The Shield & Torch: why it feels like cheating (and why it isn’t)

So, last night was the playtest of The Shield & Torch – a mix of interactive theatre and role-playing game (that allows people to play out someone’s evening in a fantasy tavern) that I’ve wanted to try and make happen for a while. My brain’s still somewhat wired from the day of prep, the show itself, the post-midnight bus home still dressed in costume and carrying (amongst other things) a big larp sword slung over my shoulder.

I want to reflect on the playtest – though it’s still, to a degree, a blur. And the sheer nature of The Shield & Torch means I’m aware of maybe 2% of the experiences that were had across the night – there were so many stories and characters and interactions and baskets woven for ghosts and fantasy pyramid schemes and people looking for magical fixes to broken souls and so on…

So what I’m going to dig into a bit – because, ultimately, I think it says something about this particular kind of participatory work – is one of the instinctive thoughts I had on the bus home, after really lovely and heartening effusive feedback from a variety of playtesters.

“It feels like cheating to take credit for their good time. Because all that [the stories they created, interactions they had, characters they played, etc] came from them.’

Now – before those who know me jump on me for doing myself down: this is not a thought I held onto or let genuinely sit with me. It was more a curiosity – an instinctive feeling that made me wonder. Because yes, there’s something genuine in that knee-jerk response. When people tell you that they’ve had a brilliant night, they’d definitely want to do it again, that they had a load of fun – and a part of you thinks ‘all I did was give you a space to do that in’.

All I did was give you a space to do that in.

And here we get to why – even if a fleeting, instinctive thought expresses that it feels like cheating – it isn’t. The line above – it’s not expressing something that’s easy to do. It’s not simple or straightforward or without challenge.

If I was told 10 years ago, when I graduated and first started working professionally in theatre, that one of my big focuses and interests come 2022 would be the holding of space, I would’ve stared blankly with zero clue of what that meant or why it was important. (Who am I kidding – I would’ve tried to bluff that I understood, get through the conversation, and maybe google it later.)

But – in no small part to my work in tabletop role-playing games in recent years, and learning more about different types of communal storytelling such as larp – it is. One of the reasons I love communal storytelling (whether in the form of interactive theatre, or tabletop role-playing games, or larp, or other forms) is because of how people are treated as worthwhile storytellers. Their contribution is given value and weight. Their input is meaningful. It’s honoured and built upon and celebrated and explored and all those things.

But the world doesn’t do this as a default. So you have to create – and then hold – spaces that get past this initial hurdle. That reassure people their input is meaningful and valued and wanted; that remind them of the elements of communal storytelling that everyone’s largely familiar with (especially as children) but simply might not have practiced in a while; that puncture the assumption of certain images of ‘perfection’ or ‘right’; that demonstrate that struggling is met with help, not judgement; that there’s fun and value in the doing of the thing, not some further purpose it serves.

I’m worried this might all sound a bit grandiose (‘yeah, Chloe, your tavern simulator went well, you haven’t cracked the code for utopia’) – and I’m also not saying The Shield & Torch currently nails everything it wants to in terms of creating and holding space. But it’s easy to focus on what’s filling a space and forget what goes into creating that space in the first place. (Space-holding is something I also admire and constantly notice in others and don’t credit enough when I’m doing it, being frank and honest with myself.)

I think that fundamentally that’s going to be one of the most exciting things about The Shield & Torch (and most impactful in terms of what I make at very least): the ways in which it creates and holds space. How it carves out room for people to play – because, play is entirely the point of the evening (and joyful and brilliant and surprising and heartening and energising), it’s not possible without space for it to happen in.

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