Saturday, April 5, 2014

Interactive Story

(Originally published on as part of Harbourfront Centre's HATCH 2014.)

"Interactivity" is one of those words. What does it mean in theatre? What does it mean in storytelling? What does it mean to you? As we develop Faster than Night, which was conceived with the slippery and baffling ambition to involve the audience in the story, I've been thinking a lot about what it means to me.

When I was sixteen, there was a comic convention in downtown Toronto. This was way back before comics were cool, a good decade before the invention of the web let geeks find each other en masse, and longer before the San Diego Comic-Con went media-tastic and started attracting 130,000 paying attendees. We're talking the basement of the Hilton, a bunch of folding tables with dealers selling back-issues from boxes, and a special guest or three.

I was a huge fan of Marvel Comics's Uncanny X-Men, which was ahead of the curve in introducing multiple, powerful female superheroes.

(One of those heroines, the teenage Kitty Pryde, was the original protagonist of one of my favorite X-Men storylines, "Days of Future Past". Yet when its blockbuster movie adaptation is released next month, the very male and very box office-friendly character Wolverine will be taking her role in the narrative. That's a different blog post...)

I'd heard that legendary comics inker Terry Austin was going to be at the convention, and decided I would make a Fimo figurine of one of his characters as a gift.

He had left the X-Men a couple of years prior, so I sculpted a character from his new gig, Alien Legion. I wasn't as much of a fan of that book, but Sarigar was a half-snake alien – an awesome challenge that involved a coat-hanger armature and a lot of finger-crossing in the firing process.

I snapped some photos before I took it downtown and gave it to one of my real-life heroes. He was gracious and appreciative, giving me some original art in return.

I started thinking about that formative early moment last June, when the Royal Shakespeare Company partnered with Google+ on an ambitious, interactive theatre/social media hybrid called Midsummer Night's Dreaming (a followup to 2010's Such Tweet Sorrow, remixing Romeo and Juliet via Twitter). I'd heard about the concept from the RSC's forward-thinking digital producer Sarah Ellis, and was instantly fascinated.


Tom Uglow (co-director with the RSC's Geraldine Collinge) wrote eloquently beforehand about Why we're doing it:
We are inviting everyone on the internet to take part. We’d rather like 10,000 contributors extending the RSC across the world, commenting, captioning, or penning a lonely heart column for Helena. Maybe people will invent their own characters. Or make fairy cupcakes; share photos of their dearest darlings as changelings; send schoolboy marginalia about “wooing with your sword”; compose florid poetry to Lysander’s sister; or debate with Mrs Quince on declamation. Or just watch online....
I followed the project as it unfolded online over the course of midsummer weekend, enjoying the original material commissioned from professional writers and artists ("2000 pieces of material for 30 new characters to be shared online non-stop for 72 hours"), and even Photoshopping a few memes and lolcats of my own.


It was fun, and it certainly taught me a lot about the mechanics of Google+ as a social media platform. There were lots of thoughtful analyses after it was over, but for me the most interesting aspect was the strange mix of emotions I was feeling around having participated.

How does the audience feel crossing the line that usually separates them from the professionals providing their entertainment? Passive observation is safe. Active creativity is not. As kids, we all start out as unselfconscious artists, writers, musicians and dancers. But in adolescence, when social pressures and fears kick in, most of us transition into observers and "consumers" of culture made by other people.

For me, the Midsummer Night's Dreaming project provoked the complicated mix of reactions such invitations always do – the thrill of inclusion or transgression, yes, but also the fear that my contribution won't be "good enough" or that too much enthusiasm will make me uncool.

More than anything, it brought me back to that kid sitting in her room, creating something to give to an artist whose work she admired. Yes, part of that was the fan hoping to garner the attention of the idol, however briefly. And part was the desire to immerse in a particular fictional world. But it was also just wanting to step into the creative sandbox and play.

 Many people think of interactive story in terms of the classic 80's Choose Your Own Adventure books. I certainly flipped around their pages and beat my head against the Infocom computer game adaptation of Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy long enough to pick up the basic mechanics of branching narrative.

Adams took his next step with interactive fiction in 1998 with the Myst-like Starship Titanic, for which I had the dream job of producing an interlocking set of fictional websites to promote the CD-ROM game in the year leading up to its release. These websites were an early version of what would later be dubbed "alternate reality games", and a hidden forum on one of them unexpectedly became home to a community that was still active in 2011.

Alternate reality games have blossomed as the web has evolved tools that encourage more participatory culture (two insightful analyses: The Art of Immersion and Spreadable Media). Videogames have evolved too. Some of them (like Heavy Rain) provide almost cinematic interactive stories that appear to offer freedom from the author's control, but actually run on narrative "rails" that branch with the player's choice, then eventually re-join. At the other end of the spectrum, "sandbox" or "open-world" games give players far more freedom, sometimes at the expense of emotional engagement or satisfying dramatic structure.

Theatre itself has had an uneasy relationship with audience participation as long as anyone can remember. In recent years, "immersive theatre" companies like Punchdrunk and Secret Cinema have grabbed the spotlight by setting audiences loose to literally roam through their fictional worlds.

Decades before them, before even their 1981 Torontonian forebear Tamara, forum theatre creator Augusto Boal engaged the audience in a very different spirit, with techniques like invisible theatre, "a play (not a mere improvisation) that is played in a public space without informing anyone that it is a piece of theatre".

And last year, in real life, Commander Chris Hadfield engaged with his audience across a fourth wall up to 250km thick.

In Faster than Night, we're inviting our own audience to interact with fictional astronaut Caleb Smith via his artificial intelligence ISMEE. You can find her on Twitter as @ISMEEtheAI. In the weeks leading up to the performance, as people tweet questions about his mission to travel faster than light, Caleb will answer. And during the show itself, he will need the audience's help to make the ultimate choice.

But first a question for you.

What does interactive story look like? Is it this?

Or is it this?

Or does it mean something entirely different to you?

Update, July 2017: Just came across Sean Stewart's thorough and insightful talk on this subject in his 2012 Power to the Pixel keynote "Storytelling V: The Audience Strikes Back":