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Tuesday, 15 June 2021

The Distraction Agents Inspirations

After almost a year of planning and making we are delighted that this week audiences are finally getting to play The Distraction Agents, our brand new show / experience set in the ‘world’ of our theatre show, The Department of Distractions. The Distraction Agents is a new virtual experience with real world challenges which can be enjoyed from home: part puzzle, part film, part game, part theatre, part real life. If you’re interested in playing, all the booking info is here.

Thematically and formally, The Distraction Agents draws on a number of our enduring interests, plus also more recent concerns and fascinations. Helen, our new Digital Marketing Officer, asked if we could articulate some of those inspirations in a blogpost. Hopefully this will serve as something like a programme note, giving a flavour of our research and aims, without giving any spoilers…

Can theatre shows have sequels?
This thought certainly came up in rehearsal for The Department of Distractions, and also led to a discussion at a Third Angel Board Meeting at some point. Of all of our projects, The Department is the one that most obviously references genre fiction and TV drama, making several nods to the idea of a series – either of episodes or books (as we have noted before).

Both The Wooster Group and Forced Entertainment have created thematically linked trilogies of shows in the past, and writer/performer Joe Bone had great success with the movie-inspired Bane trilogy, which we caught two parts of at Cena Brasil in 2014. And then there’s Shakespeare’s histories, and two-parters like Nicholas Nickleby and Harry Potter… but none of these are the sort of sequel that we were thinking about.

The world of The Department Of Distractions seems so rich to us, that even before the tour was cut short by the pandemic, we were thinking about other stories to tell and games to play with it. We’d fallen in love with the characters a little bit, too, and didn’t want to say goodbye to them yet.

So it’s more accurate to think of The Distraction Agents as a companion piece to The Department of Distractions. Narratively, TDA it is set *after* TDOD, and features some of the same characters, but you don’t need to have seen the theatre show to play the new project – it’s a stand-alone project.

As an aside, we also wanted to create a new project in collaboration with the brilliant touring team of The Department: Umar Butt, Nick Chambers, Stacey Sampson and Louise Gregory. The pandemic has hit the arts hard, as you are no doubt aware, and it has hit freelancers the hardest. We specifically wanted to create work for as wide a group as we could afford to. We don’t know yet if or when The Department of Distractions will be able to tour again, so this was important to us. 

Easter Eggs (and Red Herrings)
The Department of Distractions knowingly plays with some of the tropes of detective fiction, such as red herrings & Easter eggs, as a stylistic and thematic devices. In the making process we half-seriously set ourselves the challenge of including a reference to every other Third Angel show, as well as films, TV shows, comics and song lyrics, amongst other things. Inevitably, this burying of clues has continued with The Distraction Agents. There are references to the original theatre show itself, as well as nods to other ideas, sources and inspirations.

Games & Puzzles
Both Third Angel artistic directors, Rachael and Alex, love games and puzzles. And, as we noted in Popcorn, both of us can be quite competitive. We use gaming mechanics in a lot of our devising processes. Warm up games are common in theatre rehearsal rooms, of course, and we’re not alone in using games for devising material – we call them things like ‘text generating prompts’ and ‘rule-based devising-exercises’. Several shows are structured around the turn-taking mechanics of game play, too, such as Story Map (2010), Inspiration Exchange (2010) and Homo Ludens (2009).

Photo: Nina Urban

We like crosswords, logic puzzles, sudoku, the 1–5 number square thing that is next to the sudoku. With this project we wanted to create puzzles that are genuinely tricky, but funny to play and satisfying to solve. We discovered, of course, that coming up with a good puzzle is as satisfying as solving one. (Some of us were mesmerised by this solving of The Miracle Sudoku!)

Adventure Gamebooks
Alex in particular has been a fan of adventure gamebooks for almost as long as he can remember. You might know them better as the brand names Choose Your Own Adventure, or Fighting Fantasy, both massively popular in the 1980s. But the brand Alex fell in love with as a kid were Tracker books. As a kid of 5 or 6 he had three: the Pirate one, the Detective one and the Space one. 


