Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 16: Being Human

Last week I played Lines And Ladders as part of the Being Human Festival. This is a UK wide festival, which encourages universities to engage members of the public with their humanities research.

I feel a little bit of a fraud in this context, as I have mentioned before in this blog, my research is not primarily historical, it’s artistic. I’m not recording histories; I’m looking for ways to tell stories. In the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Lines And Ladders sits more happily with the arts than the humanities. However, those stories that we share during the game are definitely about being human and this year’s theme ‘Origins & Endings’ is perfectly suited to conversations about family history.

It’s been interesting being part of a bigger event bigger. When I have played the game before, I have been responsible for all the organising from sorting out the venue to publicising the event and following up with feedback. The Being Human venues were chosen for me. I was supported with the publicity by the production of additional flyers and supportive re-tweets. This help should have made me feel less pressured, yet conversely I feel it made me more anxious. I worried about the suitability of the venues. I worried about letting down the people who had asked me to participate. I worried about getting enough players.

Now that it’s over, I’m so glad that I took part and although I have only played 3 games with 3 individuals over two days, it has helped me to draw a clearer line between the outreach and research elements of my project.

On Saturday 17th November, I spent the day in Manchester Central Library as part of Double Helix History’s Showcase. Manchester Central Library is an innovative library space. An open hub on the ground floor that not only has shelves of books but also incorporates a café, a performance space, collective workspaces, a research room and is home to the Manchester and Lancashire Family History Society. There were three games scheduled; in the end one took place. A absorbing game in which we discussed difficult histories and those relatives who meant a lot to us.

Instead of the other games, throughout the day I had rich conversations with visitors to the library. We talked about the game, about my research, and about our family histories. The game takes about an hour to play and often people haven’t got that long to pause in their day unplanned, but so many people did make time to talk, to listen and ask questions that it became a valuable experience in outreach.

There were two games scheduled at the Tree House Board Game Café for the 24th November. This is less of a thoroughfare than the library, but this time both games happened. Each game was played by just me and one other person; each lasted about an hour and a half. These were games that were filled with fascinating stories, as well as discussion of family history research methods and some of the impact that this can have on our everyday lives. This is an intense micro-audience experience and I hope fully meets the aims of the Being Human Festival to reveal ‘the ways in which the humanities can inspire and enrich our everyday lives, help us to understand ourselves, our relationships with others, and the challenges we face in a changing world.

A massive thank you to the organisers of Being Human at the University of Manchester and the University of Sheffield, to Ann Hynes for playing with me in Manchester, to Tanya Saunders and one other participant for playing in Sheffield.

And thanks also to everyone who asked me what I was doing…

Left – an invitation to play in Manchester Central Library, Centre – a game played with Tanya Saunders, Right – ready to play in the Tree House Board Game Café.

 

 

 

Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 15: The Soft Sell

It can be quite difficult promoting Lines And Ladders. Quite a task to ensure that willing participants know that this is a game, it should be relaxed, enjoyable, rewarding, but it is also research.

This is play-as-research. I am inviting you to play a game, to share your stories, to have fun, but it is always research.

This part of the process is evident in the paperwork prologue. At the start of every game, there is the Paperwork Prologue. Stamped into cards declaring ‘Important Things to Say’, this prologue to the performance explains how the information will be gathered from the game and how it will be used. There is an Official Signing of the Consent Form Ceremony that accompanies the Paperwork Prologue. And although I joke here, this section of the performance is vitally important to me. It matters to me that people understand the research element of the project. That they get it – the play and the research are integral to one another.

There have been a few people who, having sat through the Paperwork Prologue, chose not to participate. Only a few, but I think it is good, as they clearly felt comfortable enough at this point to withdraw. 

The information shared in the Paperwork Prologue is all on the main webpage for Lines And Ladders, which participants are directed to read when they book, although I don’t know how many do. I do know of one person who having read this information, decided not to play. It is so much better that people make an informed decision about whether or not to take part.

But.

But this means that it can be awkward to sell the game to people. I want to encourage you to play. I want you to enjoy it. I want you to have fun. The feedback that I have had from players has been overwhelmingly positive, so it’s likely that if you want to play you will enjoy it. As of yet, no one has withdrawn from the research project after playing the game. I want you to see this as an opportunity to tell your stories. To find a new method for sharing your stories with family and friends. I want to say all of this, but I need to keep coming back to the fact that this is research. That I will be writing about the game in this blog, in my thesis, in presentations, papers, articles, books.

