The ever-erudite Rob Reid dropped me an email a little while ago asking some questions for a paper he’s writing on games and performance. Rob is one of the architects of Pop-Up Playground, the Melbourne gathering that has brought together a whole fascinating world of participatory makers, from digital gaming to interactive theatre to roleplaying to escape rooms, and on.

It felt like a good opportunity to wrap some thinking around Boho’s practice, where it’s come from, how we think about our work, what we’re aiming for next. So, here goes.

How do you approach the design process for your interactive work?

Boho’s process really centres around working with research scientists – typically climate or systems scientists, but also urban designers, epidemiologists… Our shows usually draw on concepts from sustainability science, systems thinking, game theory, network theory, complex systems science, resilience – these fields which are often gathered together under a broad heading of ‘complexity’.

Basically, we’re looking at any sort of system in which lots of different elements are interconnected, and what arises from those interconnections. That’s the raw material for our games.

Working with scientists, we’ll go back and forth with them, building up our understanding of the system – whatever that system is – and creating a systems model. That model – which usually looks like a flowchart diagram, plus a whole series of maps, lists, other visualisations – becomes the basis for the show we build.

An example of the kinds of systems models we construct / adapt in our work.

We then go through that systems model, looking for key linkages and systems dynamics we can turn into games.

In the last couple of years, we’ve started breaking things down into two kinds of interactive activities – what we’ve dubbed ‘skilltesters’ and ‘games’.

‘Games’, in this parlance, involve choice – any kind of decision-making, resource allocation, negotiation, etc. Anything where the audience needs to predict how the system will behave, and make a call about what they’d like to see happen. Things where they have to use their strategic brain.

The other kind are ‘skilltesters’ – games where the purpose is just to win. Can you fly this bird over here holding it between two sticks, can you sort these counters out into piles of different colours in less than 30 seconds, etc… These games are often more active, more playful, and we use them to give us inputs into our system model, so we can read out different scenarios. But we don’t hinge big choices on them.

Most shows will have a mix of these kinds of activities – some games where the audience is making key decisions, thinking through problems and coming up with strategic solutions, and some skilltesters where we’re introducing ideas more playfully, giving them a quick input into the show without too much weight being placed upon their choices.

TEDxCanberra - Balloons - Image by Gavin Tapp

TEDxCanberra – Balloons – Image by Gavin Tapp

How do you account for the unexpected in your work?

Look, we’re not improvisers – we build a structure with some different pathways, some resilience to shock etc, and then we guide audiences through it. There’s room for discussion, but in some senses there’s still the chance that the audience can break the show.

That said, one major advantage we have in building an experience is that we’re very transparent with our aims – ‘we’re here to talk about this concept, we’ve made these games that do that, here’s how it’s gonna work’. The performers are usually playing themselves, facilitating and helping the audience. So, for example, when Nathan was running a piece of ours called Volleyball Farm for a Forum for the Future event in London in Nov, the game broke because we’d never calibrated it for more than 5 players. But Nathan was able to discuss the intention behind playing the game, what point we wanted to illustrate, and that worked almost as well.

Can you describe the encounter between a participating audience and your work? (ie, what’s it like to play?)

We go for gentle, non-confrontational, casual. Me, I get more anxious and stressed as a participant in interactive shows than anyone, and we make putting the audience at ease the key watchword.

So you’ll be met – in say a foyer, if we’re doing it in a theatre – and you’ll be told what’s going to happen, and you’ll be guided to a table, or to your seat – given a little more of a heads up about what’s going to happen – and then you’ll be introduced to the facilitators, and then you get your hands on whatever it is. Gentle, all the time.

The games themselves, often are drawn from boardgaming, and there’s a well established practice in boardgaming of how to introduce rulesets to players – good, thoughtful advice I think we’d do well to learn from. There’s an order to how you introduce information:

1. Who you are in the game
2. What your objective is
3. How you achieve that objective
4. What does a turn consist of

and so on. Not always appropriate, but it’s nice to have a clear, logical structure for how information goes.

