Now that we had a map of our game/scene, we were eager to test it out on an unsuspecting audience member. Our guinea pig today was going to be none other than Play Company’s own Kate Loewald. Before she arrived, we also incorporated another new element — actor Chris Andrae was back in the rehearsal room — and instead of having him participate in the scene, I had him act as a sort of facilitator — meaning, he would be sitting in a chair in the audience, next to Kate, and make suggestions about what choices she should make. Basically, we had installed him as a safety. Since we only had certain story lines worked out, Chris was there to “make sure” Kate would make the right choices that would lead to fruitful trajectories.
For example: Opening the window –> notice that it’s raining black rain –> notice people (zombies) approaching the house –> zombie attack
or, Answering the phone –> tell Makiko’s husband that you intend to take Makiko back to Tokyo with you –> discover that he has been violent towards Makiko –> timed packing puzzle in which you must locate all items needed to evacuate Makiko
or, offering Makiko a snack –> choosing a fresh peach you brought from Tokyo –> Makiko craves fresh produce, she’s been living on canned food –> successfully removing Makiko from her Fukushima home
The day’s experiment was extremely complicated for a number of reasons. The actual game scenarios we had created were complicated enough, and under-rehearsed which made execution a challenge, but beyond that, there were unexpected discoveries. Chris did a great job “acting,” suggesting to Kate how to play the game. At first, Kate went along with his suggestions. Later, though, because he was so “in character” and his character was that of a somewhat derisive teenager, he started to rub Kate the wrong way, and she reacted by doing what he told her NOT to do.
The main takeaway is that using an actor to guide/prompt the audience into making certain choices is a powerful tool, and potentially a scary one. Video game-playing is usually something extremely private, something that happens at home, behind closed doors — even if you’re playing with a friend. Something about playing it with a whole bank of audience and actors staring at you raises the stakes and changes the nature of the whole equation.
We continued mapping out the Fukushima scene as a video game today, which proved to be a lot like reading (or constructing) one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books from the 80s. God I loved those books.
We were trying to create not only a variety of different possible trajectories for the story, but also cover a variety of game genres. In one ending, if Saori’s character opened the window, she would notice that it was raining black rain (radioactive) and that there were people walking towards the house in the rain (radioactive zombies). Eventually these zombies would arrive, knock down the door and eat them.
In an alternative trajectory, the game would veer off into more of a puzzle game (like Tetris — a game used to treat PTSD) — but what the player didn’t know was that the puzzle was unsolvable and would eventually run out of time, leading to Makiko’s character having a nervous breakdown and emergency situation with her pregnancy.
Yet another possible story line required a careful psychological tactic in order to succeed. Many video games now incorporate similar psychological aspects, where the player controls how their avatar responds to other characters or stimuli, and that behavior determines whether or not they are able to accomplish the mission or task successfully.
We mapped out all the storylines like this:
This was a super time-consuming process, even if trying to sketch everything out very roughly. At the next rehearsal we will be able to “test” this game out on some kind volunteer audiences.
Finally, what came up towards the end of rehearsal was concern from one of my actors about the manner in which I was choosing to handle this material. Obviously, the situation in Fukushima was and continues to be dire and harrowing for people who live there or have been evacuated — and what does creating this kind of lens in portraying those events reflect on us as artists? My answer to the actor was that I am trying to push irony to its limit, and this was my attempt to hook the audience in on some level — whether they are horrified and offended or amused at the outright ridiculousness of suggesting that radioactive zombies were attacking people there. The fact is that in the U.S., the news covers events and happenings at such a rate, and our collective memories are limited that we have a difficult time tracking what is going on, all over the world. Since the earthquake of 3-11, news about Fukushima has much faded from the headlines, and people outside of Japan need to really seek out the most updated information on how everything has unfolded. Drawing a parallel to Chernobyl, we’ve also reached a point where we have made video games and horror movies about the event. So when will there be a horror movie about Fukushima? As a Japanese person who hasn’t even been directly affected by the disaster, the idea that the disaster would serve as fodder for sensational entertainment seems appalling to me — and yet, I live in a culture in which that is not only acceptable, but somehow it is necessary for us to be able to process it… Anyway, there’s a lot more to say on this topic — which I will save for another time.
We started to play with a video game format today, basically transforming the very realistic scene about the two sisters in Fukushima into a video game. That may seem like a very odd choice, and it felt pretty risky in many ways. But I wanted to begin to tap at into the potential of placing a character or the audience in a position of power and control of a very sensitive situation, and see whether the gaming mechanism would change the way the scene might play out.
We experimented with a few different modes:
Magin was the “player” of the game and Saori and Makiko were character within the game. In one iteration, Saori, as Magin’s avatar, was both a character in the game but also had the ability to speak to Magin to communicate what she felt her options were in the scene. Then Magin would give her directives like “be more aggressive,” etc.
