Written for Guardian.co.uk
[The problem with attending the same event as two other Guardian bloggers – Lyn Gardner and Andy Field in this case – is that one needs to be that bit quicker off the mark at writing up, or else one runs the risk of filing pieces which run far too close to something that has just been published. So, rather than bother Big Chief Guardian Theatre Blogs I’m posting this here as a companion piece to Lyn’s excellent musings on a similar theme at the Guardian]
Interactive theatre, games or ‘playgrounding’ and the exploration of new spaces formed the cornerstones of BAC’s Burst festival. All three areas are at the forefront of the current directions in which the theatrical avant garde is developing across Europe. I had originally intended to blog my way through BAC’s Burst festival, but realised I was already committed to spending a week at the Baltic Circle festival in Helsinki slap bang in the middle of Burst, while other reviewing commitments meant that I was liable to wind up missing important work.
So it was fascinating to discover that even travelling two timezones east to within a few hundred miles of the Arctic circle an enormous number of concerns linked the two events. At the Replay discussion that rounded off Burst the two main areas of exploration were the ways that the interactive events had worked and effects of the first scratch performances held in the massive Grand Hall, newly available to artists following its starring role in Punchdrunk’s now fabled Masque of the Red Death.
One of the most interesting elements to be highlighted by the discussion about interactive theatre, was the question about exactly *how* interactive all this much-vaunted interactivity really was. The discussion quickly homed in on three performances Ontroerend Goed’s The Smile Off Your Face, The 14 Stations in the Life of Adrian Howells and a scratch performance in which five “incredibly attractive Belgians” each picked a member of the five-strong audience and took them to a secluded booth, where the performer spent [15?] minutes faking intimacy and connection with their audient before returning the group to the room and repeating everything that he or she had said to them. A number of the younger male members of the group were still prepared to insist that they had indeed felt a real connection to their interlocutor, with several apparently even having spent time kissing her.
Meanwhile in Helsinki I was watching seminal German avant gardists Rimini Protokoll’s Call-Cutta in a Box in which, yes, solitary participants – “audience member” sounds wrong – spent fifty minutes locked in a room in one-to-one conversation with someone generally of the other sex. The main difference is that my interlocutor was in India, in a call centre in Calcutta. Curiously, while the nature of the flirtation was necessarily more chaste, …in a Box still traded heavily on the inevitability, as one of my colleagues put it, of two persons of opposite sexes talking for an hour on the internet “being hit on by someone they didn’t know”.
The question that persisted through discussions of both works was how much of this apparent “interaction” was actually, well, interaction. If we said something to our interlocutor, were they responding to what we had said with an original thought – either “in character” or “as themselves” – or were they simply performing a stock response, following a script? Of course, even triggering an actor to speak a line is interaction, but there is a real curiosity about how *true* interactivity might be achieved while at the same time maintaining some sort of frame that makes the overall experience perhaps a work of art, or a piece of theatre, or a performance of some kind, rather than a chat between one nominal artist and one nominal audience member.
One possibly strategy is the introduction of game theory, and the ideas of “playing” – it is significant the BAC never refers to “plays”, but “play”. This is the other growing theme in modern avant garde theatrical thinking. The Burst festival kicked off with a Trashy Multi-Artform Bingo Blowout, which saw the building given over to a night of chaotic game-playing alongside scratch performances and music in what at times looked like a fight to the death between art and alcohol. The Society of Wonders created a live version of the iconic children's TV programme Knightmare, while a collaboration between Hide & Seek and Coney is also offered a whole range of team games. Sometime Guardian blogger and BAC press officer Andy Field was also to be found wandering around trying to tempt people into his one-on-one game “Motorcycle Baptism” based on US college hazing rituals.
The building that night evoked the spirit of anarchy and playfulness described by academics talking about the theatres of early modern Britain. BAC is the natural inheritor of the chaotic feasts of misrule from Britain’s theatrical past.