Friday, May 28, 2010

Tower Room I, audience what audience

I shouldn't even be writing now; my brain is about as synapse-friendly as a bowl of forgotten porridge and I could use some sleep, here, nearing six o'clock on a sunny sunny Friday.

We're about 70% labyrinth-built I think. You go in to the space and it's a mess of shelves, walls, doors that go nowhere, doors that you think go nowhere, and various other features I won't spoil. Walls made of stacks of boxes, Minos' empty bottles and bathtub, Ariadne's falling apparatus. Pilar (designer extraordinaire) is being frightfully excellent by not allowing me to cut any corners in the interests of being done earlier and letting the actors loose on the place. Damned detail-oriented designers. I know I'll be happy in the end.

So anyway I have a problem that I didn't think I needed to solve but apparently I do: I don't know what to call the people who come to Tower Room. If I call them audience, the players are irritated. If I call them players, the spectators are made nervous. If I call them participants, everybody cringes. Co-creators? Ticket holders? Initiates? Guests? The Golden Few? Seriously.

I've taken to using the terms rather interchangeably just so I can get rid of the annoying connotations, but really all that does is make a mushy imprecise mess of your language and unless people hang around you enough to hear you mixing and matching and reworking all those words, they won't understand you properly anyway. It's not like terminology catches on just because you use it. And also if I call the piece theatre, which it partially is and in my mind certainly it is, it creates a load of expectations for the audience. If I call it a game, ditto only scarier, because now people will be rushing in and looking for clues and getting six ways of active all over the piece. And if it's esitystaide or performance art or an installation, well, I don't know what the worst-case scenario is for that kind of spectator/ticket holder/person, but one might at least expect a certain kind of critical distance.

These are all normal ways to take in a piece. You go to a theatre, you expect to sit. You go to a gallery, you expect to wander. You go to a week-long larp, you expect to live there and make everything yourself and experience, not watch. What I'm interested in is the fuzzy area in between, or perhaps the process of moving back and forth between creating a piece yourself in participation, and watching the fruits of someone else's labour. This is particularly interesting for me when the artist's work (as opposed to the participant's) requires the passage of time, like in dance, theatre, music, and film... and poetry, too. These performances, while they might not be finished products (depending on whether you believe that a) they are ever finished and b) whether completion depends on a receiver), are at least prepared. They're thoroughly thought through; even if they're improvisations, you can bank on years of performance experience which may count as prior preparation.

Hermetic art isn't a problem - very often I'm perfectly happy to sit in a dark room and let David Lynch show me something from his brain for two hours, and I don't even get to talk to him afterwards and tell him how weird it was, and that's totally fine. What I want to find is a way of working hermetically--making the decisions myself or in a working group--but with the understanding that in performance, the piece will open up to participation, and not just your lip-service variety.

Of course there are aesthetic principles that I stick to and that I am not too worried about wanting to teach to other people. One is patience and listening. There's nothing worse in a band than the person who plays all the time. Sometimes not playing is the best way to play. This is such a no-brainer that I'm nearly embarassed to write it here but it seems to take effort to put listening into practice. It's just so easy to go go go, grab the bull by the horns and get lost in your own feel for the thing. I find this is also a common feature of those roleplaying games that I've been in: game designs and players alike seem to be very good at taking into account the fact that many players will be active by default. They talk and come up with ideas and plot twists, often much more than in real life--it's amazing how many times in a game someone asks something of another character, who in turn responds with a complete nonsequitur. It's to be expected; each player is trying to come up with what happens next and it interferes with the ability to listen.

When I was studying theatre in Canada it took ages to turn me into an active performer. I was shy as all get-out, as much as nobody who knows me would credit that now... but so anyway once I finally flipped the switch and swore I would NEVER be the last one to volunteer, never sit back when I could *do something, anything*, I found that to be much easier than sitting back and worrying about what the hell I was going to do when my turn finally came to do something. Much more productive. But so then now I really can't remember where I learned the opposite - was it in butoh? - where I learned the value of not doing. But it's a different variety of doing nothing than my earlier one. When you work with impulses in butoh, you might say that you're perfectly ready to be active at any time, but you just become more choosy. You tap into your environment, not just your inner voice, for things to do. This is what makes a good clown as well - they use everything that happens around them. We also took this on in Viewpoints training. Like seeing yourself in a roleplaying game as a free jazz musician - it's the listening that makes it good, when it is good. Same with butoh - you can watch a dancer and all of a sudden it's not just the dancer that amazes you, but, well, everything. Somehow the situation is dancing the dancer, and the dancer is dancing you. Ad infinitum. Et cetera. All this.

Tower Room isn't meant to be a jungle gym, nor is it a piece you sit back and enjoy. You're meant to be engaged, but you're also meant to take your time in getting into the speed and rhythm of the piece. You'll talk, but first you must listen. So the main design challenge at the moment is that I know how to make "audience people" be quiet. I know how to make "performance art" people be quiet. I know, if not how to make gamers quiet, at least how to confuse them. But how to design a piece that will get everybody on the same wavelength?


Matthijz said...

I don't know if you're inviting comments here, or just thinking out loud - but just in case, here's what I'm thinking.

Perhaps you need to work with people's expectations before the game/event? So that, for instance, "active gamers" will know that they're supposed to listen more, and "passive audience types" will know that they're supposed to participate more.

There's something called an "un-rule", which is fairly common in tabletop role-playing. It's basically when a designer puts in a rule that specifically contradicts common practice, so people will know how this experience is different from what they're used to. One example is that since many games use an all-powerful Game Master, some games specifically advertise as "GM-less". For someone who's never played a tabletop RPG, that expression makes no sense - they have no expectation of a GM.

happeningfish said...

Hey, I like very much the idea of an un-rule. What we actually came up with was what you mentioned in the second paragraph: before the show, when they pick up their tickets and instructions, people have to say whether they would identify as a 1) gamer, 2) theatre audience, or 3) performance art / installation art type. They get different suggestions for approaching the piece based on their choices. Seems to work pretty well so far actually!

Nick said...

Thanks for sharing the article.