Shell Game is an immersive experience based on motifs of the short story of the same name by Philip K. Dick. The production by the German performance group Anna Kpok is a mixture of theatre and live escape game. It was shown at the Schaubude in Berlin from 24.-27.3.2022.
The futuristic adventure vacation trip turns into a trial of survival: After a defect on board the Paranoia Cruiser, all travellers were dropped off on the nearest rescue planet. We are tasked with following the emergency protocol and organising the days until rescue arrives. Accompanied by a humanoid robot-guide, there seems to be little reason for us to panic. Within two days, a rescue ship will come and pick us up so we can safely return to earth, the guide assures us. And so we venture out to explore this strange new planet and its inhabitants – which consist of mushrooms in all kinds of shapes, and a somewhat battered and outdated robot helper unit. Our group is divided into a day and a night shift. While one part of the group is active, the other part is sent to relax in the chairs on the side of the play area. A meditation programme is played over the headphones, reassuring us that everything is being taken care of.
But two days pass and we are still here, no rescue ship has arrived. The fun exploration turns into a somewhat more serious quest of solving the mysteries both of this planet and our crash. Conspiracy theories arise and spread among us: Have we been dropped here on purpose? Are we meant to stay here forever? Working closely with my fellow audience members – or should I say, crew members? – I solve puzzles and discover new information. But I am increasingly unsure about who can be trusted, and whether the information I find is true or just misleading me to believe in a made-up conspiracy? As the play went on, I became more and more frustrated with being sent to the relaxation chairs when my shift ended. I was not willing to let go of my active part in this immersive performance, referred to my chair and the role of a passive, uninvolved spectator. What if I did not follow these rules? To what degree would civil disobedience be accepted by the performers as part of the immersive experience? I did not dare to stir up a revolution amongst the audience, as I did not want to disrupt the play. But in this way, Shell Game was a formative experience for me, that prompted me to reflect more deeply on the boundaries and perhaps false promises of audience engagement and empowerment in immersive theatre.
In the end, it comes down to a fundamental decision for us stranded travelers: Do we return back to earth, and our old lives? Or do we stay here on this strange – but habitable – planet that we have grown somewhat fond of in the meantime? Or do we move on to build a completely new society somewhere else out here in space? Shell Game was a fun experience that involved lots of active role play and puzzle-solving on part of the audience. But at the same time, it was meaningful in that it prompted me to reflect critically upon not only matters of fake news, questioning authorities, as well as the “facts” presented to me by various known and unknown sources, but also on the possibilities and limits of truly immersive theatre.
Photos by Heike Kandelowski and Stephan Glagla