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Interviewing the AH Community: Owen Kingston

Questions from Gary Oswald

Counter factual and Alternate History discussion and fiction is a large and healthy community. Sea Lion Press has always had the aim of providing a platform for Alternate History Fiction, discussion and essays but it can't fill every niche and there are other platforms doing slightly different things. As a result there are a lot of people involved in other forms of Fiction and historical discussion with a counter factual focus. So I regularly interview various members of this community about their non Sea Lion Press projects to shine a bit of a light on what else is out there.

This weeks it's Owen Kingston, Artistic Director of Parabolic Theatre. Parabolic can be found at their website and on twitter.

Hello Owen. First of all, thank you very much for talking to us. Parabolic Theatre is an interactive and immersive theatre group, which we've talked about in an article on this blog before. Can you explain what interactive theatre involves and what the appeal is to you?

Our work eliminates the barriers between the actors and the audience. Rather than watching from a distance, the audience occupy the same space as the actors, with the ability to move around freely and interact with the actors and other audience members as they see fit. More than that, they become part of the world of the show alongside the actors, and their contributions have a meaningful impact on the world of the show and the ongoing narrative. We provide the context for being there, and we create an explorable performance space that feels authentic to the world of the show.

A good example is one of our most popular shows – “For King and Country” which is set during an alternate history WW2 where Operation Sea lion is in full swing. The audience take on the role of MPs making crucial decisions from the command bunker that will affect the course of the war. Being present in the world of the show with the ability to affect the outcome is a viscerally thrilling experience unlike any other.

You had a long career in conventional theatre before you started Parabolic theatre. As an Actor, do you feel like your job is harder in an interactive play where the experience is different each time and so it's heavily reliant on improvisation?

Actually no, I’d say it’s easier – provided you are well prepared. Truth be told I’m not much of an actor. My career has been as a writer and director, and while I do act from time to time it’s not my main concern. Talking to some of our regular actors though, they tend to agree that provided you are confident in your improvisational skills, and thoroughly steeped in the “world” of the show, then the freedom that comes from performing in one of our interactive shows is a glorious thing. One of our actors, who also does a lot of conventional theatre work, says that he never gets nervous before one of our shows in the way that he might before stepping on a conventional stage. There is a terrific freedom in this sort of work.

Part of the joy of interactive theatre is that the audience members get to take the show in wild directions and the actors go along with it, what's some of your favourite examples of the show going completely off the rails?

I remember one occasion in “For King and Country” where the audience decided collectively that they wanted to try and assassinate Hitler, and they would not let go of the idea – insisting that the military officers in the room (our actors) come up with a plan. In the end, we had to improvise a presentation on what we dubbed “Operation Hammer Down” – a plan to parachute a hundred commandos into Berlin armed with Sten guns and a recent photograph of the Fuhrer in the hope that one of them might ‘run into him’ and do the right thing. Far from putting the audience off, they decided that this ridiculous plan was exactly what they wanted to do and they gave the go order. Of course, we punished them mercilessly for it. Not only were the commandos caught and executed, but Hitler was so enraged by the idea he ordered a reprisal assassination on the King, who in our alternate history was still Edward VIII.

This is an extreme example of course, most of our shows run along much more realistic lines. Although there was that time in “Crisis? What Crisis?” – our show about the end of the Callaghan government in 1979 - where the audience ended up joining COMECON and inviting the Red Army to restore order on Britain’s streets…

Obviously this last few years have been tough ones for theatres everywhere and you've been forced to focus more on virtual entertainment. How has the company coped with the pandemic?

We were very grateful to the Arts Council as we were recipients of a generous grant from the Cultural Recovery Fund. That allowed us to keep creating work online, and enabled us to pay our freelancers and meet our bills. Pivoting to online work was really the only option and I think we fared pretty well with it – one of our shows won an award after all. Some of the things we produced have been very popular. Our interactive WW2 naval show – England Expects – has had several successful runs and has been programmed by the Oxford Playhouse as part of their Digital Stage season

In terms of the focus of this website, several of your plays have been set in the past, during WW2 or the 1970s, what attracts you to an Historical setting for something like this?

There are various factors. In order to properly immerse an audience in the world of the show that world needs to be very detailed – drawing from history does a lot of that work for us. I think also that the responsive nature of our work – that is to say the way we give the audience the opportunity to make meaningful decisions – necessarily places us in the realm of alternate history thinking. Getting our audience to examine what might have been is just as much if not more fun than immersing them in what was.

Obviously the nature of an interactive play set in the past is it quickly spirals into Alternate History. How much planning goes into plotting out AH scenarios? So for instance in 'Crisis, What Crisis' the audience members are playing as the Labour Government of 1979, how much work did your team do to try and think up plausible consequences in terms of what would happen if they try this policy or this policy?

