My brief backstage career at London's Royal Opera House was not a success. The wardrobe manager criticized my costuming, the lighting director scorned my follow-spot technique, and the prop manager's kind words didn't make up for the scathing response I got when I helped out with sets. Plus, I lost most of the music.
Fortunately, my bungling didn't wreck the performance – or at least, not a real performance. I was playing The Show Must Go On, the ROH's new video-game app.
The ROH is one of many stage companies trying to exploit game culture to promote what they do. At least three Canadian theatre companies – Canadian Stage, Atomic Vaudeville and Praxis Theatre – have launched Web-based entertainments related to their stage productions, though none is quite as ambitious as The Show Must Go On.
For $1.99 at the iTunes Store, anyone with an iPad or iPhone can play at solving a series of backstage crises at the ROH. There are four shows to save, or make worse, depending on your skills: The Marriage of Figaro, Swan Lake, Carmen and The Nutcracker. Each is harder than the last. All require you to do a series of jobs under strict time limits, from costuming dancers to dashing over rooftops in search of missing sheet music.
Your score for each task is tallied, and at the end of each section a bit of the show runs, with whatever sets, props and lighting you've managed to pull together. A newspaper headline pops up to praise or damn your efforts.
"The original idea for developing a game app started here, and we found the partner who came up with the game itself," says Christopher Millard, ROH director of press and communications. Hide & Seek, a British company behind multimedia promotions for films such as Sherlock Holmes and The Green Lantern, spent time seeing how the shows at ROH are put on the stage, and captured the real sounds of stage machinery and singers warming up.
The animation style is strong and simple – closer to Angry Birds than to Call of Duty – and like other app games, delivers the fun in short segments. ROH teamed up with EMI Classics to produce an "official soundtrack," but I couldn't get iTunes to sell me that, so my "performances" ran with synthesized arrangements.
The aim of the project is to achieve what ROH chief executive Tony Hall calls "the Holy Grail" – a mass-market product that "will excite people who don't know about opera and ballet." No one knows how many of the 5,000 purchased so far were by people unfamiliar with opera and ballet.
Whatever your skill level, the game makes the backstage crafts seem more difficult perhaps than they really are: Nobody at the ROH would be expected to lay out a whole stage set in a minute or less. The game draws you in but also subtly widens the gulf many audience members may already feel between themselves and the stage.
Canadian Stage's Mark Rothko Experience offers a Web-based confrontation with Jim Mezon, who plays the American painter in the current production of John Logan's 2009 play, Red. As in the play, Rothko online rails at his studio assistant, only that assistant is now you. Depending on your reactions, the painter fires you or offers you a drink, using lines from the play. No matter how you fare, you're offered a 20-per-cent discount on tickets.
"We wanted to give people a feeling for the play," says Ashley Ballantyne of Canadian Stage. The company teamed up with ad agency Zulu Alpha Kilo, spent a day filming Mezon before rehearsals started, and sent out a street team to give away paint-daubed brushes with the Web address (experiencered.ca) written on them. Ballantyne said the venture is just another part of the company's efforts to market itself through postings on YouTube and social media.
Toronto indie game developer Cecily Carver has made games for two recent theatre shows: Atomic Vaudeville's hit musical, Ride the Cyclone and Praxis Theatre's Jesus Chrysler, which have both just closed at Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille. Carver's Space Age Bachelor Man, related to Ride the Cyclone, riffs on one nerdy character's fantasy of himself as an intergalactic seducer. The game (at ridethecyclonemusical.com/play) is an eighties-style arcade adventure that Carver admits "may not seem obviously related to themes people might have been reading about in reviews." But it did well, she says, in the context of her other social-media promotions for the show (she's also social-media co-ordinator for the Canadian Opera Company).
In Carver's game for Jesus Chrysler (at praxistheatre.com) , your ambulance has to collect the wounded during the Spanish Civil War, while avoiding rocks and sniper fire. It's much tougher than Space Age Bachelor Man – my ambulance blew up several times. But in video games, as seldom in life or theatre, you can always repair your mistakes by starting again.