Monday, 5 June 2017

Losers' Dramaturgy: Arthur Jones @ Edfringe 2017

Tit4Twat Theatre: Losers

23:20 (1hr Duration)

3– 27 August(Not 14)

0844 545 8252

Grab a voting handset, meet four dangerously desperate contestants and decide their formidable fates. It's the most nail-biting TV game show of the decade and no one's going down without a fight. Theatrical mischief-makers Tit4Twat bring their critically-acclaimed satire to Edinburgh for the first time.

What was the inspiration for this performance?
Google ‘The Chamber’ (FOX Network) or ‘The Chair’ (ABC). The former literally locked reality contestants in a so-called ‘torture chamber’, exposing them to either subzero temperatures or flames that raised the temperature above 150℉ for the entertainment of TV viewers.

Incredibly, that isn’t a storyline for an upcoming Black Mirror episode. Those programmes were actually made, contestants agreed to ‘star’ on them and people tuned in to watch. They’re extreme examples, but not a million miles away from shows we perceive as acceptable and compelling.

If you really think about some Big Brother ‘shopping tasks’, or I’m A Celebrity ‘bushtucker trials’, extreme physical, psychological and gastrointestinal torture are incorporated into the very structure of these formats - and society is pretty OK with it.

LOSERS arose in response to our collective concern about what really constitutes as ‘entertainment’ in the 21st century. And ultimately, whether anything has moved on since the days of gladiatorial combat. A thumbs up from the emperor and the contestant is a hero. A thumbs down, and everybody will happily watch them burn.

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas?
Yes, absolutely. But particularly - I’d argue - when your form is somewhat participatory or interactive. When you just present a perspective or an argument to an audience, bow and exit, I’m not entirely sure that’s a discussion.

I’m forever conscious that ‘interactive theatre’ has a somewhat bad rep; people roll their eyes thinking it’s a cheap gimmick, or perhaps associating it with lazy craft or sub-average improv. We’re on a mission to prove that not all interactive theatre is about ‘dragging audience members up’ to make them blush (and the rest giggle). 

We love that the form can force audience members to evaluate their own behaviour, not in a theoretical or make-believe situation but in real-time (and with real consequences). We think that encouraging people to question their own decisions, and how they made them in the first place, is a great starting point to a proper ‘discussion’.

How did you become interested in making performance?
The real answer is my dad took me to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when I was 8, and when it flew over my head at the end, all I was thinking was ‘how the fuck can I get myself in that car?’

A more finessed answer (equally true) is I had incredibly inspiring secondary school drama teachers, who taught me it was totally OK to be myself and not be good at remembering historical dates or German vocab.

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?
Yes. It may not be hugely obvious when you watch the final product, but we very much started with academic essays as stim. So much more academia around Survivor (what’s considered to be the daddy of reality shows) and Big Brother exists than you might expect. That is, until you start reading it, when it makes total sense as to why so many intelligent people have committed so much time to studying it. 

It allows for fascinating discussion on concepts of ‘authenticity’ (how important it is to society, and the extent to which something needs to be ‘true’ in order to be ‘truthful’) and ‘exploitation’ (now that they’ve been around so long, are reality programmes really exploiting contestants? Or are the often very media-savvy contestants exploiting the audience?).

There’s also lots of essays about reality television being only the latest articulation of a wider cultural fascination around ‘the real’. Crimewatch, for example, gets unbelievably high ratings year-after-year. Skeptics often ask whether viewers secretly love watching the reconstructions because it’s like watching CSI but better. Because those events actually happened to people. Dark as hell, right?

Once we’d read as much as we could, the next step was to decide on the type(s) of interactivity we wanted the piece to involve. It was admittedly quite easy in this case; audience voting is obviously already a well-established feature of the world we wanted to comment on, so a natural fit. 

The rest fell into place surprisingly quickly, although we made sure to have lots of work-in-progress performances. When a piece relies so heavily on the audience (we literally can’t do a run of Losers without one, the show grinds to a halt constantly), you’ve no idea what will work and what won’t until there’s real people sitting in those seats.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?
I think so. Throughout uni (we all graduated from the Theatre and Performance course at Warwick together back in 2014), the vast majority of what we made involved elements of risk and uncertainty. 

None of us were that interested in making or performing in ordinary plays; we read up on ‘game theory’ quite a bit and opted for Live Art modules which showed us there’s a lot more to performance than interesting adaptations of Tennessee Williams plays (which, by the way, can be really great too).

But yeah, I think we all have a shared aesthetic (probably why we all gravitated towards each other). We like making stuff when the stage is literally filthy and disgusting by the end, and LOSERS is no different. There’s a reason why we’re the venue’s last show of the night...

What do you hope that the audience will experience?
Primarily, we want them to leave with big smiles on their faces, to finish their ciders and embark on spontaneous night outs.

The next morning, when they’re deeply hungover, I guess we want them to think about the dynamics that drive people to seek fame at any cost (and compel others to watch them try). We want them to question everything they watched, and be desperate to find out how much of it was ‘real’ and how much of it was performative or ‘fake’. 

And we want to change their mind about both live art and interactive theatre. The former doesn’t have to be pretentious or entirely nonsensical, and the latter doesn’t need to be trite or gimmicky.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
LOSERS is intended to teeter on the edge of being a social experiment, and we knew it’d be tricky to persuade an audience to participate once it becomes apparent voting makes them complicit in the darker aspects to the show. We considered and employed quite a few strategies to ensure they’d carry on participating (necessary, or the show grinds to a halt) but I’ll focus on the overarching one: an understanding of ‘horizons of risk’, as theorised by Gareth White.

In what I believe to be the best analysis of interactive theatre (Audience Participation in Theatre: Aesthetics of the Invitation), White explains why theatre-makers must anticipate a ‘general horizon of risk’ and ensure that all interactions are contained in a way that is comfortable for most of the audience. In other words, perception of risk leads to conscious and unconscious choices about how and whether to participate, so you must establish a relatively safe and non-intimidating environment at the beginning (and ease the audience in, gradually moving the goalposts), or they’ll outright refuse to accept your ‘offer’ of interaction and you’re dead in the water.

Getting the audience to laugh a lot is an excellent way to do this (Robert Provine writes about laughter as a ‘contagious’ physiological process that is shared by members of a group and therefore signals belonging). You essentially need to build the belief that if the audience goes along with you, they’ll have fun, and emphasise the notion of joining in. 

What you absolutely shouldn’t do is foreground any specific content, a) because it makes it boring, but b) because it makes people panic and refuse to go on the ‘journey’ with you.

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