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.