Welcome to another New Moon Transmissions, (usually) monthly reflections on my adventures in interactive theatre. There was no Transmission for January or February as I went into serious retreat to bring everything I've learnt this year together, to make my first online show, Wizards Against Lizards. This post gives a history of Wizards and explains how it ended up online.
Wizards was first designed for Brighton Fringe in May 2019. Inspired by the development of the Boomtown storyline, Immersive shows happening at COLAB etc and online ARG's, I wanted to create something that sat on top of real life, existing in a public space, surrounding the audience - outside of a venue. The original vision was to make the audience suspect every person on the street of being 'in on it', and I'm happy to say the audience reported having this exact feeling every time it ran, to a point where it was almost uncomfortable. Perfect! Collaborating with a zine shop, a clothes shop, a wizarding shop, a pub, the local library, an adult learning centre, and a theatre, this version of Wizards was 5 hours long and dragged audiences all over Brighton hunting for clues and characters.
A large amount of the content was video, as QR codes and online clues played a large part in the gameplay. The group of artists who ran it with me spent hours waiting in locations and chasing audience members around. The game was not at all profitable, and a huge amount of time and effort for just 20 players at a time. We were all, and still are, extremely proud of it.
Wizards was subsequently invited to come to Shambala festival for August that same year. I got the invite via text in a car, and screamed so loudly that I nearly blew out my friends right ear (sorry Helen). I tweaked the story, swapping out all the Brighton locations for Shambala ones, removing online aspects and anything that would require a phone or internet. We erected a Wizards Shack in the centre of the enchanted woods, and from there, 2 wizards would send audience members Lizard-hunting.
This was one of the most stressful and beautiful weekends of my life. I was certainly in over my head, as the hugely enthusiastic Shambala audience flooded the game and broke it on the first day, causing constant last-minute re-designing decisions. We were expecting around 60 people to complete the whole game and make it to the final, secret ritual. We had over 200. I was hastily tying binliners round people's necks at the ritual, as we'd ran out of cloaks. It was hilarious.
I was hugely excited to be back at Shambala in 2020. With everything learnt in 2019 I had loads of ideas to make 2020 amazing. But then, of course, Covid put a hold on everything. It didn't occur to me to make an online version then, as I had no idea what was possible. So I just put a lid on the whole project.
At the start of lockdown, I didn't know how to stream and had never been anywhere near a conference call. It was hugely frustrating being cut off from any kind of audience. From then to now, I've been lucky enough to be able to link up with like-minded people all over the world to work out new possibilities, find unique opportunities, and sculpt out new visions. I've spent the last year pushing against creative limitations and learning a tonne of new stuff, especially about the digital world.
If it wasn't for signing up for the 'Cabin Fever' R&D and helping to develop Jury Duty, I don't think online Wizards would ever have happened. We found the unique opportunities with online shows, worked out everything possible you could do with Zoom, trialled different types of audience interaction online, and the game that was created is still being run every day. Regularly running Jury Duty taught me so much about online audiences, what works, what doesn't, how to keep people's attention, how to keep them feeling included. Again, there's a lot of pride in how this show turned out, and the sequel, The Inquest, is doing just as well.
Through working with Sofi Lee-Henson via the Co-Reality Collective we trialled different sorts of interactive theatrical ideas, with many of these mini-show/party room ideas being sucked into the corporate Christmas party vortex via Sparkle and HireSpace, which paid everyone's rent for the next couple of months. I spent December performing online as a karaoke host, a London cabbie, and lastly, impersonating Queen Elizabeth II for USA audiences (possibly one of the weirdest experiences of my life).
Along side this, running Super Nothing TV was teaching me how to edit video better, funnier, and quicker, how to live stream with broadcasting software, and was also a great testing ground for finding out what people wanted out of interactive online shows. It should have been obvious, but as audiences in lockdown are isolated, they want to feel connected, with space to interact, and they want their contributions to make a difference to what happens. I love doing that with the Super Nothing Crew, I'm very grateful to have them in my life.
Designing Online Wizards
So after the Christmas vortex, I turned back to Wizards Against Lizards. This was a lengthy and painful process which took place over 2 months. As we were in real lockdown again in the UK, I could not work with many of the artists who'd worked on it before, and I had to perform multiple characters myself. I struggled with Wordpress and OBS and making engaging narrative structures that would translate properly online with appropriate puzzles, luckily with help from some of the best people in ARG and interactive theatre, most of whom I'd met this year and only ever online. My housemates agreed to be filmed as Lizards, and the performance experience via Co Reality and Super Nothing gave me the push to perform characters, I've never performed in Wizards before myself.
I had no idea how it would be received, having been in a hole, creating mostly alone, for 8 weeks. It's a lot stranger than Jury Duty, the humour is surreal and dark, there's a lot of political stuff; it's certainly not for everyone. Performing the first few shows, I was shaking every single time and almost stopped doing them altogether as the anxiety, coupled with lockdown isolation and winter, almost got too much.
I did manage to keep doing them, and Wizards has been running for 3 weekends now. At last count, it has 100% 5* reviews on Design My Night, 25 reviews so far. Thanks to Shambala posting about it on their page, and me trying to learn about digital marketing (SLOW PROCESS!) it has actually sold tickets! This has been amazing to watch and I honestly can't believe it's been so well received. I do feel like I could have started work on this earlier, as I've managed to get it out just as we all prepare to walk back into the sun. But without the learning from the year just gone, I don't think I would have been able to make something nearly as good, so I'll take what I can get from it before we all move on.
If you want to play Wizards, I'll be running public games regularly for a little while longer, but will book private parties, for whenever anyone wants one, pretty much indefinitely. You can check it out here.
This blog post has been as much for me as for anyone reading, to make sense of what on earth has been happening, and make a record. It's been an unbelievable year of amazing things and horrific things, so much has changed and I've learnt so much, but its so separated from the rest of my life, I'm honestly scared I won't remember it. Saying this, I don't think my world, or the art world, will ever be the same. I'm expecting some next-level hybrid shows in the coming years with everything artists have had to learn.
If you got this far through the article, I hope it was as interesting for you as it's been for me. If you make similar stuff, or you have an ambition to do so, please so drop me a message, I really, really like talking about it.
See you in a field somewhere soon!