Telling the story of managing a festival disaster

Isle of Wight festival puddle

So we are back in London, right back in the thick of Best Festival Ever creation. It’s really lovely to be making things again, after such a long pause it feels both like blowing away cobwebs and also like exploring very new territory. Very rarely in my creative practice (well, never) have I had the opportunity to kick off a development from a starting position of actually knowing what we’re trying to make, and it’s a novelty and a pleasure – and also a pressure. We’ve worked hard to get ourselves here, and that means we really need to get it right.

There’s a lot of aspects to the science and the gameplay that I want to make work, but one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot this week is the story. Last time, we spent almost all of the lead-up developing the games and establishing the structure of the show. In the end, the time to write a thoughtful playscript was incredibly constrained. This is a reasonably regular Boho challenge – in fact, probably a challenge for experimental theatre everywhere. When you’re rewiring the structure of how you tell stories, you leave yourself less time to finesse the actual content of those stories.

As much as the show is a science lecture and a toy model with tactile interactive mechanisms, it’s also the story of a music festival that goes horribly wrong. The tone is deliberately light and often over the top, but there’s a lot of richness in that story, and I really want to bring it out this time. Not to mention that for a lot of the games the audience will be playing, the mechanism itself is not enough of a reward to make the show work – it’s the stories that emerge from their choices and actions that really invite them to engage properly.

One thing we’ve discussed a bit in rehearsals these last few days has been how to make the system ‘play back’ at the audience. Instead of just giving them some starting conditions and a set of rules, then providing the results at the end of the game, this time we want the model to respond to the ways in which audiences play a little more actively. There’s some great opportunities for little moments of festival story to permeate the games, and for those stories to tie together the whole tapestry of the setting more closely.

article-2163073-13BCC848000005DC-41_964x635 aerial view of tents in a river of mud at the 2012 Isle of Wight festival

All of that takes time, though, and I’m conscious that even though we have more time than we did previously, generating a lot of content and refining it is a pretty extensive process in itself. And it’s not like we can segment this development into single-focus weeks; we’re looking at the science, the model, the games, the design and the story, all mixed in together and bouncing quite rapidly from one to the next. It’s a lot of balls to keep in the air.

For me, I guess the challenge right now is to figure out the best way of creating that script, generating all the countless little vignettes and flavour moments, and tying them together in a coherent document for the performers to be able to read / learn. That’s a question that’s arisen a few times in the past, during previous Boho productions; this time I want to get it right.

So my question is: How do you write the script for a show which is such a mix of concepts: a science lecture illustrated by a series of interactive games out of which unfolds the story of a world?

- David

Some old toys

It’s really important that this show is fun. We’re all pretty good at this job so I’m pretty confident that whatever we eventually present will be heaps of fun. But I also wonder whether we could maybe learn from history – what toys have stood the test of time?

Dolls are common across most cultures, and date back thousands of years. Dolls may not be a uniquely human phenomoenon: Young chimps often adopt sticks and take them back to their nests. Theis behaviour is seen in chidren and young adult females. It has never been seen in a female with offspring.

The earliest toy animals and vehicles are similarly thousands of years old.

A black toy horse with wheels

This toy horse dates back to Ancient Greece.
Image: Sharon Mollerus via Wikimedia Commons

Yo-yos feature on Ancient Greek pottery, as do hoops and juggling.

Ball games appear on most continents. Spinning tops are less common.

A spinning top that tips over and ends up upside down while still spinning.

This spinning top is a mini-game all in itself!
Image: Dnor via Wikimedia Commons

People have played with knucklebones for millennia. Knucklebones have become less popular in the last few centuries – I have only dim reccolections of playing with them in primary school? Also I have a bone-based fortune telling kit that I think David gave me for my birthday more than a decade ago.

There are lots of string pattern games, such as cat’s cradle, which appear in many cultures. I would not be surprised if they occur mostly in fishing cultures.

And there are plenty of more modern games, including marbles and cards. plenty of fun to play with! I guess I could end with a question:

Which toy is the most fun to play with on your own, and which is the most fun in a group?

Reminding myself about cognitive attidutes


IMG_3176 Modelling can help develop cognitive attitudes.

In our 2012 ‘manifesto’, created at the start of our first performance development process, this was one of the messages we wanted to communicate.

I’ve returned to this manifesto to help me get my head around Best Festival Ever as we redevelop it for new audiences.

Audiences interact with our model using game mechanics to generate outcomes to feed back in to our model – but for me, that isn’t enough. Engaging in game play can develop the same cognitive attitudes that modelling can, and I want to make that the key feature of all featured game mechanics. Not only to they excite and add fun to the experience, but they enhance learning.