The experience is often divided roughly into three different forms: games/interactive components, theatre/narrative, and performance lecture. We’d tend to cycle between these three forms rapidly over the course of a show, with the weight shifting between them as we build to the end.

How does narrative/mood/meaning emerge from the experience of your work?

It all happens in the post-show discussions!

Well, mostly. We usually build a show with a post-show chat built in – a conversation with a guest scientist or an expert in the field we’re discussing. Then we’ll have a glass of wine, and a really informal conversation with the audience. That’s where the ideas underlying the show get unpacked, that’s our chance to dive in deeper.

Of course, that’s not to say that the show itself doesn’t also bring out the ideas, but we think that explicit conversation afterwards is really important.

What/who have been your influences?

We started off making interactive work in Canberra with no-one else around doing it – not in the way we were, anyway. We knew we weren’t the only ones making it, but we couldn’t easily find out who else was out there, and what their stuff looked like. So we made a lot of stuff up.

Our initial impetus was to do computer games live on stage. We adopted frameworks and conventions from old computer games, and adapted them to stage. Hacked gaming controllers (console controllers, joysticks) where the audience controlled the actors live onstage. Our first piece was a game called Playable Demo, where the audience piloted the actor through a short scene in the style of an old LucasArts adventure game, using a torchbeam as a mouse cursor on stage.

A little deeper into our practice, we’ve taken a lot from some of our closer collaborators. Applespiel, obviously, and Coney. Applespiel for their actual genuine expertise in participatory theatre (as opposed to our make-it-up-as-you-go style) and Coney for the superb philosophy and vocabulary around how a playing audience could and should be treated.

Finally, we’ve learned a lot from scientists, particularly those working in the field of participatory co-modelling. This is a form of practice whereby scientists collaboratively construct a working model of a social-ecological system – for example, a region of farmland, or a river system. Then they bring together stakeholders from that system to discuss and debate issues facing it, with the model as a platform to facilitate discussion and compromise. Their tools for audience engagement may be a little rudimentary, but the sophistication of the underlying models they’re using put most theatre-makers to shame.

Young Boho. Jack & David in A Prisoner’s Dilemma, circa 2007.

What drew you to working in participatory/playful performance forms?

We started Boho in late 2006: Michael Bailey, Jack Lloyd, David Shaw and I. Jack and I had made an interactive scene called Playable Demo in 2005, based on old adventure games. (In the floppy disk era, you would often get a single scene from a larger game as a kind of interactive advert for the whole game.)

We took that format and combined it with the science of Game Theory to make our first show, A Prisoner’s Dilemma. Game Theory is a great tool for game-makers because it breaks real world scenarios into well-defined mathematical structures. We created a whole series of micro-games based on different Game Theory thought experiments (the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Chicken, Dictator, Ultimatum) and threaded a Harold Pinter-esque narrative through them.

That show really placed us in a very particular niche: ‘interactive science-theatre’. What even is that. But it was good to be able to label ourselves as something for a couple of years, even though now we’ve spilled out in a lot of different directions.

 Food for the Great Hungers, 2009. 

What’s the benefit/advantage of playing with a participating audience?

Ahhh, well, the trick is what we all know now, you and me and all the artists making participatory theatre, which is: the audience is always participating – it’s just a question of how. Sitting passively in the dark watching and not talking is a form of participation – we’re just so trained by theatre conventions that we take it for granted and don’t realise it’s a choice, a compact we all (artists and audiences) agree on.

Same with making site-specific stuff – you realise that the theatre venue isn’t a necessity, it’s an option – you use it sometimes when the moment calls for it, at other times you let it go.

Whatever level of participation the audience engage in, that’s a trade-off. If the audience are moving around outdoors experiencing your work, they’re feeling much more exhileration, excitement, there’s opportunities for happy accidents and beautiful unique experiences, but you run the risk of losing their focus, of them being distracted, feeling lost or confused.

If the audience are seated quietly and watching a well-lit stage, that’s ideal for delivering complex information and making sure everyone sees the same thing, but you’re talking at them rather than having a conversation, and you run the risk of boring them / annoying them if they feel like they can’t leave.

