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I want to be a human being, not a human doing - Many a mickle maks a muckle

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November 15th, 2009


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04:28 am - I want to be a human being, not a human doing
Who Wants To Be? held an event as part of the Wunderbar Festival in Newcastle last on Friday night. The principle of the show is that the audience decide what to do with the admission fees raised at the box office through a process of brainstorming, refinement and eventual voting. If the principle appeals at all then you're likely to be swept up by the show in practice, with easy-going moderation and imaginative, high-tech presentation reflecting the game at high speed. There were technical problems, but they didn't matter. My wife and I (and, I'd bet, a hefty chunk of the audience) left feeling good from a happy ending, others would have at least felt like they had received a good run for their money; the £10 admission fee felt like it was well worth the money.

Meg had had one of her most challenging weeks at work, which didn't even let her go home on time; she arrived home while the tumble dryer was rattling away, finishing off the last load of towels. She didn't get as much quiet time as we'd have liked before we set off (in my case, once again) up to Newcastle. On this occasion we drove to Costco to buy drinks and meat; Meg is a recent convert to a brand of freezer bag which lets you pump the last air out and create a tight vacuum to prevent freezer burn. I'm not completely sure how it can work as well in practice as in theory, but Meg's impressed all the same. Accordingly, we bulk-bought meat, and have since split it up into a number of smaller packages for home freezing. We grabbed some dinner at the Costco café, though Meg got stuck in the queue for ten minutes while I stuffed my face. It started to rain hard while we were in Costco; I quickly threw things in our boot, then Meg found us a quick backstreet route to the A184 and hence to the venue.

The show took place at the Cluny - more specifically at "the Cluny2", a breakout underground venue next door. Three flights of stairs down - I was being literal - we took our seats in a darkened auditorium, set up to host about a hundred and twenty. While the show was described as having doors open at 7:30 for a show running from 8 to 10, the show started about ten minutes late and ran a little long, finally reaching a conclusion a little after 10:30. (Good value for money!) The main backdrop of the show comprised two giant projector screens, each perhaps twelve feet tall, with our host (whose name I didn't catch, though he looked like a cross between Marcus Brigstocke and Dear Economist Tim Harford) wandering between. Cameramen roamed the studio as appropriate and there were three or four other runners with microphones going in search of people with things to say. (Might a hypermobile boom mic have been better?)

We began with an airline attendant-style democracy demonstration, the highlight of which was "please ensure your computers and mobile phones are switched on". The format of the show was that the first half of the show would be dedicated to brainstorming for ideas as to what to do with the box office takings and the second half of the show would be dedicated to refining some of those ideas and selecting one of them. (The interval saw a "lobbying period", in which people could mingle with proponents of their favoured ideas - not least to try to ensure that each potential bright idea had someone who was, or some team who were, prepared to implement it should it eventually be selected.)

The voting system was interesting; each audience member was given, on arrival, an A4 sheet of sturdy paper folded into a booklet from four sides of A5, with one of those sides coloured bright green, another coloured bright yellow and a third coloured bright fuchsia. We could call for opinion polls on suggested ideas by displaying the bright yellow sheet prominently, upon which all participants were invited to show approval for an idea with their bright green side and to show disapproval for an idea with their bright fuchsia side. During votes in the second half of the show, a computer system digitised an image of the audience, interpreted solid blocks of colour as voting sheets displayed by voters and counted just how many fuchsia, yellow and green votes there were.

A representative of the Wunderbar festival was ever-present in the background, assigned the role of The Voice Of Reason. She acted as referee and moderator, ensuring that if people had happened to appear to be serious about a proposal that could not be realised in Wunderbar's name, then it would have been stricken down. She also acted as a teller for hand-counted opinion polls in the first half of the show, rather than formal votes using the computer system in the second half. She also had a Christmas jingle bell to attract attention when required, which was a particularly jolly sort of attention-grabber.

