An intriguing project is set to bring alternate reality gaming to the great gardens of Sussex.
Theatre is and always has been interactive, from the city-wide mystery plays of the middle ages, to the modern era’s improvised comedy nights and experimental promenade performances. And though it may seem strange to draw parallels between this ancient artform and the world of video games, it’s the sense of interplay between audience and spectacle that can unite them.
This summer, the young theatre company Goat and Monkey is running a performance and alternate reality gaming (ARG) project named, The Seed. Based around the stories of Victorian botanists who would travel the world seeking rare seeds, the project starts on 28 May at a dedicated website, where viewers will read the blog of a fictitious researcher at the Millennium Seed Bank who is on a quest to find a ‘missing’ seed. As she investigates its whereabouts, she’ll write about the histories of Plant Hunters and also asks players to help, both by answering questions and by deciphering a range of puzzles.
The ARG story then culminates with a series of performances in great gardens around Sussex, including Wakehurst Place, High Beeches Gardens and finally at Borde Hill Gardens. For some of these, audience members are given wireless headsets and must follow instructions and story fragments, through the landscape. The narratives revolve around different tales of Victorian seed hunters and explorers, and participants will be able to pick up clues to the whereabouts of a hidden prize.
“Each of the four performances is a different story and takes a different form,” explains Goat and Monkey spokesman, Martin Shippen. “Two of the four are short promenade pieces where the audience will wear wireless headphones and follow a trail from one scene to the next. The Wakehurst performance takes place in a yurt but will involve problem solving and the final performance is a promenadepageant piece told in the style of traditional Mummers.
“Within each performance there are clues to help the players solve the mystery of the missing seed and find the treasure buried in the real world. Our ARG heroine will be in attendance at several performances allowing the players to talk to her. The final run of performances at Borde Hill Gardens also has more obvious game qualities as it involves audience members hunting for clues/scenes unguided by performers in a dark wood!”
This modern notion of interactive theatre, which combines location, narrative and interaction with actors has been growing in popularity for the last five years. Protoganists such as Punchdrunk and dreamthinkspeak usually take over non-theatrical venues like abandoned industrial units, shops and factories, combining traditional plays with interactive elements. In 2010, Punchdrunk put on The Duchess of Malfi at an old pharmaceutical headquarters in the Docklands, and last year terrified audiences at Salford Quays with its Dr Who-inspired interactive play about a downed alien spacecraft, The Crash of the Elysium.
Other artists and studios such as Blast Theory and Hide&Seek have blurred the boundaries even further, turning installations into ‘urban games’ complete with video game-like plots, characters and objectives. Bristol has an annual festival named IGfest, dedicated to pervasive and social games that take place in various areas of the city, often with narrative and theatrical elements.
The usual response to the concept of interactive theatre tends to be, well, aren’t British audiences too reserved to get involved? “All of our performances require the audience to ‘play along’ to various levels of involvement and they will be unable to be passive onlookers,” says Shippen. “However, we cater for a wide demographic and enable individual players and audiences to engage with the game elements to different degrees.”
The Seed is part of Ahead of The Game Festival, an arts project organised in West Sussex to mark the run-up to the Olympics. Ticket details can be found at the Chichester Theatre Festival box office.