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.)


People who pre-ordered ICONS: Superpowered Roleplaying received their electronic copy yesterday. (Hard copy coming soon.) That’s my name on the cover, because some sections of the book are by me, but they’re pretty small-fry. The major action is by ace supers RPG designer Steve Kenson, who pulled the system together and did a bang-up job of it.

ICONS is a quick’n’easy role-playing game for four-colour superhero action. It’s geared for broad strokes stuff – Nazi Gorillas in Antarctica, Mt Rushmore coming to life as a four-headed goliath, that sort of thing. I have a lot of affection for it, and not just because my name’s on the cover.

The real selling point, and it surprises me to say it, is that you randomly generate your superhero – there are a bunch of charts to roll on that tell you what super powers you end up with, and then it’s up to you to make sense of all of them. This works really well with the big, bold style of ICONS, where you are free to come up with characters somewhat wackier than the usual – there’s a reason the exemplar hero is Saguaro the Man-Cactus. A big part of the fun people will have is sitting down in a group and coming up with some heroes together.

(This is also funny because random generation was always a problem in previous games to use this approach, like Villains & Vigilantes and Golden Heroes. Those games didn’t encourage this wild-and-woolly aesthetic, which I think is the difference. Credit also to Dan Houser, the illustrator, for showing exactly how a Man-Cactus is a cool character, and by that example how your weirdo hero will also make sense in play.)

Anyway, ICONS does a great job at supporting one of the best kinds of role-playing game fun: sitting around with your friends being wildly creative and making each other crack up. It’s good stuff, and I’m delighted to have my name on it.

ICONS at the Cubicle 7 store

Also, announced in the bundle, some PDF-only adventures, including one by me and one by occasional-commenter-here Theron:

Reservoir Hill (NZ, 2009)

Locally-made digital Emmy-winning web series Reservoir Hill had an old media screening in omnibus form over the weekend, and I ended up watching much of the broadcast.

It’s about a girl named Beth who arrives in a new subdivision and finds everyone reacts to her in an unusual way. Very soon she finds out why, and that stakes out territory for the show somewhere between Twin Peaks and Shutter Island. The rest of the show follows her investigations into the mystery, shot through with moments of teen drama.

It’s a fascinating production, very well-made, making much of its anonymous suburban setting (it was shot out Porirua way). The colour palette is very Twilight, all washed-out colours and muted tones, stylistic and moody but not as over-the-top as Twilight seemed to be from the few minutes of that I watched.

Most fascinating was the interactive elements. After each episode, with Beth facing a decision, online viewers were encouraged to text her advice. These text messages were referenced by Beth in video blogs she made, and also seemed to affect the direction of the show: the character’s phone would beep, we’d see a close-up of her phone displaying a text message giving her advice, and then she’d follow the advice.

I’d love to know more about the logistics of this. Co-Director David Stubbs was interviewed by the Herald at the start of the project and said that they would actually let the text messages drive the production:

Each week scriptwriters will be responding to Beth’s texts and Bebo messages and deciding which suggestions, if any, will form the rest of the plot.

They will film episodes two days before screening. “It’s an amazing and quite frightening logistical effort,” Stubbs says.

A Good Morning interview elaborates – the episode goes live Monday evening, and they accept input until Weds evening, write script for the next instalment Thurs morning, prep Friday, shoot over the weekend, and cut it for release on Monday day.

This sounds crazy, but they’re all sticking to the story. They must have a pretty tight structure in place already, with locations and cast members lined up, so the script isn’t written from nothing and production can be developed based on that. It’s an incredible logistical mission even with the most minimal interactive elements.

And it clearly worked – the Bebo page and the message boards testify to the fact that they had viewers enthusiastically giving advice to Beth, and winning the Emmy is huge. There’s some elements I can quibble with, like the interactive audience not quite making sense within the fiction, but that’s small stuff. Overall the show is a great achievement, and it’s nice to see some pitch-black local drama for a teen audience.

It’s worth a look, I reckon. First episode is here – it’s six minutes long. Check it out.