In the image to the left is a draft version of a game about transport. We use string to create paths so that our festival audience can navigate the landscape with ease and in safety. In choosing where to lay the string there are needs to consider – each building requires a number of entrances and exits, crossed paths increase travel time, etc. In refining this game, I’ll be looking at the attitudes below and trying to give the audience the best experience possible so that they can get more out of the rest of the show, and walk away with something to reflect on.

Cognitive attitudes we included in our 2012 manifesto:

  • The way we formulate goals
  • Interpret outcomes against expectations
  • Balance emotional responses (Curiosity, Frustration, Blame-shifting, Humility)
  • Tolerating high levels of uncertainty
  • Acknowledging mistakes
  • Searching for counter evidence
  • Self reflection
  • Discover new questions
  • Illuminate core uncertainties
  • Bound outcomes to plausible ranges
  • Demonstrate tradeoffs/suggest efficiencies
  • Build empathy

Here’s some additional viewing on gaming (Jane McGonigal on


- Rachel

Thinking About Scales


I’m very much enjoying being back in the (London) room. It’s great throwing ourselves back into this show and trying to make it better than it was last time. I feel that in the intervening two years I’ve gained a much better grasp on the ideas we’re playing with, and more tools in my belt as an artist to help communicate them.

Something that I took note of early in revising our reference material was the idea of scales. At risk of repeating this blog after two years, this is from Resilience Practice:

Self-organizing systems operate over a range of different scales of space and time, and each scale is going through its own adaptive cycle. What happens at one scale can have a profound influence on what’s happening at scales above it and on the embedded scales below.

For example, politics can happen on a national, state, and local scale (and indeed more), as well as in the immediate present, yearly, through election cycles, governments, and more. The environmental slogan ‘Think globally, act locally’ illustrates a key point in resilience thinking: in order to manage a system effectively, it’s useful to be aware at how it operates on many scales, not just the scale you have the most influence over.

Our festival system, particularly for most of the show, operates within the physical boundaries of its fence. By using a few characters, we can follow the story of the festival and examine smaller scales at the same time. But we cannot ignore larger scales, that a festival happens in a particular environmental landscape – for us a farm – and amid a particular community – for us, a nearby small town. The music festival affects and is affected by both of these, and considering these scales is important.

We’ve been talking about ways to feature this in the show more, and it seems that a farmer character might provide a useful voice to do this. A farmer also sets up a separate stakeholder for the festival, who has different priorities and needs. This is reminiscent of our very early prototype, Batemans Vegas, where locals and tourists were often diametrically opposed. Using a farmer in the show (or at least, a stronger awareness of how the festival operates on larger scales than the immediate one) can allow for more complex decisions, and a greater understanding of how resilience thinking can aid system management. Again, from Resilience Practice:

But what is the lesson for managers these days? If anything, it’s this: It is all too easy and a bit of a trap to become focused on the scale in which you’re interested. This scale is connected to and affected by what’s happening at the scales above and the embedded components at the scales below

As a side note, we’ve found these ideas somewhat useful for our actual creative process in working on the show. Best Festival Ever is a strange beast, and it’s difficult to work simultaneously on the science, story, and games, and to consider side-by-side the small details and larger picture. But by regularly shifting our focus between the different scales of the show, we can keep it in context, and make the show more consistent, robust and clear.

This is something that I think is quite useful for creative process in general. And, if I’m honest, most things. We spent a lot of time two years ago talking about the skills and cognitive attitudes that modelling and resilience thinking can foster, and I think they’re still relevant. They remind me of part of a lovely speech by David Foster Wallace:

learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience

Are the parts of the show that are feeding into our process the most useful? Or just the most useful for this situation?

- Nathan

Team Best Festival Ever are back in London!


Hello again!
We’ve all arrived in London now, and have more or less gotten over our respective jet lags. We spent Friday and Saturday last week getting ourselves organised, reading over our past history with this project and getting up to scratch with the science and the language of the show all over again. It’s amazing how much more accessible it all feels now that we’ve had 2 years with these concepts and terms and a shared working history with a great group.
We had an incredibly valuable meeting with Tassos Stevens on Friday morning where we all checked in and voiced a couple of observations about where we’re at and the process ahead. It was an excellent way to begin, but also to gauge how each person in the group is feeling about getting this heavily researched thing we’ve made performance ready in 8 weeks (Eeep). It turns out that we’re all a bit nervous and feel like we can see a lot of work ahead.
Coming back to Best Festival Ever at this point is a little daunting. Not because of the work that is ahead of us, I’m confident we can cover that, but because of the intricacy that making anything based around systems thinking brings with it. While we have a festival system that we’ve drafted to make the work we still want to make sure it is calibrated to its full potential, and that it is accurately representing the fictional environment and event/festival we’ve come up with. If in our refining process if we want to change any part of the system we then need to spend an hour discussing all the interconnected changes that would occur in the system as a result. It’s a long process but the fact that that is taking us that long is actually a positive thing. If it’s taking us time to work out these connections then the system is working. Part of our aim is to iron out as many of the bits of the system that aren’t interconnected at all as possible.
There are three elements to BFE as we see it at this point: The science/performance lecture, story, and games/mechanisms. If any one of these is dominating the performance too much then it is not going to be what we are all hoping for.
As a result the process at this point feels a little like being able to see the huge but very delicate iceburg in front of you and knowing that you have to carve it into a beautiful ice sculpture but being nervous about how to do this without it all shattering. It’s not quite as fragile as that, but it still will take a careful and considered approach.
Are we able to find a balance in combining the elements of this show that compliment one another to make a cohesive whole?

