Choose Your Own Documentary is a live performance of a documentary where the audience choose which way to take the story at numerous decision points – there are 1500 different outcomes…
The show is inspired by the Choose Your Own Adventure books that were popular in the 1980’s. I was VERY INTRIGUED when I heard about this project. Here’s the trailer:
So following their recent performances in New York as part of the Tribeca Storyscapes festival, I tracked down Nathan Penlington, the guy whose idea this was and had a chat with him.
I can’t wait to see it. The trailer looks great and you seem to have a lot of positive buzz on the project.
The hard thing we’ve had is trying to explain to people what it actually is, what they are about to see. We are coming at this from two different angles, really. The filmmakers are coming at this from a TV background, and I’m coming at it from a live spoken word background. We find ourselves meeting in the middle with this whole interactive thing.
Is it new to you and to the filmmakers, the interactive aspect?
Very much so. I’ve done shows before that have a live audience, and they participate in some way, but not in this way, directly responsible for the story. It’s the same for the filmmakers as well.
What made you buy the books, in the first place?
I read them as a kid and every time I would see some in second hand shops, I’d always pick one up. But I never owned a complete set, so when I saw that someone was selling the first 106 Choose Your Own Adventure books, I was very excited.
Part of my interest is that I am a huge fan of 20th century experimental literature. Books and narratives that use different forms in their texts, and Choose Your Own Adventure books fall into that category for me. It’s been an ongoing passion.
In terms of those other experimental books, what else would you recommend?
I’ve got a whole cupboard of excitements here. B. S. Johnson, the English novelist of the 60s, did some very good formal experiments. He wrote a book with separate chapters that have to be shuffled before you can read it, so you always get a different order of events.
That’s called The Unfortunates. And then Marc Saporta around the same time came out with “Composition No 1”, a book in a box where all the pages are separate, and you have to shuffle the pages before you can read the novel. This huge range of combinations can result from that.
So, it was those kinds of things, that always interested me. How you can tell a story with the form influencing the story.
So I bought this collection of Choose Your Own Adventure Books, and it turned out that they belonged to this one kid, called Terence Prendergast. He had scribbled and written down some jokes in them. But then in another, I found four pages of a really heartbreaking diary, which I became obsessed with, genuinely obsessed with. And I wanted to know what the truth was about this diary.
What did it say?
There’s four pages. One of the pages just has information about the speed of light on it. Another page is a list of years, so it starts with the list of the year he was born and goes through to his third year of high school. Then I’ll read you one of the other pages. It’s a list of things that he wanted to improve about himself. So it reads,
Fat: carry on exercise, don’t eat cake, etc.
Voice: practise speaking
Stutter: practice speaking.
Posture: walk properly when slim.
PE if I get slim do it.
laugh, practice laugh.
Being left out.
No knowledge of science and CDT.
I found it really heart-breaking that this kid had written a list of things to improve about himself.
Then on the last page is a list of years, where he’s catalogued significant moments that obviously meant a lot to him.
It talks about being bullied, running away from school, running away from home. It’s a lot of ambiguous statements in there, you’re not sure if they’re real or not real. So these four pages built up a character of this Terence Pendergast in my head, and it haunted me, partly because he would have been the same age as me, a man in his mid- to late-30s. And I desperately wanted to know what happened to him. I knew that if I was going to follow this story, I’d want to do it in a Choose Your Own Adventure manner. But the idea sort of stuck and loitered for quite a while before anything happened.
When did you buy the books, and read the diary?
That would be … Eight years ago. So I was obsessed about them for a very long time and didn’t want to kind of jinx anything by trying to find anything out about him. I kind of liked not knowing for a while, as much as it was painful not to know. If that makes sense.
Then I had the opportunity to make a new show. I was given a small bit of money to develop an idea. This Choose Your Own Adventure idea had been hanging around my brain for so long and I thought I should follow it up. I sent an email to the National Film and Television School, saying I was looking for collaborators to make a true interactive story. I didn’t know what the story was yet and how it would work. I knew it would be a hybrid, but I didn’t know of what. Or if anybody would be interested.
Fernando came forward and said that he would be interested, and then we got together Sam and Nick, so that was the three filmmakers I’m working with. Then together we plotted and planned and went on this adventure together to make it what it is now.
On the interactive side of things, you give out remote controls to the audience at the show. Can you talk about the technology that you use?
When we first started, we really didn’t know how it would work, and we spoke to many people who could make us bespoke interactive devices. But in the end, we’ve gone quite retro. We’ve gone for devices that were really robust because they have to tour, and they have to be easy to understand without having to explain them to people. And they have to work in any performance space that we turn up in.
We went through various options. We looked at mobile phone apps, smartphone apps. Obviously, not everyone has that tech, and wifi is not that reliable in a lot of venues. You don’t really want people with their phones on in a theater either. So we’ve gone for these devices that are used for conferences for people to give feedback during presentations, they run off on a radio frequency, and just plug into PowerPoint, so technically we run a PowerPoint that formulates a graph of results every time the audience votes.
So what surprised you most, if anything has surprised you, about taking this project to the wider world?
How engaged people are with the story and how emotionally involved people become. I think that’s partly from being able to choose what happens next and feeling responsible for the outcome of the stories. Also, I guess people feel connected to me, both as someone present in the videos, and also I’m present as a live person in front of them on stage.
