Sophie is properly freaking out. Everyone who passes us she earnestly asks, “Are there any zombies over there?” Some play along, others keep their distance.

We turn a corner – “I know this area,” I say, stopping in my tracks. It’s a shady area with lots of streets and alleys, be extra cautious. We briefly take out the map. I look at Sophie who turns to look at me – her face frozen with fear as she yells “Zombie!” and takes off. Before I know it the zombie has me in its clutches. One second. That’s all it takes. I let my guard down for one second and was attacked. Sophie and Alexis take off and Nick and I run around the corner. I’m epically ticked off now. I was determined to make it to the Resistance unscathed. We walk up the road and see a zombie hiding behind a car. We run past and I turn to a gate but quickly discover it’s the wrong one as I crash into the locked gate. I’m trapped and another zombie comes and infects me. Defeated yet again. “Fuck my life” I shout at the zombie. Finally I run around the corner and make it into the Resistance. We all queue up to go through processing. (The rest of my team is already inside). By this point my knee is throbbing and I joke, “Ok, someone get me a beer and a medic, in that order.” Up top, a woman in a full body hazard suit asks if I’ve been infected. “Yes,” I reply with a sigh. I then go through a scanner which separates the survivors from the infected. Those of us who are infected are taken through a factory-like process in which we are quickly and effectively turned into zombies. Then it’s downstairs to the zombie disco! I find my team and grab a beer. Then I ask one of the organisers if there’s a medic on site as I’d like a second opinion on my knee. Two medics come out to take a look. Both were lovely and we laughed about my injury. Although my knee was badly bruised I’m chuffed that I have a real medical report saying that the problem is: “Fell on R knee and slid while running away from zombies.” Amazing – when real life and pretend play collide.

What an exhilarating, albeit exhausting, game. It was well planned and professionally executed. The actors were fully committed, the simple story line and melee of characters were sharp, and the zombies were absolutely terrifying. The creators behind 2.8 Hours Later are to be applauded, as this is definitely the standard that all participatory theatrical events should be judged by.


The next day I was definitely feeling sore from the night before. I decided to take it easy. That morning I went to an informal game designer brunch where the designers discussed why they make games. We talked a about taking ideas from others, money, games for kids vs games for adults, rules, I talked about risk, the ideal game, where we’d like to see this medium go, etc. etc. It was a good talk and useful for my dissertation (I think we’re going to compile notes as there was too much background noise to record the chat, if so, I’ll post them).

Afterwards I played Cowgirl Cowhunt by Catherine Herdlick from San Francisco. There were cows, cowgirls, an Indian (as in Native American), and a wrangler. We played in one of the main plazas – cows had to search for fodder (clothes pins) to fatten up. Cowgirls would brand and bring in to cows for gold. The wrangler would steal cows and then sell them for gold. And the Indian (me) would put out more fodder and take money from cows that had more than one coloured fodder on their back. It was fun and laid back which was nice as I was still sore from the zombie run.

That afternoon was another City Dash with Fire Hazard. I was guarding a different area this time and caught 8 people. It was another successful game (for the most part) and people really enjoyed it.

I had an early train back to London as I had an MA dinner so I wasn’t able to play any more games. I had an amazing weekend, met some awesome people, played fun games, and all of it was in the name of research for my dissertation on participatory theatrical events. And I’m now completely enamoured by this medium. Not only do I want to play more, but I also want to get involved in creating games.

Here’s to my summer of dissertation fun fun fun.

Friday, June 3, 2011

When the concept overpowers the words

As a performer and director, I treat the play-text with the greatest respect. I love style, heightened acting, visual feasts, hybrid forms, colours, lights, sounds, textures, etc etc - but if these things don't compliment the text (especially one that's been around a while) then I too feel disconnected from the experience. And that is exactly how I felt in Deborah Warner's re-imagining of Sheridan's classic comedy The School for Scandal at the Barbican.

Sheridan's beloved comedy on Georgian social mores is often difficult to produce. It's wit, although sharp, is specific to 18th century comedy and many contemporary productions go overboard in trying to re-align the text to contemporary concerns and anxieties. But I don't think a complete re-invention of the text is necessary. It's a charming look at gossip and the keeping up with the Jones' mentality of the upper echelons of society - they're vulgar, self-centered, and shallow - and yet some are redemptive and likeable nonetheless. Warner's production is a bold attempt to bring the classic into the 21st century - mixing Georgian and contemporary styles with a Brechtian structure of movable/foldable sets, showing us the workings of stage. It's visually stunning and playful (to the point of absurdity) but the muddy concept overpowers the words and thus the characters.

Costumes mix together Georgian corsets with modern tights, buckle shoes and sneakers, ripped jeans and 18th century wigs. Cell phones and coke (both the drug and the drink) make appearances. It's as if Warner is shouting "look how relevant this is to today's world!!!"

