For the past week, I’ve been captivated by Rockstar Games‘ latest release LA Noire. I’ve been wondering if I’m the only playwright to have been. Somehow I doubt it. The game’s fusion of real acting and gaming technology uses facial scanning of actors to produce the most emotionally textured, lifelike world modern consoles have yet seen. It’s been hard not to feel like it leaves my own art form standing in the dust.
I’ve also been having stimulating chats with director Ellie Jones, a longtime collaborator, for whom the gaming/theatre fusion is a real passion. She directed The New World Order, a walkthrough site-specific version of Pinter recently finished at the Brighton festival, and we’re developing a new play for next year’s festival together, to be performed in a real hospital, where the audience get “cast” as either patients or medics.
True, some companies have been doing this for years. Many will be familiar with the usual list of Coney, Punchdrunk, dreamthinkspeak,Stan’s Cafe and others who are pushing the theatrical form in this way. But more traditional, playwright-led theatremaking seems a little reticent in this respect – with one exception.
I have a theory that when it comes to single-authored plays, it’s those which have involved young people in their process that most organically embed film, new media and gaming in their theatricality. Half Moon Young People’s Theatre recently fused abstract projections and physical theatre to access interior worlds in David Lane’s Begin/End. Paula B Stanic’s forthcoming Under a Foreign Sky for Theatre Centre uses a video link across continents to capture the dislocation of a young migrant. While Kenny Baraka’s extraordinary The Rememberers for Birmingham Rep used hip-hop and projected animation to bring an entire graphic novel to life on stage. I’m becoming more and more convinced that theatremaking with and for young people gives writers a freedom to innovate with form in a way not available to them elsewhere.
In March I blogged about a new scheme for playwrights I was starting up, in my role as associate artist at Tamasha. We recruited eight playwrights to come into Mulberry School for Girls in east London, take part in a series of structured workshops with the students, and write a short play in response. Part of the offer for our writers was to work with my colleague, film-maker Tanya Singh, on including a multimedia element to their play ideas. Many of the writers have enthusiastically taken this up – and not just to augment their stories, but to shape the very concept. We’ve got plays set entirely within Facebook, or in Blade Runner-style dystopian futures, on live TV talk shows, or which feature a character which is a digital double, or show how innocent smartphone film clips of a dead friend can unhelpfully prolong the grieving process.
These playful works-in-progress will be showcased at a scratch performance, involving the students performing alongside professional actors – and projected footage – at Soho Theatre this Friday. Many of the ideas have come directly from the students themselves, with the writers explicitly acknowledging that not only would they not necessarily have come up with these fusions themselves, but that even if they had, they would think twice before pitching these technologically ambitious and formally innovative ideas at a mainstream theatre company. As one of them put it, working with young people at Mulberry has “freed us up from the curse of naturalism”.
This approach isn’t without its complications, of course. We’re going to have to try to do justice to some demanding technical effects at a script-in-hand reading. Throw in a cast of mostly teenage actors and the potential for hiccups increases exponentially. And, were these ideas to be developed further – as I hope they will be – any future productions would also come with increased costs.
But the level of formal innovation which our writers are striving for was not an outcome I had anticipated when we started the course. It’s exciting that it seems to have caught the imaginations of both playwrights and students. Perhaps this approach could offer some inspiration to the mainstream theatre industry on how it could respond to changing technology, whilst also attracting the next generation of young people – for whom it is such second nature. If we allow playwrights to tap into young people’s expertise, a theatrical equivalent of LA Noire could be closer than we think.
• The Tamasha-Mulberry scratch performance takes place at Soho Theatre Upstairs on Friday 10 June at 2.30pm. Tickets are free but need to be reserved through Tamasha. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org “Soho Theatre” in the subject line