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Playable Plays: Toward a New Interactivity

Audience members standing alongside performers on stage.

A still from The Movement Theater Company's production Aleshea Harris's What to Send Up When it Goes Down in New York, NY, directed by Whitney White, featuring Ugo Chukwu. Photo by Ahron R. Foster. Audience members stand alongside performers in the opening section, actively contributing spoken thoughts—and written words—to the experience.

Millions of dollars are being poured into the “immersive” art sector worldwide in the form of explorable art installations, pop-up projection palaces, virtual reality experiences, and more. As a playwright who has worked in this sector during its ascendance, I’ve been inspired by the vastness of the audience it’s unlocked—as well as that audience’s willingness to engage with deep, complex stories.

I’ve also noticed that many of these experiences can use precisely what we’re so good at as theatremakers: an understanding of how audiences build meaning from a living event and the channeling of precise experiential goals through written text. These insights inspire me to advocate for a text-centered, tech-positive approach to creating participatory performance. I want us theatremakers to bring our craft and collaborative instincts to create discipline-blurring, audience-centered work that is authored.

The great news is, there are works that are already doing this. Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me brings the audience into a debate session and even brings one member onstage to make an important decision. Underground Railroad Game by Jennifer Kidwell, Scott R. Shepard, and Lightning Rod Special, calls on audiences to use toy figurines planted beneath their seats to identify with one of the two Civil War armies. Aleshea Harris’s What to Send Up When It Goes Down begins with a powerful ritual that calls upon every audience member to stand, speak, and physically situate themselves in relationship to anti-Blackness and racist violence. Even when not specifically interacting with the performance, these plays activate the audience’s awareness of themselves and their role in the proceedings… an activation that is very much in an immersive-theatre mold.

But these plays aren’t really “immersive,” right? They exist somewhere in the boundary-lands between the two forms. Those boundary-lands are what I wish to explore—and, through doing so, advocate for a more precise awareness of how we treat interactivity as theatremakers. It could start with creating a way to label aspects of a theatre piece that call on audiences to influence, co-create, or otherwise activate their physical presence. I call these parts of a play, “playable.”

Playing with a thing brings one into the world of the games it allows; something playable is something open to input and manipulation. All plays (in the suspension-of-disbelief sense) aim to bring viewers into their worlds, but a playable one also offers this sense of pliability—inviting its audience to act upon or within the imagined “container” of a theatrical event. Any play can theoretically be playable at any moment—in the same way that any play can theoretically have a dinosaur enter at any moment. And just as a light cue can be timed anywhere from a mega-slow fade to an abrupt blackout, I propose that the “playability” of a play exists on a spectrum ranging from casting the audience as fourth-walled observers, to full-fledged co-creators.

Here’s a tiny little theatre-nugget:

(Jilted and Lover are eating dinner.)

Jilted: This wine is delicious. Have some food!

Lover: I’m leaving you.

Jilted: Not until you try the potatoes!

Lover: There’s poison in them.

Jilted: Poison? You already drank it.

(Lover dies. End.)

Not a modern classic here, but it’ll do for the sake of an example. Now, as it is, the audience is in a sort of default state: unmentioned, and thus purely witness to the action. A tick forward on the playability spectrum, toward co-creation, might look like:

(The audience is seated at tables with silverware, empty plates, and cups filled with wine. When the play starts, Jilted and Lover are eating dinner at a table with the same set-up.)

Jilted: This wine is delicious. Have some food!

Lover: I’m leaving you.

Jilted: Not until you try the potatoes!

Lover: There’s poison in them.

Jilted: Poison? You already drank it.

(Lover dies. Jilted looks out toward the audience. End.)

Here we use scenography to bring the audience emotionally closer to the action, perhaps inspiring them to reflect on their pre-show wine consumption. This sort of “including but not influencing” approach is echoed in pieces like: playwright Hannah Kenah’s Now Now Oh Now (with Austin’s Rude Mechs), in which audience members interact with dinner place-settings in sync with a natural history lecture; Alison S.M. Kobayashi’s Say Something Bunny!, in which audiences are “cast” in a script reading but are only asked to identify with their characters, not speak their lines aloud; and two recent Broadway hits, Daniel Fish’s revival of Oklahoma! and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, which took the time-tested heart-via-the-stomach approach by doling out (respectively) chili and pierogies.

All plays (in the suspension-of-disbelief sense) aim to bring viewers into their worlds, but a playable one also offers this sense of pliability—inviting its audience to act upon or within the imagined “container” of a theatrical event.

Let’s take another step down the spectrum:

(Before the show starts, a blue meter labeled WINE BOTTLES KILLED is projected on stage. The meter fills up in accordance with how much wine the audience has drunk out of the theatre’s concession stands. At the meter’s halfway point is a hatch mark, which—if passed—changes the meter’s color from blue to red. The meter disappears when the lights come up. Jilted and Lover are eating dinner.)

Jilted: This wine is delicious. Have some food!

Lover: I’m leaving you.

Jilted: Not until you try the potatoes!

Lover: There’s poison in them.

(If the wine meter didn’t pass the hatch mark [is blue]):

Jilted: Nope. In the wine. But you’re never thirsty enough.

(Lover gets up and leaves. End.)

(If the wine meter did pass the hatch mark [is red]):

Jilted: Poison? You already drank it.