The real unsung hero of the show was the video jockey controlling the computer screens. This was a tour de force and made the show work. Most of the time the screens relayed the camera's point of view, with the camera most usually pointed at the current speaker. The computer operator would create little sticky notes on the fly with words or quotes, almost as if taking minutes at a meeting, then drag these sticky notes onto the display in real time, shown on the screens. It's a bit like an interactive "Pop-Up Video", except without the snark. Sometimes this operator would search (presumably Google Images or somesuch) for a picture or graphic illustrating a concept mentioned by an audience member, then pop up this as an icon in the corner. We generated a little train of such icons illustrating the development of the story. This wasn't limited to little pictures, though - sometimes there were web pages brought up to illustrate the discussion, sometimes we had little video clips, all sorts.

And that wasn't all. While most of the time we had this augmented-reality live video of the speaker, from time to time we would flip to another screen. One screen had a developing storyboard, I suppose you'd call it, representing the total discussion of the evening, with a complete list of the captions and images referenced that evening. Sometimes we'd flip to a completely unrelated hastily-concocted picture, saying something like "BRAINSTORMING" or "TIME IS RUNNING OUT" and just generally keeping the mood going. The really impressive part was that there was someone clearly Photoshopping in real time, with a great deal of talent for quick work. One of the ideas we had was to give the money to five-year-old schoolkids to invest in the stock market, possibly better than the professionals; within a minute of it being suggested, we had a picture of stock market traders looking frantic with a picture of a toddler overlaid. There was a lot of fast Photoshopping, and much of it was very good, and this really pushed the atmosphere forward.

And even that wasn't all! We were invited to visit a web page, if we had brought an Internet device, and contribute that way; Tweets with the #whowantstobe hash tag also were relayed to the video screens, and the show was even (theoretically?) broadcast online live so that you could participate from afar. Now that we have become Who Wants To Be? veterans, we look forward to taking advantage of this functionality next time - even if next time the show isn't in our neck of the woods. (Some form of policing this user input may eventually have to become required, or the show may end up being a target for trolls. Rickrolling Who Wants To Be? would be funny exactly once.) It was a massive technical accomplishment all round, and that was part of why people who got the references were in geek heaven in response to the high level of ambition.

That is a pretty full description of everything there was to see. We spent the first 45 minutes brainstorming ideas; the Who Wants To Be? team have video from previous games online, and it's pretty clear that there are a few familiar themes that naturally tend to emerge quickly as to how the takings should be spent. It's not uncommon that people suggest destruction, or spending it on drinks or sweets. It's usual that someone suggests that we all get refunds. It's usual that someone suggests some sort of lottery or contest to give it to an audience member. It's usual, among the artistic crowd, that there are vaguely artistic proposals. It's also usual that the penny drops and people realise that this could be a way to generate a hefty chunk of change for the good cause of their choice, and that's when people start to get impassioned, and then things start to get really interesting.

Suggestions were fired out fairly quickly in the first half; while there wasn't generally audible naysaying, unpopular ideas clearly ran out of steam by not getting traction in the discussion. If anything, despite a few repeated reminders, our audience was more reticent than it should have been at calling for opinion polls; there were a few good ideas which were positively discussed but didn't have opinion polls called for, thus withered on the vine. The only time the discussion became strained was when one person made a sustained appeal for their own charity, a thoughtful organisation with a name similar to Tourism Concern that aimed to help the people who our tourism exploited. This started a short discussion on the nature of "difficult charities".

If this show has a message other than just - "just"! - that of "being fun" and "doing good", it's a demonstration of the downsides of populism and strictly majoritarian democracy, how the tyranny of the majority so often tramples minority rights underfoot. And yet the facilitators are perfectly happy for the rules of the game to change, even within the context of the game, if that is people's will. It didn't happen this time, but it could have done. Perhaps this could be a stage for a genuinely brilliant politician to practice their public speaking and convince the masses of a controversial viewpoint. It would be really interesting, and potentially very ugly, if anyone ever tried to disenfranchise voters - but I'm glad that it didn't happen when we were there. Might the game even provide a demonstration of the forces that bring about political parties? If it were long enough, if the stakes were high enough and if the views were contentious enough, possibly. This is definitely deliberately kept at the fun end of the spectrum.

Towards the end of the first half, the nine ideas that had attracted most support in the quick opinion polls were identified by The Voice Of Reason, and we ensured that each idea had someone who was prepared to stand by it and commit to bringing it to fruition. A few popular ideas withered on the vine right there. Numbered hats were distributed to these cheerleaders. Someone asked why the number of ideas going forward should be nine, and the staff said they were happy to change it if that were the will of the people - though someone said "there has to be only nine ideas, because there's only nine hats!" A quick opinion poll didn't reveal much support for changing the number going forward from nine, though. (The Voice Of Reason suggested it might be something to do with people wanting to go home...)

Among our nine ideas advancing were a couple of proposals relating to random acts of kindness - one with a superhero representing the festival, another involving splitting the funds up so that we might all be superheroes, with a hint of the "pay it forward" concept. A few specific charities made impassioned pleas - one involving the building of an underground otter holt, and another involving some sort of machinery of variable nature (water purifier? generator? juke box?) which might be deployed when a particular audience member went for volunteer work in Zambia for a few months. Art projects included the concept of a lovely urban treehouse, the concept of a suit made of money, and the concept of surprising people with a toilet roll where the sheets of paper had been replaced by cash. (This latter suggestion was made by someone who was fairly obviously a couple of pints ahead of the rest of us, but he added a lot to the proceedings by virtue of being a funny drunk rather than an unreasonable one.)

The second half saw four formal votes, with the computer image processing brought into play on each one. The first three were semi-finals to cut the nine ideas down to three, the final picked an overall winner. This was a surprisingly involved process; when people could smell the money, the stakes got higher. There were hints of horse-trading, attempts to win support from floating voters by incorporating good sub-ideas from other projects. ("Could the treehouse incorporate a mattress? A webcam? Some otters?") The ambient soundtrack got a little more intense, making heavy - and, I'm quite sure, entirely legal - use of some of the think music from the wonderful Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? soundtrack CD. Track 62, the Tchaikovsky-esque million pound win anthem, got cued up a few times by mistake when surely it would have been the ideal way to finish the show; Track 61, the infamous million pound loss crashing fanfare, was not featured. There were occasional klaxons to push the discussion on, and a heavy clock motif, but we still ran very late because we were having so much fun that we didn't want to stop.

Cutting to the chase, our final vote was a tense one: funding for the otter holt versus funding Wunderbarman, a superhero who would go around distributing the cash in a series of small random acts of kindness versus funding a generator for Zambia. (The Wundermarman proposal eventually found a chap called Abraham in the audience who was prepared to volunteer to carry the role out, asking only for lunch. We thought he looked honest, and he had recently returned £60 that he had found in the street. It also was frequently illustrated by a brilliant, but rather grotesque, Photoshopped flabby semi-naked superhero prominently bedecked with the Wunderbar festival logo.) There were votes and there were revotes when the initial voting was close, and there were occasional impromptu (and quite possibly unconstitutional, but The Voice Of Reason dictates law) Instant Runoffs between the top two suggestions in the closest ballots. The generator for Zambia won by a couple of votes. Meg saw Abraham standing outside as we left, in good spirits, but musing "I was 2% away from being a superhero"...

It was all executed in very good spirits; there was no laughing at people's expense, and people were in constructive moods. There are lots of categories of people who would enjoy this; I fell firmly into the "can geek out over voting and voting processes" category, the "loves watching really talented people do fab things with computers very quickly" category and the "games are better than stories because they aren't scripted" category. Many of the Wunderbar festival sessions have much in common with the concept of interactive art, and this is a pretty uncomplicated application of interactivity to a lovely theatre show premise.

The premise is so simple, but it did take me quite a few paragraphs to explain all the stylistic enhancements; at one level, these are just bells and whistles, but they're such beautiful ornaments, so fundamental to the implementation of the premise and so skillfully executed in practice that the process is involving and delightful. You could stretch to a criticism that this is a triumph of style over substance, but this degree of style and good spirit alone are enough to create a brilliant night. I had a great time and will be very keen to participate again if I get the chance.

Probably a more serious criticism is that the technology was not reliable. All the seats in the auditorium had to be covered up with black cloths, for their native purple fabric was throwing the automated vote counter off. Anyone who was wearing prominently coloured clothing that might jigger the system - for instance, Meg's beautiful plain red coat - had to have that hidden. The Voice Of Reason was clad in black and prepared to offer her clothes to block those whose garments were jiggering the system up. Even after all that, I'm not sure that the vote count was necessarily all that accurate. Case in point: there was one vote which was resolved as something like 13% fuchsia, 43% yellow, 44% green, so a revote was requested with people asked not to vote fuchsia. The fuchsia proportion increased second time. Green beat yellow a second time, so it was declared victorious.

More seriously, we saw a lot of technical tests taking place in the auditorium over the half-time interval, and they seemed to be struggling to make the technology work; we could see staff members hold up cards which sometimes were resolved to blocks of colour that would be scored and sometimes weren't. (I tried a few experiments myself and couldn't reliably score a hit on the sensor.) Most seriously of all, I have a strong suspicion that there was a depth problem - people at the front of the audience took up a much greater proportion of the scanned image than people at the back, and so it was easy for their card to register as a coloured pixel, or possibly two coloured pixels, when it was rather harder for me at the back to enfranchise my vote. In the end, the staff acknowledged that the automatic counter wasn't working and they resorted to using staff as vote tellers; less technically impressive, but probably more accurate. Crucially, it didn't spoil the fun, so in a sense it didn't matter.

Another problem that we suffered was that while there may well have been a system to accept input from people who could send Tweets or visit web pages on their mobile Internet device, Meg had no reception or signal of any sort at her seat, and it really didn't help that we were a few floors underground - or possibly not underground, for the theatre is built on rather a steep hill - and sat close to a large structural pipe. I'll give the staff some credit because there were some audience members who could get their input across electronically, and I suspect there are environments where the tech works rather better in this regard than the one where the show took place.

I can't completely understand the business model that makes the show happen. If the box office takings are redistributed, who pays for the venue, the staff, the performers and the technology? Presumably there must be a festival or some sort of sponsor to take the financial hit, in return for the goodwill, publicity and general ART generated by whatever people decide to do. I note that 107 tickets were claimed to have been sold (plausible; I picked up numbers 52 and 53 for us yesterday, and there's no reason for Wunderbar to lie) but the manual card votes only attracted something like 75 or 80 votes in total over the three options. This hints at a no-show rate of about 20%, which is probably about what you might expect. Again, the no-shows don't really spoil the fun.

Meg and I both really enjoyed ourselves and send our impressed thanks to both the Who Wants To Be? staff and the Wunderbar Festival team. There are many sorts of people who would have enjoyed the show; for instance, I think there would have been a fair degree of crossover between people who would have enjoyed Who Wants To Be? and people who would have enjoyed the Sandpit session the night beforehand. If the concept appeals, the implementation has a very high chance of hitting the target.

Two nights at the Wunderbar Festival, two excellent events! Since then, I have learned that the Wunderbar Festival intends to be a biennial event. Roll on late 2011, I say; more of the same would be very welcome, but different events inspired by the extremely high standards of creativity and following vaguely along the similar sort of fun could delight us in familiar-but-different ways. My eyes have been opened in wonderful ways and I'm thrilled to have new talent, that's right up my street, to follow.

Wunderbar by name, sehr wunderbar by nature!

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Current Mood: ecstaticthrilled!

 


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