There's nothing consistent about this production. Sheridan wrote in a simpler time. Many of today's theatre is shrouded with contemporary society's anxiety of the information age where everything is at our fingertips. Sometimes we try to overcompensate as today's world is fast and confusing as new information flows faster and faster. It's hard to keep up. Warner's production embodies this uneasiness which is why is simply doesn't work with Sheridan's assured text. Even generational differences are shown through the acting styles - adding to the confusion of the direction. The older actors are calm and confident in their characters and delivery of the text - they are subtle, clear and lovely.

I believe in being bold as a director. But I also think sometimes the boldest choice is keeping it simple. I loved the visual blurring of Georgian and contemporary styles, I also loved the set (but not for this production) but overall the concept overpowered the text. The acting (although strong all around) was not consistent nor apart of the same world. It was filled with over zealousness and lacked humanity. Breathing new life into an old story is one thing, but if you want to completely re-invent a classic then just write a new story. Also, trust your audience. I felt as if I was being coddled at times - again that has to go with the "look how relevant this old play is!" concept. When it comes to the classics, simply good story telling will suffice. Trust the words. Make them come to life.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Idiots on Horses

Ok so this is another ridiculously late post (May was all consuming!)  I saw this hilarious show back in the beginning of May at the Barbican, I definitely want to see more from the absurdly creative group Told by an Idiot.

I don't think I've ever seen anything so absurd before. There's a whole lotta WTH is happening here? We Have Hitchcock, Acrobats, Louis IVX, a department store, monkeys, bugs bunny, the Alps, dogs lit on fire, and bombs. The quintet ensemble masterfully switch from scene to scene, character to character. Although I must admit I was a bit lost in the beginning (I went into it not knowing anything about the play nor the company), once they got past the multiple story lines set-up I was able to follow along.

The interweaving story lines become darker and darker throughout but the charm and characterizations keep it funny - well, absurd really. It's only later does one realize the implications of laughing at extremism. My favorite sequence follows a family of acrobats traveling through the Alps to France on the request of Louis IVX. They find a crevasse and after chopping down a tree the family one by one cross over. Sadly, one of the members falls to his death. Cue melodramatic music:  A passing around of his hat as they all mourn his death with great over-emphasis. It's hysterical. Which is horrible. A wind storm comes and they struggle - with pure comedic eagerness - up the Alps. Unfortunately, one is blown off the mountain. Cue melodramatic music:  A passing around of her hat as they all mourn her death with great over-emphasis. Again, it's hysterical. Which, again, is horrible.

As amusing as the performances are, the dark comedy and suspense melodrama hybrid never quite reaches its full potency - partly due to the sketch comedic structure. They are working with a highly charged topic of the dangers of extremism (under the motto Enlightenment by Demonstration) and I don't think they quite succeeded in delivering that message. That being said, the sheer bravado of the ensemble is enough to keep you engaged. Watching them, I kept thinking to myself, "I want to play with them!"

This show is another example of contemporary society's preoccupation with apocalyptic anxieties. We are our own worst enemies. The Enlightenment by Demonstration conceit shows us that sometimes there's no stopping our self destructive actions.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

I'm Suspected to have superpowers but I obviously don't know how to use them.

I participated in Suspected with Fire Hazard Games back in April and am barely getting round to posting it (whoops).

24 April 2011

Two days before the event I was sent an email with my instructions → meet Sunday at 11am at Jubilee Gardens. Attached was a link to download a number sheet and wear at the testing grounds, a map of the area, and an mp3 to be played at exactly 11:15am on Sunday when Big Ben chimes. The government will be testing our superpowers – mine is mindreading. My codename: Horse.

A day before the event I received a cryptic email:

they're being too nice. years of suppression and now suddenly we’re getting awards? we think it might be a trap. best to play along for now. keep your eyes open. jackson will contact you. don’t talk. delete this message #fhsuspected

On the day I made sure I had everything I needed: number sheets – check; map – check; mp3 – check. I even brought duct tape because you never know when duct tape might come in handy. I arrived at Jubilee Gardens early and saw other “citizens” gathering, putting on their number plates and anxiously waiting for the clock to strike 11:15am. When the time came we all went silent and listened to the Citizen Education Officer instructions on our mp3 players. Due to our special powers, the government is testing our abilities to see how they function. We’re given individual cryptic clues and the hunt for codes on the South Bank begins.

To be honest, I felt really daft considering I chose intuition and throughout most of the event I had no idea what was happening. I’d figure out a clue, go to the place and then not find it (later I found out that some people were removing codes, but more on that later) and even if I figured out a clue, the next clue would be given before I had time to write down the pervious clue. (I also didn’t realize that I was supposed to be texting in clues along the way – whoops). I also had no idea how my mindreading super power came into play. And just when I was figuring things out, the test was over (30-minutes simply wasn’t enough). We all met up at the final meeting point and the director of the test came out to speak to us. Then one of the guards shouted and people pulled out nerf guns and shot the director. We were then told to disperse back into society.