In another version, the basic set-up was the same as the above, but Saori was a character in the game as well as the designer of the game, so she had the ability to change fundamental givens of the game design, should she be directed to do so by Magin, who was kind of the player but also someone who seemed to be evaluating the game. So for example, in the middle of the scene, Magin told Saori to “go back to the other version of the sister,” changing the kind of character Makiko was playing to make the game less challenging for the player.
Our exploration today really uncovered some pitfalls in the way this all worked. For one thing, the roles needed to be more clearly defined. The Player could not also function as someone who is permitted or able to manipulate The System. The Avatar could not doubly function as The Designer. Also in the space that was created for the manipulation of character and choices, the scene immediately lost its emotional veracity — which is not necessarily a bad thing, but something we need to be conscious of. Also it became clear that we would need to map out the entire storyboard of all possible actions in the game as opposed to letting the controls be so loose. An important day that will determine how we work over the next few rehearsals.
After spending half of the workshop period on the storyline of Brighton Beach / Pripyat, today we embarked on a journey in another direction. With the wonderful actresses Saori Tsukada (former collaborator of John Moran and more recently in hoi polloi’s All Hands) and Makiko Ikeda along with Magin Schantz, we created a scene that would be the foundation for the rest of the workshop period. The setting is Fukushima city, in Fukushima prefecture. Technically this location is outside of the exclusion zone, and evacuation is not mandatory — in fact the official government line has been for residents to stay put and continue their regular lives. In the scene, Saori lives in Tokyo and plays Makiko’s sister, who is pregnant and is living in Fukushima. Saori is visiting her sister with the intention to convince Makiko to come back to Tokyo with her, fearing the affect of the radiation on her sister’s unborn child. Makiko, whose husband works for city hall and is committed to the recovery efforts, does not feel she can leave her home or husband. The scene they improvised was very realistic — difficult, with many pauses, and also in some ways quite mundane. There were no big dramatic moments, just two very rational people trying to exert their opinions on the other. The gravity with which the actors tackled the improvisation was remarkable, and a testament to just how laden the subject matter is — even though it has disappeared from the headlines in the U.S. media. The video of the scene was too long to post – but we’ll keep touching on this scene this week.
It was the perfect day for our field trip to Brighton Beach — it was warm but overcast, and since the rides at Coney Island were not yet operating, the boardwalk had a desolate feel. We were very lucky to have our tour of the neighborhood guided by Veronika Litvinova, who is something of a celebrity Russian radio host in that neighborhood. She gave us a quick and dirty run-down of the history of the neighborhood and walked us up and down Brighton Beach Avenue, stopping at her favorite shop, the Russian bookstore and souvenir shop St. Petersburg (Veronika is from the St. Petersburg).
Later we walked down to the boardwalk and had lunch at the famed Tatiana’s (actually the Grill, not the Restaurant — which are both side by side) and tasted some wonderful traditional Russian dishes. Borscht, marinated vegetables, dumplings, potatoes and mushrooms, all with a healthy slathering of sour cream.
After lunch we made our way towards the other direction to Coney Island and were able to get some great shots with the actors.
There was something that clicked into focus for me yesterday when we juxtaposed Masha’s description of her childhood apartment with images from Pripyat, specifically a photograph taken from inside a dilapidated room, looking out the window at the abandoned ferris wheel.
Something about the collision of description and image worked well to create a confusion of time and place — and that lead me to Chekhov. So many of Chekhov’s plays are about people who are trapped and long for another place or another time. They want to go back to Moscow, are back to a time when they were younger, when they were in love. They are paralyzed in an impossible sense of nostalgia, in a limbo world, within which they circle around each other, provoking each other out of boredom, desire, desperation. This state of limbo of the Chekhov characters seemed to resonate with our other exploration — the state of someone who is displaced and for whom “home” only exists in memory and not in reality, the state of someone who is captive in her own home due to the invisible toxicity of radiation, and who is forced to stay indoors.
I also began to have this desire to see a scene in which, against the backdrop of a white-washed, bleak Pripyat landscape of peeling paint and abandoned structures, a group of Chekhovian characters bustling in in fur coats, lively and robust, chatting away about the trials of their daily existence.
I was trying to find ways to drop into the Chekhov text from within the Brighton Beach world, as a portal to get to Pripyat. So today we played with lots of text lifted from Chekhov’s plays The Seagull, Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard — and Masha brought in the original Russian texts too. The monologues that seemed to work best taken out of context of the plays and into this nebulous world between Brighton Beach and Pripyat were Astrov’s speeches about how humans are destroying the environment, and Nina’s performance of Treplev’s play within the play. That text particularly, about the universal spirit waiting to be reborn after all life on earth has been destroyed, was resonant. It’s still difficult to see how the Chekhov text will work its way into the play, and I know it is a pretty heavy reference, but I feel like there is something key there.
