Sunday, April 14, 2013

35º 17 South

35º 17 South created by Karla Conway.  Canberra Youth Theatre at the National Gallery of Australia Sculpture Garden, Saturday April 13 to Saturday April 20, 2013.

Commentary by Frank McKone

Drama games as I used to know them are being taken to a new space by this CYT experiment.  From the drama workshop studio to an outdoor venue, like the Sculpture Garden at the NGA, is one thing.  Setting up a kind of treasure hunt, with clues to be discovered and directions to be understood and followed, is another.  But to have all this set in the context of a semi-scripted scenario which can only be understood via an up-to-date tablet device is one step further than I had previously imagined.

Computer, keyboard and mouse I can cope with, but a blank screen on a tablet is pure mystery to me.  Fortunately a one-time student from my days at Hawker College spontaneously appeared to save my reputation as a drama expert.  Catherine Prosser is now CEO and Co-Founder of, (  providing software which can make running all the technical side of theatre a whizz.  She had no trouble tapping the right bits on the tablet provided by CYT’s front of house coordinator Jim Adamik, and off we went to find the first of those other little mysteries (at least to me) – the black and white squares which look like miniature maps of mazes, stuck on the wall near the Diamond sculpture (Neil Dawson, Aotearoa New Zealand born 1948: Diamonds 2002).  The tablet read the coded maze, only to tell us that we couldn’t go further until we had correctly counted the number of bolts which hold the sculpture together.

After four goes we got it right (37 in case you’d like to know), typed it in and then began the game for real – well, sort of real, except that at that stage we only knew that we had to find clean water.  Why?  Because the only safe place to be was in the Skyspace (James Turrell: 'Within without' 2010) on the other side of the Gallery.  We knew this because we had been there with others who were desperate to get in because they were starving and had travelled so far and for so long to find a safe haven.  We were now in their situation, but we didn’t know why.  But we had not been allowed in until we could find resources like food and water to bring with us.  We couldn’t eat the tablets, but we needed them to find what we needed for entry to the only place of safety.

Catherine and I collected some useful resources like toilet paper and chocolate, and discovered with help from CYT writer Morgan Little that there were not only actors as desperate refugees, but others such as a trader who might exchange our chocolate for a weapon which we would need to help defend the community.  Not all the game concentrated on the immediate objective of survival: there are some codes which are games in themselves, like one which showed insects flying around in the Sculpture Garden which needed to be sprayed to prevent people being bitten by them.

After an hour or more, we had got nowhere near completing the game – we hadn’t even found the clean water – but as responsible adults we had to leave.  The younger members of Youth Theatre were by this time absolutely engrossed in the activity: if they didn’t complete the game on Saturday, they could continue each day next week!  This is one very big school holiday activity.

But is it as ground-breaking an experiment as it seems?  Is it a worthwhile way of teaching drama?  Is it suitably educational more broadly?

I think the answer to the last question depends on the content of the game.The story assumes a “Lucas Heights incident” in 2032 which means the east coast has become unliveable.  The refugees are escaping to Canberra as the only safe haven.  The refugee theme is, of course, entirely relevant in considering the position of those who recently arrived at Geraldton, after some 44 days in a small boat, from Sri Lanka.

However, there is a further assumption that in 2032, those managing the place of safety, the actors refusing entry to the refugees at the beginning of the game, would be openly aggressive with defensive weapons, and would arbitrarily lay out their demands to be satisfied by starving refugees.  Of course, there is a parallel with the way refugees are being treated by officialdom.

But what I wanted to know was, where in the game will the audience/participants have an opportunity to be debriefed and to reflect on the storyline, its implications and truthfulness.  This game, by having an “audience” attending, is different from a large group improvisation workshop where everyone participating takes part in the devising, the role-playing, and the reflective debriefing.  In this case, only the CYT actors and staff are in the know.  Of course, it is true that when an audience leaves a standard theatre production, they are not debriefed but have to sort out what they think about what they have seen for themselves.  This game, though, is more like some of the audience participation experiments of the late 1960s / early 1970s such as New York’s Open Theatre (Robert Pasolli: A Book on the Open Theatre.  Discus Books, 1970) where the actors imposed themselves on the audience members in an undifferentiated space.  These experiments lasted for only a few years, because audiences preferred enough degree of separation from the action to feel they were safe.

Because 35º 17 South is a pre-programmed game, there is a degree of safety for participants, since they have to follow the rules to complete the task.  Usually, of course, electronic games are entirely on screen, while this one involves interaction with real actors in a large relatively unconfined space where immediate supervision by CYT staff is problematic.  Though things like the weapons are no more than images on the tablet screen, what if a non-prepared participant (as opposed to the partially scripted and rehearsed actors) – a member of the public – were to take on the role of a desperate refugee to the point of a physical argument, say, with the trader of weapons who refused to accept chocolate in payment?  What would be the learning, on either side, from this experience?  And what are the safeguards?

At this stage I’m willing to keep an open mind until the conclusion of the game, next Saturday.   But I would be interested to know how the follow-up, what used to be called the backstage post-mortem, will be done – not only for the young adults and late teenagers in the acting roles, and of course for the CYT staff and the people from the Academy of Interactive Entertainment who wrote the computer code, but also for all those people, and perhaps their parents, who were audience/participants.

Since Karla Conway, the CYT Artistic Director, has invited us to “experiment alongside us and embrace the possibilities that technology can play in the evolution of our artform”, I think it should be encumbent on CYT to see the “experiment” as the lab research, requiring a careful analysis of the results and a public report of the findings.