In order to avoid our shows descending into complete anarchy, we spend significant time in the first instance figuring out what the ‘story’ of the show looks like. We use some screenwriting techniques to structure the emotional beats of what we want the audience to experience at any given point in the show. That way our shows have a recognisable story structure underpinning them and we can feel confident that whatever happens the audience will feel like they have experienced a ‘story well told’. We then start to examine broad brushstroke alternate endings – what are the major ways in which this story could end? For “Crisis? What Crisis?” there was the obvious binary possibility of winning or losing the no confidence vote, but then there were also some more drastic possibilities – what if the audience made such a hash of things the Army felt the need to stage a coup? What if a foreign power decided to invade to ‘restore order’?

Once we’ve figured out what the big ending moments are, we then work backwards to see how we might arrive at them. What would trigger a coup, for example? We would usually look at some of our big narrative plot beats and consider what actions might fit those beats in different circumstances. If a coup is possible, then our “All is lost” plot beat might be discovering that there are tanks en route to Heathrow airport. If the audience are on the path to winning the no confidence vote however, then “All is lost” needs to feel very different. Perhaps they hear that several key MPs are planning to abstain. In a show where the whip’s office has been aggressively blackmailing Tories, perhaps the police announce that they are about to arrive to investigate what has been happening?

We would then examine the many smaller decisions that the audience make over the course of the evening, decide how best to track and feed back on them, and how those decisions will contribute towards the overall path of the show. Ideally it should be very difficult for a single audience member to massively influence things on their own, but by tracking an overall trend our control room team can decide the most logical path to the most logical ending. For Crisis? What Crisis? Tom built a very impressive spreadsheet that did all the heavy lifting for this.

Ultimately though, decisions always have to be made between the control room staff and the actors in the room as to the direction to take things. Every show is unique and we cannot anticipate everything that an audience might decide they want to do, so we always find ourselves making important decisions on the fly about which direction the show takes next.

Obviously audience members will have varying amounts of historical knowledge, is there a way to ensure that someone who knows nothing about the Callaghan government gets a good experience but so does someone who's an expert, is that just something you have to pick up on as an actor and adapt to?

We try to make our shows accessible to everyone regardless of background knowledge. We often start by bringing everyone up to speed with a good healthy dose of exposition, dressed up in entertaining and humorous ways. In our sequel to “For King and Country”, set in a Britain that had been occupied by the Nazis for four years, we started the show with a ‘Pub Quiz’ hosted by the British Union of Fascists – the questions were all relevant to the world of the show and the answers were all to be found in the room somewhere – it was a great way for the audience to discover important details about the world of the show while doing something a bit silly.

The 'For King and Country' plays, lean further into AH by using the setting of a Nazi invasion of the UK, which obviously never happened in our timeline. Do you think that Historical interactive theatre has to go AH if it covers something as well known as WWII otherwise people will just do what the allies did in otl?

I don’t think it’s essential, but it is helpful when the show has game mechanics that could be affected by real world knowledge. Mostly I think it’s a fun and interesting way to examine real history – by exploring what might have been. I also think it’s unavoidable if you intend to give the audience meaningful input into the direction of the narrative.

Do you have any interest in AH as a genre of fiction beyond these plays, have you read much of it?

I do – I am in fact a keen wargamer and very much enjoy playing our AH scenarios from a wargaming perspective. “For King and Country”, for example, incorporated some aspects of Warlord Games’ work on wargaming Operation Sea lion – there are a few nods there to those who look closely, including a late game attack on Nottingham using ME 323 Gigants.

What's the company up to now and what can we expect to see from you in the future?

We are about to open a new immersive theatre venue in Bethnal Green called “CRYPT”. Our opening season is called “Make do and mend” and we will be playing host to several immersive theatre productions set during wartime. We are also working on a big-budget sci-fi themed show set in a somewhat dystopian future which we hope to open before the end of the year.

Most of the shows in the “Make do and mend” season are by other companies, but we are trialling a show that we are calling The British Resistance Museum” – it is a show based around a museum of alternate history, that tells the story of the struggles of the British Resistance during Nazi occupation, based on the events of our “For King and Country” shows. We hope it will have a particular appeal for families, and could be an interesting way of teaching children about some of the things that might have happened if the events of the war had played out differently.

Your new show, The British Resistance Museum, is about a visit to a museum dedicated to the British resistance in WWII. How does the interactive side of it work when instead of being a member of a government, the audience members are playing a much less powerful role?

The story has a supernatural twist to it, so while initially you are simply experiencing a guided tour of a museum of the events of an alternate WW2, you very quickly get drawn into a scenario where your actions can have a direct effect on the past. I don’t want to say much more as I don’t want to spoil the surprises, but suffice it to say that alongside exploring a rich and detailed alternate history setting, you’ll also get involved in solving some puzzles and hopefully making some changes of your own to the timeline.

Tickets for "The British Resistance Museum" are now on sale here. If anyone can get to Saint Peter's Close, in the East End of London, from the 8th to 13th of April, they can find out, first hand, how interactive Alternate History plays work.



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