Putting Minecraft on stage is canny, but will it bring anything new to theatre?

A UK theatre has announced it will host the world’s first play performed by actors in Minecraft.

Putting Minecraft on stage is canny, but will it bring anything new to theatre?

Playcraft Live will involve both human actors, on stage at the Playhouse Theatre in Derry, and virtual avatars in Minecraft’s land of colourful blocks. The play will tell a story that straddles both worlds, unfolding across a number of physical and digital theatre sets.

Audiences will be able to watch the performance either from within the theatre or online via a live stream. A number of “select YouTubers” will also be invited to watch the performance from within the shared Minecraft world, streaming the performance to their many followers. Physical bums on seats. Virtual bums on seats. Lots of seats. Lots of bums.

Interestingly, the theatre pitches the Minecraft portion of the play as “digital puppeteering”, framing the pixellated avatars in the same terms as more traditional techniques à la War Horse. At the same time, the production – penned by author of the TimeRiders teen novels, Alex Scarrow – is being hyped by its creators as something groundbreaking.

“We are excited to be introducing something completely new to the world of theatre,” said Kieran Griffiths, creative director at the Playhouse Theatre. “The production is hugely ambitious and a definite step into the unknown, but a tremendous opportunity to allow two artistic worlds to come together and learn from each other.”

Games on stage

The show is clearly aimed at young adults, and done well could be a neat piece of artistic outreach. By cannily combining a situated audience with streams of online viewers, it has the scope to reach Minecraft enthusiasts who might never normally go near a theatre. As an innocuous playground with an enormous userbase, Minecraft also has precedent as a point of overlap between young audiences and older institutions. The British Museum organised a virtual recreation of its building in Minecraft, and the game has previously been used as a canvas for architecture, visual art and poetry.

As a piece of theatre, however, is Playcraft Live as thought-provoking or groundbreaking as its creators make out?

“I personally find it a bit of a bland idea,” says Pat Ashe, producer and curator of video games and theatre, including performance-gaming events Beta Public and Wild Rumpus. “The mixing of digital and physical performance isn’t in itself exciting, and the choice of framework for the piece misses an attempt to critique and explore a game with the cultural cache of Minecraft.

“What does it mean as an object that nearly all children know and understand? What does its place on the internet and in popular culture mean?”minecraft_theatre_2

Ashe also points to a number of artists that have previously made use of digital spaces as part of performances. This includes the work of Eva and Franco Mattes, “who spent a good few years recreating famous moments from performance and live art inside [online virtual world] Second Life, for an audience within a digital gallery, but also in physical locations as recordings and performance.”

Theatre directors such as Katie Mitchell, and groups such as Station House Opera, also often use camera feeds and live streams to connect different locations and to layer images and narratives. Ashe highlights Forced Entertainment, which creates performances that are live-streamed for durations of up to 24 hours, such as a continual series of questions (Quizoola) or a condensed entirety of Shakespeare’s oeuvre told via bottles on a table (Complete Works). If performances are viewed online for that length of time, audiences can drift in and out at their own pace. This, Ashe argues, shows artists engaging with a different rhythm of performance – one that comes with the online world.forced_entertainment

(Above: Forced Entertainment’s Quizoola)

“Is a hashtag on Twitter any less valid as a sharing of space by people than when they do it in a dark room?”

“Live performance is a tricky thing because so many people define theatre as being about the ephemeral sharing of spaces by bodies,” he tells Alphr. “How documentation or live streaming effects that is a big question. Is a hashtag on Twitter any less valid as a sharing of space by people than when they do it in a dark room? Sure, they can’t feel the bodies of the performers in that space in the same way, but they’re still a community engaging with the actions in front of them. I think the best live-streaming models interrogate or look at the action of live streaming as part of the whole rather than as a way of bumping up audience figures.”

You could argue that placing all these questions at the door of Playcraft Live may be a bit unfair, given that the production seems like a well-intentioned attempt to appeal to young people who may not see their lives represented in theatre. What it shows, though, is that the meeting point between video games and theatre is far from being a nascent mode or a one-off technical gimmick. Theatre makers can’t rely on the shock-of-the-new spectacle of computerised avatars to impress audiences that live and breathe the rhythms of digital media. It is those rhythms and those languages – not necessarily the technology that facilitates it – which artists need to interrogate.

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