Following the exploration of memory, today we looked at how we might transition from “present reality” into “memory” seamlessly.?I’m looking for keys in which these transitions might occur — in other words, opportunities for one shared reality to split into two (or more) states of reality. For example, if the kids start playing a video game and get sucked into that activity, it could leave the non-playing adults behind in their reality. Or in a social situation, one person could decide to withdraw into herself and the on-going monologue inside her mind, and the audience sees her split with present reality. In each of these cases, the stage is transformed from one given reality into another through the introduction of a new world — and the exercises today were meant to seek out those portals.
The first day of rehearsals with actors Masha Pruss and Chris Andrae (and long-time collaborator Magin Schantz). After introductions and extensive warm-up which included an open physical improvisation, we moved into “memory.” I asked each actors to think about a place or house they were extremely familiar with and to which they felt a strong emotional attachment — like their childhood home. And I asked them to describe it. The next step was to portray this location in space, to plant it in reality. Then I had the memory-holder guide the other actors through this space, as if giving a tour. The last two steps of portraying memory were:
1. Memory-holder narrating description as the other actors enacted the events in the memory — but with a distance between the memory-holder and enactors, as if (like the final act in Our Town) the memory-holder could not directly interact with the memory itself.
2. A nightmare-ish situation in which there is a drastic discrepancy between what the memory-holder is narrating and the enactors are acting out — a memory out of control, or memory not controlled by the memory-holder.
It was important for me to start figuring out how different realities can play out and be distinguished within a single physical playing space — in other words, how to seamlessly transition between present reality and memory, reality and virtual reality, etc.
There were several things that fed into the conception of Ludic Proxy, and the ideas behind the show are being refined constantly.
First the title: Game designer Kevin Slavin coined this phrase to describe his experience of having become so intimately familiar with the streets of Tel Aviv from playing the video game Counter Strike that when he found himself in the actual city he experienced what he called “ludic proxy” — or, this phantom architectural knowledge gained from a computer model — which allowed him to “know” to duck into various sidestreets because he knew where they would lead. When Jeanette and I were working on Journey to the Ocean, my husband Irwin was playing a video game called Uncharted 2, in the middle of which was a idyllic scene in an unnamed village in the Himalayas. I wonder whether the village was modeled after an actual place, and what how would someone from that village react to seeing it represented in this video game.
2011 was the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster — and the irony was not lost when the Great Eastern Earthquake hit Japan on 3.11 and the resulting tsunami instigated one of the worst nuclear accidents in the history. Around this time, a friend referred me to a video game called S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: The Call of Pripyat set (geographically accurately) in the town which housed most of the workers of Chernobyl and was evacuated after April 26. I wondered how long it would be before there would be a video game set in Fukushima.
At MoMA I saw Harun Farocki’s exhibit Images of War (at a distance), a series of video installations examining the relationship between technology and violence. One piece showed footage of video simulators used to train military personnel for combat along side footage of soldiers playing the video simulators in a computer lab. (interesting to note that in the very sophisticated simulators, the “sun” is positioned accurately according to what time it actually is in, say, Afghanistan, and people/objects cast shadows.) Another piece showed how similar video simulation technology was used to treat soldiers who had come back from combat, with PTSD, taking them through to relive moments of trauma (the simulators used for therapy, although employing the same technology as the training simulators, lacks the “sun,” thereby presenting a world without shadows or changing light.)
Development on Ludic Proxy has officially begun! Throughout May 2012 we will be workshopping and experimenting and refining our ideas/vision. Our first day of workshopping was more of a brainstorm/production meeting with myself, Jeanette Yew (video/lights), Jian Jung (set), Magin Schantz (collaborating actor), and Caitlin Bartow (intern).
After discussing the origins of the project (which I suppose I’ll get into on another post), we identified some of the questions we wanted to investigate during this workshop period:
What is the relationship between nostalgia and memory?
What is the difference between the real and the imagined? And how do we portray that on stage?
What are the spatial relationships between the audience and the
How can the audience engage and or participate in the piece?
What is the definition of a game? Is any interactive art also considered a game?
What is the difference between art and game? Is there a difference?
How does the alternative reality of videogames affect the way people perceive
reality and are consumed by it?
To what extent will the form of the play mimic gameplay?
How do we want to use time to invoke a sense of altered reality?
Does the form of the piece want to extend outside of the space?
Do we want to create an environmental experience for the audience
leading up to the piece?
How do we simultaneously treat the audience both as individuals and as a group?
How do we create weather on stage?
How does one create a radioactive environment?
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg…
We have been collecting inspiration and thought-provoking articles/ideas/images/sound bytes on this tumblr blog — check it out!