Video Games: Live!

By Marc Williams

RSC's production of "The Winter's Tale," photo from the RSC.

This summer’s Lincoln Center Festival in New York hosts one of the most highly-anticipated theatrical events in recent memory: a six-week residency by the Royal Shakespeare Company that began on July 6.  The RSC is located in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s home town, and is widely considered the world’s top producer of classical theatre.  For this New York residency, not only has the RSC brought five of its exquisite productions to the Lincoln Center Festival but it has also reconstructed its Stratford performance space right inside the Park Avenue Armory.  For American theatre enthusiasts, the residency is a dream-come-true: a chance to see five RSC productions without purchasing five airline tickets.

While the RSC has generated appropriate buzz over the past few weeks, another Shakespearean experiment has stolen some headlines.  Sleep No More, a loose adaptation of Macbeth, is produced in a 1930’s Manhattan hotel on 27th Street.  The production embraces mansion-platea staging, a technique we study in my Eye Appeal class in the BLS program at UNCG.  Mansion-platea staging involves small performance areas (“mansions”) that represent a particular location in the story, with several mansions lined up in a row or circle, each representing a different location.  The actors and audience move together from one mansion to the next as the story progresses. This isn’t how most of us encounter theatre today, so Sleep No More may seem highly unusual.  However, walking through a haunted house or even sitting on Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride replicates mansion-platea staging faithfully.

Sleep No More‘s producing organization, PUNCHDRUNK, has inserted an unusual twist on mansion-platea staging: audience choice.  This production not only immerses the audience into the playing space with the actors but also gives the audience freedom to wander about the six-story building however they like.  They can follow characters from one room to the next for a linear narrative experience, or move randomly around the building for a more fractured experience.  No matter how they choose, the audience cannot possibly witness the entire production at once since there are events happening simultaneously in different areas of the building.

One of the rooms from "Sleep No More," photo from the NY Times.

I’ve not seen the production but have read much about it.  I was surprised when I read Wired.com’s Jason Schreier’s review of this production.

[Sleep No More is] a nonlinear narrative in which the order of events — and consequently, the plot — is determined by what you see.

The primary problem with this method of storytelling is that you’re not really part of it.

Sleep No More has two rules: Keep your mask on and don’t talk to anybody. Outside those restrictions, you can do whatever and go wherever you want. At one point you might wind up in a dimly lit graveyard, alone and terrified. Then you’re in a ballroom, where garishly dressed gentlemen and ladies are dancing to an infectious beat. Next you’re in a pantry, opening jars of candy and trying to decide whether eating them will kill you. Problem is, nothing you do really matters.

A screen shot from "L.A. Noire," by Rockstar Games.

The title of his review (“Interactive Play Sleep No More Feels Like a Game, But More Confusing”) suggests the experience is intended to be interactive but that  isn’t true.  He goes on to compare the production to several popular video games like L.A. Noire and Fallout: New Vegas, arguing that the games are superior experiences primarily because the game player isn’t “just an observer.”  This perspective probably seems reasonable to Schreier, who is primarily a video game critic.  My question for Schreier is: are audiences accustomed to having an effect on the outcome of a theatrical performance?

In a way, all theatre is interactive in that actor and audience inhabit the same space; the audience’s reactions and attitudes psychologically affect the actors and this effect subtly (and sometimes boldly) influences the performance.  But audiences aren’t typically expected to participate in the action, which is what Schreier seems to expect: a kind of theatrical “Choose Your Own Adventure.”

In contrast to Schreier’s dissatisfaction, several major theatre critics have responded positively to Sleep No More and audiences have been attracted to the production’s novelty.  However, many theatre practitioners have long wondered how video games and other electronic media might affect the next generation of theatregoers.  Will the theatre adapt to its changing audience? Will there be an audience at all?  Schreier’s review makes me wonder if the if the next generation of theatergoers is already clamoring for theatrical evolution.  And while PUNCHDRUNK and other organizations are experimenting with theatrical form, one has to wonder how (or if) a theatrical institution like the Royal Shakespeare Company will adapt when the time comes.  How will other artistic forms evolve with the video game generation?

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