Interactive theatre is many things. It’s even been described as the future of the form for experience-hungry audiences looking for a different offer to the top quality storytelling Netflix beams into living rooms in rich season-sized blocks.
But, for me, the deepest appeal of interactive theatre has always been that it’s political.
Even the most experience-centric productions like the rollercoaster of You Me Bum Bum Train or the immersive detail of the Punchdrunk’s lavish work, are political acts in which to participate. Why so? Because they invite audiences to make choices – be that who to follow, or how to respond – and (in good work at least) those choices carry consequences. In a consumer society where we are systemically engineered to be passive, foregrounding the experience of direct choice with real consequences – especially in the sort of aesthetic pressure cooker that theatre creates – makes for a profoundly political experience.
To experience these shows fully, you have to fully turn up. Your presence is the power that unlocks the story and your choices can genuinely alter how that story plays out. In this world, the audience are powerful.
What has become clearer recently is that the form of a show can be as much of a political act as its content. In our case, this means both the interactivity and the gameplay that form the heart of our work. Games are political because play is the antithesis of dogmatism. When you’re in a game, normal life rules get suspended and you relate to one another and the matrix of new rules you’re inside differently. In this magic realm there’s space for new ideas to be considered flexibly and openly. Effective gameplay requires empathy and imagination – you need to be thinking ahead about how your opponents might react. And the sort of fun you can have playing together creates connection and unity.
Increasingly, video game designers are picking up on these qualities, building algorithms that adjust the rules of the play from within a game to encourage creativity and collaboration. In theatre, of course, we have living algorithms who get to guide and nuance the play, otherwise known as actors.
Drawing the Line is our most ambitious show to date and, from our point of view, where these ideas get really exciting. Bringing together the power of play and interactivity with genuinely political new writing will create, we hope, a double whammy of a political and social experience.
We are trying to create a world where audiences get to play out different roles, to experience fundamental choices about how society is constructed and how we collaborate and compete as communities, whilst also sharing an original and inspiring new story. And it will be fun too – why should good art not also be masses of fun? This, of course, is also political. Our work is anti-elitist and aims to be fully accessible. And yes, foregrounding audience choice means we can’t ignore the most basic one – everyone who comes to our shows has the choice whether or not to interact, to participate at all.
Drawing the Line is the opposite of those shows where you get plucked from the front row to make a fool of yourself in front of the other punters, all quietly relieved it isn’t them. We build our shows to work with audiences in the way they want to contribute: as much or little as any individual is comfortable with. Choice is the important thing.
We live in a moment of acute political instability, masquerading as business as usual. This is the place we’re making our theatre from and for us, only interactive, game-based theatre makes sense. Politically, socially, ecologically, we are on the cusp of potential great change and it will be up to us as to the form that change will ultimately take.
Remembering that we have choices and encouraging the faith that these choices can create change is a vital and radical act.
Top image shows Hidden Track show Standard:Elite. Photo by Rosie Powell