Now, there was a lot happening at this event. I was totally clueless, but nonetheless still enjoyed the experience and love the concept (I just have loads of notes to make it better). I also spoke with participants after the event and many of them had a similar experience to mine and yet they all said they would like to do it again and wanted to try similar events. One guy I spoke to said he did it because he wanted a thrill, to experience something outside of everyday life. His girlfriend met up with him after the event and I asked her why she didn’t play. Simply put, she had no interest in participating in events like Suspected. She did say, however, that she loves art and going to theatre and cultural events, preferring to be a spectator and not a participant. Having these two perspectives are important in addressing my dissertation. I know why I like to play pretend (as an actor/performer and in everyday life) so I’m intrigued as to why those whose lives aren’t enmeshed in performance would like to participate in a pervasive game like this.

As I mentioned above, some of the game was ruined by the fact that some people removed codes so the rest of us could no longer play, thus giving them the advantage. Although deception was implied in the format, the code removers were not playing by the rules (to be fair, the rules were never clearly defined). According to Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens in contests and games it is essential that everyone play by the rules or else it ruins it for everyone else. So those of us who no longer had access to the codes were frustrated and confused as it hindered our ability to play and denying us the chance to get more clues to other codes.

With pervasive games like this, it appears a proper understanding of one’s role in the game is essential. I need to know why I’m running around the Southbank looking like an idiot searching for codes and running away from people wearing berets (guards). That being said, it was funny seeing the reactions of passersby react at a bunch of people wearing numbers, diligently listening to iPods and looking around desperately with such earnest.

Although this particular game needs more development, the fact that so many people stayed after the event to discuss ways of making it better with the organizers strikes up an interesting aspect of pervasive games: it brings together a community. We were all actively coming together to express our opinions and genuinely wanted to help create a better event. How many times do you do that when you walk out of the theatre? I dare argue that because these events are participatory we feel like we have the right to engage in the creation of the event. After all, participatory events like this rely on the participants – those playing need to do just that: play. And we were all hungry for more.

More. That’s something that keeps cropping up with me. I want more participation, more interaction, more risk, more thrill. I wonder if my wanting more will ever be satiated or if my wanting more will ever go too far. I also wonder why I want more – why I’m actively seeking out risk and deviance, and why I’m never completely satisfied. Will I ever resort to actual crime to get my fix? Could it ever go that far?

Monday, May 9, 2011

From Playful to Sadistic: A Deviant Lecture Series by A.L. Steed

The Department of Sociology at Queen Mary, University of London is proud to present the first part of a 12 part lecture series on Deviance and Criminology by PhD research fellow A.L. Steed.

This lecture is a brief introduction on deviance and criminology and the beginning of Miss Steed’s research in answering the question criminologists have been asking themselves for years:  ‘What are people trying to accomplish when they commit a crime and why are they trying to accomplish it?’

Please join us for the first lecture on Sunday 15 May at 6:00pm in the Mason Lecture Hall. (Here is a map of the Queen Mary campus, the Mason Lecture Hall is located in the Francis Bancroft building, number 26 on the map.

A.L. Steed (BA Psychology, MA Cultural Anthropology) is a visiting research fellow for the Department of Sociology at Queen Mary University of London. She is currently undergoing her PhD  investigating the relationship between human experience and human ontology in trying to understand and effectively deconstruct criminal and deviant behaviour. Her focus is on creativity and play and their impact on human behaviour especially with regards to criminality. A.L. has written for numerous publications such as American Journal of Sociology, Journal of Mundane Behavior and Deviant Behavior.

Disclaimer:  This is a part of the MA Theatre and Performance Independent Practical Project festival Lines of Thought.

A couple of questions with Kindle's Jess Mackinnon

I was able to ask Jess Mackinnon from Kindle Theatre a couple of questions about Eat Your Heart Out as I was writing my Contemporary theatre and performance essay on a phenomenal and semiotic reading of theatrical food. See Mackinnon's response to my inquiry on why they work with food below.

Why Food...

Because we have always been interested in rituals which bring people together... in communion. For us this is the point of theatre, and we do not often have that experience when we go to the theatre ourselves. Religion does it well... though none of us are religious. One of our earlier pieces In My Father's House borrowed directly from the Eucharist.

As friends we have found that food brings us together. We like cooking and eating and drinking too much. Food is a useful and interesting way of bringing people together, and supplies a variety of conventions that we can manipulate to tell a story... for example the toast, the decision not to eat a certain thing, the passing of the salt. In Eat Your Heart Out for example the fact that there is no vegetarian option is extremely important. It is two fingers up to the dinner party convention where all tastes are catered for, and is a provocation for the audience and a source of dinner party discussion... some people were genuinely angry, some understood the narrative significance, some vegetarians thought sod it and ate the meat.

Communion's aim is to bring humans as close together as possible, to challenge our singular, and so ultimately lonely experience. Food is the closest you can get inside another human being other than sex and we can't have sex with our audience. Though we have done another experiment where twenty Athenian youths kissed our audience, feeding them lemon posset- via the lips- in the process.

We are interested in creating peripatetic worlds and wanted to experiment with how we could tell a story through taste and smell.

Why did Kindle put together this event?

