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Apollo 13: Mission Control

Went to interactive theatre piece Apollo 13: Mission Control last week. It’s on a third season in Wellington and has toured around the country and to Oz; tours further abroad are being planned. It’s been hugely successful, and deservedly so.

The basic setup: the show takes place in Mission Control for the Apollo 13 mission. The audience are the staff of MC. Seated behind consoles with buttons and lights and networked telephones, the audience have a job to do. (Some audience just sit in the “press gallery” – slightly cheaper tickets, no console.) Mission Control’s command staff lead the audience through the situation as the astronauts (video-feed projected on the front wall) experience a series of problems. One of the astronauts is also an audience member, selected from the crowd before the show.

It worked well. The large, diverse crowd was engaged and enthusiastically got to work solving logic puzzles, suggesting problem fixes and reporting on developments as they happened. The performed characters roamed around the room, issuing instructions, grabbing news, and identifying problems needing resolution. From time to time this action was broken with a broadcast from Walter Cronkite (played, charmingly, for laughs) or other such extra incident. Cronkite interviewed the astronauts; later, Cronkite interviewed members of the Mission Control staff (i.e. audience members). There was lots going on, and good humour reigned.

The characters are all drawn pretty broadly so they could play strong against the general hubbub and with very little time to make their mark. I was particularly interested in how they drove inter-character drama, with the general mayhem regularly breaking into scripted/semi-scripted conflicts between the performed characters, whose different values set up regular disagreements.

The physical interactive elements were highly appealing. Switches and lights on the consoles worked; you could use the phones to call other consoles, and (in the comms team) to those outside Mission Control. (The highlight of my companion’s experience was a conversation he had by phone with someone in Australia – or, to be more accurate, a performer backstage putting on an Australian accent. He was the only one who enjoyed that phone call first-hand.) Pencil and paper were essential tools, and several times audience members used the chalkboard at the front of the room or searched through the filing cabinets for relevant information. All of these elements contributed to a powerful sense of place.

It was, to be sure, a resounding success. I was highly impressed with what is obviously a well-oiled machine, staffed with gifted performer/improvisors. The show’s high-concept is splendid and unassailable – the kind of idea you might spend your whole life waiting for, the perfect marriage of concept and execution. This show deserves to run and run, and I expect it will tour a lot of places in times to come. Look out for it. Go see it – go be it.

That said, I want to say a bit more about it. Because, personally, I want more. Not because Apollo 13 isn’t a success, it clearly is; but because it’s so obviously just scratching the surface of what is possible with this kind of show. As some of you will know, I’ve been developing an interest in interactive theatre for a long time; back at least as far as the “game theatre” event Aliens Apocalypse in 1999, and more recently for last year’s Affair of the Diamond Necklace show. There’s lots of really interesting stuff happening in performance interactivity at present, particularly over in the UK where it crosses over with the creative games/urban games movement. All of these approaches are opening doors that have previously passed over, and entering territory that is largely unexplored. It’s an exciting time for those interested in the different ways you can relate a performance to an audience.

And in Apollo 13 I saw some really smart, really innovative stuff – some genuine risks being taken, which in interactive theatre is a huge and appealing plus all by itself. But I also saw some of the same challenges that face other attempts to navigate this territory.

The first challenge: smooth transition from audience activity to performer activity. Here, as with Diamond Necklace, there were pre-scripted sequences where performed characters interacted and the attention of the audience was expected. These were seamlessly integrated into a context where the audience did not have any attention expectation and could look where they liked and talk to whomever they wished. In short, these were moments where the audience was reminded it had to be an audience. In Diamond Necklace, we cheated, because our fiction placed us in the court of a King and Queen who could explicitly demand attention with but a word. That excuse doesn’t hold in Mission Control, so the transitions have to stand on their own. Many of them worked smoothly, but some really jarred. Once, the lighting changed to throw spotlights on two characters entering opposition; it threw me out of the moment.

The second challenge: content distribution. When you’re offering an experience like Apollo 13, different audience members will necessarily have different experiences. As soon as you have differences, you have inequalities. It is extremely difficult to ensure anything like an equal distribution of content through an audience, without maintaining extremely high staff-to-audience ratios. This is properly seen as, at least in part, a feature and not a bug: some people don’t want much interactive content, they want to do a few things but mostly to watch others do more. However, it’s not enough to decide that’s the end of it. Achieving equality of access to content is also hard; there are major bottlenecks and no method of oversight. In a show like this, where the content available is strictly limited, audience members are in a zero-sum game; every Australian phone call had by my companion was a phone call everyone else misses out on. Just by the way the evening worked out, I had less content thrown at me than those of my console-buddies; I had a great time regardless (and it gave me more time to just observe), but I wonder if some audience members would feel hard-done-by if this happened? I felt this show didn’t do a great job of managing this issue, but it did ameliorate it by having lots of shared content that was the same for everyone so there was a good baseline participation level even if many other events passed you by.