What made the Tracker books different to the versions that followed was that they had a picture for each entry – sometimes including clues that were not mentioned in the text. What he loved was the idea that you were exploring a world, that there was no single set narrative, and he would play them repeatedly, trying to make sure he had explored every possible avenue of the narrative.

It’s been fascinating to see the renewed interest in adventure gamebooks since the appearance of Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch episode a couple of years ago, and then in the performance work being made under lockdown. The ‘choose your own path’ mechanism has cropped up in several making processes for us over the years, most notably Homo Ludens (with TiG7) in 2009, for which we made big maps of the narrative flowcharts of those three original Tracker books. And now we have finally been able to map an adventure gamebook first, and then write it, as part of this project.

Escape Rooms
Rachael in particular enjoys a good escape room or adventure trail – either in person or, more recently, played over Zoom, as has become popular during lockdown. Something that is a challenge, but that also provides you with fun, that aims to entertain you. We were interested in making something that did this using several platforms – that provides audiences with something tangible, as well as something to watch. We asked ourselves, how do we enable people to be more active viewers of film and video work?

Playing games remotely in lockdown, we enjoyed experiences where we could co-operate, work as a team. The Distraction Agents was originally designed to be played solo, but through the process of playtesting, we realised that it could be enjoyed by a household, at the same time, or in sequence, if people want to play on their own and then pass the materials on to a friend.

Play By Mail
The Distraction Agents is an experience delivered to the audience via video communications and resources sent by post. Individual audience members are recruited by The Department to go undercover in their own lives. We’ve always loved postcards, letters and puzzles sent through the post, plus mail art, zines and play-by-mail role-playing games. This idea of remote/delivered performance is something we have experimented with before (in Pleasant Land [2004] Favourite Ever Christmas Present [2010] and Cape Wrath [on Twitter in 2011] for example) and have been meaning to come back to for some time. Working with designer Bethany Wells it’s been a joy to create maps, booklets, instruction cards and various other ‘published objects’ (for want of a better description) to send out to players.


It’s worth noting, perhaps, at this mention of players, that the ‘game’ offers different levels of involvement and participation. Play-testers spent between 2–5 hours on the experience (usually about 3hours), through re-watching and replaying different aspects of the game. Some puzzles are necessary in order to complete the task of the show, but other activities are suggestions and invitations. You can play entirely at home, or out in the world; you can play over the five days that the instruction videos arrive, or save them up and play all in one go or at whatever pace suits you.

The complication the play-by-mail element gives us is that you need to book a week in advance of the week you want to play. We’re learning how this works as we go, and are initially doing a 4-week run (details here). Depending on how it goes we might extend that 4-week window or run the piece again in the autumn. Watch this space.

Short Film
We’ve always made film work, as part of the live performance pieces, and as stand-alone shorts, and we wanted to do more of that. Performance for camera has had a new lease of life during lockdown, and watching on mobile devices has affected what constitutes a ‘short’ film. 

Short film Project Zero, made from film footage shot for theatre show Experiment Zero. Image: Rob Hardy.

Over the course of making the project (in collaboration with film-maker Brett Chapman), we moved from the idea of a smaller number of 10 minute films, to a larger number of much shorter pieces. We’ve also always liked the idea that short films are a genre of their own, and they don’t have to adhere to the rules of another genre (drama, fiction, documentary or performance for camera). In these days of video messaging and live streams to/from phones, this seems even more relevant.

Oral Folklore & Storytelling
We’ve long been fascinated by urban legends, but also the more verifiably true stories that get repeated about particular places: stories that make a point, and influence our opinions and behaviour. Modern day allegories and fables. All of these make appearances in The Distraction Agents, woven in to the daily puzzle / game structure.

Maps & Phoneboxes
The show also contains maps and phoneboxes.

**

We’ve probably forgotten some stuff, too, so perhaps we’ll come back and update this… If you’re playing The Distractions Agents, we would of course love to hear how your experience of it has been, and also about any Easter eggs you spot…

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