Last weekend I spent a very pleasant hour sitting in a stranger’s car on a stakeout with my son in the car park of the Watermans Arts Centre in London, where we were hoping to catch sight of a government minister’s secret assignation with a mystery person, whilst receiving text instructions on a very old Nokia phone from a contact called ‘Mrs White’.
No, I haven’t changed my job (although some paying work would be nice - all offers of freelance work still welcome btw). This dodgy sojourn in a gloomy Thames-side garage was, in fact, the culmination of a very enjoyable collaboration with Katie Day of The Other Way Works and games designer John Sear on an idea for an innovative interactive theatre piece called ‘A Moment of Madness’.
This is a spy/surveillance story-cum-game, designed to be played in pairs from inside a car. It’s a story about an up-and-coming MP who may - or may not - have a rather dodgy secret life that threatens to compromise his career. The story comes at you in the form of an initial ‘briefing’ (that the players read out to each other), a couple of plain brown envelopes containing dossiers on various characters (one taped under a chair), and you're equipped only with a car key and an old Nokia.
Once you’re installed in a car (whose car we don’t know) and you’ve switched on the phone, a series of texts alert you to what might be about to happen. You get opportunities to hack into character voicemail accounts, strangers come and go, some approach the car and test your cover story - and then ultimately it’s up to you to decide which of the people in the car park is actually part of this story, and ultimately how & where you think this story might end.
Before I came on board, Katie and John already had a strong idea of what they wanted to make, having already worked on a production called 'Black Tonic', that centred around the idea of audience members visiting a hotel and undertaking a spy mission.
What they wanted from me was suggestions for other stories that might be told using only paper-based information delivered in dossiers and via text & voice messages on a Nokia phone. The added twist was that, instead of a hotel as the venue, Katie & John wanted to place the audience in several cars parked around a car park.
We spent a couple of days in Birmingham brainstorming story ideas that involved people smuggling, non-approved drugs for curing cancer, the consequences of climate change, terrorists, religious cults and badger spotting. Eventually we settled on the age-old story of the male politician meeting people he shouldn’t be meeting in places where he shouldn’t really be. Think Ron Davies, Jonathan Aitken, Jeffrey Archer, Neil Hamilton… the list goes on. In fact the revelations about Keith Vaz happened after we'd written a first draft of a pilot.
What’s nice (if nice is the right word) about using a story of this kind is that it forces the audience to think about their own role - is it right to be spying on someone like this? am I invading his privacy? who am I working for? And there are also the wider questions about what kind of private life a politician can have. A player in this game will need to ask questions such as - are there any laws being broken here? what standard of ethical and moral behaviour do I expect from a politician these days? what am I prepared to forgive or ignore for the greater good?
All this good stuff was nicely in the mix in the prototype that Katie and John have built, and I only played 60 minutes of what has the potential to be a very engaging 90 minutes or more of drama, puzzle-solving, roleplay and alternate reality gaming.
Fingers-crossed this project can find further support, in order to develop it into a rich 20-person play-game with a proper beginning, middle and end. Even in its current state, it’s a fun - and strangely relevant - piece about politicians, privacy and trust. If any more playtests come up, do give it a try.