asses.masses: a collective audience-player blog (FOLDA 2023)
What does it mean to be distanced from theatre? Is it the mere rejection of regular conventions seen by our world? Or does it stem further from that - is it the aesthetic, or a combination of every single theatrical element in conjunction with the fact that a story is being told on stage in a manner that satisfies our own definitions of ‘liveness?’ These questions circled my mind as I exited the virtual space of asses.masses and entered my live spectatorial space. Surely the distance between myself as the spectator and the virtual, animated asses was far too wide to satisfy my thirst for live theatre, but as I tried to find reasons to conclude that the gap was too wide, the more I realized that the gap was slowly closing and it was up to me to suspend my own disbelief to sink into the illusion.
What initially swayed me into thinking this distance was too wide was the fact that the action was taking place on a screen made up of animated animals through a fantasy lens. Seemingly too kooky for my likings, I thought my mind had been made up about this piece, but slowly, as our comradery began to simmer together, I realized that I was not really too far away from the action. Slowly, my eyes began to be exposed to the magic of live digital art, for it was no longer a catalyst in the promotion of the distancing between myself and the story, but I believe it actually brought me closer to the people around me and the story itself. Asses.masses redefined what it meant to feel immersed within the story world because of the intensive labour the installment demands of its participants. While the narrative is clearly pushing us, the players, in one direction, we have all forms of agency to reject this path and take our own: and that is evident through the multitude of so-called “side quests” that allow us to explore the realm of this fictional world, thus establishing its validity as a plausible world that we may contribute to through picking up the remote control. Slowly, but surely, I realized that this experience was more than just a theatrical piece, but an exploration of theatrical immersion through the guise of control. However, as seen on Ru Paul’s Drag Race: All Stars, we must ensure our choices are reflective of our masses otherwise we risk betraying those around us and standing out as one who may not be as deserving to play the game.
The physical configuration of the room allows a player to step forward from the herd, as Thespis stepped out of the chorus, to assume the position(s) of the ass who will lead our journey. Once they assume the position, they are voluntarily stepping into a position of alienation as their backs are now to the audience and the top and side lights create a barrier between them and us. This binary is interrupted by the sounds of our heckles and desires to be heard by the player, similar to a fashion I can only describe as electing a congressperson to represent our needs and act on them. Although there is an immediate sense of distance determined by one’s willingness to pick up the controller, it is contested by the group’s morale and empathy for each other - in other words, nobody wanted to hog the experience because they seemingly wanted others to have a chance to control the experience. By the end of the night, I felt as though something had shifted within the audience. What was once a group of strangers remains a group of strangers, yet there will always be a sense of familiarity to them; a familiarity dictated by a game, and established by the bravery it takes to separate from the herd and speak on our behalf.
The variety of animation/game styles drew attention to the spectacle’s nature, reminding me that this game has chosen to be overt in its theatricality not only through the dramatization of the story, but through the dramatization of assuming the position of “player.” There is pressure to perform well both in the sense of performing gamer properly, but also performing as the ass in a manner that accomplishes the tasks laid out by the respective chapters. Upon completion, there seemed to be a collective sigh, or, a change in the air as we celebrated our victories. By the end of the experience, there was a triumphant aura to the room: perhaps it was because we had spent seven-and-a-half hours together going through this video game, or perhaps it was because we were drawn right into the lives of these asses and were celebrating the conclusion of their story.
Overall, the distance began to close in on itself once I was able to suspend my disbelief and get over the fact that the action was unfolding on the screen. As I began to fall into the illusion offered to us by the designers, I began to feel a more real sense of empathy with the asses and assume the role of the masses, fully playing into the game’s design. Overall, my experience was shaped by the audience’s energy and the fact that we were coming together as a community to spearhead this virtual community. The idea of liveness and co-presence was exemplified through a dual spectacle of watching the player and watching the game, which allowed me to fall into the well and accept the fact that the game’s reality was becoming mine. In part, I attribute this to Brecht’s epic theatre, however, I do recognize that it strays from Brecht’s aesthetic with the identificatory lens that we assume upon finishing the early character building questions, however, I believe that as the masses we are called to expose the fact that we are asses trying to make a change in our world - a change that comes through a communal song and one kick-ass manifesto.