Written by William Robinson and Eileen Mary Holowka.
In June 2016, Montreal’s Centre for Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG) and London’s ZU-UK came together in order to lose their way. Their goal? To work with and against one another to try and find out what makes a perfect lab. Their method? To merge two labs with different objects of interest in the hopes of uncovering and discovering questions and answers regarding Theatre-Games.
Throughout their week together, the two labs combined their practices and perspectives with one another in an attempt to create new interactive media art experiences. The members from TAG shared their expertise in game studies and design, while ZU-UK offered their knowledge of new media and experimental immersive theatre. The process was complex, and the questions raised throughout the workshop producing Theatre-Games were not always answerable, even among the members of one lab. For instances: Should a lab grow organically? Does a lab have an object, a method or both? What are a lab’s ideal hierarchies? In the hopes of creating more questions and feeling our way through the pre-planned ones, together the teams created three new playable games, with a subsequent eight interactive pieces produced in Montreal.
We don’t know the limits of a single given medium, but that nebulousness is only magnified when working interdisciplinary. Of course, we also lack methods for combining and exploring the unification of media. That said, an arbitrary start can get us moving:
For our purposes, let us say that games propose interesting obstacles and theatre proposes interesting bodies. From the perspective of a game designer, who often assumes that bodies are outside the toolkit, games are distributable, playable with minimal expertise and limited in complexity. We might pretend these are features, but they are the resulting limitations of an actor-less medium. What then do Theatre-Games offer?
Shortly after TAG’s arrival in London, ZU-UK exhibited their prototype of an immersive theatre piece for two entitled Dinner Date. Two by two, the team from TAG experienced a three-person play where two of the bodies belonged to the audience. As with games, the theatre piece required participants. The events Dinner Date remain our secret, but it is worth mentioning is the way the prototype brought the participant’s body into focus using the theatre’s tools. The Dinner Date was not particularly game-like, in its lack of obstacles, but these were something that could be added by the team from TAG, if desired.
The concept of the audience’s body as tool was further explored during Blast Theory’s performance of Operation Black Antler. In the show, audience members pursue an objective in a bar full of actors. The objective involves finding a particular person and talking to them in such a way that they would divulge particular information. Here we have the components of both media being used fully. The game is simple enough, overcome the obstacle of a human gatekeeping information. The theatre is conceptually simple; pretend to be someone you are not to someone improvising to be someone they are not. Instead of building a 3D model and programming an AI, the game designer can have access to something infinitely more ‘real.’ Instead of leaving its audience-members as passive observers, the director becomes more like a game-designer, mapping out a world for the audience-member as player.
Of course, these distinctions between “games” and “theatre” are arguable, and that is the point. These categories are barely definable, even for experts, and they have been increasingly merging together of late. For example, recent developments in VR and ARG technologies have been quite theatrical in reinserting bodies in games. Experiences like Sleep No More and ZU-UK’s Hotel Medea are game-y in their use of the audience’s decisions in the face of obstacles. Both types of experiences set the player/audience-member as an active participant, who must decode the experience by playing or acting within it.
The boundaries of where one medium begins and another ends are necessarily murky. That said, lack of certainty is helpful in thinking how these definitions can be repeatedly collapse and rebuilt.
Did we answer the question of what makes a perfect lab? Not entirely, but we did find a way to work together as a quite successful (if not perfect) lab. In doing so, were able to create several Theatre-Games in our week together, each with their own complex systems of meaning. Each involving bodies and obstacles in unison. Our continuous questioning prompted intense discussions about a variety of political and ideological positions. We developed for new insights, allowing us to create something new.
TAG will be hosting a 5 à 7 in the new semester to showcase the Theatre-Games made during the week-long workshop.