This week I’ve been thinking about the mechanics and formal decisions behind the recent rise in “choose-your-own-adventure”-style shows, a genre I have recently added to with the first outing of my new show Private Dancer. I’m not plugged into the conceptual theatre scene enough to know exactly where this trend started – I imagine it has a lot to do with the immersive/interactive site-specific theatre boom of the mid-00s that involved things like You Me Bum Bum Train and the immersive projects of companies like Punchdrunk and Shunt. Then, further down the line, there was the revival of 80s-style gaming that emerged from the 80s nostalgia of shows like Stranger Things, which eventually resulted in the Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch. Bandersnatch revisited the choose-your-own-adventure gimmick and format from 80s solo roleplaying games to create a piece of TV where what happened in the story was entirely down to your choices as a viewer, and since then non-linear audience-generated theatre, comedy, film and TV – where the choices of the audience feed into the actual content of the piece – has been on the rise.
The sketch group Tarot debuted with a show where each sketch was based on a particular tarot card, and the audience chose which cards they wanted to see. There were too many sketches to fit into one performance, meaning any one audience would only see a cross-section of the potential sketches they could have seen, and would have to go back and see it again in order to get everything. Haley McGee’s Age Is A Feeling does something similar in the world of theatre, where the audience chooses which stories they want to hear, ending up only seeing a percentage of the fragmented, imagined life the stories portray. Finally, Netflix recently released the heist drama Kaleidoscope, which experimented with non-linear storytelling by playing the first seven episodes in a random order for each viewer, then playing the eighth, so that the show’s twists and revelations would hit differently depending on how much context you were aware of at any given time.
As I wrote back in October, a lot of the stuff I’ve been doing for fun on my own over the last couple of years has involved non-linear, user-generated game formats – certain board games, choose-your-own-adventure books, etc. I started getting excited about the idea of making a show that incorporates an element of that audience-generated non-linearity, and ended up designing the “choreographed mayhem” mechanic of Private Dancer, where the audience has a list of 33 verbs and about two dozen objects and materials available to them, and decide the content of the show by combining the verbs with the objects. It made for a lot of absurd nonsense that I found really fun, but what I’m really interested in is trying to use this mechanism as a way of exploring the grey areas and the gaps and the near misses involved in being a human person – the times you mean to say one thing but end up saying another, or the way you try to think of yourself in one way but end up being thought of in another by other people. I liked the idea of having a finite number of choices and options leading to an infinite number of potential chaotic scenarios, all of them making me look completely ridiculous, as an analogy for the ways in which we try and fail to build a coherent identity for ourselves. I think a lot of audience members really enjoyed and appreciated this element, and a lot of others just enjoyed the sight of me in my pants trying to play the ukulele one-handed and sing a love song while the other hand was covered in glue. This has always been my favourite sweet-spot in which to make work, and I think I’m getting better at working within it – I don’t ever want an audience member to feel like they have to understand some philosophical point in order to enjoy the show. I like making work that can be perfectly well enjoyed purely as nonsense. But when I hear from people who understood or appreciated what I was trying to say with it and why I’d made the decisions I had, it makes me feel very proud.
Punchdrunk doing some stuff
Completism vs Breadth
The point on which I need to make a decision going forwards concerns the short stories which form the actual content of Private Dancer. In between carrying out their instructions, I read out a series of eight stories in the order they choose, and then read the eighth and final one at the end. The stories are linked by a theme, but are non-linear, and I like the idea that the order in which you hear them means they hit differently. Certain moments in one story might not register as significant if you heard it first, but might take on new meaning when you’ve already heard one of the other ones, and so on. This is, of course, the same format as Kaleidoscope, but I’d already written and figured out the show before I heard about that series, so that’s just a nice bit of serendipity. I’d based the idea on B.S. Johnson’s legendary 1969 “book-in-a-box” The Unfortunates, an amazing novel that comes as a series of 27 fragments that you read in any order, bookended by two fragments entitled “First” and “Last.” The stories in Private Dancer are all about performative feelings, the differences between feelings and thoughts, and the gaps between meaning and intention, so all together form a whole that explores the same subject that the rest of the show is dramatising.
