A New Kind of Theatre: Play in Public Spaces
Theatre production companies take on the role of game designers as a growing immersion in multimedia alters expectations of entertainment.
In an increasingly digitised world, the needs of audiences are changing. Everyone is familiar with the democratic approach to entertainment advocated by the internet, where all are free to create content, post a video on YouTube or have their music heard on MySpace. This has resulted in a generation that is not happy to sit passively in the dark stalls of a theatre, but demands interactive elements in performance. In response to this, revolutionary entertainments have emerged. The flash mob is a prime demonstration of the type of new, audience-created performances that people desire in the multimedia age. Flash mobbing is symptomatic of the rise in digital technology, which has not only given people the license to make their own entertainment but the tools to do so as well. The internet crosses geographical constraints and allows people to form communities in ways they never have before, enabling people to choreograph and co-ordinate events on a scale not previously possible.
Interestingly, the rise of the internet is also making these spontaneous social interactions more desirable. Jeff Hull, Director of San Francisco-based situational design company, Nonchalance, talks about how the internet has led to an increased sense of solitude: “You can still feel very isolated when you’re in a chat room or on Facebook. You’re reaching out but you’re still alone.” There is an apparent paradox to the internet: it offers users the opportunity to forge worldwide relationships and yet distances them from their surroundings and actual experiences. It is this separation, however, that prompts a search for deeper engagement and precipitates the need for real-world interaction, social games and immersive performances. Ironically, these are often facilitated by the very medium that makes them necessary.
Hull explains how his production, The Games of Nonchalance, arose from a desire to move these digital communities offline and back into the 3D world. By incorporating the concept of user-driven content into the theatrical realm, Hull is representative of the vanguard, those practitioners who are forging a new future in entertainment. The idea is expressed through performances that encourage audience involvement and offer a deeper engagement within the experience. Hull’s production takes the form of a city-wide adventure game, complete with live actors and site-specific performances. Audience members’ experiences of The Games of Nonchalance are entirely dependent on the level of their involvement.
Set in downtown San Francisco, the production leads the participants on an urban exploration throughout the city. Funded to a large degree out of Hull’s own pocket, the experimental work was created with the simple desire to “infuse more variability and play into the civic realm.” The aim is to provoke discovery and content is delivered in an astonishing variety of formats, from radios in a public park to notes in a CD case. There are three episodes, though the dedicated may discover more, and each episode has a central narrative plot. Intricate sub-plots pepper this central storyline and give the audience license to take their involvement further. What fascinates Hull is how the players have taken ownership of the production: “Members of that community have started to create their own concepts and episodes of the game, which is really exciting.” This willingness to appropriate narratives and take an active role defines the new audience; the future of entertainment depends on the ability of its producers to adapt and respond to this challenge in creative ways.
People are keen to be players and creators rather than spectators and productions such as Hull’s gratify these aspirations: “We’ve encouraged and entitled them, given them license to influence play.” This concept of “play” is significant. Emphasis has moved from the noun, “the play”, to the verb, “to play”, and audiences are participants in games, not onlookers watching performances. Veterans of immersive theatre such as Britain’s Punchdrunk and Forced Entertainment have long promoted the active audience but audience-led theatre has experienced a huge growth in popularity over the last few years.
Festivals such as the Come Out & Play Festival in New York are encouraging social games in innovative spaces, offering situational theatre where anything can become a stage and narratives are inspired by play. The Hide&Seek Weekender is another event that puts these ideas into practice, providing three days of pervasive games in London, most recently at The National Theatre in July. On the Hide&Seek website, the group express their motivations for creating this type of theatre: “Our values are centred on our belief that play, as a theme, a way of being, and design tool, is integral to understanding how culture will develop in the 21st century.” People are demanding experiences that allow them to be active rather than passive, searching for what is lacking from the social interactions of the digital age: meaningful encounters, true connectivity and inclusion.
Trust is an integral component to this type of theatre. Productions that utilise social games to engage their audience rely upon their participants to be enthusiastic. Likewise, the audience must trust the producers not to manipulate them but to support them in their play. Theatre that aims to break down constraints often results in situations where the audience is vulnerable to exploitation and it is paramount that the audience don’t feel betrayed. Hull has found that an atmosphere of mutual assurance has developed in his production: “They trust us enough to take the next step and know that we’re guiding them with a purpose.” People need to feel secure in order to take chances and the emerging genre of entertainment is reliant on this interaction. Together, through co-operation and participation, the creators and the players in these performances integrate their roles and work to develop a community in the “third place.”
This term, “third place”, refers to those social surroundings, which are neither home or workplace, but places such as coffee shops. These are the places that foster community and encourage creative interaction. However, in the digital age, we are in danger of replacing these spaces with artificial substitutes. The “third place” has already become subsumed into internet culture, with people seeking interaction in virtual locations such as chatrooms. These internet communities, valuable in their own right, encourage only a shallow engagement with the external world and risk neglect of the closer, offline community. The work of practitioners such as Hull strive to reverse this trend, creating entertainment that incorporates digital media with real-world communities and begs the question: is this a new movement? “I can’t quite call it a movement because it’s not co-ordinated in any way, but there are many people in different fields approaching the “third place” and looking to activate it.” These projects aim to reclaim the “third place” from the digital realm and create real experiences that encourage social engagement and civic participation, which is integral to society.
The development of community is a fundamental aspect of The Games of Nonchalance, which collaborates with local retail shops and utilises public spaces like parks. In certain episodes, team play is critical to success: “The players have to come together at a certain time and place and each one of them has a slice of the information needed. They have to guide each other and depend on each other. If there are weak links in the group then it’s impossible to progress and I think the fact that we have had 100 people through that episode is a tribute to their commitment.” The dedication of the audience demonstrates the potential of this new entertainment to create communities. Hull dreams that “public spaces will become playgrounds, with rope swings and slides instead of escalators.” While public liability may prohibit this, the new genre of performance offers a movement towards this integrated society, putting the control back into the hands of the players and fulfilling the desires of the multimedia age.
The Games of Nonchalance concluded in San Francisco in September 2010 and was free to participate. In the UK, there were a variety of interactive shows at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2010. A few suggestions were Fifth Wall’s Suspicious Package, C Theatre’s Shakespeare for Breakfast and MT’s Poignant. For more information about The Games of Nonchalance visit www.nonchalance.com.