what’s on(line) + milton and patrick sent a show to argentina
April 16, 2021
not gonna lie, we’re struggling to come up with a clever intro to this month’s issue.
Maybe it’s the weather, the recent round of stay-at-home orders, fatigue, or even depression. Whatever it is, we’re struggling and we’ve got a feeling we’re not the only ones; if you’re going through it too, we want you to know you’re not alone. In the spirit of being gentle with ourselves, let’s skip the small talk and jump right into some things to look forward to, starting with the next round of digital Residency sharings in May. Stay tuned—we’ll share more details in a couple of weeks.
Here’s a rundown of what’s in this month’s issue: Milton Lim and Patrick Blenkarn reflect on the process of sending their video game to a festival in Argentina; Half Life, directed by Nikki Shaffeeullah and featuring Anand Rajaram is available to watch online now through April 22; Peggy Baker is winding down her company after 30+ years; Secret Life of a Mother is being published and you can pre-order your copy right now. In Learning, Unlearning, we shared be water, an art project from two anonymous artists collecting memories of their Hong Kong—we highly recommend you take time to read and listen to these stories.
in conversation with: milton and patrick
In March 2020, Patrick Blenkarn and Milton Lim toured their video game for performance, asses.masses, to socially distanced audiences at the Festival Internacional de Buenos Aires (FIBA)—without shipping any materials or any humans. We asked them about the project and what their experience was like touring a game file.
The Theatre Centre: First off, tell us a bit about asses.masses.
Patrick Blenkarn: asses.masses is a custom-made video game designed to be played by live audiences. In the show, a video game controller sits on an empty stage and an audience shares the responsibility of providing the players/performers who take turns inhabiting the world. These self-elected ‘leaders’ play through challenges, make decisions, appeal to the group, and labour towards completing the game.
Milton Lim: The project’s major themes involve donkeys, power, revolution, and our changing relationships to technology and labour. Over the episodes that make up the story, the narrative follows a community of pixelated asses in their quest to get their old farming and mining jobs back, despite the relentless industrialization in their region. When a fire destroys the nearby village of humans, the asses (and the live audience) are left to negotiate the transformation of their herd society.
PB: At its heart, it’s a show about the conflict between those who reject technology and harbour nostalgia for ‘the old ways’ and those who embrace technology as an adaptation. It’s kind of like Animal Farm meets Aesop’s Fables, but retold by Kafka and Karl Marx.
TC: What inspired you to create this style of interactive performance?
PB: We’ve both been interested in aspects of interactive design and digital performance for most of our respective careers. The central push behind asses.masses was our shared interest in seeing games as performances themselves.
When we started this project, we were already planning our arts economy card game, culturecapital, which features members of the public competing for public funding dollars on stage playing a card game that simulates the Canadian arts economy. asses.masses emerged, in part, as an extension of that curiosity about how games could occupy theatrical spaces.
ML: For us, video games, and games in general, challenge a lot of the etiquettes many still consider the ‘normal’ way to experience a performance in Canada. In asses.masses, audiences can talk and yell out to the player to try to provide ‘guidance’—kind of like backseat driving. A lot of what we’ve seen using video games in theatre seemed interested in video games mostly as backdrops or virtual stages. We recognize that video games are art but we still see a lot of hesitation to actually welcome the video game form fully into the theatre. For example, a lot of experiments with blending theatre with games maintains explicit (or hidden) fixed time limits to please traditional theatre audiences who wanted a comfortable and consumable 90-120min experience. We’re not really interested in that.
PB: In asses.masses, it’s up to the audience to play it as they wish. They could play one of our minigames where they plough a field for hours if they wanted to, though others might want to get on with the main quest/story.
TC: What excites you the most about this kind of work?
ML: I think we’re equally excited about the form and the content. Learning to build and make more complex video games in the Unity game engine has been incredibly fulfilling for us as media artists and as performance creators. We’ve been teaching ourselves for almost 3 years now, everything from animation to illustration to programming. And we love the idea that through this form our options for storytelling and character development are expanded in ways that playwriting for human actors can’t really accommodate. Despite living in a golden era of serialized television and long-form visual storytelling, most theatre experiences are still only giving us the opportunity to spend 2 hours (or less) in those worlds. Conversely, in some video games I play, I spend 60+ hours with characters. And to be clear, it’s not (at least for me) a conversation about one being better or worse. But we have to admit that there’s a cultural shift in storytelling happening and it’s largely absent from our live performance spaces.
PB: Part of that shift are also expectations around more meaningful interactivity and immersiveness. We’re excited about creating more responsive systems in future episodes of asses.masses. Characters that better respond to your decisions. Worlds that change around you. A game that really feels alive.
TC: What has the process of creating asses.masses been like so far? Is it easier to collaborate from a distance due to the nature of this work?
