Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Super Awesome Dramaturgy: Amy Conway @ Edfringe 2017

What was the inspiration for this performance?
The initial idea came from a TED talk by game designer, Jane McGonigal. She talked about how she had suffered chronic concussion after an accident and was experiencing intolerable pain on a daily basis and making no discernible improvement. She was suicidal by the time she decided that she could either end her life or make getting better into a game. She realised that if she set herself small achievable goals each day and got her friends and family involved in helping her on her quest, life was not only bearable, but she was actually making real progress towards good health. She ended up making an online game called Super Better based on her experiences and designed for anyone finding it difficult to see light in the darkness. 

I was struggling with depression at the time, and still struggle with my mental health (although much more intermittently these days), and I’d read so much about various treatments and personal accounts, but treating depression with a game was something positive and different and I was willing to give anything a try. Plus I love games and was obsessed with Nintendo as a kid so the idea grew from there. 

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas?

Absolutely! My undergraduate degree was in philosophy so I’m an advocate for having free
discourse on life, the universe and everything in all public arenas! There is perhaps an argument that ideas can be more readily communicated and more immediately discussed through online platforms, but the internet is also the place where ideas stagnate and critical reasoning goes to die (DON’T LOOK AT THE COMMENTS SECTION!). 

I’m not saying that important discussion and real innovation doesn’t happen online, but performance and live art in general can help us break out of the echo chamber, or feedback bubble (or whatever they’re calling it). 

I did quite a bit of research into game psychology for Super Awesome World and cite some neuroscientific studies in the show which point toward the positive psychological effects of gaming. The show isn’t academic and I don’t want it to be either, but it is an experiment. The show is a live theatrical video game about my depression that I play with the audience and whilst the piece is structured and engineered to a certain extent to produce a predictable result, the success of the show is very much dependent on how or whether the audience choose to play the game with me. 

I have asked the audience to be active within the performance which means that I cannot be certain of how things will turn out. I have been so excited by other performance that does this and I’m not sure you could replicate it outwith performance. Theatre feels vital and a good show can blow my mind wide open like nothing else. 

How did you become interested in making performance?
I trained as an actor and love performing in projects I’m passionate about, but over the years I’ve found much of projects and parts available to me rather uninspiring and have been galvanised to give theatre making a go myself. I think when I was younger, I had quite a narrow concept of what theatre was and could be. It’s only living in Glasgow (and making the annual pilgrimage to the Fringe) for all these years and immersing myself in the work of some world-class contemporary artists that I’ve been able to expand not only my knowledge of the impact and reach of performance but knowledge of myself as an artist and what I’m capable of. 

I also see social injustice and inequality in the world and I want to say something, but I’m not really sure if anyone will listen. And I want to change it, but I’m not really sure how to do that. I’m a bit of an idealist, so I’ve decided to make theatre in the naive hope that it will heal the world! 

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

Well, the process for Super Awesome World has been a bit different to the making of previous shows since it’s so dependent on the audience participation. We’ve had 3 sharings of the work in progress at different points along the way and will have had 5 previews before the show officially opens for it’s Fringe run. It needs to be tested with an audience. And it evolves at each stage in response to the audience. 

To begin with, the Tron gave us a week’s development support and this was a great catalyst for the creative process and accelerated us forward from just having a vague idea about making a show that was a game that was a quest for good mental health, to having a structure, narrative arc and some gaming mechanics to pin it all together.  

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

It does as far as it relies heavily on my own personal experience. I’ve made 4 shows now that have been partly or wholly autobiographical and so when people ask me about my practice as a theatre artist, I’ve started to say that I’m focussed on personal experience as universal experience. But I’m not sure if I want to become known as an exclusively autobiographical artist. Of course all performance is to some extent autobiographical and is always personal, but I don’t know whether I’ll continue to mine the recesses of my life for material. I’m writing a new play under the mentorship of David Leddy, as part of Fire Exit’s Pyromania bursary for experimental playwriting, and so far, it’s not about me or my life and I’m not in it. And I’m finding that quite refreshing and exciting. 

What do you hope the audience will experience?
Mental health affects us all. Everyone has it and as a society we all need to get better at being mindful of our own mental health and the mental health of those around us. We’ve got a lot of work to do. And the good news is that people seem to be slowly waking up to this reality and a lot of that is thanks to the increasing prevalence of mental illness being depicted in the arts. I’m not the first performance maker to talk candidly about their mental health and I certainly won’t be the last. But I’d like to think I’m coming at it from a different angle. 

Obviously I want to audience to go away feeling they have seen themselves reflected onstage somewhat, I want them to feel they can connect with the very intimate story of depression that is being presented to them. But I also want them to have fun. I want them to bond with their fellow audience members and with me as a solo performer, I want them to have a more consciously collective experience. Oh dear, it’s starting to sound a bit cultish or quasi-religious, but on a more basic level, I want to appeal to the part of us that gets lost in a game. And I’m hoping that because it is just a game in the end, the audience will feel safe and will be willing to go that bit further, and take a leap of faith.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

We knew that even if the audience had never played a computer game in their life, they would have played some games. I’m confident that games and play are universal and people are generally familiar with the basic mechanics: the idea of overcoming obstacles, progressing through the levels, being rewarded for acquiring new skills and not always being able to get it right the first time. We exploit these knowns to invite the audience to become more and more involved in the show and we’re hoping that by the end, they’ll be fully behind the hero and her quest. 

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