(Lover dies. End.)

The direct audience influence on the play here is in the form of shaping specific moments. The above could be called “unknown influence” because the audience knows that the amount of water they drink (and whether they pass the hatch mark) will mean something but they don’t know what. This could easily be tweaked into a “known” influence by informing the audience what the results of this meter game might mean for the action. There could even be an unconscious state of influence, in which the meter is only revealed in the moments before the play starts! Some examples of plays that utilize these forms of influence include Dutch troupe Ontroerend Goed’s A Game of You, in which surreptitiously-recorded participants “create” behaviors that performers later mimic; and In and Of Itself, Derek DelGaudio’s magic show/performance art mash-up in which a choice each audience member makes upon entering the theatre becomes part of a “trick” near the piece’s end.

Continuing along the playability spectrum, the audience might influence the entire structure of the play—beyond co-creating certain beats. Perhaps they make choices via an interface that influences the direction of a show through multiple possible branches (akin to choose-your-own-adventure books and, more recently, “Bandersnatch,” the interactive episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror). Perhaps they make choices to dynamically control a character and one aspect of their behavior, such as their movement through space, that carves a unique path through a wider set of potential events and outcomes (as in open-world video games such as Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild).

Somewhere at the far end of the playability spectrum is this:

This is audience members no longer simply influencing but performing—in this instance, by being split into two groups making dialog choices (white boxes) that are spoken into the space (blue boxes), resulting in one of three different endings (red boxes). There is an erasure here of some of the physical separation between creator and experiencer. Such erasure also occurs in Jordan Tannahill’s Draw Me Close—in which a single participant wears a VR headset to embody a character, interacting with a motion-captured mother character inside a digitized home that is fully “mapped” to touchable, tangible objects. Draw Me Close gives freedom to move through sections at one’s own pace and even have improvised conversation with the mother character. The far end of the playability spectrum is in kinship with the freeform playing of children.

Most of these examples utilize technology in some form. That’s no surprise; we live in a deeply interconnected and networked era. But it does lead to bigger questions: Should we push toward only making analog work in these modes? Should we bring technology and networks in at all?

I believe theatre can model a way for digital networks to function humanely, toward the co-creation of meaningful “IRL” moments. We are now as used to being “seen” by our technology as we are by other people… but so much of technology’s “seeing” is for the purposes of exploiting our attention for profit. Playable plays can present an opportunity for audience members to contribute their data for the purposes of co-creating a meaningful experience or being seen in a more holistic and humane manner than the default, “What’s best to sell to you?” mode that the tech giants have woven into our realities. They can serve as a refuge from commodification and a place to build hope for an increasingly digitized future.

Indeed, the events of the last couple years have brought theatremakers closer to these ideas than ever before. The proliferation of digital theatre experiences necessitated by the COVID pandemic have made us increasingly literate in using technology to bring audiences deeper into shared moments together. So why not now return that literacy into our staged spaces?

We are sculptors of the live moment. Whether we like it or not, our collective sense of liveness in 2022 very much includes usage of connected gadgetry. If we don’t embrace technology within our work, we are eliminating the most compelling new ways to bring audience members deeper into a shared experience—and these innovations will enter society to connect people in other ways, regardless of what we do. (One of the biggest companies in the world pivoting towards the “metaverse” is a good example of this.)

I’m inspired by a quote from Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, who (way back in 1998) said that in the future, “like air and drinking water, being digital will be noticed only by its absence, not its presence.” I believe this to be true in the year 2022, and as a theatremaker it creates an inspiring contradiction. On one hand, we will always need theatrical experiences that are network-free; that will bring us back to the aspects of our experience that are diminished when we are tapped into the network. On the other hand, we will always need a theatre that meets people where they are, and how they live, right now… and for all the “nows” coming around the bend. I believe both these needs—for tech-free and tech-heavy plays—can coexist within our individual and collective artistic practices.

I’m aware that the tech-heavy approach can create production obstacles that are at best burdensome, and at worst insurmountable. Hiring a dedicated technology designer? Acquiring and networking two hundred VR headsets for simultaneous use? For most of us, these are impossible asks. I see two approaches to overcoming these hurdles. The first is in accepting practical constraints as creative one. For instance, tailoring a playability approach to what the production’s media designer knows how to make. Perhaps shrinking two hundred headsets down to five headsets that were cleaned and passed around at scripted points within the experience?

We are sculptors of the live moment. Whether we like it or not, our collective sense of liveness in 2022 very much includes usage of connected gadgetry.

The second approach is to write the impossible anyway. The idea here is to expand the imaginations of readers and of the organizations that are interested in breaking this ground (such as Creative Capital with their 2023/24 Wild Futures grant cycle). Both approaches are warranted and needed. Experiential storytelling is ascendant, and we as theatremakers should move ourselves towards it in every way we can.

At its best, interactivity reinvigorates our active roles in shaping our personal and collective reality. When we are asked to put on a symbolic lens as an audience member, or a very physical set of lenses as a VR co-performer, we become agents in the event—a quivering node in the systems of meaning-making constantly being built and rebuilt around us. To bring these ideas to bear within a playwriting/devising process is to jolt our audiences out from a distanced mode of processing into one of embodied action. Let’s ponder, poke at, and teach these modes of making for a world that desperately needs us to be more than simply spectators.

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