This is a guest blog by Leo Doulton, creator of the concept behind Come Bargain With Uncanny Things, a show in Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2021. Read on to find out more about how opera, games, and interactive theatre can be mixed!
I like new opera. I like TTRPGs. I like interactive immersive theatre. I like mixing them up.
In Come Bargain With Uncanny Things, we’re doing so to give you the chance to, well, come bargain with uncanny things, and hopefully, save your district from the wyrd magic afflicting it. But this is a Guest Blog, and I want to share a bit of the process with you.
So, here’s what we’re going to do. Take five tokens – coins, buttons, anything. Hold two in your hand, put the other one in front of you. Let’s make a game-opera hybrid. You have three options – steal from opera, steal from TTRPGs, and steal from immersive theatre. On your turn, you can take any option you like. Keep a note of which ones you’ve chosen so far, and think about the show you’re making.
Keep going until you’re bored, or just want to move on.
Steal from opera
Spend a token to:
– use music to enhance other aspects of the show – emotions, social structures, relationships…
– create a powerful sense of ensemble and community among the creators
Gain a token if you:
– insist on using a composed score, even if it takes so long to develop that its initial ‘relevance’ has passed.
– demand that the audience and creators observe hierarchies founded in the days of the French monarchy or Wagner
Steal from TTRPGs
Spend a token to:
– use good, clear game design to guide the players to experience a beautiful shared creation
– use player agency to confront them with interesting questions, whether moral, philosophical, or otherwise
Gain a token if you:
– vastly overcomplicate things so that people spend more time understanding and implementing rules than having fun
– insist that players having increased agency doesn’t transform their moral relationship to the work
Steal from immersive interactive theatre
Spend a token to:
– give the audience genuine agency, meaningfully changing the course of the show when they address its problems
– create engaging worlds, which reward the audience for prying further and engaging with its problems
Gain a token if you:
– pre-plan everything to the extent that the audience’s choices are just between Path 1 or Path 2, no matter what they do
– don’t explain your world and its challenges clearly, meaning that the audience don’t know what to do
I AM BORED NOW!
Look at the show you’ve made. Is it one you’re looking forward to? What excites you? What bothers you? Is it a show you think you could make in real life?
And well done! Assuming that, like most Tête à Tête fans, you’ve never played a TTRPG (tabletop roleplaying game) before, you now have. It’s a very basic example of a game system called Belonging Outside Belonging which I think you’d love. It mostly tells stories about communities facing challenges and change. It uses a token system where players have to show weakness (and gain a token) in order to later show their strengths (and spend a token).
If you’ve never played a TTRPG, let’s say they’re ‘a set of rules by which the player(s) can guide an experience’. Often that experience is narrative. Sometimes it’s not – it’s a ritual, or it’s got an almost Beckettian focus on a single character’s mind, or you’re creating a community. If you’re interested in them, I’ve included some recommendations below.
If you’ve never been to interactive immersive theatre, let’s say it’s ‘a theatre show where the audience turn up and exist as people in the world of the show who have meaningful agency’. Rather than, say, a Secret Cinema or Punchdrunk show, where your decisions are mostly which magnificent spectacle to go and see, interactive immersive theatre pitches you into a world that has a problem, and needs you to fix it. How you go about doing so (or failing to do so) will change the course of the show – if you invent an unexpectedly brilliant solution to a problem with strange side-effects, that’s great!
Since you’re on Tête à Tête’s site, you probably share my broad definition of opera as ‘through-sung drama’. There are things I’d call opera that lack plot, characters, and (at times) singing.
You’ve probably also worked out the main barrier to making an interactive theatre/opera hybrid – the score. What I’ve tended to find is that opera-folk never suggest the answer. Almost everyone else who heard that excuse for low interactivity immediately said “get rid of the score then!”
So one thing game-based tools can offer is, in the same way that they can be used to create theatrical shows, is tools to create operas, combining TTRPGs and improvisational tools. However, scores are also nice, in that they allow us to plan music that sings well with the rest of the show.
The process towards that were partly informed by developing a music system that would allow TTRPG liveplays (where people play TTRPGs as a form of long-term storytelling for their audiences) to have music that wasn’t just selections from a ‘fantasy’ playlist, but adapted to the narrative around it. The core question was ‘how do you tie the music to what happens onstage?’
The other was one that’s a part of all game design: ‘which elements are important to control with rules, and which ones can be more loose?’
To the first: by developing a palette people can draw from musically, with motifs tied to key aspects of the world – parts of the society, characters in it, and so on.
To the second: at first, I tried to have loads of rules about what you could do with the music. And while that was pleasingly ‘first the music’, it also meant that, rather than changing the music when appropriate, people were trapped in a set of rules. Clearly, the wrong way around.
The trick is tying music to other things in the world. While the system developed can be used for motifs for individual characters, it’s mainly focused on the wider community at a point of change.
Mostly because I find that kind of story more interesting; it’s good to shift away from individualistic narratives now and again to explore the systems that shape our world. Once we’ve developed that community, we can tie musical elements to it. That creates a palette to draw from, but leaves it as a ‘fruitful void’, to use the TTRPG jargon.
None of that happens in a vacuum – I drew on a wide variety of games, especially those where the players had agency over the wider narrative, not just that of their individual character, and where there were strong elements of worldbuilding. The first allows people to create a story that feels coherent and is guided to where they want to go; the second gives a frame of reference. And, drawing on Powered by the Apocalypse’s idea of ‘collapsing rules’, where if push comes to shove you only have to remember one basic rule, there’s only really one rule the underlying music-game requires (based on the Belonging Outside Belonging system). It makes life easier for everyone. The system will be released for beta testing in early August, so stay tuned!
Of course, that system is just a tool, as far as this show is concerned. Because it has a purpose: to give the audience control of what happens in the show, as in the shows of immersive theatre maestros Parabolic Theatre. They are the people who have to solve the world’s challenges and problems (or ignore them to pursue goals they’re more interested in). Those choices control the music, in much the same way that a Noh dancer can lead the music, even though they are not themselves playing it.
There are some musical minigames with stamping and humming too, just for fun.
Giving the audience genuine agency is scary, I’ll admit. What if they do something unexpected? We’ll have to roll with it, and see where it goes. Game-based tools give us the chance to say that, if the audience decide to try and destroy London, they can do so. They just have to deal with the consequences. I’m very excited, and hope to see some of you there.
All in all, it’s a show that I think is going to achieve its goals of fun, audience agency, and engagement. Most importantly, it opens new possibilities for both forms – interaction in opera, and a new expressive register for interactive theatre. The supernatural world of uncanny things beckons…
Some TTRPGs you might like
Dream Apart/Dream Askew – queer and/or Jewish communities at a point of change and challenge
Wanderhome – animals wandering around together, gently seeking a place to call home.
We, The City – you are the city. Guide its growth. Really interesting take on things.
Kingdom – you are a community facing crisis, told simultaneously through the wider community and key protagonists.
Microscope – an epic history-telling game, whether of a very brief or millennia-long span of time.
We Are But Worms – a free arthouse TTRPG
The Sealed Library – a figure isolated at the end of their library
The Deep Forest – an exploration of post-colonial life for the indigenous population
1,000 Year Old Vampire – a beautiful game about being a vampire losing themself to eternity
Time Heist – this is just fun. You’re going on a heist to steal a time machine, then go back and ensure the heist goes well.