fanSHEN and Tipping Point, with Ovalhouse present Invisible Treasure. Invisible Treasure is part of the autumn 2015 theatre season Fabulism, an extraordinary collection of work celebrating the fantastical in the everyday. Invisible Treasure is an interactive digital play space, an electrifying exploration of human relationships, power structures and individual agency, where your actions can change everything. I caught up with director of concept and production, Rachel Briscoe to find out more about the show.
How did you come up with the idea for Invisible Treasure, what was your inspiration?
A few different things really…
On Dan (Barnard, my co-director)’s 21st birthday, 15 February 2003, he and 3 million other people marched in London against military action in Iraq; it was the largest protest march in UK history. On 20 March, a US-UK coalition started their ‘shock and awe’ bombing campaign in Iraq. He and a lot of people we know stopped going on marches after that.
For me, the impetus for making the show was to create a space in which people really experienced their own agency. I was really struck by how it’s pretty easy to feel powerless because so many of the systems that have a massive effect on our lives are not visible, so we’re not aware of the power they have over us – or our own power to change them. So in the past, the most powerful guy (and it was a guy) was the one with the biggest castle and most knights. But now – systems that have a huge effect on our lives like the internet, electricity, the financial markets are much less visible. We’re complicit in systems without sometimes even knowing we’re taking part in them, so I think we begin to lose a sense of agency. With Invisible Treasure, we wanted to explore the question, what are the choices you make when you’re hyper-aware of your own agency?
We also wanted to explore what it feels like to go against a system, how it feels to opt out or reject the status quo. I guess we felt like there were lots of things we felt unhappy with but something was stopping us taking action against them – and talking to other people, it felt like that wasn’t just our experience. Invisible Treasure is (hopefully) an environment in which you observe your reaction to various forms of power.
If there is no script, no actors and no plot how did you devise this piece of immersive theatre?
With actors! We had 3 weeks of R&D in June with 5 brilliant members of our ensemble, plus our designer Cécile (Trémolières). Each day we’d have a new question (e.g. What is it to feel powerful? What is the balance between what we want as individuals and what we want collectively? What are you prepared to risk in order to get what you want?) that we wanted to explore. We’d work in 2 groups and each created an experience for the other group which spoke to that question. This was really low key – scrawled instructions, playing music off our phones, lots of wearing signs saying ‘pretend I’m not here’ and operating light switches; often we used Lego to build the room, and ‘played’ an interaction as Lego people. After lunch we’d swap and each group would create a 2nd iteration of the other group’s interaction, fixing things that hadn’t worked and implementing their own feedback.
We also did various research tasks, with every member of the group having a topic they had to present information about and then set the rest of the group a task to explore – so we made a protest outside the cricket ground, wrote laws, created participatory art, built stuff with Lego in two very different environments, to replicate the differing conditions for community, renewable energy initiatives and the big 6 energy companies; all this fed into the devising in a more indirect way. All of this phase was very much like how we’ve devised other, more traditional shows actually.
After that, Dan, Cécile and I pulled together the interactions we found most interesting and went back to our creative technologist partners Hellicar & Lewis and said ‘can we do this?’ They said a mixture of yeses, no’s and maybes, and started writing the software for the piece.
In terms of a ‘digital playspace’ what is your opinion on the emergence of multimedia within new productions, do you believe it aids the performance? If so, how?
Oh gosh, it really depends. I’ve seen it used fantastically, for example in Gobsquad’s Western Society, and also really lazily in a bunch of other shows. We had a really specific reason for needing all the tech, which was that we didn’t want actors in the space. I’d been to various immersive shows where actors had told me to do stuff, I didn’t particularly want to do and technically I could have refused, but I didn’t want to embarrass either myself or the poor actor, so I’d gone along with it. We felt like if we were going to get anywhere near people having a sense of choice, we just couldn’t fall into the politeness trap which accompanies live performers. (I think we’ve really missed having actors around though – the tech rehearsal was extremely weird.)
Within your description of Invisible Treasure you use the term ‘agency’, this can often appear problematic, in which way do you mean this term and can you define it in relevance to Invisible Treasure?
The awareness of choice, and power to exercise that to effect some of change. I don’t find it problematic as a concept, although maybe it is often more easily noticeable by its absence.
If I have this right, the audience has full control over this production and the journey it takes, how does this affect you as a production team, do you already have possible journeys mapped out, where does your control enter the equation?
There are 7 phases that every audience passes through, seven structures that they can play in or complete or subvert. We weren’t interested in creating a ‘choose your own adventure’ type experience, it’s more about how does this group of people react to this proposition. Audiences co-create what happens each day. I’m so fascinated by how different audiences react – we have some performances for families and for schools as well as the adult performances, so I’m really intrigued how the composition of the audience will affect what they create. We’re working with Goldsmiths to document all this and then write it up as a piece of research.
I guess we have control in terms of what the 7 phases are, but people absolutely have responsibility for their own experience. Throughout the process we’ve tried to curb the fear which makes us want to do more, put more in, cushion the experience, tell people what to do. There is an idea we use which is borrowed from ‘permaculture’, a system of design principles, and the idea is this: make the smallest possible intervention that will have the greatest possible effect. I try to go back to this at the moments I am tempted to stick in loads of text and rewards and other more didactic elements. I have to trust people’s innate ability to play and follow their curiosity – and recognise that the experience is not going to be up everyone’s street and some people will find the show a very uncomfortable experience.
Gamification is a recurring theme in the description of Invisible Treasure, was this the main theatre methodology for development and construction of the piece?
Like I said, the devising process was not especially different to the last live performance we made – which was a pedal-powered outdoor show for families with cross-dressed characters and lots of power ballads! That also had games within it so I suppose we did use games as structures for devising both times. We also thought a lot about peoples’ journeys through computer games – the way games use sufficient rewards to keep people engaged, but these are proportionate to what you’ve done – the results of your actions are really apparent. It’s tricky with Invisible Treasure because the space plays with you, sometimes giving you the pat on the head and sometimes denying ‘affection’ – hopefully in a way that prompts people to question their relationship with external authority.
Could you please describe Invisible Treasure in three words?
Play repeat decide? Know yourself better? Or are they too abstract? Tough question!
As part of the production team, have you entered the realm of Invisible Treasure and tried to ‘join the dots’? If so, was it a success?
Do you mean did we play it ourselves? I think I know it far too well, sadly… although the tech was pretty epic and we always seemed to be teching the most energetic section at about 3am, so we’d be losing the will to live and then the can-can would come on and we’d all run in and dance like crazy people! Does that count? I do wonder how I’d react though, lots of people have told me that they’ve been surprised by their own reaction – that they thought they’d do one thing, but then in the moment, they couldn’t. That’s the kind of journey I’m interested in people going on.
Interview written by Meg Mattravers.
Invisible Treasure is currently showing at the Ovalhouse theatre until Saturday 14th November. For more information on the production, visit here…
For Megan’s review of Invisible Treasure, visit here…