[This post relates to a thread of posts about interactive exhibits for children, children’s museums, and child-like theory.]

Electronic interactive drama should be like live interactive theater, right? But exactly how much interaction is in children’s theater?

When critics, artists, and others discuss interactive drama (experienced via computers), they often make allusions to interactive theater from “Tony and Tina’s Wedding” to long-form improv. [see this 1986 article from LucasFilm’s Doug Crockford]. At times, they also allude to theater for children. This follows allusions to interactive theater in Marie Laure-Ryan among others, particularly with regard to child’s play. In her dichtung-digital article, Marie-Laure Ryan differentiates seems to champion paidia–the free and open play of children, which is both mimetic and participatory. Ryan notes children’s mimetic play and improv theater as share these attributes. No doubt we would find such play in improvisational theater for children.

However, I’ve recently had first hand experience with the amount of play in children’s theater and I’ve begun to rethink the amount of agency and interaction (locally and globally) in these pieces. Let me relate one audience-member parent’s experience:

A Faery Hunt

We unstrap little JB from her car seat as she excitedly peers out at the children flitting about the parking lot in their various faery wings. We did not get the memo. Perhaps they will not even let us hunt. Fortunately, I can buy her an “avatar” or at least a “skin” from the admission table. We have driven north of Beverly Hills and Bell Air in search of faeries, or more properly in search of an interactive piece of theater called “a faery hunt.” The web page touted:

World-renowned faery experts and cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright are seeking children and the young-at-heart to aid in the search for faeries and other magickal creatures spotted in the forest.

The Faery-literate might recognize those two names as the British girls who photographed fairies in their backyard (1917, Cottingley, England), drawing the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Given this description, I had in mind interactivity at its most open: wandering through trees, seeking out clues, spying faeries, chatting with them, using the most robust natural language interface, oral communication itself. What we found was something else.

The Hunt is Afoot

Madame Instructions initiates our hunt, leading children and parents en masse (and what a considerable mass — little faery-wannabes everywhere underfoot) into the woods, but not before instructing everyone on exactly how to behave. The children were to find flowers and give them to the faeries. The adults were to shut up. Apparently chatter scares the faeiries.

As we climbed a small hill and rounded some trees, we reached our first stage, which I remember as being roped off. In any case, here many long-stemmed flowers littered the ground, and our hunters were quick to snatch them up. No sooner did they collect the flowers than our first faery jumped from behind a tree and gave a bit of a speech. She accepted our flowers and that was that. Interaction so far: picking up flowers, handing them to faery.

We continued in this fashion, trudging dutifully behind out guide from stage to stage. The next set of faeries asked us to make an environmentally-friendly oath. Somehow repeating an oath in unison with other parents and children seemed the opposite of interactivity in the sense I seek of interactive dramas. We could sprint off. Trample roses. Misbehave. We were not in some virtual world, but the very analog world of the woods.

Classic Fairy Bot Redirection

One emboldened child seemed determined to interact on his terms. He told one of the faeries that he was wearing a magic watch that controlled time. Later, when the faeries asked for suggestions on how to reunify the faery queen and her lost love, the boy suggested they go back in time. The faeries decided to take the suggestion and in a comic bit of business pretended to reverse their speech and actions, imitating the sounds of rewinding audiotape. A wonderful moment of local (and seemingly global) agency.

However, when the boy persisted in suggesting the time travel solution to every problem that persisted, the troll was forced to repeat: Sorry, kid, that’s not in the script. I recalled how many chatbots employed similar techniques (perhaps you could ask me about….). Classic unrecognized input deflection

Of course, the actors needed to stick to their script (and the clock) if they were going to get through the story and out of the woods safely and with some narrative coherence. Presumably there was one script with moments for improvisation.

Local Agency

So what could we do in this embodied, three-dimensional, real-time experience. When cued, we could: sing, not sing, clap, not clap, answer and ask some questions, although the range of questions allowed was quite restricted.

    Other points of interaction:

  • Singing a song taught us by the faeries (we follow the script)
  • Going up to receive “magic” from the faeries (we follow the blocking)
  • Giving the faeiries our flowers (we insert token as directed)
  • Following the faeiries where they led.

Global Agency

[Tinkerbell will return to life regardless of whether or not the people clap, though I wonder if any audience has ever successfully not clapped.]

Ultimately, the players succeeded in telling their story, but seemed prepared to succeed despite our interactions, critiques similar to the ones some have raised about electronic interactive dramas, such as Facade and the Breakup Game

Only when the play ended did we get the chance to truly play, as the children approached the faeries for autographs, and the faeries (in character) interacted with each in very cute ways, smiling, calling the children by names, asking them questions, et cetera. .

Although the piece is called a “hunt,” the event is much more like watching vignettes spread around a space (ala Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood) than an actual search. The children dressed as faeries and the moms (dressed as Desperate housewives, according to the Gnome) followed the various guide characters from stage to stage, which

The children began by listening to backstory and receiving fairy dust and instructions.

The Moral of the Story

What are the lessons to be learned from this version of children’s theater?

The piece could have been more interactive but the fact that it wasn’t reflects much of the children’s theater I’ve been privy, too. While this was apparently enough interaction for the children, one prominent (to me) mom seemed to think the interaction was a bit disappointing. Why couldn’t it have been a hunt? she asked as we drove home.

Here we realize that one of the greatest expenditure of energy for the children’s performer is to compel behavior, quell misbehavior, reward obedience, and ignore misappropriate input. I imagine it only takes a few days of children asking inappropriate questions, going out of story, tugging on your wings before you tire of this interaction and long for a more set script.

On the other hand, makers of interactive drama should be heartened. As far as the children’s theater I have been seeing is concerned, they are ahead of the game.

Don’t worry. In spite of her father (and the unresponsiveness of the interactive experience), JB enjoyed the hunt considerably.

2 Responses to “The Façade of Interactive Children's Theater”

  1. 1 Christy

    And the moral of this tale? Adults who work with interactive entertainment make terrible audiences. :)

    I use the Peter Pan moment (getting the audience to clap to save Tinkerbell) as a great example of motivating, instructing and rewarding audiences. I wonder though, after reading your piece Mark, if the joy isn’t about agency at all…but about the thrill/nervousness of proclaiming publically that you believe in faeries…or proclaiming publically that you are willing to look like a ninny in the name of art?

  2. 2 Mark Marino

    Yes, terrible indeed. Or maybe I just felt bad that I didn’t have my own pair of wings.

    And I agree with you about the thrill/nervousness, just as there is probably a joy in even directed participation. That joy of singing along, call-and-response–even when the response has been dictated by custom or by those one stage. Even this modest bit of participation is enjoyable.

    The moment at which the characters prove they can break the fourth wall is also a bit nervous-making, like when the troll started commenting on all the parents, calling one group of moms “The Desperate Housewives” and likening me to a famous film director. (I’ll let the home audience guess which one).

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