Arts and Culture


'Best Before,' a show in the Cultural Olympiad, lets its audience of role playing gamers write the ending, and it's a scary one.

By Shannon Rupp 28 Jan 2010 |

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Read her previous columns here.

When Shakespeare wrote "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players..." I suspect Best Before, the new theatre-meets-video-games show at the Cultch, was not quite what he had in mind. But in this case, it's literally true -- ordinary people become the show, while the professionals are in the background working the levers like a latter-day Wizard of Oz.

Best Before is about the nature of democracy and public participation, and it's intended to raise questions about how our careless or selfish votes affect others and ultimately cause us grief.

At least, I think that's what it's about.

Hard to tell at the test-run, with 200 excited volunteers wielding game controllers. The audience whooped with glee as they raced to turn their avatars into smack-using, gun-toting, sex-mad criminals in Bestland, a world run by greedy dictators. (The world is the result of participant choices.)

'Reality trend' theatre

This audience was drawn largely from the gaming community and they're as good a reason as I've ever seen for swapping democracy in favour of benevolent despotism.

Best Before is structured like those old-fashioned role-play games where you make choices that affect the outcome of the story. The show is a co-production between Berlin's Rimini Protokoll, which does "reality trend" theatre, meaning they use amateur performers who share their personal experiences. 

Former NDP MLA Bob Williams recounts the tale of his rocky start in the Depression when his 15-year-old mom kidnapped a newborn-him from the home for unwed mothers where they'd landed for their sins. Meanwhile his 17-year-old dad was in a Burnaby jail for the crime of having carnal relations.

But I suspect the implications of his experience at the hands of an oppressive, hypocritical state may well be lost on this audience. As were most of the jokes by Duff Armour, a game tester with Electronic Arts who offers wry, cynical insights into the gaming industry. Reformed journalist and traffic flagger Ellen Schwartz, who talks about what prompted her career change and Brady Marks, who uses computers to make art with light and sound, round out the cast.

These avs aren't buffed

The audience was focused on the avatars displayed on a huge screen, upstage.

The avs themselves are simple. Unlike the stylish characters in the MMOPRGs -- the massively multiplayer online role-playing games that inspire this show -- you get no hair, no clothes, and no hot-bod to dress. They begin as little marbles that become modified with every choice. As you get wealthy, you get taller. Pregnant avatars soon have a tiny marble or two circling their avs. You get accessories, like a coffee cup, which Armour assures us is crucial for distinguishing oneself from the other drones in the veal pens at the office.

It's a fun toy, to be sure, but avatars are also "disinhibiting" as the shrinks like to say and that's the entertaining part of the show. Behind a mask, people do all sorts of things they wouldn't dare in real life where laws, or some guy's fist, keep their worst excesses in check. News stories of bad avie behaviour are endless: addicts who hire third-world gamers to run their characters around the clock in Word of Warcraft or virtual hookers working Second Life for less than minimum wage. That phenom is on display in Best Before.

Even with your peers sitting next to you, the lure of consequence-free hedonism is irresistible. Although it was reassuring to see how reluctant one winner was to stand up and 'fess up to being the crazed dictator who took all the money for himself.

Theatre of the absurd

As for whether this works as theatre, we won't know until its world premiere Jan. 29. But festivals around the world are anticipating the best. Confirmed shows include Ireland's Cork Midsummer Festival in June, Berlin's Hebbel Theatre in May, and London's Lift in July.

There's also no knowing whether theatre can renew its aging audiences by tapping into the obsessive-gaming crowd. But judging by this restless, distracted group of people who didn't quite get what was going on, I think it might be a hard sell.

"That was fun. Who was that old guy talking? That was boring," said one young woman as we meandered out of the theatre.

Raised to be narcissists, too many of the 20ish members of the audience didn't know enough of the world-beyond-their-navels to even make sense of the game.

"What's coup d'etat? What does that mean?" asked the young man behind me, when the emcee announced the greedy president was deposed and we needed to vote on whether to off him.

Oh well, no doubt he graduated with great self-esteem. 

The perfect tagline for this show might be Best Before: It's enough to make you grateful for voter apathy.

The Push Festival offering runs Jan. 29 to Feb. 6 at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, and it's part of the Cultural Olympiad.  [Tyee]

Read more: Science + Tech

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