Surreal only just begins to explain how it feels to be playing Blackjack as a metaphor for the state of the world, ten minutes into an interactive theatre piece on Zoom. But hey, that’s 2020 for you.
The House Never Wins is an interactive piece by Kill The Cat Theatre, a joint collaboration between Madeline Allardice and Dylan Frankland. Originally performed as part of the 2019 festival DARE, it’s been turned into an online performance that’s part of the Electric Dreams Online Festival, a three week programme showing the connection that art and the internet can have.
Before going into the Zoom, we were all asked to give in our mobile phone numbers. This was so we could be contacted by the House during the game with extra information that we may need. Don’t worry though, phone numbers were deleted promptly afterwards.
As we waited for the performance to start, a looping video played on our screens. With carnival music playing in the background, the shaky video instructed us to find various objects around our home that would aid our experience. Then the house opened, and we saw eleven other participants and our Host appear on Zoom’s grid view. We were told we’d be playing Blackjack tonight, and were given 10 chips each. Luckily, you don’t have to be a seasoned card player; the instructions made it easy enough to pick up as part of the experience.
All of us were asked to turn our cameras on so we could eye our “competition”. Tech support kept a watchful eye on us all, but remained in the dark.
One gift that Zoom performances bring us is that we can, if the Zoom hosts let us, have full control of our viewing experience. Pin the main performer one moment, bring the whole audience (and their living rooms) into sight with the gallery view next.
The first question we were all asked by the host was: how morally good we thought we were on a scale of 1-10. One saint put himself at a 9.5, and was told by the house that since he’s so good, he wouldn’t mind giving one of his chips to another player. Mr. 9.5 was actually quite reluctant at first giving his chip away, asking if he had a choice in the matter. He did not.
Before passing over to the dealer, the host informed us that a real cash prize was up for grabs. Through the power of PayPal and the fact they already had our numbers for WhatsApp, we were informed that the winner would receive a £10 cash prize very soon after tonight’s conclusion.
I’ve been to a couple of interactive shows before, so I was in two minds about this cash prize. On one hand ten pounds is ten pounds, and I definitely wouldn’t mind having that in my pocket. On the other hand, in interactive shows, the caveat is that any victory tends to be a pyrrhic one. You’ll win, but you’ll probably feel shit for doing so.
With rules established and top prize declared, the Host left the Zoom and the Dealer (Madeleine Allardice) appeared.
As the rounds of BlackJack kept being dealt out, we were sent images and videos to watch. At times, there was too much for my mind to contend with. There were new rules being added in on busy powerpoint slides every round; a survey to fill out; a YouTube video that was sent in that I wanted to properly watch but didn’t feel like I had time to while keeping an eye on the game at hand.
I think if the aim was to feel slightly bombarded by all the important information that we’re meant to be processing, that was achieved. But if not, I think some clarity of instruction on when to spend time looking at everything would have been useful. Clearly time was spent on each graphic and I just wanted to properly take in each one.
As the rounds went on, it became clear for certain what this was all a metaphor for. The house was our planet Earth, struggling to sustain itself, just hoping that next time we’d provide it with enough chips to do more than barely survive after making our own personal bets. The divide of chips becomes greater, and sometimes only just by sheer luck or a helping hand can we hope come out on top.
And as the timer ran out, and the guilty winner declared and their shameful tenner awarded.
At the same time we’re informed the House had insufficient funds to carry on. The house didn’t win, and we couldn’t start over to change the way things played out, even if we wanted to.
The House Never Wins gave us, the participants, an invitation to learn more about the long term crises that our planet faces by giving us a new set of reference points to see them through. It showed us comprehensively that change is very much possible, and that the chips needed to save us all must be played very soon. I simply hope more people find their way to their table in time.
The House Never Wins is on digital tour in summer 2020; the next date is Plymouth Fringe, on Wednesday 26th August, tickets here.