This particular event was put together because we were invited to be part of the festival and it is exciting and useful to be part of such festivals if we want to tour, and so survive in an increasingly difficult environment. The show itself has taken a number of forms, from studio show to large scale walk through installation. We put it on because we wanted to tell a story that would be interesting for an audience. We wanted to experiment with direct story-telling and with food and dining. We try to think of every new piece as an opportunity to test something and if it goes horribly wrong then at least we know. As much as possible we want to avoid being formulaic with our work though we have a style because of the consistency of the core team making and performing the work - we have our approach. We wanted to serve food that would challenge the audience. In one version the meat is served directly out of the carcass of the queen. We wanted to ask questions about how people behave at the end of the world. About the luxury of dietry choice (a couple of us are ex-vegetarians so it's not a criticism... only a question). About our capacity to look after number one. When we started making this show two years ago the fear of apocalypse felt extremely relevant... the climate change debate was particularly rampant... less so now. The grotesque campery that we have hopefully reached, means that the politics are an undercurrent rather than a polemic. Perhaps we can be more subversive by creating work which is fundamentally entertaining but sneaks in a definate argument.. or provocation is perhaps a better word.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A new form of Dinner Theater...and then some.

A few weeks ago I saw two performances that incorporated a meal as a part of the Coming Up festival. I love food almost as much as I love theatre so I was very much looking forward to seeing Kindle Theatre's Eat Your Heart Out. After seeing/eating that show I heard about Civil Unrest produced by Spike Laurie so I quickly booked tickets to that event meal as well.

We enter the long corridor of the Debut tunnel underneath London Bridge. A long table runs along the centre. Three cloaked figures stand on the table as a foggy mist drags us deeper into the tunnel. With the tables set, we sit down as guests of this post-apocalyptic dinner party.

The Aide, a hunched figure with a white face and hallowed eyes clad in black with one high-heeled shoe, welcomes us to the feast. Her high-creaky voice and eager grin is curiously inviting. Before we can partake of the aperitif, she and the three cooks of their mistress, the Queen and through differing points of mood paints the picture of the world destroyed by an asteroid leaving the world without life and therefore without food. The Aide then explains the ‘artefacts’ on our plates: in the right hand we pick up asteroid ash and in the left distilled jewels of the Queen to a toast.

Next is a little game like musical chairs but is played with a crown as the Aide selects guests. A male guest is crowned and is ceremoniously brought along the table and into the blinding white light of the kitchen. Music plays and in the distance we hear the muffled sounds of a struggle, and few hacking chops, and then what sounds like blood gushing out into a bucket. The dinner preparation noises continue as the band plays whilst spurts of nervous laughter from around the table punctuate the festivities.

Finally, the Aide re-emerges, blood drips from her mouth and hands, with an impish grin. Let the feast begin! We’re served dessicated butter and coal bread with hearty stew. I timidly poke the bread and then bang it on my plate. After tearing it open and ripping off a piece, I decide that it is more than edible, it’s rather tasty. The servants bring out the stew in tin cans, dripping with blood. I start up a conversation with the people sitting next to me (a playwright and a dance critic) as we eat our meal, consciously ignoring the question of ‘what exactly are we eating?’ ‘Mmmm, murder,’ I say with a cheeky grin. Thankfully the red hued lighting is low enough to where we can’t really see the details of what’s inside the can. I really don’t want to look in it. Blanch & Shock created the food and apparently they specialize in fake blood.

For the pudding the Aide and the three cooks carry out a wooden coffin. We’re given pH 4.2, a chilled drink, as the servants scoop out chocolate cake soil with edible flowers into our hands. After everyone has finished their pudding, the Aide comes out for one last hurrah, ending with a joke.

The narrative was simple enough to bring us into this fictional world and was entirely structured around the meal. My main complaint is that the table/stage was so long that those of us at the end could barely see the cooks on the other end. Having watched a video of a past, more intimate, dinner setting I’ve realised that we missed a lot of the playful interaction the cooks and Aide engage in with the guests. Also having read past reviews of other renditions and earlier workshops, it seems the food was a bit more adventurous too. I understand the need to simplify things a bit for such a large venue but now I feel like I’ve missed out on something more compelling. I did enjoy what was presented, I eat all of my food, and enjoyed the company of those around me, but knowing what they’ve done with the piece before makes me long for a more intimate experience.

That being said, I could have watched the Aide (played by Nina Smith) all day. She had terrific presence and highly nuanced physical gestures, movements and even voice pitches.

The Baroque inspired setting worked well with the post-apocalyptic narrative. The underlying message of food, and more importantly were we get our food from come together beautifully both thematically and aesthetically. A common anxiety today is resources and that we’ll soon run out of them. As oil prices rise, so does the cost of food. More and more attention is being directed to food – where it comes from, how it’s produced, how it’s delivered and even how it is cooked. The farming of animals in under scrutiny as documentaries and books tackle the reprehensible treatment of animals: from injections of antibiotics, growth hormones and other drugs; to cramped, unsanitary living environment; to simply inhumane treatment. The industrialisation mentality of production has driven us to the machine-like treatment of animals and food. The simple question of ‘what would the world be like without food?’ is explored in an entertaining yet poignant way with Eat Your Heart Out. An exploration that could go even further, asking more questions along the way.

