App Testing for The Beautiful Ones

Making App-based Theatre

Our first attempt at basing a show around the use of a mobile phone app (app-based theatre) was with The Beautiful Ones, whose first half was an app-based audio guide with some very basic multiple choice capabilities. Lost Shoreline, more than a year later, relied on an app for the whole show to function, with significantly more complex interaction and structure. In the process of making these two shows we’ve come a long way in understanding what’s possible, so we can really start to take advantage of new possibilities for the theatre.

Why use an app?

For both of these shows, the app was used to solve problems. One of the simpler problems it solves is hardware costs; it’s like having everyone in the audience bring a computer for you to use. Of course, this alone is not really enough to justify it if you could use a simpler means. If your only requirement is to play a sequence of audio tracks, you could use mp3 players and save a considerable amount of time and effort in getting an app to do the same thing. If your only requirement is to let a few people vote anonymously, you could give them some buttons like this…

A big problem that we are using apps to try and solve is interactivity. Interactivity in the theatre tends to be limited in scope, because the number of audience members who can genuinely ‘interact’ simultaneously is limited to the number of performers/crew. Other types of ‘technical’ interactivity, such as radio voting systems (e.g. Ontroerend Goed’s Fight Night) allow you to go beyond this limitation, but the limitation then becomes the imagination of the creators of the system itself, and in this case there is only a single way to interact: a simple multiple choice question which can be selected by number at the time it is announced.

Another possibility is to make use of a pre-existing app (such as a messaging app like WhatsApp) to facilitate interaction.
While it might not seem as polished, this enables many more new ways of interacting, connecting audience members to one another and creating more game-like options, as well as things like image/audio transfer. This is a great solution in some ways, because it is free, reliable and secure, not to mention easy to set up without any programming knowledge. The limitation of this is that it still has to be managed manually, and we come back to the limitation of how many interactions one performer can deal with simultaneously.

To go further than this the app itself needs to deal with certain kinds of logic specific to the show, managing what to do at certain times or in the event of certain combinations of situations. This means the app can take on the role of dealing with all basic interactions and timing and facilitating distribution of ‘real’ performers’ interactions, multiplying the amount of interaction that is possible… but this is going to require a custom-built app.

From The Beautiful Ones to Lost Shoreline, App-based Theatre

To find ways of storytelling using programming, we were inspired very much by the mechanics of ‘choose your own adventure’ and RPG computer games. The Beautiful Ones was the beginning of this idea, building a mechanic that offered very basic multiple choice options, a bit like a more linear old-fashioned RPG. Lost Shoreline was an evolution from this in much the same way as RPGs have evolved to be less linear, with the popularity of the ‘open world’ design. The freedom of the form makes storytelling much more challenging, increasing the amount of content that must be created, as well as multiplying the possibilities for how different players/participants might experience what you create. In spite of the challenges, we decided this direction was more appropriate to the content of Lost Shoreline, which drew inspiration from post-structuralism and historiographic metafiction.

To be continued in Part 2: The Development of Lost Shoreline

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