London, “For King and Country”

I owe this blog an entry about the last couple of days of my trip (ten days, to be exact). I’m actually in awe of my colleagues because they’re all so on it and my procrastinating self has put me into some kind of, “Okay, I’m really not writing as much as I should be” bind.

And lo, today, I won’t be writing about the course. I want to write about something I participated in: Parabolic Theatre’s “For King and Country,” which the company describes as an immersive theatrical experience.

What is the difference between immersive theatre and an immersive theatrical experience? How is interactive theatre different from immersive theatre? What differentiates an immersive theatrical experience from a live game? What differentiates a live game from a process drama? It sounds as if I’m nitpicking (and maybe I am), but it helps me set my expectations as a participant and frames how I analyze things as a scholar.

For example, it wouldn’t be fair for me to evaluate “For King and Country” as a process drama because it wasn’t meant to be a reflective, dialogical experience. (At least, it didn’t give me that impression.) While there were moments that invited dialogue, they were moments that served to move the story forward and not really establish any kind of relationship or introspection in the participants. One way to think about it, I suppose, is, “For King and Country” is a live MMORPG where one’s choices affect the outcome of the story (or not). Game mechanics-wise, if I were to think about the core mechanic Parabolic Theatre used, I’d say it was a fairly straightforward resource allocating/cause and effect mechanic, i.e., “I put so-and-so in this situation. I move the troops in this direction…and after a round, the outcome is.” There was also a voting mechanic implemented at certain stages of the game.

It was certainly theatrically expressed (live actors, immersive set), but was it theatre? Was it drama?

There was conflict. There was tension. There were audience members-in-role, but were we there to “live in the moment” or just “achieve our objective?” While one could argue that this is self-determined by the participant (because God knows you can phone in a process drama too), but the experience also was structurally built to be more objective driven. (We did have a time limit after all. Process dramas are greedier about time.)

I enjoyed the experience immensely, but I’m feeling a sense of frustration because while it was novel, I left the space not feeling connected to anyone or anything. Of course this is my particular predisposition towards a certain kind of participatory theatrical experience, but it just felt so casual at the end. Like a one night stand, crudely speaking. Not that I’ve engaged in one, but to just use its connotation: a one night stand can be exciting and it could leave you feeling invigorated and empowered the next morning, but it could also leave you cold because the connection is so fleeting.

Of course process drama can have a similar result, but because it isn’t as objective driven as it is reflection driven, it feels different in the inside. (Cecily’s process drama, for instance, took me on a roller coaster ride. I didn’t expect to feel so much, but I did.)

Having said that, is my feeling of a lack of engagement in “For King and Country” a result of my not engaging as much or the nature of the work? I honestly don’t know. But I really do feel the decision-making process was prioritized over any kind of meaty, moral dilemma.

That said, I would say “For King and Country” is a genuine immersive theatrical experience compared to Ma-Yi and Ars Nova’s “K-Pop.” While “K-Pop” was a fun romp through a Korean entertainment agency’s “factory,” there were no genuine choices being made. There were points where discussions could have been had, but they weren’t pursued. But perhaps there’s a difference between “immersive” and “immersive and participatory.” I’d say “K-Pop” is more of the former, while “For King and Country” is the latter.

(I’m probably not being coherent, but I need to rattle out my thoughts now while I still have them.)

I’m feeling a bit grumpy about not “playing well,” however. I became rather melancholy in the middle of the day because I was hit with my usual self-doubt of, “Am I doing my best? Is it manifesting? Hahah, you’re probably not, Laura.” I came up with a very clever, self-pitying phrase awhile ago, but it escapes me: “I stay quiet, I miss opportunities; I talk, I’m a know-it-all.” I don’t know. And being here in London just does something to my words. I feel like I’ve been sounding like a proper fool whenever I talk. But anyway, this is where I’ll end my post before I descent into a self-pity spiral of doom.