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.

Scratch Manifesto

I was challenged in a cold-call from BAC on Friday. In the Scratch Festival themed on Democracy, they had persuaded Martin Linton, MP for Battersea, to accept a challenge and wanted me to do the same. Namely that we'd each be given 24 hours to prepare a 5-minute manifesto. Martin as an artist, me as a politician; it happened last night. Martin was great, underlining his unsung role in the setting up of BAC, and more recently in saving it. I liked what I wrote, so I'm posting it here with the caveat that yes, it's a manifesto so it's got a lot of rhetoric. But also some rabbits.


The Manifesto I Sign Up To

In the American Declaration of Independence, Jefferson underlines the pursuit of happiness.

Happiness matters.

The manifesto I sign up to drops wealth as a measure and goal for the nation; instead of Gross National Product, rather embraces Gross National Happiness. Just as they have - for real - in the kingdom of Bhutan.

Not the happy-clappy happiness but something deeper-rooted. That comes from agency and responsibility and connectedness. Community.

In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln declared government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth. But here it's withering. The connection and agency that people feel to party politics is diffused and diminished, dominated by personal interest.

The manifesto I sign up to radically transforms democracy into a living community.

Councillors - at the local level - and MPs - at the national level - are no longer the decision-makers. Rather they are elected best to facilitate the debate of the issues and assemble gatherings of people - in council chambers like this one. It's democracy for the day, like jury service, new people gathered every day to decide matters brought to them. New votes every day, but every day the people are present.

At national level, cabinet is elected by MPs every quarter. You only get to do it once.

The office of Prime Minister and the Monarch are both abolished and replaced by rabbits. A pair of rabbits. It's in the nature of rabbits that it's difficult to keep track of precisely which pair of rabbits is which. But actually, crucially, any pair will do.

The House of Lords is abolished and replaced by two chambers with veto power.

One chamber is full of eight-year-olds, who will veto any proposal that is not clear, not fair or not fun. Or appears to be upsetting the rabbits.

The other chamber is full of eighty-year-olds who veto not on behalf of their own elder generation but on behalf of all future generations yet to come. So we do right by the past and the future.

Everyone is responsible. We take the consequences of our actions and discover our own passions. So I have some proposals that are rabble-rousing. And rabbit-rousing, not that they need much encouragement.

For every extra zero on the end of a banker's bonus, an extra digit of their PIN is released to the general public.

The headquarters of every energy and resource-burning corporation, together with the house of their CEO, is forcibly relocated to low-lying islands in the Indian ocean, better to focus their minds on melting ice caps and rising sea levels.

And on a lighter note, borrowing a trick from Google, 20% of our time in work or in school is for us to pursue whatever we find interesting, without worry of results, and to share what we find with everyone, better to dream our future together.

The Manifesto I sign up to abolishes income tax and instead creates The Club of the Common Good. It's a bit like a Christmas Club. There's a means-tested tax for everyone to pay their bit together for the things we can't afford to buy properly individually. Education. Health. Art, even.

You benefit more individually the more you do for the Common Good, - recycling, gardening, loft insulation, even feeding back on scratch performances.

But every time you do something for your own individual good, it's taxed and hypothecated for the Club of the Common Good.

Private school fees? Great. You just bought textbooks for your local state school.
Filling up your car? Good work. You just helped make train tickets cheaper.
Plastic bag? Brilliant. You just subsidised a local allotment.

And everyone is themselves challenged to come up with new ideas and rules for the Common Good. And rewarded with an opportunity to pet the rabbits.

Happiness is also born of reflectiveness.

We're in this together. That's what politics is about, fundamentally. People here in the first chamber of the manifesto I sign up to, please look at each other. Take a moment to say hello not just to your friends but those on the other side of the room. Imagine windows here, here and here through which the world is looking in, and you can see the world: past, present and future.

We're in this together. Us and the rabbits.