There’s something pretty eerie about imaginary Facebook profiles. Bogus accounts are certainly there for anyone to find, usually giving themselves away with some telltale clues. But imagine a theatre production that doesn’t just centre on a fictional online profile, but an entire online narrative. A narrative in which the audience (if that’s the correct term - ‘players’ would perhaps be more appropriate) interact with the theatrical experience over the internet. They contact the characters through Facebook and make suggestions that directly influence the plot. Virtual reality is taking a bold leap into actual reality with Goat and Monkey theatre company’s project, The Seed.
Sitting down for a coffee and bacon sandwich with director Joel Scott, we discuss this interactive experience – definitely experience, rather than performance. The Seed is an “eight-week-long theatrical quest” exploring the plight of Victorian botanists who travelled the world seeking rare seeds: a story that involves intrigue, violence and vegetation in equal measure. It’s a cross between interactive theatre, alternate reality gaming (ARG) and murder-mystery drama.
At the heart of the project is a series of live performances taking place in four public gardens in Sussex, using a combination of unique locations and audio-visual effects to allow the audience to explore the world of The Seed. But there’s much more to it than that. The narrative continues online, allowing people to interact with the characters on Facebook and solve the mystery themselves; it’s as much a riddle as it is a piece of theatre, and the plot is changing as it goes along. Scott explains: “We’re working with this brilliant writer called David Varela. He is a master of the online game; he’s written loads of things, including Perplex City… games with Lewis Hamilton. New clues for The Seed keep arriving on the Facebook pages… we’ve got landmarks to reach, but people are making some crazy suggestions.” The company develops the narrative as the work evolves, to include twists and turns inspired by the audience’s online suggestions.
In preparation for our chat, I visit the Facebook page displaying the profile of fictional character Helen Furnival and watch a video she has posted. Filmed with a Blair Witch-style handicam setup, it shows her panicking as a shadow lurks ominously outside her front door. The content is pretty sinister, and I ask Scott what makes this online interaction combine successfully with physical theatre. “You get to explore a character online; the audience can root down and pull ideas apart, often arriving at a show having met the characters beforehand. It’s a play that lasts eight weeks instead of 40 minutes.” His reply comes with a manic energy that I can’t help but feel must be requisite for a job that requires flitting between reality and such a vivid virtual world. “As a kid you dream of treasure hunts, of finding lost buried treasure; this is exactly what this is – your chance to find real buried treasure.”
What does he mean by that? In reply, Scott whips his iPad out to show me a picture of something that looks like a cross between a pendant and a time-glass. “You see this? It’s solid gold. It’s worth a lot of money, and it’s actually physically buried somewhere in England. It’s worth a shit-load.” His eyes light up. “Whoever solves the mystery and finds it first, gets to keep it.” It seems unbelievable that this real, tangible treasure is part of a theatrical production, but he’s deadly serious. This really is a head-on collision of online and offline worlds. Can it be that an imaginary character on a Facebook page holds the key to finding an object made of real, solid gold? “It has to be said that it isn’t buried in any of the four Sussex gardens,” he says, on the off-chance that someone is intending take a spade to National Trust land.
So where did the idea come from? It’s thanks, in some part, to Kit Williams. In 1979, Williams published a storybook for adults and children called Masquerade, which also incorporated a treasure hunt. The author sculpted a jewel-encrusted pendant out of 18-carat gold in the shape of a hare, and buried it in a secret location, ready to be found by the person able to find the solution. It lay undiscovered for two years, inspiring a cult of maniac treasure hunters and an entire genre of alternative reality fiction. Scott explains: “I just get bored sitting in theatres. I went and saw a production at the Barbican the other week. The acting was really strong: it’s just that the idea itself was lame. I get more excited by being outdoors and in innovative spaces.” For Goat and Monkey, this is about opening up unusual spaces to create dramatic environments that audiences can engage with that just wouldn’t be possible on a traditional stage.
Scott describes this kind of immersive theatre play as “theatre for the enquiring mind”, even comparing it with Elizabethan theatre. “Take the Globe, for example. If you’re a groundling one metre from an actor, when an character dies, you can literally smell the sweat of the guy. You’re there, interacting, in the moment.” Perhaps, then, this kind of theatre actually has a strong connection to communal dramatic traditions, ranging from the Medieval mystery pageant to Elizabethan drama. Like those at the Globe, the audiences that visit The Seed vary hugely too. Scott speaks affectionately about a new kind of theatregoer he hasn’t seen before: “You have your National Trust crowd, and your National Theatre crowd, and then you have people who turn up to these events and walk round with their notebooks during the show… you don’t get this at an ordinary theatre. You get people who don’t know each other actually huddling together to discuss the clues.”
In light of this image, there’s an inevitable question. Something like this is a congress of the real and virtual worlds, certainly, but does immersive theatre ask enough of its audience? “There is a danger that you can click a button and get instant gratification; the immersive thing can get too much and then it doesn’t come to mean anything. It’s got to challenge the audience. You have to be careful with some of the street theatre stuff though. It’s how you balance it. Rather than sitting down watching a bit of theatre, being up on your feet, and having to actually explore and get involved can be as provocative an experience as you’d get at the National Theatre.”
With the final performance of The Seed just days away, taking place between 19 and 22 July in Borde Hill Gardens, Scott is buzzing with excitement and apprehension. “The audience are going to be let loose on their own in a forest at night, and have to find their own bits of theatre, but there are elements of danger involved as well.” It sounds thoroughly engaging – albeit slightly terrifying – and guaranteed to get a reaction from the audience. As for finding that golden pendant, well, it would certainly help with the student loan.
Image credit: Colin Barker