It’s a fine line to walk between making audiences aware and scaring them off.

Especially when you can’t talk face to face. I find it so much easier to reassure, to answer questions and to explain in person. This is perhaps why most games have happened with people who started chatting whilst I was sat in a café or shop and accepted the invitation to play there and then.

Not sure if this particular blog post is going to help – but I hope that if you want to play you do at least come and listen to the Paperwork Prologue, before making your decision!

Games can be booked now at Manchester Central Library for this Saturday, 17th November

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/lines-and-ladders-tickets-48959221349

And in Sheffield at the Treehouse Board Game Café next Saturday, 24th November

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/lines-and-ladders-tickets-48914368192

Both games are part of the Being Human Festival – a celebration of research on the theme of ‘Origins & Endings’ in the humanities.

https://beinghumanfestival.org/

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Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 14: How long does it take to play?

Games last approximately 1 hour.

I state this when people book to play.

Mostly it’s true. Games last about an hour. Yet, play must be flexible, the frame needs room to expand and contract.

There are decisions made at the start that affect the length of the game. Two dice will speed the play. Do we get an extra turn when a 6 is thrown? Or with a double? Do we have to get an exact number to reach the end? To be honest, this last question I normally ask when we’re nearing the end, to give the players the choice of prolonging the play or ending the game quickly. The choice is normally made depending on who is closest to the end… if it’s me, exact number, if it’s an audience-player any number 😉

The shortest game that I have played lasted 35 minutes. This was with Nicola Dexter and Leon Winnert, a pair of friends, in Edinburgh, who played an impromptu game in between other shows. I knew what time their next show was and I feel that I hurried them. Using two dice, any number to the end. I regret this. The game was too short and the storytelling opportunities for Nicola in particular were too limited. She commented on this in her reflections, saying that whilst she enjoyed the game: ‘the roll of the dice meant I didn’t get the opportunity to share much as I got to the end quickly. However it was interesting to hear my friend’s stories in a different context.’

The responsibility to get them to the next show was not mine. My responsibility was to ensure that my game was a success for them.

The longest game was 1 hour 40 minutes and after this we sat and we talked for a good while about the game, about the stories that we’d shared, about the experience of playing. This game was pre-booked. I knew two of the players, H. S. Alessi and J. Smith, prior to playing. The third player, who chose to be anonymous, knew none of us beforehand, but commented afterwards: ‘I was surprised at how relaxed I felt about talking about fairly personal things with people I had only just me.’ There was time in this game for expansive stories. There was time for revelations, for deeply felt emotions and for laughter. We went round in circles, every time someone got close they were sent hurtling down the longest ladder again. The relief of the winning throw was joyful – although I can’t remember who actually won!

There have been times when players have manipulated the rules in order to change the length of the game, but for example, refusing to go down the same ladder for the third time. But this is what play is all about, as long as we can all agree. So the new rule is that you can’t go down the same ladder more than two times. And the play continues.

Games last as long as we’re still playing.

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A clock that my Granny Nichol gave to me. It’s decorated to imitate the roof of Carlisle Cathedral.

Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 13: Playing with Family

Entry 13 to the diary does feel as though maybe it should be avoided. Kept short. It has to be written or there can be no 14.

I have a superstitious streak. I’ll avoid certain things, like mixing red and white (blood and bandages), just in case. Yesterday, I passed someone on the stairs, we joked about it and then I tripped up the steps. I’m not saying that luck had anything to do with it, but, you know, it might not have happened if I had waited…

This is something that I share with my mother. When I was little, she once sewed green stalks on to a t-shirt decorated with strawberries that I had been given. Solving the problem of the red and white curse. Perhaps it’s in the genes, Mum believes she inherited her superstitions from her mother.  

One of the first pieces of advice often given to budding genealogists is to talk to your relatives. The ability or impossibility of doing this features in Lines And Ladders. It is often the emotional crux of the performance.

I have played the game with my Mum and Dad. They came to Edinburgh and played in Miller’s Sandwich Bar. It was a slightly rushed game played as soon as they arrived. One thing that I took away from it was that if I am meeting someone I know and I haven’t seen for a while, it’s a good idea to get the catching up out of the way first.

