As a furiously scribbling child with what adults referred to as an “overactive imagination”, one of my many passionately pursued projects was an illustrated adventure book for my younger brother. The book, clasped between flimsy cardboard covers and clumsily bound with leftover Christmas ribbon, is still in a box in my parents’ attic, together with all the other juvenilia they hold onto in the slim hope that I might one day finish that novel I’ve been threatening to write for years. In it, carefully pritt-sticked slips of paper cover different options, determining whether the intrepid adventurer will discover the buried treasure or face death by shark attack.
This impulse to present the reader with choices is the same impulse behind the Choose Your Own Adventure books that became something of a craze among kids in the 1980s. Each book, featuring scenarios ranging from intergalactic adventure to earthly apocalypse, offers its readers a variety of different routes through the narrative, with their decisions along the way influencing the final outcome. One avid reader of these books was writer, performer and self-confessed obsessive Nathan Penlington, whose new show Choose Your Own Documentary follows the same model. Unmasking the complicated set of decisions tangled up in authoring the supposedly authentic documentary form, audience members are – at least to an extent – at the helm.
The inspiration for this unconventional documentary was born when Penlington, nostalgic for his childhood obsession, bought a set of 106 Choose Your Own Adventure books off eBay – that ubiquitous facilitator of bizarre passions. Crowded with marginalia, the books also offered enigmatic pages from the diary of Terence Prendergast, a troubled teenage boy growing up in Birmingham in the 80s. The entries are a sparse but evocative catalogue of self-criticism, alienation and rebellion that immediately captured Penlington’s imagination. Who was this mysterious, unhappy character? Had he overcome this difficult youth? Were the contents of the diary even true or, like the Choose Your Own Adventure books, were they a fabricated departure into more dangerous and exciting territory?
The resulting show, performed live by Penlington in between clips of the film that he has made with a team of documentary filmmakers, faithfully follows the format of the Choose Your Own Adventure books and the prescriptions of their writer Edward Packard. “Packard said that a third of endings had to be good, a third OK, and a third bad,” Penlington explains to me when I speak to him a couple of days after the first show at the Southbank Centre. “We’ve tried to stick to that rule.” This form has produced a complex web of options and outcomes, all determined by the audience using remote controls. We influence whether Penlington consults a tarot reader or a graphologist; whether he lets his growing obsession lie or whether he continues to pursue the diary’s unhappy owner.
While there is an instant, childish satisfaction that arises from making such decisions and seeing their tangible impact, the experience prompts as many niggling doubts as it does gleeful smirks. To what extent can we believe what Penlington is telling us? How much of what we see in the film has been engineered for the benefit of this rigid format? As a result, there is a productive, intriguing tension within this gamified exertion of influence, a tension between choice and predetermination and between truth and fabrication. On this latter tension, though, Penlington is adamant about the veracity involved in the process of making the documentary.
“One of the challenges of this project was to keep to the truth,” says Penlington, firmly asserting that – one decidedly silly and obviously fake ending aside – everything the audience sees in every version of the show is true. He does admit, however, that “it was very hard to ensure that we were telling the story but also telling the truth”. This difficulty makes an element of doubt on the part of the audience almost inevitable, but Penlington suggests that this might be an appropriate reflection of the content: “there’s an element of that in Terence’s diary, in that I kept flipping from thinking this was a chronicle of teenagers having a tough time to thinking actually it could be pure fabrication.”
Alongside the large debt it owes to Packard and the Choose Your Own Adventure format, Choose Your Own Documentary has an element of the reality television phenomena to it – the X Factor of the documentary medium – as well as sharing features with the increasingly popular strain of interactive theatre. While trends are inherently fleeting, it feels as though this inclination towards involvement is more than an arbitrary fashion, and is perhaps more intricately tangled up with the experience of modern life in an ultra-connected world that superficially promises to spoil us with variety. Questioned on this craze and how his show sits within that, Penlington wonders if ultimately it all comes down to the value we place on choice.
“I guess people are more used to being in control of what they watch and what they read on a day to day basis,” he says, referencing the huge change initiated by the digital revolution. “There is no one source of information anymore – not that there ever really was once source – but now you go on the internet and you might read one paragraph from one news report and then go to another website and read another version of that.” Those children of the 80s, so intent on navigating their own fictional adventures, are now accustomed to having endless options at their fingertips. Even if, when subjected to scrutiny, the choices aren’t that free after all, Penlington is simply giving them what they want.