Future on stage

A Canberra group is at the cutting edge of interactive theatre, Peter Wilkins writes.

Imagine a virulent new virus that can strike at the very core of our prime means of communication: language. It is an aggressive new strain that attacks our conceptual understanding of words and our capacity for critical thought. It reduces the complexity of meaning to literal interpretation. It is neither airborne nor transmitted by known means, yet its consequences could be catastrophic.

Imagine now a leader seeking to inspire the nation with the words, "We are all one." People would interpret this as being the same people, living in the same room in the same house and having the same job. The virus has removed all resistance to credulity.

Actors Raoul Craemer and Cathy Petocz.
Actors Raoul Craemer and Cathy Petocz. Photo: Rohan Thomson

The only hope for any cure rests with the efforts of three eminent scientists, whose task it will be to diagnose the virus, survey its impact and provide the appropriate scientific response to avoid a global epidemic. It harks back to the absurdist style of the three characters all coming from different perspectives - a microbiologist; an epidemiologist and a logistics manager, who each have their own special area of expertise in addressing the outbreak. They are an emergency response team, located in an animal health laboratory and instructed to deal with the outbreak of this new disease, which affects language and forces people to believe whatever they hear. So there's complete information quarantine. They don't allow any new information to come in because they know that you can't breathe it in. They're locked down and trying to come up with a cure for the disease and roll it out to all the other laboratories that are locked down all around Australia and presumably around the world.

This is the conceit for Boho Interactive's new livestream performance piece Word Play to be presented at the CSIRO Discovery Centre, where Boho has been a company in residence for the past two years.

"The idea was based on the growing antibiotic resistance that is developing throughout the world,'' Boho member Jack Lloyd says, "and the misuse of antibiotic treatments, of discontinuing courses before they are finished, or using it or having it prescribed when people don't actually have infections. The intention of the show was to find a way that we could express that in a way that was interesting, so we looked at the metaphor of communicable diseases and communication and said the body has this natural resistance against bugs. What would it be like if the disease wasn't a physical entity and we looked at the resistance we all have to credulity - the capacity to be incredulous and critically examine ideas. Language is used as the medium through which disease is transmitted. The disease affects individual concepts and any associated idea you would immediately believe."

Boho Interactive has established an enviable reputation as an experimental, cutting edge company that embraces new technology and scientific concepts to create interactive theatre in which the audience is integrally involved in the course of the action and its outcomes. Word Play is a ground-breaking and innovative development of the work already created in their previous shows and Boho collaborator, David Finnigan sees this as part of a cycle that is the Boho model.

Their first show, A Prisoner's Dilemma, examined the notion of game theory, using video game technology to involve the audience in the choices they were invited to make. Their next show, Food for the Great Hungers, moved into installation live art and explored the inequities of food supply throughout the world. True Logic of the Future moved back to theatre with a treasure hunt on stage to explore the notion of complex systems.

"Word Play is similar to True Logic," Lloyd says. "The intention is to find things that people consider to be inalienable rights and to put it into a scenario where those rights appear to be in conflict with one another. They are not resisted. In True Logic it was the right to democracy versus an environment which would sustain life. There's a similar dichotomy in Word Play so that's something we want audiences to question for themselves. What's really important to you and that you couldn't live without? If you had to choose between two outcomes which of these rights could you do without?"

Choice for the audience of Word Play is determined through the use of a mobile phone and video livestreaming. Unlike conventional theatre where audiences are required to turn off their mobile phones, audience here are invited to text or email through directions to the actors, whom they are watching on a screen in the Discovery Room Theatre of the CSIRO. Actors Cathy Petocz, Euan Bowen and Raoul Craemer are in a disused forestry laboratory in Yarralumla and the audience will interact with the performers through their phones.

"If you can text you can come along and do the show basically," Boho Interactive's Michael Bailey says. "The aim is to be as accessible as possible to everybody and there are sections in the show where audience members are invited to interrogate the character about the situation. They might be asked to guide the actor around the space or they could be voting on an outcome. All the audience input can be collated and passed through to the actors and we will then incorporate that into the performance. There's very little difference to that and a film until you introduce interactivity. That sense of immediacy will be reintroduced when you have people in the audience knowing that it's not all predetermined. The audience are crucial for the storyline to progress.''

The audience takes on the role as an extra character, sitting externally and having information that the actors don't. This is fed to the technical crew, who act as mediators between the audience and the actors on screen. Director Marissa Martin works with the tech team to coordinate the responses, while directing the show as theatre, film and video game. It will be similar to live television direction.

This interactive approach also places additional demands on the three actors. As well as performing the action of the piece, they will also be controlling the cameras. The actors effectively curate the audience's experience through the use of the cameras.

"It's going to be a very new and exciting experience for the people," Lloyd says. "A number of the sequences will be shot in the first-person style with a person-mounted camera on the actors. In a way I guess it enables the audience to experience a direct empathy with the characters and the stresses they face."

A joint Canberra 100 and CSIRO Discovery project, Word Play has been almost two years in the making, which Finnigan tells me has contributed greatly to the depth of research and the natural imbuing of scientific fact and theatre in this production. The CSIRO Discovery Centre's director, Cris Kennedy (who also writes for the Canberra Times) arranged for Boho to attend the Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong where the Hendra virus antidote was being developed. "The CSIRO has been fantastic," Lloyd says. After months of researching epidemics throughout history and gathering information with the assistance of the CSIRO scientists, Lloyd and Bailey then wrote the script and rehearsals began in November. The first part of the show is presented as a lecture, outlining the nature of the disease and the cure that the scientists believe that they have found to combat its spread. The second part of the show presents a crisis that needs to be overcome in order to successfully cure people of the virus.

Word Play casts a prophetic glance at the theatre of the future and the relationship between audience and performer as new technologies change the ways in which artists engage with their artform.

"There's no reason with the rollout of the NBN that you couldn't do a show of this type in the basement of someone's house living in Gungahlin right now," Bailey says. "The speeds are fast enough that you can do this kind of show just from your house and in a couple of the technology could become totally acceptable to everybody. What used to be a very niche process can be taken anywhere around Australia. You can get a live art experience that is interactive and interesting simply by typing an address into your browser at home.''

"What impact might that have on more conventional forms of theatre?" I ask.

"I think the world of arts gets bigger," Bailey replies. "It doesn't displace anything. And it's a different experience. It has components of film and theatre and video gaming all rolled into one. And I think in this instance it allows us to remain Canberra-based with the entire Australia as an audience, if not the entire world.

"We don't see ourselves as educators primarily,'' Lloyd says. ''We are essentially storytellers and the intention is to take people on an emotional journey. We explore issues in science that relate to everyday life. Within a story we are exploring those concepts, as you might explore love or family. We are exploring antibiotic resistance in Word Play, but our main intention remains to tell a good story."

  • Word Play, May 15-June 1 at 7.30pm. CSIRO Discovery Centre Theatre, North Science Road, Black Mountain, ACT. Tickets: $20. For bookings and further information, phone CSIRO Discovery Centre: (02) 6246 4646. Email: info.discovery@csiro.au.