[2008090] Trouble on Planet Earth

Trouble on Planet Earth

The Border Project @ Fringe Factory Theatre (The Crumpet Theatre)

6:00pm, Fri 14 Mar 2008

There were a couple of Fringe shows this year that benefited from a substantial amount of buzz; The Smile Off Your Face was probably the most notable (and certainly the most deserving), but Trouble on Planet Earth was also lauded in many circles for its innovative audience interactions. Even Llysa told me to catch this performance – though, to her credit, she didn’t actually say it was “good”, just “interesting”.

To squeeze Trouble on Planet Earth into The Schedule, something else had to go; and the ADT’s G was given the arse – which was a blessing, in a way. For starters, it was being performed at the ADT’s studios at Belair – leaving me with a mere 45 minutes (if things ran to schedule) to get back into the city for Book of Longing. Additionally, nobody I had talked to – and I really do mean nobody – who had seen G had anything positive to say about it; the most generous comments I heard (from a friendly gent I sat next to in Moving Target) indicated that it was horribly underdone, and may – may – be ready for the 2010 Festival. So I didn’t exactly give my November-bought ticket away reluctantly – and the “lucky” recipient wasn’t exactly gushing praise for G when she returned.

But this entry is not about G – it’s about Trouble on Planet Earth. And the buzz (at least, the buzz that I heard) was right – this was very much a Choose Your Own Adventure book performed live, with the audience’s hivemind used to choose the next course of action for the performers. (In fact, the name of the piece is shared with an old CYOA book).

This sounds interesting, and the first couple of interactions with the crowd are certainly enjoyable. At the beginning of the performance, every audience member was proffered a smooth, sleek and sealed white wand, of similar size and weight to a Wii Controller. At various stages, a “sexy” interlude is projected onto a video screen, explaining the available options. Each member of the hivemind votes for their desired outcome by rotating the wand until the LEDs ensconced within light up the desired colour; from my position at the back of the crowd, it was pretty cool to be able to watch the sea of wands in front of me switch from red to green to blue and back again as decisions were made – with consultation of one’s neighbours, of course. It wouldn’t be a hivemind if we acted independently, would it?

But this exposes a massive problem behind this production: whilst the set is lovely, the acting passable (but by no means exemplary) and the fragmented writing somewhat interesting, there were all these decision points, all these interludes, along the way. And whilst the first couple were, as I mentioned above, entertaining in their own way, by the time I’d sat through a handful I was getting pretty irritable. The “sexy” video introduction for each decision point seemed laughably vacuous, the fifteen seconds allocated to “audience decision time” seemed interminable, and the wait for the results – which, for my show at least, were utterly predictable and sadly lowbrow – seemed like torture.

Now – I don’t want to seem like I’m completely down on this production; The Border Project have certainly created something a little bit different, and deserve credit for putting this show on. But I also felt that I was paying good money to sit around doing fuck all; at no point did the dialog tree branch off in the direction I wanted it to go (yeah yeah, bitch moan gripe), and the waiting was painful.

It’s funny – when I first encountered the web (via CSSIP researcher Matt Roughan in 1993/4), CYOA books were the first thing that sprang to mind – this hypertext linking thing was perfectly suited to this, and it’d be far better to “play” the books in a Web format than risk “peeking” at pages in the story you hadn’t played through yet (and much easier to implement than the horrible BASIC version I wrote on the C64 as a young ‘un). And maybe it’s just the programmer in me, but I really enjoyed the CYOA experience – far more than I enjoyed Trouble on Planet Earth. Because the hivemind, even at 6pm on a Friday evening, is shit. Lured by cheap titillation, each “decision” was utterly predictable – in fact, the only surprise was how much each decision won by.

So I was trapped in a performance with tolerable acting and glossy – but superficial – production. The clean lines of the spacious set, the smooth finish of the controllers, and the AV feedback loop all exuded polish. But it was a production that proffered “choice” where I felt I had none, the story itself was not enough to hold me, and I was jammed in a room with a group of whooping fucktards. Disappointment ahoy.

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