Dancing in the Dark: writing for interactive theatre
Our scripts for interactive theatre usually end up looking a bit… complicated.
We try to create shows where audience input is not only encouraged, but actively shapes the story. From a scripting point of view, this is sort of like deciding to write with a partner who you won’t actually meet until the performance has started, and have no idea what they’re going to put forward. This means being prepared for as many different possibilities you can think of, but also having enough flexibility within the world of the show to react to things you can’t even imagine.
We have had audiences plan impromptu riots, organise civil disobedience, steal things from performers on stage, and you never want to reach the point where the performers have to just go “Erm… we didn’t think you’d do that. Please stop it and let’s pretend that didn’t happen.”
We want to make interactive work where audiences are never able to ‘get it wrong’. Theatre is intimidating enough as it is. It can feel like there are all sorts of unwritten rules and expectations, and you don’t want to draw attention to yourself as a ‘bad audience member’. Audience participation turns these stakes up even higher, as you can feel all attention is on you to 'perform'. Then, once you’ve had that moment, the play moves on and forgets you. You weren’t part of the show, you were a joke in it. A punctuation mark.
We don’t want to make that sort of theatre. To us, the most important thing is making sure all of our audience feel comfortable, and feel like they’ve had a good, fun night out. In our shows all participation is voluntary, everything you do is celebrated, and the world of the show couldn’t exist without you in it.
We want to give audiences a sense that they're part of a world, and that the things they do matter. But at the same time, we don’t want to give so much free reign that we’re no longer telling a story, and the show stops being fun to watch for the people who don’t want to participate. For us, this means setting clear boundaries for our audiences about their role within the world, when they’re free to play, when we want to hear from them, and when it’s time to shush and listen please while we Do The Art.
With our last show, ‘Standard:Elite’, the story had a branching narrative based on decisions made by special, privileged members of the audience. This meant that huge portions of our script became like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-Book, with stage directions such as:
If they vote to follow Bill the Mountain Duck, go to page x
If they vote to follow The Turtle Crone, go to page x.
For our current show, ‘Drawing the Line’, we’re asking our audience to create two entirely new nations from scratch. They’ll be building and naming many key parts of our world. These names could be anything, leading to sections of the script that look something like:
“And I, [Spirit Name #2], do solemnly vow to protect [Nation Name #2] for as long as I still wear this [Describe Audience’s Chosen Costume].”
We also have games throughout our shows, meaning that large sections of the script are devoted to explaining game rules. You can never tell how much explanation will be needed, so this has lead to genuine stage directions including:
If they have any questions, answer them here.
Hopefully they understand by now, but if not Spirit #1 goes through it again while Spirit #2 sets up.
Please god everyone understands the rules by now. If not, say something funny, and both spirits start playing the game themselves.
Ultimately, all the interactive stuff comes down to each audience on the night and we have to trust our performers to respond to them in the way that’s right for those people. It’s the job of the script to give the performers as much as possible to draw from and fall back on, and to make sure that no matter what our audience give us, there’s a strong narrative underneath it all. A story that can unite us, no matter what else is happening.
Or, if all else fails, hopefully someone will just say something funny.
Elliot Hughes is Artistic Director of Hidden Track Theatre and writer of Drawing the Line
Hidden Track are Oxford Playhouse EVOLVE associates for 2019.
Drawing the Line premieres at Deptford Lounge, part of The Albany, Deptford on May 9th running to the 25th Thu – Sat only. For further information and tickets.