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– by Alice McShane
Boho Interactive: Word Play, CSIRO Discovery Centre, Friday 17th May

A firm believer in exploring the expansive possibilities of interactivity, my faith is most often tested in the theatre. Any attempt to blend live performance with direct audience participation can produce unruly results, often compromising the delicately constructed narrative universe on stage. Undaunted, Boho Interactive has risen to the challenge, integrating performance, participation and mixed media for their hybrid video-game/performance piece Word Play. Devised by Michael Bailey and Jack Lloyd, Boho Interactive’s fourth outing has seen them join forces with Centenary of Canberra and CSIRO to put on this highly ambitious performance. A collaborative effort, Word Play showcases Canberra’s genuine claim as innovators in art and science with this truly original work.

Immersed in darkness at the CSIRO Discovery Centre Lecture theatre, the impulse to turn one’s phone off for the performance caught out many audience members who, for once, were encouraged to dispel darkness and embrace their illuminated screens. In a first for the company, a smart-phone app is available to download for the performance and serves as the conduit for our interaction with the actors who are not physically present in the space. In fact they appear only on screen, live-streaming their performance from a laboratory into our “quarantine shelter”. The premise of the performance; that a virus spread by language (Marja’s Disease) has infected nearly the world’s population, turning them into completely credulous zombie-like figures – requires the first and most significant suspension of disbelief from its audience. It almost feels like a 4D simulator ride: we know disaster is looming and thrill is derived from welcoming the experience by strapping in for the inevitably chaotic ride.

We are assisted in our acceptance of this apocalyptic reality by the naturalistic acting style and presentation modes offered by the piece. Greeted on-screen by the cheery Ray Hendrick (Euan Bowen), his claim to authority is conveyed through a nifty lecture-style presentation which takes us through the facts of the situation and introduces us to our interactive capabilities. The live-cinema avoids excess stylisation, using cameras we know to be present in the room: e.g. those attached to the “researcher’s” heads.  All of which belies the truly impressive amount of camera and directorial work at play to follow the characters, dialogue and action live, whilst also managing to subtly allude to the oncoming disaster.

The smart phone app is synchronised with the onscreen action, prompting us to answer questions and give direction as required by the researchers – Professor Vik Copley (Raoul Craemer) and Dr. Louise Morris (Cathy Petöcz). This is where our second and almost equally significant suspension of disbelief is required. The lag between our response and processing by the researchers slows the action significantly. That, and the temptation to send misinformation proved too much for many audience members who gave instructions like “downward facing dog” , and “do the YMCA” to the performers. The interface design however is really quite impressive and as far as originality goes, it’s an experience unlike any other. By directly engaging its audience in the outcome of this pandemic, the real-world scientific parallels (such as the increasing resistance of harmful bacteria to antibiotics) resound much clearer, it’s that definitive narrative style of showing not telling with an interactive twist that gets us so invested in the piece’s message.

While the metaphors aren’t subtle, they do ring painfully true in an age of misinformation. The piece references “magic bullet”; a communication theory which claims a work has a single message which is received unquestioningly by its audience. Although it has since been disproved, with today’s increasingly conflicted media landscape, extracting truth from language is proving increasingly difficult and the dystopian possibilities of such a theory present a fascinating exploration on the nature of language and the complex ways in which we process information.

In spirit of centenary celebrations Boho Interactive has seemingly taken to heart the implied theme of the year: go big or go home. Thoroughly researched, ingeniously implemented, this part cinema, part video-game, part lecture, part theatre piece is not to be missed. Just avoid telling the performers to “break a leg”, for it may have far more literal consequences than you intended.

DETAILS: Word Play is on Wed-Sat 22nd -25th May and 29th – 1st June at 7:30pm. Information on booking is available at facebook.com/BohoInteractive and bohointeractive.com

AliceAlice currently works in regional television, occasionally writes television commercials but mostly writes film essays. Obviously she should be followed on twitter @aliceclaire, and at http://filmalice.wordpress.com/

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