When my brother, Eddie, and his girlfriend, Cheryl, played a couple of weeks later, I made sure we had time to chat first, so that when we started playing we were able to focus.

The stories that I tell when playing with family resonate differently. For this project and for my own interest, I have done quite a bit of research into our family history. Playing with family becomes a chance to tell about my discoveries, including a revelation about the birthplace of my great-great grandmother, Katherine McNeill. This is one of the stories that I often tell in the performance, but it mattered more when I told my mum.

I learn too. Cheryl told me that her family ended up in the town they now live in, as a result of wartime evacuation. Eddie and I talk about some of our shared history that makes us feel uncomfortable. We found space in the game to dig a little deeper.

The roll of the dice guides the conversation. Playing with my husband, I ask questions that I haven’t thought to ask for a while; we talk about family members who we miss, but don’t talk about enough.

Lines And Ladders is a way of making time to tell stories. It’s a way of pushing conversation in different directions. And I feel lucky to have been able to play the game with my family.  Pineapple_Oct18

A pineapple jug that my Granny Kelly gave me for good luck with a dress I bought myself whilst I was in Edinburgh, thinking I might need the extra luck it would bring, but I’m not really that superstitious. Honest.

Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 12: Looking after the audience

Lines And Ladders is a micro-audience performance. I came across this term when producing The Museum Full Of Things for the second Wrought Festival in 2016. Wrought had started as a festival of of 1:1 performance in 2014, but broadened its scope a little in its second incarnation. 1:1 performance is literally one audience member and one performer. Micro-audience allows for a little more flexibility.

My pieces for Wrought expanded with this definition. The first piece Just Playing! was a 1:1 experience that invited the audience to make time to play. Audiences pre-booked as art of a menu of performances offered. The Museum Full Of Things was an imagined journey around collections of exhibits gathered from my memory and could be experienced by one person or more. It was something people could drop into in between other performances. I don’t recall ever taking more than 3 people on a tour around the museum at any one time. I like the playful potential of micro-audience work and I know that audiences can be apprehensive about participatory work – I often am myself – so I try to make sure that they feel looked after and secure in their role as audience-participants.

Last weekend I visited 133 Sidney Grove in Newcastle. A student house transformed into Bobby Baker’s Great & Tiny War. This is micro-audience work; a guided tour reflecting on the impact of conflict through art spaces tinged with domesticity. I experienced the piece with two other audience members and two hosts. The hosts put us at ease. They explain the parameters of the performance and are on hand to answer questions throughout. Baker is the master in looking after her audience, even when physically absent. Throughout the piece she is a ghostly presence, her movement through the building is audible and chattily she observes details that we can reach and touch. The work resonates with echoes from her back catalogue, but is something altogether new. The familiarity of the space, the stories, the voice, the images and the work are disrupted throughout. Bobby Baker’s Great & Tiny War picks at the complexity of wartime experiences in a way that makes you think, but does not pick on you as an audience member. I’m trying very hard not to say too much as the work has another month to run and is well worth a visit if you can! There is a family history connection in the piece too – so I am certain I will be writing more about it sometime.

I hope to be able to adopt some of Baker’s care for the audience in my own micro-audience work. In Lines And Ladders the familiarity of the board game provides a frame for telling personal spaces in public spaces. As with both The Museum Full Of Things and Just Playing!, there is an unofficial audience of people around. Surprisingly, those who have played Lines And Ladders suggest this encourages them to be more intimate rather than less and I am comforted by the fact that most people who have played the game comment on how they enjoyed playing afterwards.

 

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Photograph from Bobby Baker’s Great + Tiny War 

Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 11: Photographs

At the start of every game, I ask the audience-participants if they are happy to be photographed. Most people have said yes. 29 out of 37 players were happy to be photographed. Yet, I have only managed to take photos of 3 participants on 2 occasions.

These photographs from the Edinburgh games were both taken after playing.  The left one is from the first day, taken in The Forest Café of myself, Carolyn Appelbe and Zoe King and on the right, from the final day, is a photograph of Margaret Maguire in The Little Shop of Memory. 

More photos of players in different places and locations would be very helpful. They might help me to recall specifics of the conversation. Photographs might help to convey to you the sense of the location and event. And frankly, this performance diary looks better with pictures.