Civil Unrest was completely different in almost every way except for the whole eating food part.

Once the doors were opened we were greeted by riot police. As we tried to step forward they shouted, ‘step back!’ A nervous laughter quickly spread throughout those of us at the front. Finally one guy yelled ‘push through’ and quickly downed his wine and made an attempt, but was pushed back. Slightly bewildered, he tried again, in vain. Then another guy suggested that we all band together. Determined, but with a playful easiness, we pushed through. Once through, the exhibit of photographs and journalistic art on the walls and gates created a maze in the vault. A few of us unknowingly slipped on ahead and were nicely asked by the producer to go behind the gate (so much for illusion, but it was their first night so I’ll let it slide). As we all crowed round behind the gate, we watch documentary footage of the student riots at Millbank last November.

The riot police began to antagonise us and “encouraged” us to push through again to the next section. Then we queued up for our slop of prison food, conveniently served in paper trays. The couple I stood next too wanted to play along so I joined them in heckling the police and coming up with clever chants. Then we discussed the difference between the group motivation at the protests and the group motivation of us at a theatrical event (having just discussed Teresa Brennan’s Transmission of Affect that day in class, it’s possible that I initiated this conversation.) After collection our trays of food we entered the mess hall comprising of two rows of tables and benches. Along the perimeter were benches for those who would be coming just for the play later on, and a rigged catwalk, which allowed guards to watch us from above. The table were covered in white tablecloths and each “inmate” was set with spoons and napkins as well as ‘Welcome to Prison’ notes detailing this fictional world in the near future where prisons are outsourced and prisoners are fed a gourmet meal.

I was a bit sceptical of the spoon as we were given beef, but as soon as I touched the meat with my spoon, it delicately fell apart. There was also an artichoke puree, roasted veggies, the most amazing brioche with a roll and for the pudding a delicious cheesecake mousse with poached pears and crumble topping. I ate. Every. Last. Morsel.

I had a pleasant conversation with my fellow inmates – the lady and gentleman I had been rowdy with out in the queue and another man and a female friend of his. We talked of theatre and politics, as well as food – we were all thoroughly enjoying our meal.

At the end of the meal, while the were removing the centre tables to open up the “stage” we were served a Courvoisier (a sponsor of Coming Up) cocktail. By this time the perimeter free benches were full of people – something that should have been acknowledged more during the meal but wasn’t.

Unrestless by Ben Ellis chronicles last year’s student protests through the three differing perspectives of siblings; Paul, the eldest, is a police officer; Amy, the middle child, works with students and is a major activist; Tony, the youngest, is apathetic towards both sides and is focused on finding a job to help deal with the dept left by their late parents. Director John Kachoyan utilised the entire space with actors running up and down aisle, traipsing over tables and standing above us on the catwalks.

In the spirit of full disclosure I must admit that I usually dislike political theatre. I find it didactic and often inhuman and lacking in depth. It’s evident that Ellis tried to avoid this by using the familial bonds as a structuring point. And although this helps in bringing a human and honest quality, it doesn’t quite suffice. I did, however, find the humour refreshing and the horse/we are all animals motif poetic (a motif that had great potential but needed more fleshing out). The play is entirely one sided and depicts the police (except for Paul) in an unflattering and ridiculously ignorant caricature. There’s one scene that really didn’t settle well with me. An officer talked about the beauty of destruction, and I was totally with him until he mention 9/11 and the twin towers. I didn’t find him quite so poetic after that, but rather heartless. I tend to stay away from political theatre because it is so invested in right now. So caught up in this very instant that it loses sight of the past and blocks its vision of the future. There’s no distance, no sense of mystery or evolution. The earnestness of it all totally turns me off. And the earnestness of this play is strongly felt, especially with protests still happening.

After the play there was a quick debate (I don’t remember their names but there was a lawyer, an MP and an human rights lawyer/activist). Although it was short, a few interesting points came up. The notion of a real life political drama and how each person plays their role in political protests came up. The use of language was also brought up and how reality is overlaid with lies, which are used in politics and social control.

Overall, I applaud creative director/producer Spike Laurie for the company’s ambition and thank them for taking a risk on this amalgamated theatricality. I think the entrance into the space, where we had to force our way through was a bold choice, but ultimately unsuccessful as the audience didn’t play the role of riotous mob but rather a group of theatre goers who were also hungry. Remember, we paid to be there. The expectation of us actively rioting was never alluded to in the promotion of the event. Not to mention, most people had drinks in their hands and no one wants to waste alcohol whilst playing “angry mob.”

As for the meal, I was under the impression that the free people would come in and essentially watch us (who paid the £25 for the meal) eat in this mock up prison of the future. The idea of outsourced prisons as a profitable enterprise is a fascinating idea in and of itself but its connection and importance to the overall conceit of the event is elusive.

