- Design Games
Projects involving many people and many interruptions go well.—John Cage
Prelude: Why Play Games?
The English language establishes a close relationship between games and theatre by using the word “play” in connection with both activities. We “play” games, we write and perform “plays,” and “players” participate in both activities. This connection between games and the theatre is nothing new: improvisational games have been played for centuries. Actors and directors have enjoyed Viola Spolin’s theatre games for decades. Clive Barker and Augusto Boal have also used game strategies to further their aesthetic and political agendas. However, theatre games are usually played by performers, often under the guidance of a director. In the following article, I propose to extend the realm of theatre games to include scenographic processes, both in the classroom and in production, as well as to provide for theatre educators several ready-to-play design games.
We often use games to structure random activities, to apply a structure to the occurrences within a chaotic universe. Children (and their parents) play “I spy”; bored motorists play “license plate poker.” Onstage, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spend seemingly endless hours playing and structuring word games. The idea that games are highly structured, and structuring, activities makes them particularly appropriate for the scenographic process. Design games offer a way to work within arbitrary parameters, avoiding common psychological barriers such as over-intellectualization, artistic timidity, or fear of failure. Essentially, games can provide an opportunity to develop a specific constructive and creative strategy for each production or pedagogical project. Spolin comments that “[t]heatre games give the player a task to perform; the director [or scenic designer] selects the game that will solve the performance and playing problem” (Rehearsal 7). It is important to remember, however, that the solution provided by a given game is only applicable to the particular problem addressed and is not the only possible [End Page 51] answer. Other solutions may solve the same playing problem, just as other solutions will be necessary to solve other playing problems. Because definitive performances do not exist, there is no such thing as a definitive performance solution. Instead of trying to create a definitive solution, the designer must take on the role of initiator, “rule-maker,” or perhaps more appropriately “gamemaster.” Game theorist Bernard Suits argues that “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” (41). Overcoming these unnecessary obstacles during the gaming process prepares the designer to overcome the necessary obstacles faced in a script or production. The game can also provide designers with a conceptual approach to any text.
As gamemaster, the designer develops (sometimes with help) both the rules of the game and the game’s research pool. A research pool is the collection of elements that might be used in the design: scale model pieces, decorative items, photocopied images, magazine cut-outs, etc. Through the games, a strategy is developed for placing those elements into a design and creating an idea for the performance space. Philosopher Roger Caillois describes this spatial creation as an integral part of all games, stating that “the game’s domain is . . . a restricted, closed, protected universe: a pure space” (7). While Caillois is speaking metaphorically about games in general, certain games can offer a valuable tool in the actual creation of a physical space. Most importantly, the design game process yields a product. The gaming process results in a sketch, a model, or an environment that the players may then explore. As Spolin observes, a “physical and sensory relationship with the art form opens the door for insight” (Improvisation 15). The relationship of the players to their own newly created space prompts valuable insights into the text or production for which the design is made.
Design games can play a major role in the design classroom. Student scenic designers, particularly beginners, often have a difficult time overcoming what they perceive to be their artistic limitations and are often unwilling to take chances. Most traditional approaches to design instruction focus on skill development rather than problem solving, exacerbating rather than addressing students’ fears and limitations. For example, students are often required to...