Performing Best Festival Ever

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We’re nearing the end of our process and coming up to opening night at the Dana Centre. This means a lot of where we’re at is thinking about something we’ve not needed to think about for nearly the whole two year process: the performance.

I don’t really think of myself as an actor, and I don’t really think of this as a play. That said, the show requires quite a lot of Rachel, Nikki and me – moving between narrative, lecture, instructions and interactions. We need to be clear and confident in our communication, but we also need to be very responsible to an audience – read them, gauge the pace they need the show to run at, figure how carefully we need to guide them through the interactive parts of the show. The beginning is particularly tricky – there’s a lot of talking at the top of the show, and holding the audiences attention is important, because this is where we lay a lot of the foundation of the show. It’s difficult to be energetic and engaging at that point without pushing too hard, but that’s what we need to do.

There’s plenty of work that we’re drawing on when we’re thinking about the performance. Chris Thorpe’s CONFIRMATION, which we saw recently at Battersea Arts Centre, was exploring the concept of confirmation bias. Despite high theatricality and breakneck speed, the show was very generous and clear in its explanations – pitched at just the right point for what the show was getting across. I can think of other performance lectures, too – version 1.0’s Bougainville Photoplay Project springs to mind as something that walked between lecture and narrative very well.

We’re going to try see 2071 at Royal Court this week – a performance lecture (I read “anti-theatre” somewhere, though that conjures some names that maybe aren’t relevant). It’ll be interesting to see such a direct conversation about climate change on a mainstage – at the very least it will be useful to see how other artists are engaging with ideas that we’re looking at.

I’m looking forward to developing a strong set of strategies for performing this show. Presenting it to different types of audiences will give us a range for how the show might happen, and how we can make the best of the all the work we’ve done up to this point.

In a show where the performative components haven’t been the process’ main focus, what can we put into place to make sure the show has a consistent quality?

The short and long term process

Eliot Bulsen

This show has been the longest creative process I’ve ever been a part of. Over two years, on and off (not including David’s initial research residency), and probably a little over six months of time in the room. Being able to sit with a show for this long is quite a new experience. Being able to sit with the ideas and science behind the show for that long has been incredibly valuable.

The length of time has let us consider decisions longer than we otherwise might be able to, and also investigate particular paths with little pressure to stick with them. Back in 2012 we made Bateman’s Vegas with the express purpose to try it and throw it away – doing that was exciting and freeing.

The flip side of this process, though, is that twice – two years ago and this week – we have packed a lot of rehearsal and show building into a very short period of time. We’ve got the show from a rough skeleton to a pretty polished (imho) scratch to show audiences. Both times I’ve been surprised at how quickly and efficiently we were able to work, and at the standard to which we got.

We’ve had several discussions about the future of this work, and the potential to be commissioned to recreate the show responding to specific systems. I’ve found our ability to shift so quickly from dense, broad ideas into a workable show very encouraging. It shows that we’re getting better at translating the ideas into a show, and that the process we’ve been building over the last two years is developing very well.

How do we best record or document the process we’ve created so we can continue developing and using it?

– Nathan

Komm, Spiel Mit!

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Last weekend we caught an early plane to Germany, and attended three days of Essen’s International Spieltag, the world’s largest board game convention. We went a couple of years ago, on the hunt for exciting game mechanics we could fit to our show, and a great time was had. This time I wanted to spend some time learning games, and paying attention to instructions. I also went to buy – since visiting in 2012 I’ve seriously gotten into the hobby, though I doubt my collection or mastery will ever rival Muttley’s.

We learnt a lot of games, and played a lot of games, and bought a lot of games. We met some lovely people and had many games taught to us by people operating the stalls. I will forever be impressed by someone able to explain a complex game to strangers in a second language.

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I spend a fair bit of time thinking about how to teach board games to other players. When I’m teaching a board game, I generally try to make my explanation fit the following structure. There are games that don’t fit it, but this works as a base – it’s how I think I can most efficiently learn games, too.

