March 16, 2008

The Session

by Nick Montfort · , 7:28 pm

I don’t know exactly what to call this – a script, a scenario, a framework – but I wrote it at the Interactive Narrative conference at UCF to define, or scaffold, how a group of actors trained in interactive performance (knowing improv-like techniques, but with the ability to deal with an untrained performer) could work with a “spectactor,” a person without theatrical background who is not a member of the troupe, to create an interactive experience. The experience is played in the StoryBox, a square space closed off with black cloth, with cameras and microphones to convey what is going on to a remote audience.

The spectactor is given this information before the interactive experience begins:

You are a veteran going to visit your therapist, who you have been seeing for a while. Your therapist, Dr. Baum, is helping you to deal with your experience of a particular firefight during the war. Dr. Baum will discuss this with you briefly and will then invite you to relax and re-experience the firefight. You will be back on the battlefield with your platoon. After a while, you will come back to the world of Dr. Baum’s office and the discussion of your memory will continue. You will be invited to relax again and revisit the firefight in the same way. If Dr. Baum contradicts you or corrects your memory based on things you have previously established in sessions, remember that this is an attempt to help you. Keep working through your memories and reliving the firefight, even though it may be difficult.

The spectactor may be a man or woman. The only constraint is that without further training and consultation for the troupe, the spectactor should not be a combat veteran, because that may make it impossible for the spectactor to suspend disbelief and accept that the interactors (who are not combat veterans and who are imagining what combat is like) are playing their roles.

The audience may or may not be appraised of the scenario. The first scene can be played without the remote audience observing it. As played on March 16, 2008, the audience was actually told about the scenario so they could discuss how it should be played, but The Session can be played without the audience seeing the first scene.

PATIENT / LIEUTENANT – Spectactor
THERAPIST – Dr. Baum; Interactor
SOLDIERS – For example,
 SARAH – Sergeant in a platoon commanded by Lieutenant; Interactor
 JIM – Corporal in a platoon commanded by Lieutenant; Interactor
 MANDY – Private in a platoon commanded by Lieutenant; Interactor
 Other soldiers may be added to the cast at the discretion of the interactors.
 They may establish their names, ranks, operational specialties, etc. or not.
 Soldiers may enter and exit during the firefight.

Casting is done before the experience begins.

With the camera off, lights up on PATIENT and THERAPIST in OFFICE. THERAPIST invites patient to sit down, relax, and begin remembering the experience. Lights down.

Camera on, lights up on a different scene, a FIREFIGHT. Sounds of battle. This is a memory of the PATIENT. The platoon is pinned down and under fire. During the scene, at least one person is killed. The character does not have to die on stage, but the death of the character has to be established somehow. Lights down.

Lights up on OFFICE. PATIENT is seated quietly. The therapist speaks supportively, but after a while, says something like “your memory can’t be completely correct, though. You told me before, several times, that Jim didn’t end up dying during that fight. Can you relax and see if you can recall that experience again?” Lights down.

Lights up on a different scene, a FIREFIGHT. Sounds of battle. The platoon is pinned down and under fire. During the scene, at least one person is killed or badly injured or some other dramatic event occurs. Anything could happen, including exactly the same memory being reenacted as if to insist that it is true! If the spectactor begins behaving inconsistently, we all “wake up” into the OFFICE, the THERAPIST talks about what he or she is trying to avoid by doing this, and we return to the FIREFIGHT.

The alternation between the OFFICE and the FIREFIGHT continues until a resolution is reached. The THERAPIST gently contradicts the PATIENT and guides the “reality” of the story of the fight in an interesting way based on the spectactor’s emotional responses and the ties that are established. The THERAPIST is genuinely trying to help and is inviting the spectactor to replay to make the experiences more interesting, dramatic, and emotional based on what the spectator does in firefights and says in the office.

The experience ends when the PATIENT has a breakthrough (in the therapeutic sense), or, if this doesn’t happen, via the interactors “bringing in the machine” to provide closure.


What happened when this was played today in Orlando: A man volunteered to be the spectactor – and did very well at it, as I’ll explain. I believe he was a conference attendee from the Orlando area and works with educational technologies. He was taken out of the room while we discussed the scenario and the troupe cast the experience, but all of the text above was read to him.

The last part of the first scene was shown downstairs. The therapist asked the patient to sit down, put his palms up, breathe deeply, and count down from three. The scene changed to a battlefield, with many interactors; some breaking down, others performing capably. One came up and said “sir, we need orders!” The spectactor was a bit slow to respond the first time, not knowing whether he was an observer or a participant, but he began giving orders and seemed to do this fairly naturally and capably. (He reported that this was easy to do, too.) One of the soldiers was shot, medics went to attend to him, and he died.

Then, the patient “woke up” in the office again and the therapist told him that the last three times they spoke, he had told her that Jim didn’t die in the war. The scenes proceeded with another firefight in which the solider was wounded, but didn’t die, and a third firefight in which everyone but the lieutenant died. This was established in the last session (mainly by the therapist) as the “reality” of this experience. And, the spectator was visibly moved by the experience and reported a real emotional engagement.

What worked: The interactors and the spectactor made the scenario work – it wasn’t too full of useless detail or instructions that worked against the ways they were able to effectively act. By giving an explanation of what role is to be played, the spectactor was prepared to participate and (as far as I can tell) the integrity of the experience wasn’t compromised. This also seemed to show one way that a spectactor can smoothly (diegetically) have a spectactor “replay” an experience. The spectactor reported that the transitions between the world of memory and the world of the therapist’s office were smooth, and they appeared to be. Other experiences (see David Ives’ All in the Timing and improv games) have allowed for a rewind/replay/redo to occur, but usually using a device like a bell which isn’t a “real” part of the dramatic world.

A tricky thing about this scenario: It seems to be about memory – how our memory can be faulty, how we can avoid unpleasant truth. Those who recall the last episode of M.A.S.H. will know exactly what I mean. (I should mention at least a few other influences that were obvious to me: Spider and Web, Rashomon, Groundhog Day, Run Lola Run.)

But it isn’t really about memory. It is about imagination. How can a group of people, all but one of them trained actors, jointly imagine an experience that none of them have had, but which we all know something about through movies, the news, novels, poems and other forms of communication and art? The spectator wasn’t sure about whether he was in control of the truth or the interactors were in control of the truth, and actually they were meant to be negotiating it during the experience. If there was a better way to make it known that this is the objective, inside or outside the experience, the experience could be further improved.