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Game Play - Leonardo Review.docx

Game Play

The Brick Theater
Brooklyn, NY
July 5-27, 2013
Organization’s website:  http://bricktheater.com/.

Reviewed by Yvan Tina


Each summer for five years now, the Brick Theater (Brooklyn, NY) hosts Game Play, a celebration of performance and video games. With almost 40 representations programmed this time, the program was intended to be as eclectic as possible with several multimedia shows that has become familiar to theater’s stages, game-inspired theater pieces and special events including electronic music, installations and a table-top role playing night.

The Game Play started this year with ‘As if it were the last time (a subtlemob)’ by Circumstance, a collective of artists that create cinematic experiences in unexpected locations. A subtlemob is an invisible flashmob where fiction and reality are combined to give to the audience -which is part of the performance- a new experience of time and space. It explores the idea of how mobile technology is framing the space in order to create new connections between people through a shared augmented reality experience. The same idea is developed in the ‘Social Gaming’ project by Amitesh Grover, which is a web-based performance in real times between multiple cities of the world. Here, participants are invited to interact online and to reclaim their own environment from a set of rules scripted by the players themselves. In these two examples, as in several works, theater––i.e performance––is similar to a pervasive game that spreads over all space (as Jurgen Habermas could define the public space, including the cyberspace) and transforms life into a game experience.

Other shows like ‘Ligature Marks’ (Gildeon Productions), ‘‘No oddjob’ (David Lawson) or ‘DOT : a videogame with no winner’ (HOL) explore in a much more critical way societal issues raised by video games, underlining, nevertheless, their powerful creative capital. The one that has always been mentioned is how storytelling affect the drama. Indeed, as interactive experiences, videogames establish a new specific kind of drama, so called interactive drama, where the audience can modify the course of actions in the drama. Most part of the time, the goal is to give to the viewer the feeling of immersion proper to the interactive experience in video games. For example, game-inspired plays ‘Final Defenders’ (Dysfunctional Theatre Company) and ‘The Photo Album’ (The Story Gym) examine immersive user experiences in two different ways: while the first one throws us into a surrealist universe of science fiction, the second is entirely built on the interaction with the audience - both playing thus with theatrical conventions (suspension of disbelief, breaking the fourth wall...). In addition to the interactivity of the narratives, the constant use of technology in shows contributes to change/augment/prolong the nature of experience. Many works such as ‘That Cute Radioactive Couple’ (Charles Battersby) which is divided in two-part -off-line and online, ‘Real World Instant Filtering’ (Kurt Bigenho) that evolves also in the internet, some pieces already quoted involving applications or digital material, and of course video games performances using the network like ‘Appathon’ or the table-top night party organised at the Brick are evidence of transformations occurring in the field of the performing arts.

Interactive, virtual, mobile, aural...are forms of contemporary theater and if the use of technology raises many issues about the status of actor, notion of presence, de-multiplication of the stage and so on, it seems above all that is structures of narratives that are being deeply affected by the fusion of the genres, especially in its potential to improve the experience of the story.

By contrast, there is also another aspect of video games that need to be mentioned regarding its influence on theater practice: they introduce a new kind of performativity that reshapes the notion of “play” itself. This is what shows EK Theater, a young company who presented this year ‘Legendary, Maybe’, four machinima theater pieces adapted from Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita. EK Theater has been presenting works of machinima theater, pieces in which video game characters are used as puppets, since 2007. Here the performers are, so to speak, digital puppeteers whose performance points to the piece itself than to their ability to “play” it. The physical body of the performer, now extended/augmented by its prosthetics tools (game consoles) to the digital space, is not anymore involved in the same way than in conventional plays. However, they both need to rehearse several times the game/play to get comfortable with the medium because it’s always a different experience that is engaged in stage as well as in video games. The player agency replaces the embodiment of a specific character that the actor usually handles. Interestingly, they are getting close by this new dimension of “acting” which pertains now to the category of randomness or liveness related to the performing arts - except for cinema where movies are reproductibles but inalterables.

Hence, theater and video games share the same processual nature, due to their common quality to create an experience of duration, of time. It is what a modern art critic, Michael Fried (1), pointed out fifty years ago, showing why art experience has essentially to do with theater. While criticizing minimal art, he blamed that “kind of stage presence” and above all the radical shift in focus on the experience of works of art that comes close to, as he described, a “theatrical experience”.

At the crossing of art and entertainment, engaging both technology and artistic dispositifs, video games pushes the boundaries of aesthetic experience. And it’s maybe here, through the paradigm of experience that one can find the meaning of “gameplay” which refers to the user experience of a game. All game players will tell you : to understand a game, you need to play  it. Let us hope that it’s the same for art : to understand a work of art, you need to experience it.

In that way, that is to say as a process, Game Play is less a symptom of gamification of the performing arts than a space-time where the drama is intensified and augmented by the other arts. It is, I believe, that meaning that is reflected in the idea of theater as a laboratory, an art of emergence.

[1] Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood”, in Minimal Art, Gregory Battcock ed. New York, Dutton, 1968.

Last Updated 1st September 2013

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