There was so much happening over the course of the evening: an art/documentary exhibit; (timid) role play as rioters; an experimental meal; an environmental and politically charged play; and a debate. I think because this was the first night, things didn’t run as smoothly as possible, but I also think that’s because the creative team bit off more than they could chew. That being said, I’d rather have too much than none at all.

To my five followers:  how about you? Have you been to dinner and a show where the dinner was the show? As usual, let me know your thoughts. Again, I'm writing an essay on the topic for my contemporary theatre class so any suggestions and thoughts are much appreciated. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

London has turned me into a criminal.

First I broke into a building and stole things, now I'm traipsing around Londontown meeting with thieves and searching for clues to stolen goods. The following is about my experience and initial thoughts to Accomplice:  London which is one of four iterations; there are three in New York and one in Hollywood. Created by Tom Salamon and his sister Betsy Salamon-Sufott after a disappointing walking tour, they came up with the idea to create a new and exciting way of engaging with the environment. Having missed going to see it in Hollywood I was excited to see the London version.

27 February

Two days ago: I got an angry and demanding voice message instructing me to meet at a black bench at a known London landmark at precisely 4pm. Don’t be early. Don’t be late. Oh yeah, and destroy the phone. Can’t leave any evidence behind.

I show up early but don’t go to the meeting point. I look around wondering who else was there for the same reason I was. Afraid someone might be watching me I decide to blend in and wait until 4:00pm. I sit down just as my clock struck 4. A couple sit next to me and look around anxiously. It’s now after 4pm and I’m getting nervous. “Are you here for Accomplice?” I ask the couple. They nod. We wait. A guy sitting on the other side of me stands and rattles off names and walks off. I hear mine and follow after him, along with the rest of the group – about ten of us in total. Me, the young couple, a mom and dad with their 12-year-old son, an older woman her friend and an older couple.

As we gather around he begins with telling us why we’re there. He rattles off information so quickly that I just smile that impish grin of mine that I make when I find something ridiculously awesome. The details are coming in so quickly that I’ve already given up on my childhood dream of becoming a spy – I just can’t handle that much information at once. “Nigel Peter Hammersmith.” I remember that much because we all repeated it. Nigel is the reason we’ve all gathered. He organised an elaborate heist worth millions and was subsequently killed. His faithful group of thieves, or the Alliance, have waited a year to put together the clues Nigel left behind to the location of the treasure. Since there’s a hit out on the other members of the Alliance, we’ve been brought in as accomplices.

A man with a green hat walks by. We move to another area. I see a guy with a multi-coloured scarf. He seems dodgy. And what about those two guys with a map? It’s barely begun and I’m already paranoid. The man tells us about project [blank] and that we will be meeting others in the Alliance during our adventure of solving clues, cracking codes, and navigating the South Bank of London.

I’ve already shared too much. What makes Accomplice successful is its mystery. The creators of the Accomplice series ask that those who participate keep the details secret. Without giving all the details away, I will say that the entire event is fairly easy to navigate, yet paranoia will keep you second-guessing at every turn. At each meeting point members of the Alliance seem to appear out of thin air to give us the next piece of the puzzle and then just as we turn our backs, they disappear. Never knowing exactly who the next member is, I found myself wanting to approach strangers or if I caught someone looking at us, I wondered if they were in on it.

After meeting a host of characters, solving puzzles and collecting clues we made it to the end. We had a bit of trouble at the end as we were missing a clue (which was not our fault) but managed to solve the last clue and unlock the treasure. All in about 2.5 hours.

Although I enjoyed the experience as well as the subtle humour, I wanted more, for lack of a better word. I wanted my heart to beat a little faster, I wanted there to be a stronger element of risk. Maybe my group was too safe? I’ve heard stories of people talking to the homeless, going into stranger’s flats, getting lost, or not solving the puzzle at the end. My group didn’t really stick together, we didn’t really collaborate that much. While the 12-year-old and myself were completely enthralled some of the others treated it merely as a scavenger hunt and weren’t playing along. Well, to be honest, they were playing along – they just weren’t playing along to the extent that I wanted them to. I do have to mention though, at one spot where a strip club was brought up and one man from my group was called out – he played along with great comedic timing. Kudos.

It makes me wonder what the experience would have been like had I gone with a group of friends rather than my loner self. There would have been more camaraderie and easily acquired acceptance of this fictional world we were about to enter. This is a piece that uses a real landscape, characters and (an albeit weak) narrative mixed with spectacle, puzzles and comedy to create a hybrid theatrical experience, one where we aren’t just spectators but active participants. That being said, I still want more. And I think I now understand what that “more” is: power. I not only want to participate in the event, but also in the narrative. And I want a shared narrative with my group.

Obviously, with every group the experience is going to be slightly different, but because the narrative is pretty much fixed, as are the clues that get you from place to place, not much variation can occur. Where things go awry are the in-between places. The going from one clue to the next. For instance, in the beginning after we solved our first clue and met with the second person of the Alliance, we weren’t sure on where to go and almost took a wrong turn due to conflicting opinions in the group. And as I’ve mentioned before, there are stories of groups going completely off track.

