The Universe is a Small Hat - 1st Play Test

Engineering meaningful participatory theater.

Photos by Nora Mericicki from the Berkeley Rep Ground Floor workshop/playtest June 21, 2013. 
The Witness Training. Safiya Fredericks (background) as The Founder and audience member/colonist Melissa Nigro

During my time in The Civilians R and D Group and the Berkeley Rep Ground Floor Program I have been studying how to turn the experience of my musical into an immersive and interactive game. My piece is entitled The Universe is a Small Hat and tells the story of a techno-Utopian space colony which encounters a mysterious non-human atmospheric intelligence. Each audience member plays the role of a colonist and has to choose how to behave and interface within the micro-society on the ship. The decisions that colonists make influence their experience of the piece, opportunities they have, their access to the ship itself, and ultimately the ending that they experience.

A Song from the show:

“A game is an experience created by rules.” - Anna Anthropy (Rise of The Videogame Zinesters)

Games are systems and so they are well-suited to tell stories about systems. Small Hat is at its core about a society, which is a network of shared laws, customs, and/or organizations. My piece also deals with physics which is a system of laws capable of describing and predicting aspects of our Universe. The idea for turning my piece into an immersive experience first came from this video of futurist Jason Silva talking about his experience of Punchdrunk's Sleep No More

When I found the Jason Silva video I was trying to figure out how to tell a futuristic story in a theatrical context, but I feared that being conventionally presentational would come off as hokey. My sense is that science fiction has a bad reputation in theater. Perhaps science fiction works better in novels and films because both forms are so good at immersing us in a fictional future. Silva connects Sleep No More to virtual reality and frames its (albeit analog) interactive environment as an evolution of the video game and “the future of storytelling.” I think he has a point. For centuries theater has served to create a moment of physical rest and reflection after a day of labor. But now, as more jobs than ever require hours of isolation sitting in front of a screen, plugged into a network, theater might be well positioned as a place to engage our bodies, and allow us to interact with one another in physical space. George Lucas recently came out with a similar point in his Times article The Future of Movies

The Healer Training
"Games are a kind of theater in which the audience is an actor and takes on a role – and experiences the circumstances and consequences of that role.”  - Anna Anthropy

Below I've presented some game concepts alongside a few thoughts on how we are integrating the concepts into The Universe is a Small Hat. The words that game designers use to describe their work have been helpful as I try to merge these two worlds. My hope is that more theater artists will start creating work that generates story-driven interactivity. In the two large playtests we've done I've found an incredible willingness on the part of audiences to participate as long as the system makes some sense to them.

Player Character - is a character in a video game or role playing game who is controlled or controllable by a player, and is typically a protagonist of the story told in the course of the game.
In Small Hat the “player” is the audience member. And as I develop the “script” I am viewing the audience member as an actor in the play. The script should be a delineation of circumstances that allow for a mediated experience full of sensation, story and choice. The audience members will not be asked to “act” or play a character other than themselves. Since they are cast as members of the space colony we are asking them to be themselves exactly as they are, or as they'd like to be. Each colonist is given one of five “identities,” or jobs, based on an evaluation, but each individual can embrace, switch, or reject the identity as they see fit.

Non-Player Character - any character not controlled by a player. In our case, the actors.

Reward - The reward is the positive consequence of conquering the challenge; it can be anything from an increase in score, new items, or a scene.

The Bluelight

Risk - a situation involving exposure to danger, or in the case of a game, the loss of points, rewards, or status.

Cutscenes - A cutscene is a sequence in a video game over which the player has no or only limited control, breaking up the gameplay. Cutscenes are used to advance the plot, strengthen the main character's development, introduce enemy characters, and provide background information, atmosphere, dialogue, and clues.The video game form of scene/gameplay/scene/gameplay reminds me of the musical theater form of scene/song/scene/song. In Small Hat we will move the narrative primarily through songs, direct address, and gameplay, with few scripted scenes between characters. The colonists also have a lot of time to interact directly with the drones, in which case the drones will be improvising based on their understanding of the world.

The Belief Ladder

Items – Objects which play role in the story. The might contain clues, unlock elements of the story, offer powers or privileges.

Score - In games, score refers to an abstract quantity associated with a player or team. Score is usually measured in the abstract unit of points, and events in the game can raise or lower the score of different parties. Most games with score use it as a quantitative indicator of success in the game, and in competitive games, a goal is often made of attaining a better score than one's opponents in order to win.

Playtesting – This is an idea in games that you have to play the game in order to gauge its effectiveness. Is it challenging? Too repetitive? Too easy? Interesting to both expert players and novices? Factors of the game can be tweaked and adjusted according the to subjective experience of the playtesting. I thought playtesting is the game design version of workshopping in theater, but I've actually discovered it is more analogous to rehearsal. We actually need the players (audience) to see even the most basic elements of the piece on their feet.

Skill and Chance – This is a polarity that is present in many games. There is a randomizing element (dice or cards) but also a system of rules which can be employed though a player's skill. Specific strategies will allow Colonists to achieve higher and reach greater depths of the world. But the randomizing elements will add unexpected outcomes.

Level - In a video game a level is the total space available to the player during the course of completing a discrete objective.

Audience members fill out exit surveys after the playtest.

César Alvarez - Creator/Composer
Sarah Benson - Director
Ivan Safrin and Syed Salahuddin - Game Designers

For more information on the The Universe is a Small Hat tweet or contact César.

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