Starting the final run up


It’s May 2014. After kicking off the R&D phase of this project nearly three years ago, we’re now in the run up to the final stage of development and the first performances, taking place at the London Science Museum this November.

We began this last stage of creative development with a weekend at the south coast of NSW this week.

Now Best Festival Ever is a complex synthesis of ideas, modes and approaches, but at one level you can look at the show as comprising three things:
– a board game
– a theatre show
– a science lecture

We began by throwing ourselves at the game element of it – by playing a whole suite of board games. Over two days, we chewed through Galaxy Truckers, Dix It, Power Grid, Tigris and Euphrates, Bohnanza, Mice and Mystics, String Railway and Space Cadet.

It’s a pretty idyllic creative development – sitting by a fireplace on an autumn night playing games – but it was actually really productive. It had a lot to do with expanding our palette of game mechanisms, ensuring we have a diverse range of tools and tactics up our sleeve to fit any situation we might encounter when we piece together the final version of the show in London over September – October.

All of this prompted a lot of really fascinating conversation, too, which I can’t completely capture. I’ll leave it with one question: How much gameplay (number of games and size of games) should this show include?

The Very Model of a Modern Modelling Play

My Bloody Valentine, I think? Image: Andrew Wake for The AU Review

My Bloody Valentine, I think?
Image: Andrew Wake for The AU Review

It’s always strange, being in a development without a performative outcome. I say always, but I think I’ve only done it once or twice before. It’s especially strange after having presented the show in question to audiences, and having pretty clear ideas about the way it functions.

In lieu of a real audience, I’ve spent a lot of this development putting myself on the other side of this show. Or at least, a version of myself who doesn’t know the small amount about modelling I do. Me a year ago. What does that guy want to get out of this show?

I was in Melbourne earlier this year for a music festival. I won’t tell you what festival it was, but it was something to do with a number of tomorrow’s parties that wasn’t zero or some. Having missed Harvest last year, this was my first music festival since a long process of pulling apart what might go on in one.

Obviously, and I think we are pretty explicit about this, our music festival model is in no way a complete, detailed representation of everything that makes up a real music festival. We’ve tried to keep ours fairly general so people can find an in quickly but also, models have to be simple. A model simplifies a system so you can observe connections and learn and tinker.

Anyway, this music festival. It happened over two days, just outside of the city (we stayed in a city hostel). There were plenty of things there that we didn’t put in model (a jumping castle, for one), but after spending so long analysis the components of a music festival, I was keenly aware of how all the parts of this one were influencing each other. In the restrictive indoor setting, it was hard to get anywhere without passing the rest of the festival and too many people. It was also very, very hot. In the space of two band sets, the main stage area (repurposed basketball court covered with black curtains) went from uncomfortable to unbearable. The space wasn’t big enough to accommodate all the festival goers, sightlines and sound mix were not great, and so I pretty quickly found my personal threshold for leaving.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. There was a large water fountain outside for people to fill their drink bottles up, good food, fun games, and once the sun went down everything felt a bit more settled. I went to both days (the second being less crowded and cooler) and definitely had a positive experience.

It made me think about Modelling Play. One of the best reasons I think there is to discuss complex systems (and the modelling of those systems) is that they are all around us. The city you’re in. The transport system you use. The way a shop communicates with other businesses. A school. Your network of friends. An internet forum. The internet. A farm. A community garden. A music festival. These are things that important to us, because they’re systems that we all use. They’re systems for people to meet and interact, but they’re also systems for people to interact with infrastructure and the natural world. It’s important to find ways to discuss them, especially ones where people can share their ideas and concerns in a shared language.

Something I really want to convey with Modelling Play is that systems are all around us, and modelling is a useful way to interpret and discuss them. I want this show to demonstrate a way to deal with systems, and give audiences a way to do it themselves. As with any method, modelling isn’t flawless, but it’s a way to communicate ideas about the world, and learn more about it. And modelling is already used in countless areas of life to help decide things that affect us – economics, health, transport and environment. Maybe even the music festival I went to.

If not, I think it might have helped.