Guest Blog: Writing Through Games & R & D’ing Game-Based Theatre

For our latest blog, Associate Director Hidden Track Theatre, Anoushka Bonwick, writes about devising a piece of gamed-based theatre.

Drawing the Line arrives at CPT on Sunday March 17th at 7:15pm as part of Sprint 2019. Click here to find out more.

We recently went through our first week of R&D for our new show, Drawing the Line, which we’ll be scratching later this month at Sprint before opening the full show for a run at the Albany in May. These are amazing opportunities to play with new audiences for us, with some fantastic theatres, but it’s also a much more intense, telescoped process from the c.2 years we spent developing our last show (multi-award winning game theatre about class, Standard:Elite).  Because all of our work weaves together games and interactivity with storytelling, for this process we have decided to try building the script more collaboratively from the ground up, combining R&D with writing for our Artistic Director Elliot Hughes (usually he drafts a whole script before rehearsals).  This combination of writing-playing-testing and speed is an exciting / terrifying venture for us.

The main aim of our R & D was to design and build the games that will form the backbone of the show experience, exploring the overarching game mechanic. Drawing the Line is all about nationhood, identity and community and we want these ideas to come as much through game-play as as they do through the stories and characters we share.  It was me, Elliot and our wonderful performer Steph locked in a room for a week to hash out, what we hoped, would be the skeleton for each game. It very much felt like stepping out into an abyss.

Games work differently to theatre, though they have some aspects in common and for us, it’s just as important that the games work really inclusively and are clear and satisfying, as the story is. They are a huge part of what brings our work to life, but they are definitely the more challenging element to get off the page.  So we started with the general principles of game design.  What are the different components a game needs to make it effective?  How many players does it need?  What is it that signifies the end?  How can you clearly define the goal?  What props or pieces are essential to play ?  We also talked about all the different types of games that are out there:  what makes them fun to play, what makes them easy / difficult and what do you need to bring to the table as a player (skill, strategic thinking, luck etc)?

We started each day with a good helping of ‘Storyball’, a game I devised for Hidden Track work where you start off with a bag or ball.  The first person begins by offering a word and throwing the ball/bag to someone else, whoever catches the ball/bag offers the next word to follow on from the last, eventually making (usually a hilarious and nonsensical) story. I like using this game, it’s a good way to get the actors to think about narrative, get them moving but also get them out of their head and not filtering thinking too much: I wanted them to be in a state where they could offer ideas freely.  It also keeps in mind that playing and storytelling can and should be intertwined.

The bulk of our script / game development work focused on exploring the underlying ideas driving each game in the show before deconstructing its mechanics.   We were working towards what we needed the outcomes to be from both a storytelling and experiential point of view.  We always have to think about how the game is situated in the narrative of the show and, crucially, how to make all games within the show un-intimidating and inviting for the audience.  Audience care and making the widest possible invitation through our work is at the heart of our approach as company – we reckon theatre, yep, even political theatre, can and should be fun for everyone.  We were also beginning to think about design elements, as we hope to work with audiences on a new design every night.  We spent a couple of days playing and building with lots of different materials to see what structures could be made in a limited amount of time (take a look at our Instagram for some of the structures we made!).

The main challenge when it comes to designing games for theatre is that you are always playing with one of the actors – the audience – missing.  There was lots we could discover and develop playing together in that first week’s R & D, but there are always limits to how much you can test out.   So that’s the challenge for Week 2, inviting in an audience to test the games out and see if they will work…. We hope to see you there!

Hidden Track will be scratching Drawing the Line at SPRINT on March 17th, 7.15pm  in double bill with a scratch from Coney associates Venice as a Dolphin.