We (Boho) choose the level of interaction based on what we want their experience to be, what we’re talking about, what we want to discuss. If we want to talk with them about how tipping points or regime shifts occur, maybe that’s best if we just explain it as clearly as we can, using whatever theatre imagery works best. But if we want to illustrate the challenges facing local government when they’re evacuating small communities from a potential volcano eruption, maybe we want to give them the experience of trying to make decisions and negotiate compromises with imperfect information.

 True Logic of the Future, 2010. Pic by ‘pling.

What mechanics do you use to encourage and support player agency?

Typically our games are quite short, and there are lots of them throughout a show, interspersed with narrative / storytelling moments, or micro-lectures. That means we can guide the audience through the aesthetic experience quite closely, rather than setting it up at the beginning of the night and just letting them roam free.

That gives us a better chance of managing certain player dynamics – reining in hot players who are dominating the games, or drawing in quieter, more passive players.

But player agency? Not our highest priority, honestly. We’ve usually created quite a curated experience, and though each game is completely interactive, and the whole show has a lot of different states and outcomes (usually in the thousands, if you tally it all up), we’re not running a LARP – we have quite a detailed sense of where we want the audience to go, and we’re happy to take them there.

– David

For a high-speed example of all of these principles in action (more or less), you can check out Jack and Mick’s 18-games-in-18-minutes performance at TEDx Canberra:

Okay so we are excited to announce that we will be bringing Boho’s Best Festival Ever: How To Manage A Disaster to Canberra this August.

We’ll be at the Street Theatre for two weeks over 12 – 22 August.

This will be the first Boho show in Canberra since Word Play in 2013, and the first presentation of Best Festival Ever in Australia. After premiering the show last year with seasons at the Battersea Arts Centre, the London Science Museum and the Stockholm Resilience Centre, we’re really stoked to be bringing this one home.

Best Festival Ever: How To Manage A Disaster places the audience in charge of programming and managing their very own music festival.

Seated around a table, participants take charge of designing, constructing and managing their festival from beginning to end. From taking care of rowdy campsite parties to assembling the perfect lineup of bands, from dealing with artist tantrums to preventing fights in the moshpit, the audience experience every part of the festival manager’s ride.

Part theatre show, part performance lecture and part boardgame, Best Festival Ever introduces participants to concepts from Systems Science and asks how we can best understand and manage the complex systems we live in.

Each of the Canberra shows will feature a conversation with a guest scientist talking about the ideas in the work, including Dr Will Steffen (Climate Council), Dr Bob Costanza (ANU) and Dr Nicky Grigg (CSIRO).

Following the conclusion of Big Day Out, Harvest, Future Music, Stereosonic, the Great Escape and Parklife Festivals, this might be your last chance to experience a music festival in Australia: jump on board.


David here with a final wrap-up note at the end of the first Best Festival Ever season. After 17 shows in 9 venues in London and Stockholm, we’ve finished the show’s first tour and returned to Australia for a break – as well as to plan and prepare for the project’s next phase.

Over November, we presented the show at venues including the Battersea Arts Centre, the London Science Museum, Central St Martins, Kings College London, Forum for the Future, Zone Creative Agency, Färgfabriken, Miljöverkstan and the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

We shared the work with theatre audiences, scientists, high school students, sustainable development post-grads, researchers, festival-makers, urban planners, museum staff and corporate groups.

Fereday Films produced a great video of the show in action, which you can check out here:

Perhaps the most satisfying part of the work for me was the discussions with the audience we held after the show. For our Science Museum season, scientists Yvonne Rydin, James Millington, Chris Brierley and Emily Lines presented short talks after the shows, discussing their own work in relation to the systems science ideas in Best Festival Ever. The conversations about sustainability, planning, climate change and complex systems were incredibly rewarding to listen to.

That’s it for Best Festival Ever in 2014. In 2015 we’ll be looking at further tours for the show both within Australia and overseas. We’re also seeking to begin partnerships with other organisations to develop new interactive tabletop works looking at specific systems.

