“Games are just agreed sets of temporary behaviour out of which sequences of individual choices and lived experience emerge and become stories of tragic loss and heroic triumph,” says Robert Reid, co-founder of Pop Up Playground. Together with Theatre Works, Pop Up Playground is staging a “social, reactive and immersive” new production this coming weekend – one that harnesses the power of games to help the audience learn something about themselves.
Called This is a Door, the work was developed by Reid (playwright, director and academic, whose play The Joy of Text was produced by the MTC last year) along with artist Sayraphim Lothian and comedian Ben McKenzie. It was inspired by a workshop that Reid and Lothian attended last year led by UK-based theatre producer Tassos Stevens, director of Coney, a self-described “agency of adventure making live interactive cross-platform play.” The company devises theatre pieces that involve or completely rely upon audience participation, such as the Art Heist piece produced for the Tate Britain, in which players set out to rob an art gallery. Amongst many other amazing interactive projects, Reid, with Coney, created an alternative reality game for the London Games Festival, in which teams of participants were filmed staging strange and wonderful acts around the streets of central London.
At Stevens’ workshop, Reid and Lothian had their eyes opened to the possibilities that games and play hold for theatre and public art. With a shared background in role playing games, they were already attuned to the joy of immersive and interactive play, and had once collaborated on a part-game theatre piece for Theatre in Decay (held at La Mama) called Bothary, but meeting Stevens gave the creative partners a fresh burst of inspiration.
“Games teach us so much about who we really are,” Reid explains. “The decisions we make in a game often reveal things about ourselves we didn’t realise. They also give us insights into how we might react in situations outside of our normal ambit.”
After Stevens’ workshop, Reid and Lothian began working with Ben McKenzie, an old friend who also had a background in games. One of the creators of Channel 31 variety show Planet Nerd, McKenzie plays Dungeon Master at the monthly improvised Dungeons and Dragons-inspired comedy show Dungeon Crawl, and is currently working as production manager for Freeplay Independent Games Festival. Together, the trio started exploring how games could be used to tell stories and communicate feelings and ideas.
Reid also began to research the intersection of gameplay and theatre around the world, including the work of Professor Richard Schechner at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, who pioneered experimental performance techniques in the 1960s with The Performance Group (now widely known as The Wooster Group). He looked at the experimental works made at Geelong’s Mill Theatre Company in the 1980s, and revisited the theories of Brazillian theorist and producer Augusto Boal, whose Theatre of the Oppressed explored the possibilities for dialogue and interaction between audience and performer. Robert brought these ideas to the group, and together they played around with the idea of play.
“This Is A Door came out of those experiments as a way to introduce people to the basics of social and pervasive games,” Robert says. Despite its cerebral underpinnings, the show is meant to be fun – so long as that’s what the audience desires.
“It’s a carnival. We’ve got a bunch of the pop-up play-testers to come in and be ‘game runners’ and there will be about twenty games on offer over the weekend. So you turn up, we ask what you feel like playing, teach you the rules and let you go. Ultimately, whether it’s a happy, funny game or dark and tense game is up to you and the people you’re playing with.” Once the audience members have had their fill of one game, they can move onto another, and then another, guided by the ever-watchful game runners.
“Our game runners have been learning about crowd management and responsible play. Play should always at some level be safe, and it’s usually no fun if it’s unfair. Our game runners will take care of that. Of course, they’ve also learned the rules to a bunch of brand new games,” Reid explains.
As for the audience, all that is required is a bit of imagination and a sense of adventure, and perhaps a willingness to see games as a road to revelation. “[The audience will leave with] many stories that they were at the centre of, and hopefully some new friends,” Reid enthuses. “It’d be great if they left This is a Door with a new way to look at the world too, to look for the playful in the everyday, to see the clues and puzzles that surround them, to look for the rabbit holes that lead into the bigger stories happening all around.”
BY SIMONE UBALDI