PB: Distance has always played a part in asses.masses’ development. It’s very first prototype in 2019 was also created by Milton and I, sending test game files and notes back and forth. Since then, the biggest addition to our process, other than the amazing dramaturgy of Laurel Green, was being able to send the game to different people and have them playtest it for us while we watch them play on Zoom. We ran physical playtests before the pandemic in our kitchen (we’re roommates), but especially for preparing for our recent socially distanced show as part of FIBA in Buenos Aires, this hack meant we could send the game to Spanish-speaking playtesters across Canada, as well as in Mexico and Argentina.
TC: What was it like to send your show to another country without you?
ML: Because it’s a video game, people we’ve talked to have assumed that it’ll have some online component. But that’s not actually the case. This particular project was designed for and really comes alive with a physical audience. The story of the donkeys negotiating power within their herd is mirrored by the audience negotiating within itself who will use the controller and for how long. It’s directly in conversation with the history of couch co-op video games (think solo or multiplayer games you might have played in a basement with friends). In that sense, asses.masses is kind of all about relinquishing our control, especially since we have largely chosen to not interfere with or help the audience once the game starts. We do join in the heckling and cheers though if we’re ever there in person.
PB: Which is to say, we didn’t get to watch the FIBA presentation happen in real-time via any streams or things like that. The staff and crew were awesome and they would send us photos and comments along the way. We then watched documentation after the run was over.
TC: So, what’s next for asses.masses?
PB: We’ve finished two episodes so far and we hope that we’ll be able to finish the final five episodes in 2022. Towards that goal, asses.masses has some work time at VIVO Media Arts (Vancouver) in July, then we’re coming to the Theatre Centre in August/September to do more development. We hope we’ll be able to host game nights where we play and examine how popular games are played in groups and if health restrictions permit, anyone reading this in Toronto could join us there.
ML: In other news, we’re also taking everything that we are learning from asses.masses and applying it to a new arcade exhibition project, also about asses. But that’s a whole other conversation
Half Life directed by Nikki Shaffeeullah and featuring Anand Rajaram (both Exploration artists at The Theatre Centre) explores the complicated ways in which those who provide care are also positioned with power—the power to withhold and endow agency, the power to enact and prevent harm, the power to give and affirm love. Set in an elder care home at the turn of the 21st century, this audio drama reimagines Half Life as a queer story of love and memory.
One of The Theatre Centre’s Creative Producers Rachel Penny said it was “great” and “made me cry”—that’s a pretty solid review in our opinion! This Tarragon Acoustic Production is presented in association with PlayME Podcast’s Laura Mullin and Chris Tolley in Collaboration with Why Not Theatre, and is available to stream until April 22, 2021.
bookmarked: secret life of a mother
Get your hands on a copy of Secret Life of a Mother, written by Hannah Moscovitch with Maev Beaty and Ann-Marie Kerr, featuring a foreword by Marinda de Beer. This performance, co-produced by and developed in The Theatre Centre’s Residency Program, reveals the raw and untold secrets of pregnancy, miscarriage, childbirth, and mothering. The paperback, available for pre-order through Playwrights Canada Press, is expected to ship on September 28, 2021, but you can bide your time by listening to the three-part audio story on CBC PlayME right now.
the end (and beginning) of an era
Our friend, dance and theatre artist Peggy Baker, has announced that Peggy Baker Dance Projects will give its final public performances in the fall 2022 and will wind down operations by June 2023. In an exclusive interview, Peggy told the Toronto Star that she “believes the moment has come for her to free up the core public funding that supports her artistic endeavours so it can benefit a new generation of dance artists, especially those who have historically been underserved and marginalized.”
Following the Chinese government’s detainment of hundreds of pro-democracy protesters and arrest of 47 prominent pro-democracy movement leaders, two anonymous Canada-based artists have created be water: collected memories of our hong kong, an interactive map featuring more than 175 deeply moving text, audio, and photo stories.
“Hong Kong, as it has long existed in the cultural imaginary, began to disappear on June 30, 2020 with the enactment of the PRC’s new national security law. Those of us who love Hong Kong, who hold it in our hearts, for whom it is a first or second (or third) home… our collective hearts break at the methodical dissolution of our political and social contracts. This is a love letter to Hong Kong. A time capsule. A memory wall. A collection. A menagerie of lost things. A living archive. An epitaph. A resurrection spell. This is an act of protest. A bloodletting. A silent scream. This is a message in a bottle. A lighthouse. A post-it on a wall. This is a thousand yellow umbrellas turned against the sky. This is illegal. This is necessary. This is a map to our memories of a place that isn’t yet gone… and might less darkly find its way.”
Check out this Toronto Star article to learn a bit more about how this project came to be. The site is currently live and accepting submissions which will be vetted by the organizers on a monthly basis. Visitor logs, including IP addresses and geo-data, will be automatically deleted every 24 hours.