If you’re interested in knowing more, or if you’d like to chat about a possible collaboration, please drop us a line. And thanks to everyone who contributed their support to make this project happen – we’re hugely grateful!

Cheers from David, David, Nikki, Nathan and Rachel!

Best Festival Ever: How To Manage A Disaster is an interactive theatre performance based on Systems Science that takes place around a table.

As human beings, we are surrounded by and embedded within systems, both natural, such as climate and the ecosystem, and human-made, such as the economy or even society as a whole.

Many of the significant issues facing us today emerge from the interplay between these two kinds of system. Our decision-making and management systems are frequently based on mechanistic and simplistic representations of the world.

Over the last two decades, scientists in the field of Systems Science have gained a new understanding of these issues, creating a toolkit of vital concepts for understanding and grappling with real-world complexity.

This project brings these ideas from Systems Science to life in a unique theatrical presentation.

Part theatre show, part performance lecture and part board game, Best Festival Ever introduces participants to concepts from systems science, using the example of a music festival. 10-25 audience members are seated around a table and placed in charge of a new festival.

Through a variety of interactive games, the audience works together to program and deliver their own unique music festival. Over 60 minutes, they move from planning to execution, doing their best to keep the festival and its audience from collapsing into chaos.

Responding to the rapidly escalating challenges of the situation requires cooperation, creativity and communication. Designed for conferences, meeting rooms, corporate training and theatres, Best Festival Ever offers a fun, engaging and creative way to introduce audiences to the insights and ideas from Systems science.

WHAT IS SYSTEMS SCIENCE?

Systems science is an interdisciplinary field that studies the complex systems that exist in nature and society. It is a way of analyzing the dynamics of our world by looking at it as a whole rather than separating it into parts. Systems science concentrates as much on the links and interactions between things as it does on the things themselves. Best Festival Ever uses the example of a music festival to introduce audiences to a variety of concepts from systems sciences, including:

  • Complex Adaptive Systems – How complex systems from the economy to natural ecosystems-or music festivals-have their own behaviours and properties including the ability to spontaneously self-organize and adapt;
  • Interconnectivity – How the different parts of a system are interconnected, and how those links can often operate in surprising and unexpected ways;
  • Feedback Loops – The idea that links can form feedback loops –some parts of the system feed into other parts which feed back again, and so on, and how those loops can sometimes get out of hand;
  • Tipping Points – How a system can reach a threshold and then suddenly and unexpectedly undergo a rapid transformation into something that looks and behaves very differently;
  • Resilience – How some systems can absorb shocks and retain their functioning, while others can suddenly collapse or transform – what is it that makes a system fragile or robust, and what does it mean to be resilient?
  • Stakeholders – That a complex system involves different stakeholders who want and value different things and those different priorities need to be kept in balance to keep the system flourishing.
  • Trade-offs – Managing a system is all about trade-offs and compromises –squeezing the most out of one part of the system will inevitably involve making sacrifices somewhere else;
  • Scales – How complex adaptive systems work on a range of space and time scales – and how dealing with a problem or understanding an issue is often a matter of viewing it at the right scale.

The work draws heavily on our work with climate scientists at the UCL Environment Institute where this work was developed, so underpinning all these elements is a strong focus on the interaction between human systems and natural ecosystems, and in land use management and environmental impacts.

ABOUT THE ARTISTS

Boho Interactive is a science-theatre ensemble from Canberra, Australia. Boho produces interactive performances based on sciences including Game Theory, Complex Systems science and Network Theory, working in collaboration with research scientists from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisaton and University College London.

Since 2006, Boho has presented work for the Asia- Pacific Complex Systems Science Conference, Battersea Arts Centre, the Brisbane Festival ‘Under The Radar’, the Powerhouse Museum, the ACT Street Theatre and the Manning Clark House Cultural Centre. Boho is represented here by David Finnigan and David Shaw.

For this project, Boho is joined by members of Sydney collective, Applespiel. Active since 2009, Applespiel have developed work for Performance Space, Next Wave Festival, PACT Centre For Emerging Artists and Crack Theatre Festival. Applespiel is represented here by Nathan Harrison, Nikki Kennedy and Rachel Roberts.