(Another possible solution for interactive theatre in general is, instead of trying to handle distribution better, you just try and have so much content that everyone has more than they need; best way to get that is to turn your audience into content-generators, like in a live-action role-play. But that’s far from straightforward, and I haven’t yet seen a general-audience interactive theatre event that has even tried to do so.)

In any case, it’s got the creative brain-bees all a-buzzing. Lots to think about. These two challenges are, as I say, not problems with this show, but rather challenges for anyone trying to step into this space – I’m leaving out all the things Apollo 13 does so brilliantly and solves so effectively (obvious example: audience buy-in). This sets a high standard right off the bat. I’m really excited to see it come out of my home town.Many congratulations are due to Hackman for this incredible show. It’s really quite fantastic. Go see it -go do it! – if you can. And I’m going to keep thinking about it, and will look forward to what Hackman do next.

(See also Steve Hickey’s writeup. He went along just the other day, and had a very positive experience.)

{ 5 } Comments

  1. samm | November 23, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    This is just more proof that the whole thing was faked I tells ya! The whole thing was done in a soundstage on the moon after the aliens took over the soundstage at area 51 to make their own pantomime version of ‘War of the Worlds’.

    I have been quietly interested in this production for some time, mostly from having a not so quiet interest in the real thing. I’d be interested to know how faithful the production is to the real events, and what if any compromises had to be made for the narrative to work in this setting. Audience interaction is seriously not my thing though, which has put me off going to see it in person, even though I could probably perfectly recite some character or mission control lines without prompting 🙂

  2. Jon | November 23, 2010 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    I like the issues you have distilled with interactive events – good distillation Morgue!

    On the second issue, one thing I would suggest is – ask the participants how much interaction they want. Not always feasible, but if you can survey each member of the audience in advance, maybe just a simple “rate on a scale of 1-10, 1 being none and 10 being heaps, how much interaction you want”. You can then possibly direct things towards those people who want more, while away from those who don’t. E.g. put someone who wants lots of interaction in a “hot” seat, maybe answering phone calls from Australia or the President or something.

    Of course, people might not always know how much they want. Someone might put a 5 initially, but afterwards regret they didn’t put an 8 or 9.

    Also, as you point out, it’s a zero sum game. If everyone puts a 10, and you only have limited contact/interaction to distribute, then everyone gets a 5 worth.

    I don’t know that there are hard and fast rules you can use here, I think it becomes dependant on the setting (both physical and within the story). As you point out, some things that worked in Diamond Necklace didn’t in Apollo, and visa versa.

    Just my 2c.

  3. Pearce | November 23, 2010 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Someone at work was telling me the other day how much he hated this – he had been looking forward to a night at the theatre and instead got “lots of shouting and yelling”.

    He had no idea beforehand that it would be interactive. I don’t know if this was his failure to investigate what it was, someone else’s failure to tell him about it when they invited him along, or because the promotion for it was unclear (I honestly didn’t know anything about it myself, despite the return seasons and accolades).

  4. Svend | November 23, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    Someone on Steve’s blog said it was like they went to a completely different show.

    And they did.

    This could be a problem.

    I think that there might be some… I don’t know, some training needed? In the same way we’ve been trained to understand how movies work and how theatre works, and how Chicago differs from panto Cinderella. You might have to take a leaf from computer games, and put the audience through fun training missions at the beginning, so that they understand what they can do in more complicated situations, like how much control they have.

    Maybe you have to have instanced missions, where each table is taken through something similar as a small group. You might be able to do something interesting, psych-wise, engagement-wise, by lying to them about how other groups are doing.

    Are griefers a problem? Do you try and plan for people wanting to sabotage the experience in-context? Out-of-context? I mean, they’ve paid money to be there, there’s going to be a fair amount of social pressure not to be a dick…

    I don’t think I would go to one of these, and I think it has to do with trust. I have a certain amount of trust in the people I roleplay with, and there’s a sense that people I meet at roleplaying conventions have implicitly entered into a social contract of “we know the people you play are not necessarily the people you are”, with a bit of “I won’t judge you poorly for taking part” and “one of us”-ness. Would you have to build that trust, or can you assume that they’ve chosen to be in the interactive section, so they’re down with interacting?

    I dunno. I haven’t seen either play.

  5. Steve Hix | November 23, 2010 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    Svend, I love your training missions idea. Not only does that give people an idea of how to participate, it gives the people running the show a chance to assess who’s into the idea of participating or not.

    The astronaut selection at the start of the show is fascinating. Three volunteers are chosen from the audience. Each of them is asked one ‘in character’ question. It was completely obvious that the actors playing the interviewer and the astronaut were assessing the abilities of each volunteer to improvise dialogue that sounded even vaguely coherent under pressure.

    In the end, only one person was able to give an answer that used actual words (the others made noises like “Ahhhh-oh-waaah-aah”), and she was the one selected.