It seems that the risk involved with Accomplice is a very homogenised risk. Just risky enough for the average participant but not too risky to where things get completely out of hand. I wonder if it’s possible to create an experience where the element of risk and narrative collide that feels real rather than imitation. One that really challenges and pushes you, that gets your heart racing, rather than coddled by the confines of the theatrical contract – the one that blatantly states this is fakery and therefore there’s nothing to be alarmed about.

OK, I know these last few paragraphs make it sound as if I didn’t enjoy myself. I did, thoroughly. I think the entire experience is clever and inventive, with a clear yet undemanding narrative, eccentric characters, and the city as a backdrop. It’s quite simply fun. I’d love to do it again. Obviously, I would have to pretend like I’ve never done it before and have no idea what’s going on (which I would gladly do just to see another group go through the experience).

If you've done any version of Accomplice please let me know what your experience was like. I'm using this (and Heist) as case studies for my MA dissertation on interactive theatrical events.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Just in case you didn't know the world is getting warmer.

There's a gaggle of plays out now that take on the issue of climate change. Yes, Prime Minister uses climate change as a political tactic and this past week I saw two productions on the topic: The Heretic at the Royal Court and Water at the Tricycle Theatre.

Richard Bean's new play The Heretic is a funny and provocative take on the issues and science debates regarding climate change. The protagonist Dr Diane Cassell, played with wry wit by Juliet Stevenson, publishes a controversial article on climate change that contradict the beliefs of her colleagues and peers.

This play could have benefited from another workshop or two. The first half is strong as it sets up the characters and the issues at stake. There are great hilarious touches that range from the obvious one-two punch, to the subtle and even the absurd; such as in the hilarious meeting where Dr Cassell brings in a small stuffed polar bear as her union rep when she's getting the sack. The second half (which transforms from Cassell's office to her home) becomes earnest, unfocused, unbelievable and a tad didactic. Thankfully the characters are developed enough with the aid of strong performances to keep you involved in the action of the play.

I found the "this generation is obsessed with doomsday" subplot a bit trite but I also understand the need for a strong juxtaposition to Cassell's cool, collected and skeptical grasp of climate change. Overall, however, I think this play has great potential - I just wish it had a little more time in development before being put out on the stage.

This week I also saw Water a collaboration with Filter and David Farr that first played back in 2007 and is getting a second run now at the Tricycle. The play opens with Dr. Johnson and his lecture on water molecules and how they band together - the tying motif of the play. After his death his two sons (half-brothers, one in Vancouver and one in England) meet for the first time. The second story runs parallel following a workaholic woman determined to facilitate an environmental contract before the G8 summit whilst her personal life with a cave diver falls apart.

In a very Brechtian manner (and I hate it when people throw out the word Brechtian inappropriately so I'm not using it lightly here) the three actors, a live sound mixer and the stage manager and ASM walk around on stage and set things up as the audience settles into the theatre. One of the actors begins by introducing himself and the others on the stage and then start the action. While I appreciate this tactic, I found it unnecessary as it's never used again and they all do a standard curtain call. Because Filter's aesthetic seems to be transparency in showing the mechanics of their work - especially the sound, I think just jumping into the action would have been more affective than the banal introductions.

Once the action starts, however, we see how each sound is created and the actors almost flawlessly transition from character to character and even from character to sound technician back to character. The technological aspect is in and of itself astounding. Going back to Brecht, his theatre made all the technical workings of theatre visible in order give the audience the distance needed to approach the work critically rather than emotionally. I don't think that necessarily works here. Rather it is often the technical showcasing that draws you further into the play. The entire performance is intricately directed by Farr as actors, stage hands, TV screens, computers, sounds, sets, mics, props enter a delicate choreography - with so much happening on the stage it would have been easy to get lost in all the goings. Although the overall production techniques and even the slow storyline need some tightening it really is quite the feat to watch.

There are also some absolutely stunning moments. For instance when the diver is going further and further into the ocean he slowly paces out towards us with a stop torch as sounds of his heartbeat and oxygen tank and the voice of the counter (all done by the actors and mixed by the brilliant Tim Phillips) is absolutely breath-taking. Theatricality at its finest.

With all this visibly machinery I wonder what exactly the purpose is. I'm not criticizing the technique but rather I'm wondering if it plays any vital role to the action of the play. It's as if there are two plays happening on stage - the simple plot line of the characters and the mechanics of sound. Individually they both work but I'm not quite convinced of their full integration.

Although the politics of climate change are inherent in Water the real crux of the story is character driven. Instead of being earnest in its message about climate change and the bureaucracy of academia and science like The Heretic, Water focuses on its characters-in-crises and use the lovely water molecule motif to pull it all together.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Breaking into buildings and stealing things. I did this.