What I realised after performing the show for the first time is that, because of the infinite possibilities and user-generated nature of it, it’s the kind of show that people might want to watch multiple times in order to see the different combinations of ideas, especially if it’s something I ended up streaming online frequently as opposed to performing live. The problem with that is that it might set the expectation that, like Tarot or Age Is A Feeling, they’ll see different combinations of stories each time, and might hear something they’ve not heard before. In theory, I could make this format work by writing more stories exploring the same themes, and letting the selection of stories be randomly decided at each performance.
Personally, I’m not so keen on this idea. I much prefer the idea of sticking to the model from The Unfortunates – that at the heart of the chaos there is something concrete and fixed and finite that is the show, but that takes on slightly different meanings and connotations based on the context in which you hear it. I like the idea that, taken as a whole, the eight stories do have a fixed meaning, but one that shifts in and out of focus depending on the order you hear them in, rather than have the meaning of the show change entirely from night to night based on which stories the audience heard. I also think it’s important I do what I can to make my show distinct from other successful shows with similar formats, like Age Is A Feeling (I’ve not seen it but from what I’ve heard, there are similarities in the way I present my stories and Haley presents hers, so I think it’s important I double down on the ways in which the shows are stylistically and formalistically different so that I know I’m following my own creative instincts and not at risk of copying something).
What I might end up doing is experimenting with writing additional stories while the show is in the development stages, with the aim of identifying which stories feel like the best distillation of what the show is trying to say, so that I can eventually formalise those stories as the show’s official “content.” That way, people watching the show during these work-in-progress versions of it might see different things each time, but by the time I’m ready to launch the show properly with an official theatre run or similar, I know exactly which stories to tell and how they reflect one another and how they come together to form a whole. What do you guys reckon? If you attended a show like this multiple times, would you be disappointed if you heard the same eight stories in a different order, if all of the rest of the show was completely different? Are you unlikely to attend a show multiple times anyway, even if it did have this user-generated format? Am I overthinking the whole thing? Let me know what you think!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Implausibly-haired clown Luke Rollason just made his Dinsey+ debut as one of the leads in the superhero sitcom Extraordinary, from writer Emma Moran. I’ve not seen it yet as I need to restart my Disney+ subscription (got bored of The Mandalorian), but by all accounts it’s great fun.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Johnny White Really-Really’s excellent routine on hiccups at Roisin & Chiara’s Late Night Lounge last week. “You feel very lonely when you have hiccups. Even if someone else has hiccups at the same time as you, it’s like being on two separate icebergs.”
Book Of The Week – Reading The Snows Of Kilimanjaro And Other Stories by Ernest Hemingway. I don’t think much of it. I have basically nothing to say about it.
Album Of The Week – Mercy by John Cale. My year-long discography deep-dive into Cale’s past work culminates with his brand new album, and first in a decade, which is great. It’s deeply odd, and a lot of the songs on it don’t really sound like songs, but it has an unsettling weirdness that reminds me of Bowie’s Blackstar, which is one of the best albums of all time. Tragically, the John Cale gig I was supposed to be going to that was my initial reason for getting into him has been moved so many times that I can no longer go, but I’m very grateful to it for giving me the chance to get into his wonderful music.
Film Of The Week – Tar. Ok, who’s seen this? I would love to hear from people who loved this, because I did not think it was good at all and nor did the screening I saw it in (multiple walkouts, people rushing to leave at the end). It’s crazy long. It’s hugely verbose. It doesn’t really do anything with all its interesting ideas. The ending is incredibly rushed. It doesn’t tell you enough about the characters for you to care about anything that’s happening. I was frequently bored. Cate Blanchett is fantastic in it. Is a wonderful performance by a beloved actor really enough for all the critics to overlook its many flaws and heap so much praise on it? Or am I missing something?
That’s all for this week! Let me know what you thought and, as ever, if you did want to send this newsletter to a friend or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it. Thanks so much, and take care of yourselves until next time,
PS Here’s me in Chinatown celebrating the Lunar New Year: