Teesside Snog Monster (jiggery_pokery) wrote,
Teesside Snog Monster

Stranger and stranger still

OK, I started writing this literally months ago, and got stuck quite early on through the piece. This won't be the version I wanted to write, but if I don't get any version of it it out, I won't get it out at all.

Stranger was a show that billed itself as a life-sized board game, played at the Stockton International Riverside Festival this weekend on the weekend of 3rd-4th August. It was created by Emke Idema from the Netherlands and has seen a fair degree of activity in avant garde theatre festivals in northwestern continental Europe; the Stockton festival may well have been its UK debut.

The show describes itself, accurately, as "a playfull platform that tries to reveal the tension between our social norms and our intuition". I am not aware of it having been booked for any further such festivals or other performances in the UK. (Edit: Salisbury Arts Festival at the end of May.) Having seen the show twice this that weekend, I would strongly recommend getting a ticket if you get the chance at some point in the future. I guess there's probably a higher volatility in show quality between different performances of a not-entirely-scripted show like this than of a completely scripted show, but this is well worth a try.

It's interesting to work out how to review or compare this piece. It feels more like a game than it does a show. It could be interpreted as having something of the game show nature by the conventional strict definition of the term, lacking only being broadcast outside its theatre space. It would be an introspective and thoughtful broadcaster who gave it a wider airing.

The piece requires six volunteer players, to begin with, three volunteer judges and an audience of, perhaps, thirty-to-sixty. The judges sit at the front of the audience. The players stand on-stage facing judge and audience. On stage are a few dozen stands, perhaps slightly shorter than human height, with a variety black-and-white lifesize heads printed out and stuck atop the stands. The Stockton-on-Tees performances took place in the ruins of Holy Trinity Church on Trinity Green, which was an atmospheric venue, but offered little protection from the wind, to the point where the stands were really shaken, to the border of being blown over altogether.

Crucially, the performer of the piece does not appear as a person on-stage, being a series of pre-recorded vocal clips that are sequenced according to the players', judges' and audience's actions. Nevertheless, the performer, Emke Idema, who is also the creator, is as skilful a sequencer as any DJ. The limits on her interactions with the participants on-stage and off are an interesting creative constraint; at least once, we heard a sample suggesting that the players were required to resolve a slightly ambiguous point of gameplay for themselves.

The players represent people on separate journeys in a strange (but realistic, rather than at all fantastic) city. The stands represent people in the city that the players encounter along the way.

The game setup happens on-stage, with the players having their situation explained to them, and invited to pick four stands to represent members of their team according to different categories (lifelong friends, flatmates not by choice, etc.) Players stand at one of six coloured marks in a semi-circle on-stage and are referred to purely by that colour through the game. The audience are nominally divided into six sections, each encouraged to act as a cheering section for one of the six players.

As in so many great games, the action in the game takes place in a circle, with the players taking turns in sequence. On a player's turn, they move to a desk in the centre of the semi-cricle and draw the frontmost card from a carefully-ordered box of cards on that desk, reading it out. A handful of these cards are, essentially, chance cards - a narrative reason might be given for the player to have to lose one of their stands from their team, or maybe worse. The majority of cards cause the active player to begin a duel against one of their opponents.

Through the game, duels take the same form: the card suggests a superlative characteristic. Between a third and a half are positive, like "most trustworthy". Perhaps a third, or slightly fewer, are negative, like "most likely to park in a disabled space". The rest are just funny, like "most likes sausages". The active player then selects one member of their team, i.e. one of the faces on stands, that they think best fits the description. (The player's cheering section may contribute advice, or not.) The active player then selects one of their opponents, who in turn picks a member of their team to fit that description.

The three judges then each, without consultation, select which of the two players' team members appears to better fit the category, and display a flag accordingly. The losing team member is dismissed from the game. A player losing their final team member is eliminated from the game - and, both times I saw the show, receives a sympathetic round of applause all around. (There could be an element of tactics in terms of deliberately picking an opponent with few members left, or perhaps members ill-suited to the adjective.)

The first round of six selections and judgments are played without any twists, then afterwards this is turned slightly more into a game. On two occasions after a player has had a team member negatively judged, they can declare "challenge" and then speak for a minute as to why their team member should not have been negatively judged; the judges then vote a second time on these two team members possibly overruling their first opinion. However, if the first vote is overruled, the second player might challenge themselves, speak and cause the judges to vote a third time. There is, again, an optional element of tactics here in that a player becomes unable to counter-challenge, and thus might prove much weaker, once their two challenges have been used.

This procedure continues until only three players are left with one or more team members, thus concluding the first round. Conceivably this might take as few as 12 judgments or as many as 21, though the random events speed the game up or slow it down. The second round is played between only those three players.

The second round is played over a series of 12 judgments, without random events, again in sequence. Again, in turn, players come up to the microphone, pick a card, read the superlative characteristic. However, instead of picking an existing member of their team, the players pick members of the audience to represent them, with the selected members leaving their seats and walking on-stage.

These are judged in the same fashion as before; the losing(?) audience member returns to their seat, the "winning" one joins the team of the player who selected them. Ramping up the dramatic tension, as before, not all of these superlative adjectives are positive. Indeed, the vocal clip played after the twelfth and last of these suggests that not all games have players who are willing to pick audience members out for the last adjective.

After the 12 judgments, the third round is played. It takes place between the two players who have most members in their team - whether paper faces from the first round or human beings from the second round. (The moment where people stop to calculate who this should be is a shade clumsy, especially considering it should be a very simple calculation. Perhaps there might be some more elegant staging possible to make this easier.)

In the third round, the two players go head to head and their teammates, whether paper or human, cannot help them. One at a time, seven adjectives are read out, but this time in their comparative form rather than the superlative form. After each one, ramping up the dramatic tension further, the judges have to pick which of the two players themselves, rather than the team member they selected, better displays the characteristic. All seven adjectives are played even if someone rushes out to a 4-0 lead. The player selected more times is the winner and gets a very slightly valuable prop to keep as their prize, which might offer a rare and pleasant opportunity to perform a famous celebratory ritual in public.

The first game probably represented the game played about as well as it is possible to play it. The players were quick-witted; when they challenged, they proved confident and highly able at their improvisation in their speeches. Additionally, they were willing to play with the format itself, which is incredible considering how soon this was after they had been introduced to it. One player attempted to volunteer himself for the answer to an unflattering question rather than pick an audience member; another player claimed not to be able to read a chance card in full and required another player to do it for him, only for that chance card to reveal ill fortune. (The ill fortune still applied to the original player, but it was a very nice try to shift it!)

However, I volunteered as a jury member for that first game. It was a fascinating experience. Very occasionally I found myself second-guessing my own decision, despite audio cue requests to give gut-feeling responses, and a few times I found myself highly surprised by the responses of the other judges. (Can one react in such a situation? Is being a judge "a big enough" part of the show already?) I came out feeling... a bit flat, a bit "Is this it?". Nevertheless, I felt the show had promise, and I pushed my luck by coming back for a second performance later in the festival.

The second performance was chaotic, with players struggling to keep track of whose turn it was. Furthermore, several of the players were very reluctant to make decisions themselves without heavy audience prompting, which really slowed things down. Additionally, one of the players dropped out mid-performance and had to be replaced part-way through. When the players performed the challenges, they were reluctant and stumbling with their arguments. Nobody displayed the flashes of wit that livened the first game up. I was called up as an audience member twice, both times unflatteringly. The end of the game needed particular prompting and the players didn't get the cue as to how to celebrate at the end. It even rained very lightly.

You probably can guess where this is going. Having come away from the first performance feeling flat, I came away from the second one absolutely buzzing with energy, and even wondering if it would be too too cheeky to try to get hold of a third ticket. (I decided it would; while they were free, there was plenty of demand - the second show turned a couple of dozen audience members away.)

This makes no sense! The second game was quantitatively inferior to the first in essentially every regard, except possibly one: the audience was much more involved second time, whereas the first audience was slightly patchy. Yet I enjoyed the second show much more.

Maybe being an audience member rather than a judge made the difference. Maybe having familiarity of what was about to happen - and there really was little difference, other than the points at which the chance cards came out - made it a lot more enjoyable. Maybe the reactions of the audience were far more important to the enjoyment of the event than I thought they might be.

In practice, I suspect that all three contributing factors played a part. If I had to guess, probably the familiarity was the biggest factor. It's even possible that seeing the game played so much more badly second time made me retrospectively appreciate the first game much more, that enjoyment not properly expressing itself until the second game happened.

On reflection, I reckon the third round is by far the weakest part. My suggestion would be to turn the metaphor around a little and tell a "judge not lest ye be judged" tale. At the start of the third round, the audience are told to feel underneath their seats and are (hopefully pleasantly!) surprised to find that each of them is given white and black flags of the type previously only supplied to the judges.

The gameplay would then be for the players to continue to pick a suitable candidate for the adjectives - but instead of picking from the audience members and having the three appointed judges be the arbiters of victory, the players have to pick one of the judges as their answer and the audience at large determines which player has selected more appropriately. (With only three judges to pick from, there's an advantage in picking first, so the players would alternate who gets first pick.)

The obvious downside of this is that it's instantly obvious which two judges of three have expressed a plurality and it may not be quite so quick to count the whole of an audience. However, it seems likely that most votes will not require full counts, and it's not as if the show as it is doesn't have some fractionally awkward counting already, to determine who will play the final round. To me, it would be a price worth paying to tell the tale.

Emke Idema herself arranged the stage and triggered the appropriate samples at the points that suited her. I got to chat with her for a few minutes after the first show, expressing my appreciation. She was very happy to talk about the piece with me and came across extremely well. I would be very interested to see more of her work in the future.

You'll not often get the chance to see Stranger performed; it's a brave festival that will take a chance on booking something like it. In order to find out if you'll ever get the chance, follow the creator's agenda. It looks like the show is coming to the UK as part of the Salisbury Arts Festival on 31st May and 1st June. You lucky Salisburians; you have a treat coming! Sadly Wiltshire is, near enough, the other end of the country from here. Nevertheless, strongly recommended, and I'm only sorry that this review is being published closer to the 2014 Stockton Festival than the 2013 one at which the event happened.

More excitingly, it looks like Emke Idema has produced a follow-up, RULE, which had previews last year and is getting its official debut performances from Tuesday to Saturday next week in Amsterdam. Hurrah! The description, in translation, suggests "a game about hospitality and border ethics, a game about the boundary between personal values ​​and existing rules", to which I say "papers, please!". Fingers crossed that either show, or Emke's future work, continues to flourish and that we can see it again in this neck of the woods.

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Tags: games, interactive theatre, stockton-on-tees

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