The Shield & Torch: small traditions and back pockets

The Shield & Torch is a live event set in a fantasy tavern, combining elements from interactive theatre and role-playing games. Tickets are now on sale here.

I’ve never made something like The Shield & Torch before. I have not worked with the majority of the cast before. I have not had to try and describe something like this to collaborators, potential audiences/players and people outside my niche before.

(A lot of the above isn’t as scary as it sounds – for one thing, the cast are phenomenal and I’m going to write more about quite how good they are soon.)

What this all means is: a variety of shorthand is coming about through working on this project, with some of it basically being long-overdue articulations of ideas around interactive performance and play.

One of the most significant shorthands so far is ‘small traditions’ which essentially means: activities people can easily and quickly be introduced to that they can then spread – leading others in it, replicating it, embellishing it. Small traditions cement you as part of a group, or embedded in the culture and practices of a place to make it feel more like you belong. 

In-jokes are small traditions. Local toasts and idioms are small traditions. Specific styles of handshake or greeting are small traditions. Classic tall tales are small traditions. Superstitions are small traditions. Insider know-how about which chair is nicest, which streets are a traffic nightmare on Wednesdays, which Uno rule variant is adhered to in a pub – all small traditions.

This might not sound huge – but a personal bit of jargon I had before making The Shield & Torch was wanting people to be ‘residents’ rather than ‘visitors’ in imagined worlds – residents can affect meaningful change, have an inherent authority and agency and can lead action if they want. Visitors have to maintain a respectful inertness – they’re there by others’ permission, their impact dissipates after they leave, and they don’t have the kind of assumed authority to lead but instead can only really follow. Small traditions increase the sense of being a resident of a place.

They can also spread pretty organically – once you know a small tradition, you can pass it on. And sharing a small tradition with someone else only adds to that sense of being a resident.

Something I also talk about a lot is performers having things ‘in their back pocket’. When I’m performing in interactive shows I like to have a lot of stuff in my imaginary pockets – what this fundamentally is, is different interactions/games/content (whatever you call it – ultimately ‘things to do with people’) that can be pulled out whenever.

Really, the ‘back pocket’ approach is especially important with this show as it’s heavily freeform. For next week’s playtest, there is an event of sorts towards the end of the evening – that people can choose, during the night, whether they want to actively participate in or just bear witness to – but there’s no structured rounds, no mid-way recaps to loop everyone in, no timed or triggered events. It’s a night in a tavern, and what happens will be a result of the specific combo of people and the particular things they’re trying to do.

So we need to be more prepared for someone hovering, a little unsure of what to do (though I’ll write elsewhere about our attitude to in- and out-of-character chat and how that will relate to this too), and wanting some interaction or engagement. And the more you have in your back pocket, the less likely you’re left scrambling to think of something on the spot or having to tweak-and-rework something you’ve already done with someone else. Plus, it has a neat effect of giving your character rough and ready dimension (because they know this gambling game but are also doing this research into bats and their mum taught them this ritual but they’ve also observed how this is the most peaceful corner of the tavern to work through feelings in and so on…).

I’m going to try and write down and articulate a lot about The Shield & Torch – the use of tech, the process of developing things with the cast, the thinking behind the character creation, the fluidity of being in-character and out-of-character and more – partially because this project feels like it’s combining so many things I’ve been trying to figure out for a long time.

The playtest is 5 days away. So no doubt I’ll have loads more to write about soon. I should also probably get back to writing notes left by ghosts and encoded messages about magical languages…

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