13 Feb 2011

I had heard about this interactive game that takes place in a warehouse where you, along with other participants, go on a mission to acquire a set of hidden and guarded boxes and return them to base camp. It’s like a video game but in real life. My friend and I arrived at the meeting point, a pub, and met the others on the team; about 12 of us in total. After signing the necessary legalities, we were given a map of the site and our mission. The host, Casey, gave us each different coloured ties for us to identify one another, walkie-talkies and then she pulled out the tranquilizer gun (really just a toy dart gun) and asked, “Who wants to be the badass with the tranq gun?” I immediately raise my hand and grin, “Me, me!” I am now 7 years old. And it’s marvellous.

We partnered up:  Fashion Parade, Gryffindor (a guy was wearing a red and gold scarf), G & T, team Stealth, Leonado, and my friend and I were team Fargo. After looking at the map, we came up with a divide and conquer plan to go in and get the codes, cut wires, and steal the 8 boxes inside the warehouse. Of course, being amateur thieves, nothing really went according to plan.

A guard is sitting at the pub. We watch him leave and (not-so-inconspicuously) follow him. My friend grabs a couple of clementines from a fruit vendor and we decide then and there that they are not clementines, but smoke bombs. We follow the guard to a warehouse. One of the participants (who came prepared with a balaclava) tried to jump the wall. So we helped to lift him up and a soon as he reached the top, spotted a guard and then tried to crouch down. I wandered around to the side where the gate was. We unlatched the gate and filed in and hid behind the row of shipping containers. Then we split up to enter the building. My partner and I found the Internet code and radioed it over to the team inside at the computer trying to get the lock codes.

Trying to figure out how to get inside without getting caught, my partner and I ran up the side stairs and found a (nerf) gun. Now with both of us armed we broke into the back door and snuck down the staircase. Out the window I see a girl being escorted off the property. “I’m here doing community service” I hear her say. Brilliant blag, but it doesn’t work. We continue to the ground floor where we find other members of the group. We have more boxes to find. A guard comes into the room and we all hide. Balaclava guy hides in plain view and I crouch behind a ladder and tarp, and pull out my gun. The guard comes in and instead of shooting him I just get up and leave the property. So much for being a badass. My natural proclivity towards passivity took over my instincts to shoot and destroy. Plus the guard was unarmed; it just doesn’t seem right to shoot the guy in the face. This is how I rationalise my timidity. So much for video games, movies, TV, and the news desensitising me to violence.

Once outside, my partner, another girl and I try going through the front door saying we are the cleaning crew. I put on an amazing German accent. They don’t buy it. We leave. Fail. So much for trying to blag my way in, I decide to break in through the back door again. My partner and I get inside and to a small corridor of cells, but a guard comes in. He tries to escort us both out. We use our American charm to talk the guard into circles. I hide myself in a cell while my partner gets the guard outside, “I’m sure she’s outside already,” I hear her say. I turn and look and there is an “off-duty” guard just sitting there. “You really shouldn’t be in here,” he tells me. “Oh, I’m just here to check on you. You all right?” He responds. I listen to make sure my partner and the guard are gone. “Great,” I say, “take it easy.” I leave and slip into another room where I find one of the boxes. Another guy from our group has a box too. We run outside to base camp and turn in the boxes. So far we’ve got five out of the eight boxes. Time is running out so we rush back to the warehouse. I pick up a clementine from earlier and look around for the other boxes. A guard comes out just as I step out from hiding. Crap. “I just wanted to give you this,” as I offer the rotten fruit, “to apologise for earlier.” He takes and thanks me as I begin to leave the property. He goes back inside and I rush to the side and break in. Again. Finally back to the ground floor, I see everyone being escorted out. The game is over but I refuse to give up. I hid behind a door and wait. Just as I’m about to run into the next room, the guards come back so I remain hidden. My heart is racing. Finally, my hiding place is discovered and I’m escorted out of the building.

I meet up with the rest of the team at basecamp. We only got five boxes. But we did rescues someone from jail and found the gun so we get bonus points for that. As we walk back to the pub for our debriefing, we excited talk about our tactics – the ones that worked and the ones that failed. From clementines to balaclavas, community service to German cleaning ladies with a bucket, from breaking in to simply walking through the front door. Although everything about this is clearly fake, my heart still raced. I was on a high when we were done and wanted more.

Although this isn’t theatre, nor would I classify it as a performance, it is definitely performative. There’s something about playing pretend that is appealing to young and old alike. Especially in a ever-increasing digitalised world where connections and communities exist through the tubes and wires on the interweb, there’s something thrilling about the opportunity to through caution to the wind and suspending our disbelief and take the risk of actual interaction through an imaginary premise. I remember when I was a child I wanted to be a spy. I’d run around the neighbourhood, jumping fences, climbing trees, and even entered people’s garages (although I never took anything, I do have morals). I made up the rules as I played, and I played with complete abandon, fully immersed in the imaginary world I created.

As we get older we become conditioned to losing our inner child and are no longer encouraged to play with complete abandon, but rather completely abandon play. It seems that there’s an energy out there trying to rebel against this fact as more interactive theatre, performances, art and even games become more and more popular, pushing the boundaries of what it means to play, of what it means to suspend disbelief, of what it means to create and imagine…and have fun.