It is silly that I have taken so few, because photographs are important in the game. They are often the source of stories told. Their significance to my research project is far more than as a pretty adornment.

Photographs are often important sources in family histories. They may provide a stimulus for research or for stories to be told in family settings. Like personal letters and diaries, they can reveal a more intimate connection to the past than the publicly maintained records. A family resemblance may be observed or a sentiment perceived. Such things may be works of the imagination, but can still manifest a powerful visceral emotion.

One of the chapters of my thesis will be called ‘presenting’, this will deal with the use of photographic imagery within family history performance. I know that photographs matter.

So why haven’t I taken more?

The taking of photographs during the game is awkward. The first day was easier, Shane was around after the game had finished to take photographs, but in an attempt to avoid being intrusive, these don’t capture the play, but the reflections afterwards.

If I have to take the photographs myself, when should I take them? At the start, before we have played…? but the beginning is already weighted with necessary procedure. During the game, when we’re playing…? standing up to take photographs at this moment would pull all of us away from the play, interrupt the process, spoil the game. As most famously observed by Peggy Phelan, the documenting of the live moment would irrevocably alter it. So the best time is at the end, after the play. The game is done and the players relax, yet often the stories continue. There are still moments to be spoiled.

Several times in August I resolved to definitely take a photograph in every game from now on. It would help me to remember the stories if I could see the faces. I made plans. Like the paperwork at the start, I would build this into the performance. A seamless transition to a photograph. Every time that I did this, in the very next game, at least one person did not want to be photographed. My resolve was quickly weakened.

For me, taking photographs is uncomfortable. I ask, can I take a photograph now? I stand up, step back, try to take a photo of you that does not include identifiably those people sitting around you. It puts you on the spot in a way that the rest of the game works hard to avoid. For this moment, when my skill-less fingers press the screen on the icon that stands in for a button, you are the star of the show. In many ways you always were, but now the focus is turned explicitly on you. And if I fail to hold the camera, the phone, the device, still, our efforts are wasted.

 

Further reading:

Phelan, Peggy, Unmarked: the Politics of Performance, transferred to Digital Printing 2006  (London: Routledge, 1996)

 

 

Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 10: The To-Do List

It’s been nearly a month since I returned from Edinburgh and I have had ‘write blog’ on my to-do list for all of that time. Every day I think I will find the time and then something else gets in the way.

I went to the Theatre and Performance Research Association Conference in Aberystwyth. For the second year running, I was part of the gallery. This year the gallery was actually a produce tent, such as you might find in a country show, in acknowledgement of the rural setting of the conference.  My contribution was to the preserves. Three jam jars preserving what I took away from Go On Without Me; a creative research project undertaken at York Minster.

There is teaching to be undertaken and work that was put to be one side to be completed ‘when I get back from Edinburgh’, must now be completed. The list gets longer and the performance diary remains on it, pushed forward to the next day.

On my way back from Aberystwyth, I visited a family friend in Herefordshire and took Lines And Ladders to a temporary café that was part of h-Art. Although this only resulted in half of a game, it was a useful learning experience. People were interested in the project and happy to talk about it, but were less willing to play, mostly it seemed because of the time required.

I am in the process of finding more suitable and willing venues for Lines And Ladders, so that I can expand the audiences. I have two confirmed games on the 24th November in Sheffield at the Treehouse Board Game Café. In most cafés, the game is a curiosity that may be casually observed, I am interested to see how this space, dedicated to board games will affect the play, the participation and the storytelling. As before the places are free, but extremely limited. If you would like to play you can reserve your place here: https://being_human_lines_and_ladders.eventbrite.co.uk

This blog post fills a gap. It places me back in Sheffield. It locates me in mid-September, but it doesn’t do what I really need to do. It doesn’t tell the story of the game in Edinburgh. It doesn’t share the experience of playing in August. There is just so much to say, that I am finding it difficult to know where to start.

I shall start that tomorrow.

1.       Crosses ‘write blog’ off to-do list.

2.       Adds ‘write blog about Edinburgh experiences’ to the to-do list.

 

Go On Without Me produce in the TaPRA Gallery, with home grown Victoria plums unpreserved.

Photographs by Ffion Jones