But in terms of surprises, people are coming out crying sometimes, and then sometimes they are sometimes moved in a joyous way. Those are things you can only dream of when you’re making a piece of theatre, but to actually get those responses, that’s been incredible, really, and people wanting to share those responses and the personal stories that they’ve identified with while watching the show. That’s been really amazing, as a performer, to get that.
I saw in the trailer those very genuine emotional responses from people, and they seemed super engaged. That must be fantastic.
Yes, and what is interesting is that the technology device of voting disappears within the story because the story is so strong. The fact that you’re voting disappears in a way. You know that you’re voting, and you get frustrated if it’s not your choices, but it doesn’t feel like a gimmick because it’s so relevant to the story. I think with some interactive theatre things, it can feel as if the interactive element has been tacked on or is unnecessary to the story.
Did you plan out the entire story like the Choose your Own Adventure books?
When we started filming, we thought that we could do that. But we had no idea what the story would be or where it would go, and we quickly threw that idea out the window and followed the story as it unfolded without multiple paths. It’s been a hard process, because the show tells lots of different true stories at the same time? How do you make all those stories compelling? Obviously, you can have dead ends in real life, but if you are making a theatre show, you’ve got to make it a worthwhile experience, regardless of what gets chosen. That was the biggest difficulty.
When we first put this in front of an audience, for us it was a work-in-progress performance. We had no idea if it would work at all, or if the audience would choose the same path every time and, if they did, then would it not work, would we fail? But that’s not been the case. I think 85% of the time, we’ve had unique shows. 85% of the time new, and then maybe a couple of repeats, which is not a bad percentage. It keeps me on my toes as a performer, which is good.
And there’s bits of the show we haven’t seen yet live in front of an audience, and that is intriguing. What we tried hard to do is use some of your early decisions, although they might be seen flippant, to actually impinge on later possibilities that you are presented with. And some bits of information you find out will influence your choices further down the line.
It’s been a very intriguing process. It still is, really, because performing live it means it always changes.
Obviously you’ve got the book and you’ve got the interactive play, and theatrical experience. Are there other platforms or other “versions” that you are thinking of doing with the story?
We’re still kind of feeling our way around it. For example, I hold it all together live, and I think it would be very different beast, I think if we’d done it online. You wouldn’t get the same response if you saw it at home on your own and played with it.
It needs thinking through, about where the best place for it to end up is. While we can tour it for a while longer yet, it’s not something that can go on indefinitely. We’ve got enough content for a straight documentary, but I don’t if that’s the right way to go.
If the play goes well I imagine people will be hustling you to get it into a linear form.
Yes, well the book is a linear form. It doesn’t take the form of a Choose Your Own Adventure. I’d played with that idea of but I think while it works in the show because you can see that it’s true because of the documentary footage. I think if you tried to replicate that with a book, I think you’d be suspicious as a reader. So, the book tells a more linear story, but, in doing so, you get a more of the emotional stuff, that can’t be present in the documentary. It’s more my interior story.
What was the experience of the Tribeca Storyscapes Festival like?
Incredible. It took us by surprise, that one. We did four shows for the public over there. We also did a press show, and, at one point during the press show, I looked to the audience, and Robert De Niro was standing there and I shook his hand. I never imagined that would ever happen. So that was incredible. But also we didn’t really know how American audiences would take it. Choose Your Adventure Books were a huge thing in America. They sold over 250 million during their lifespan. But, because it’s a very British show, as you’ll see for yourself, but the American audience really took to it in a very warm way in the same way UK audiences have, so we would really love to take it back to the US and try and have a run over there.
Do you have any sort of thoughts about Transmedia and how your project sits within that kind of genre or form ?
It’s interesting being positioned within that area. I mean, what’s been interesting about this project is it does leap over between various art forms, so, we’re at film festivals, within theatres. We’ve got the book coming out. The Transmedia thing is very interesting. And quite a lot of those kinds of projects seem to be focused on the individual experience, so the experience of one person at a time interrupting with the project. Whereas we’re, I would be focused into a communal kind of interactivity. So it’s kind of the majority that rules rather than the individual. And I think that’s quite an interesting experience. It’s a very different one that you get from participating in a project that is focused on you as an individual. You get to share it. You get different reactions to that. There’s some interesting work being done in this area of Transmedia. I would like to explore it a little bit more, I think. It’s quite a new area for us to kind of take part in, just feeling our way a little bit.
It’s been great talking to you and I look forward to seeing it in Harrogate on the 16th May. Is there anything else you want to say about the show now without spoiling it for me?
It’s quite difficult to explain, without saying too much. That’s kind of the problem with this whole project. I’ve been into magic for a long time and that’s the closest relation – it’s like a magic trick that you can’t discuss it openly. All you can do is discuss the facts or the premise, but you can’t say what you’re about to see or how it’s done. It feels very much like a magic trick at times.
GO AND SEE IT!
Dates are here: http://www.cyod.co.uk/tour/
The book is here: http://www.cyod.co.uk/products/zu1nrqcf8tylpbuzb3uvkbs3laxdrd
I run Bellyfeel which gives me the opportunity to explore the future of storytelling and connect with mass audiences. I don't like big dumb media companies. More here...