Sunday 27 September 2009

Challenge and Response

This is a promised response to Matt Trueman, whose blog is well worth tracking. He wrote at length about Rotozaza's autoteatro, and observed how he felt "performative elements of our participation overpower our role as audience". I thought he'd meant one thing - how the thrill of immersion can sometimes drown a more reflective experience. But it turned out in his comment he actually meant another: how the sometime self-consciousness of audience play can undermine the intentions of the piece and the capacity to look and listen as audience to what the piece offers.

You can read Matt's original post here. I'm responding in relative depth here because it's provoking thinking that might be useful as we return to making A Small Town Anywhere, tomorrow...

But this is a draft, I don't think I've nailed what I want to say just yet.


The autoteatro of Rotozaza is evolving from an earlier practice they revealingly dubbed TOCAR: Theatre of Command and Response. It's giving instructions to unrehearsed performers, whether they are performers in front of an audience - as in Doublethink or Bloke, in which I was once that unrehearsed performer - or whether they are autoteatro's audience as performers - as in Etiquette or GuruGuru (which I've shamefully not experienced yet).

-- btw before I go any further, don't read any of this as being negative of Rotozaza's work; I haven't always agreed with everything I've seen, but I'd back Doublethink and Etiquette as miniature masterpieces and they remain a crucial company --

The avowed intention in TOCAR was to give beat-by-beat live instructions that gave no space to the performer but to carry them out as well as you could as soon as you could. It's a liberating - although exhausting - experience because you carry far less responsibility for your performance. It rarely gave you space to reflect or to exercise any creativity (or agency) in your response. The audience watching you might be moved by your effort in striving to complete the instructions as much as the overall constructed effect of the piece of which you might be mostly unaware. And you largely lose your sense of self in the process.

Game-based performance often does something quite different. In the orthodox game-design camp (that often dominates Hide & Seek), it gives objectives to its players. Pursue this goal, follow this set of rules, achieve the win. Objective is an analogous term to that of your Stanislavskian actor. The good game usually presents you with an obstacle to your objective - whether a dynamic between two contrasting mechanics or a competing player. Sometimes there might be different ways for you to achieve your objective, that give space for player creativity. The focus on the objective often drives players into a very lean-forward high-flow engagement such that they again can lose a sense of self in the game.

Starting to get lost in terminology now. The challenge is an objective that gives the minimum necessary specification of how you should achieve it, and plenty of space for players to get creative in how they do that. A game like Noah's Lark by Coney - which I mean to write about soon - rewards that creativity in game-points. But creativity is implicitly rewarding - it's fun. Andy Field's game Checkpoint challenges its smuggling players to get awkward and clumsy contraband past guards, and leaves it to them to find the ways to do that. The art here is in the specification that the game puts into the challenge - over-specify and you kill the creativity and therefore the fun, under-specify and you end up with responses that aren't supported by the rest of the piece or simply bewildered players.

The ask: literally that. Ask something of your playing audiences to help them colour in your framework, or to give the piece something that it then incorporates. Whether it's a list of ideal dinner guests asked for The Feast as Matt reported, the skeleton in your closet that the Small Town Historian might ask of you should you engage with him in advance of A Small Town Anywhere, or perhaps the granddaddy of them all, the suggestions from the audience that improvisers like the Comedy Store Players take to make funny (or not). There's a similar art in specification for the ask, which can be explicit or implicit in the atmosphere or world of the piece. There also should be a responsiveness to the audience's initial answer that can transform it deftly into something the piece can properly incorporate without diluting the audience's investment - if you tell the Historian that you are expecting the child of Le Publican, he might remind you that the paternity could yet be questioned, keeping the spirit of your suggestion but giving more space for interesting storylines to emerge.

The space that opens up the consciously creative response for a playing audience is also that which opens up a sense of one's self in the game/play. Which opens up into self-consciousness when that becomes performative, in a room with other people. This sense of self in the playspace is not necessarily problematic - it's also what enables reflection. Nor indeed must it be pervasive, it's easy enough to make space for playing audiences to get accustomed to it and retune to listen to the piece. Or punctuate so that the transitions in and out of the liminal space enable a more reflective response.

Matt's main gripe seems to be against players who are working against the game/play. I'd say it's not always their responsibility. The piece itself must foster and encourage the kinds and specificities of response from its audiences. Which could be an improviser thanking an audience for the umpteenth suggestion of "toilet" and taking another. In the case of The Feast, I suspect that as we'd deliberately left the piece quite light to make the feasting itself easy, there wasn't enough meat to harness the audience to its central themes - not that I mind getting that list of suggestions. I reckon that sometimes what seems like a 'griefer' response is because the player rebels against the imposition of the format, real or perceived. I did Internal earlier this year at Burst at BAC. As interesting and provoking as the piece was, it left me feeling slightly cheapened by its manipulation and I wouldn't have begrudged anyone who strove to assert their self. And in what sounds to me like the world's most misconceived piece of theatre ever - Badac's The Factory - I was only cheering the critics who rebelled.

The challenge for us making this kind of work is how to allow a range of active responses which might be inspired, might be self-conscious, might even be rebelling. Without ever losing the beauty that comes in a group of people playing together. Baby, bathwater.

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