1. Who you are in the game and how you can win
2. What you can do to get to the win condition
3. What you’ll typically do on a turn
4. When/how the game will end

The reason I think this works (when it does, which is not always) is that it’s shaped around the player experience – and probably comes from my experience in interactive theatre as well. For the show, I think we’ve made a very good effort to keep our instructions framed within the audience experience. Our instructions are getting leaner and clearer as we get through more playtests, and I think by the time we do these scratches at the end of the week we’ll be feeling very good about them.

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How do you best learn/teach games?

– Nathan

On Watching Games

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This blog post is about to get real cool, real fast, so be ready for that.

Tomorrow morning I’m going to watch the semi-finals in the World Championships of League of Legends, an online multiplayer battle game where teams of five face off in a fantasy strategy game. I’ve been watching a lot of the championships so far, and really enjoying it. It helps that I like the game, and play it (though poorly) – knowledge means being able to appreciate details in play. However, I also get a kick out of watching the strategic and tactical work of the teams, and seeing their plans shift over the course of the game. It’s also great fun because online gaming events have gathered the energy, production value and audience of big sporting events – the picture above is of last year’s final, which drew on online audience of 32 million. Sports is obviously another place where spectating can be as enjoyable for people as playing – because of the investment in the team, the admiration of skilled athleticism, and more.

It’s made me think about the value of being a spectator in games, rather than playing. In our show, there are many games played by only a few different people each time. It’s important that we craft the experience for the spectators, not just the players – Tassos, our wonderful Ear, has given us strong provocations and advice to manage the show from both of these perspectives. Part of the show’s design, I think, is that the story becomes a main source of that investment, but the games need to be engaging from the outside, simply on a basic level of look, sound and excitement.

(Why) do people enjoy watching games?

– Nathan

Co-operative Games

Pandemic is a co-operative game where players work together to stop the spread of global disease

There’s a genre of board game called co-operative, where players have to work together to win the game. With a few exceptions, the games will end with everyone winning or everyone losing. Communication and managing characters who have different strengths are common skills that these games encourage. Some good examples include Pandemic, where you work together to curb the spread of, and cure, global disease, and Yggdrsil, where players are Norse gods fighting off an invading group of monsters.

An interesting element of co-operative games that is not necessarily present in competitive games, is an element of unpredictability. In Pandemic, a deck of cards works to randomly spread disease across the globe, using a very clever shuffling mechanism that elegantly models diseases spreading. In Yggdrsil, cards are used again to decide which monsters advance, and players have to blindly pull Viking tokens out to bags to help in combat. The bags also contain fire giants, which are bad. There are ways to take out some fire giants, or put in extra Vikings, but there’s always a random element. These random elements mean that the game isn’t just a puzzle, and that it can be different every time you play.

In Best Festival Ever, we decided very early on that we wanted the audience to be working together – we don’t want some people to ‘win’ and others to ‘lose’. In that sense, a lot of our games might feel like co-operative games. But at the same time, we don’t want our games to be too unpredictable – we’re trying to demonstrate particular concepts, and we usually want the results of the audience’s decisions to be clear. One our of core ideas is that actions can have unpredicted outcomes, but there’s a difference between an unknown, unpredicted result, and one that happens completely randomly.

We’ve dealt with this a number of ways. We’ve recognised that several of the games we’re creating might be better defined as demonstrations, that it’s not important for people to win, but to recognise the link between the action and the outcome. Other games are more like optimisation puzzles, where you’re trying to create the best solution in a fairly open system. Others are more like skill testers, or mini dexterity games where there’s not a huge amount of intention or strategy in the way you might play them. Sometimes we might feature the farmer, or the local community, as a way of presenting something outside the festival that might have a different goal.

With any luck, the story of the festival will be a compelling enough reason to try to ‘win’ the games.

Does an audience automatically want to win a game? Or does it need to be encouraged?

– Nathan

Thinking About Scales

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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 elements of systems thinking that are feeding into our process the most useful? Or just the most useful for this situation?

– Nathan

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.