PERFORMANCE HISTORY

Best Festival Ever was developed in 2011-13 through residencies at the University College London Environment Institute, the Battersea Arts Centre and Arts House.

This work has been supported by UK theatre company Coney, University College London, Environment Institute, Tipping Point, Battersea Arts Centre, NEDNet Foundation, Arts House and Australia Council for the Arts.

SPONSOR BENEFITS

We are seeking support to undertake the final development of Best Festival Ever. Working with UK artists Tassos Stevens and Gary Campbell, we need funds to create the final touring set for the show. We are seeking partners to work with us to make this show possible, and who would value the opportunity to see this work presented at their organisation.

We are happy to discuss with you any form of support that you may be able to provide. Our basic offers are as follows:

$5,000

  • One performance of the work for your organisation at a time and place to be negotiated;
  • Acknowledgment of support on website and in all press and marketing materials.

$10,000

  • In-game signage as part of the show, a tent for your organisation as part of the tabletop music festival;
  • Two performances of the work for your organisation at times and places to be negotiated;
  • Acknowledgment of support on website and in all press and marketing materials.

$25,000

  • The artists will create a systems description of your organisation and create a unique, one-off tabletop game based on your company;
  • A mention of your organisation in the script of the show;
  • A banner for your organisation above the stage in the tabletop music festival
  • Four performances of the work at times and places to be negotiated;
  • Acknowledgment of support on website and in all press and marketing materials.

Over four full-length shows and a series of shorter works, Boho have experimented with a wide range of interactive mechanisms. Starting back in 2005 with a torchbeam which the audience used as a mouse cursor (Playable Demo) and moving through hacked console controllers (A Prisoner’s Dilemma), hands-on models (the sandpile model in Food for the Great Hungers), onstage treasure hunts (True Logic of the Future) through to adapted boardgames (Modelling Play). With Word Play, Boho are trialling a whole new interactive device – the smartphone – while at the same time returning to the company’s roots in adapting video game control systems for the stage.

I spoke with the duo behind Word Play, Jack Lloyd and Mick Bailey, about the phone-based interactivity within the show.

David: Why did you decide to go with smartphone interactivity for this show?

Jack: Everyone has a phone. It’s an interactive device that’s hugely powerful, that everyone knows how to use, and that fit really nicely within the world of the play.

Mick: The whole show is operable by SMS, with the intention that the play is accessible to as many people as possible, regardless of the handset they own.

Jack: But we have a good relationship with a local iOS developer, Bonobo Labs, who have thrown their support behind developing an app for iPhone and iPad that audience members can use to interact with the show.

David: What does the control mechanism look like?

Mick: We break the show down into three kinds of interaction – a vote, a message and a control, like arrow keys. This means we can call on the whole audience or just individuals to give their input and guide the show along.

David: What impact does this have on the characters and the show?

Jack: We use interactivity to give an audience the opportunity to explore the work from the direction that they’re interested in. They can ask us things directly about the world we’re presenting, or vote to hear about one thing or another, or even pilot actors around the space. This is hopefully all part of a richer experience for the audience – it adds a liveness and an immediacy to the performance when you know that what the character does next is wholly dependent on your input.

David: How do you think this will feel for the audience?

Mick: Hopefully it’s an intuitive experience for them. It’s an unusual format to view a show in, to be sitting in one place and to see it all unfold on the screen, performed in a totally different building, but the interactivity with the audience is crucial – it’s really the difference between a live performance and what may as well be prerecorded film. The interactivity makes it theatre again.

Jack: I think that when the audience are all huddled together in the darkened theatre, sitting amongst a sea of bottom-lit faces and doing what they can to keep our characters alive, I reckon it’s going to feel pretty damn special.

Where: CSIRO Discovery Centre, Clunies Ross street, Acton

When: 7:30pm Wednesday – Saturday 15-18 May, 22-25 May, 29 May-1 June

Tickets: $20 – buy tickets here.

This is a Centenary of Canberra project, proudly supported by the ACT Government & CSIRO.

© 2017 Boho Interactive Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha