Monday, 29 April 2013

2013: 35º 17 South - Gaming Theatre by Karla Conway. Interview feature article.

35º 17 South created by Karla Conway.  Canberra Youth Theatre at the National Gallery of Australia Sculpture Garden, Saturday April 13 to Saturday April 20, 2013.

Frank McKone in discussion with Karla Conway.

When I reviewed 35º 17 South (on Canberra Critics' Circle blog and this blog Sunday 14 April, which you may like to refer to as you read on) I found myself asking questions about drama games, audience involvement, risks, and results of experimenting with new technology.  After being present for just the very beginning of a work that continued over a whole week, I was keen to meet the creator, artistic director of Canberra Youth Theatre, Karla Conway, to find some answers.

What I discovered is a new kind of theatre.  In recent times theatrical forms have been merging in new ways: I have been particularly interested in the new forms of Dance Theatre, for example.  But here we have “location gaming theatre”.  As Karla explained the process of creating the work and told stories from the experiences of the 400 people who took part over the week, I bit by bit saw my understanding come into focus.

Gaming Theatre sets up a new relationship between the audience (or “players”), the actors, and the location (in this case the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Australia).

A starting point for discussion was whether 35º 17 South was really no different from a large-group drama improvisation workshop, of the kind often used in drama education and theatre rehearsals.  Were the paying “audience” simply participants alongside the CYT “actors”, all improvising in an unstructured way on a theme of refugee issues?  In this kind of process, I would have established the theme via some kind of stimulus in an acting space, let the improvisation develop, and follow up with a reflection and debriefing session to explore what happened and what the participants learned about themselves and the theme.

But, no, explained Karla.  She was the author of a complete narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end.  In fact she holds the copyright on that creation, which in its final form looks rather like a flow chart, with optional pathways at certain points, rather than a single-spine narrative.  The structure is supplied by the game, which is played by the audience – that is why they are called “players” rather than being a static observing “audience”.  They pay for a theatre experience as they actively play the game, rather than for a conventional passive absorbing of theatre.

Each player in Gaming Theatre has the same objective – to complete the narrative and find out what happens in the end – just as an audience member has in a conventional play-watching situation.  What the game provides are multiple possible choices after the first task (counting the bolts on the Diamond sculpture), taking each player through the flow chart on an individual set of pathways.  This process is dramatically enhanced by the basic scripting of each of the characters they meet, allowing the actors to improvise, strictly in character, in response to each player’s questions or expectations of them.  One of the major successes of the week’s work for the Canberra Youth Theatre as a training institution was that so many players were surprised and very impressed by the actors’ maintaining their characters so well in the face of unknown and often highly unexpected demands made by players who were trying to work out how they, as refugees, could find the shelter they needed.

It is at this point that I recognised what is new in this form of theatre, especially compared with experiments in the past about changing the relationship between the audience and the actors.  In the Open Theatre of the 1970s, or action taking place in the auditorium or the foyer, or in street theatre of all kinds, including all those different arrangements of audience participation, the actors are in control.

In this Gaming Theatre, the players are in control, making their own decisions as they seek out the codes to take them further, and decide what to say to an actor and how to respond to the actor’s character’s decision in return.  All this takes place within the game structure with its explicit and sometimes hidden rules, and so the theatrical experience is much more like playing out situations in real life than can happen in conventional theatre.

Here it is important to recognise the crucial role played by the writers of the code for the game, the Academy of Interactive Entertainment team, who worked over a lengthy period to make the game work consistently with Conway’s original narrative.  This was more than a clerical exercise, of course, but a creative work complementary to hers.  (I didn’t ask who holds the software copyright!)  As Karla pointed out, one of her disappointments in theatre of recent times has been the use of multi-media which is no more than illustration or distraction, instead of being fully integrated into the creation of the drama.

Here, the gaming code, the use of the tablets to find one’s way, and the narrative are all integral to the action and the player’s sense of satisfaction with this new form of theatre.   The location might be seen as more peripheral, since the main achievement here was to open up the players’ and the actors’ awareness of the artworks.  I suppose the only other way to integrate the location would have been to do what SBS did with Go Back to Where You Came From – and play the game for real starting in Afghanistan and ending up in Canberra!

But something like that reality happened, on occasions that Karla observed.  In the story there is a baby – represented physically by a doll – in “radioactive” mist.  To rescue the baby (and save themselves from the radioactivity) a player must find the code as quickly as possible and move to the next position with a digital “saved child”.

However, one player, male, took the doll physically to the actor who was a black market trader and tried to sell it to him to obtain other resources, like a weapon, to get further along the road to safety.  How’s that for something Brechtian.  Mother Courage and her Children you could say.  After negotiations, in character, the baby was returned to its “radioactive” location for another player to find it.

But then (I think on a different day), a woman picked the baby up to comfort it, refusing to hand it to the nearby actors because, she said, she couldn’t trust them to treat it properly.  So the actors had to improvise, within their various characters, bringing in others to help, until they established trust enough for the player to hand over the baby – so it again could be returned to its location.  So there you go – The Caucasian Chalk Circle in the Sculpture Garden, except that empathy provided a positive solution to who owned the child, rather than the threat of cutting it in half.

Other stories too showed how deeply players became immersed in the ethics of the drama and the emotional effects of the situation of being a refugee.  There was no formal de-brief for the players, just as they would have left a conventional theatre having to work out for themselves whether it was right or naive of Mother Courage’s daughter Kattrin to bang the drum which warned the village below of impending attack, from the very soldiers who then killed her as a traitor.  But then, Karla reported, every player completed the game, and so reached the safety of the Skyspace – both as a player in the role of refugee, and in a different sense, as a person experiencing theatre.

Not only, then, is Gaming Theatre an exciting original new form, especially for the young for whom apps and tapping tablet screens is entirely normal, but – in the right author’s hands – is as valid and powerful as any other good quality theatre.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

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