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Interview with Theatre Game Designer and Director Jamie Harper

26 April 2015 | Natasha Sutton-Williams

London Calling sat down for a chinwag with Jamie Harper, director and game designer of The People Vs Democracy: a live action theatre game about power and politics in the UK.

London Calling: What is The People Vs Democracy?

Jamie Harper: Imagine playing a board game but it’s in a large room with lots of people doing practical things and having conversations to pursue their goals. This theatre game is a merger of electoral systems and day-to-day life: how you gain influence or shape behaviour through everyday transactions, as well as voting people into positions of authority. It’s a social game where people form relationships, alliances and antagonisms. They develop trust or distrust and try to form social groups to further their individual or collective aims.

LC: What’s the thinking behind this theatre game?

JH: It’s about power and politics. Obviously we have a general election coming up but it’s a shame to think that your expression of power is simply through casting your vote at the polling booth. We all exert power in the little things we do to shape the world: who we choose to work for, who we have to work for, how we spend our money, who we associate with, what newspapers we read, what websites we visit. If you express an opinion that influences somebody and changes their behaviour, that’s a way of expressing power. We do these things all the time and often don’t consider ourselves to be powerful. This game places the audience are in the driving seat of political decision-making.  

LC: Are you using actual governmental structures to base this piece on, or is it more open than that?

JH: It’s a combination of an electoral system alongside everyday life. The baseline of the game is about how people live: getting jobs, earning money, buying a house, getting educated, providing yourself with healthcare, the nuts and bolts of life. If you think about political decision-making, it ought to be the case that politicians make decisions that make everyday life better. We wanted to produce a game where the audience has the opportunity to get involved in a political structure where you can personally decide and affect real outcomes; whether that’s electing someone to represent you, or actively trying to shape things yourself.

LC: When the game begins, what are the initial choices you make as a player?

JH: You’ll be given a name, an occupation and some goals you want to pursue. The goals may be individual aspirations, or how you want to shape society as a whole. You’ll have some tools you can use to try and become more influential, which might link to the job you do. If you do your job well you’ll get more money, buy property, raise your health. All these things accumulate to put you in a strong position to vie for influence and shape the decisions of the players around you. We’ve tried to create a game that’s complex enough to give you a number of different options to pursue a goal because there’s rarely only one way of doing something. Its up to you to make strategic choices about who you align yourself with and what tactics you follow to place yourself in a position of power.

LC: You have six actors on board. What role do they play?

JH: Our actors aren’t going to be performing in a traditional theatrical sense. If you think about a typical play, you’ve got a script or a prepared performance that a group of actors deliver. In our game setup the actors are players who play alongside the members of the public. Everyone is playing the game; everyone is pursuing a goal. The actors will be pushing the game along pretty aggressively. It’s great because they will serve as catalysts for things to happen.

LC: Would you describe this piece as immersive theatre?

JH: Yes but I think there’s a conversation to be had around the words people use to describe various types of experimental art. Immersive theatre, interactive theatre are terms that get bandied about a lot. Theatre-makers often don’t interrogate what they mean by these terms. When I hear the phrase ‘immersive theatre’ I think I’m going to be immersed in a story-world where I’m literally present: I expect to have the opportunity to do things to influence the world around me. That rarely happens in contemporary ‘immersive’ theatre. In our theatre game construct, the immersion is very straight forward: everyone’s there in the same world, they’re all players, they all have goals, they talk to each other, there’s no divide between audience and performer.

LC: Is there a synthesis between theatre and games?

JH: I think there’s a synthesis between drama and games. The structure of a drama and a game are extremely similar. Both involve players or characters in physical or virtual contexts, pursuing objectives and overcoming obstacles to get what they want. Most dramatic narratives have that basic structure: there’s a place, there’s a time, there’s someone who has a need that drives them to act; they take action in pursuit of their objective and they overcome various hurdles to get what they want. That’s exactly the same format as a game.  

The People Vs Democracy premiers at Free Word Centre, Farringdon, on 30 April. For more information and to buy tickets click here: https://freewordcentre.com/events/detail/the-people-vs-democracy

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