voidspace presents: Interview with Leo Doulton, Virtually Opera

First of of all, thank you so much for agreeing to talk about your work in the voidspace! Pull up a beanbag and make yourself comfortable.

Pleasingly squishy. Thank you for having me.


Normally no, but if we’re in voidspace and it arrives in a gravity-free floating sphere of liquid, I’d be delighted.

The voidspace is about interactive arts of all kinds. Tell us a little bit about the interactive work that you create.

I mostly try to make beautiful entertainment. I like quiet, heartfelt stuff, fun, and the satisfaction of craft.

Interactively, I’m most noted (in a tiny way) for making interactive immersive opera. I also work as a tabletop roleplaying game designer, making small games that veer from intimate rituals of prophecy to melodramatic Shakespeare-emulation.

I also occasionally have the pleasure of writing for Voidspace, including my interactive novel Archive From Another World, which was in Issue 1 and more or less includes everything I ever write about in terms of power-at-a-price, gothic romance, slight horror, arguments about how one ought to interpret being in the world, imaginative anthropology, people craving life slightly bigger than our own, and I LIKE VAMPIRES.

Admittedly, that’s from 2018, so I’ve moved on a bit since then in how I approach those things and interactivity.

What does interactivity mean to you? What is it about interactive work that excites you?

At its most basic, any form of work where the audience get to shape it, ideally in a meaningful way. At its most basic, that might be pantomime (“He’s behind you!”), church services (collective hymns, taking communion), or a board game. I like talking about common interactivity, because I think it opens up doors beyond our usual genres of reference (TTRPGs, LARP, hypertext fiction etc.).

As for what excites me: I started out in comedy before moving into opera, and that’s an utterly audience-defined form. If they don’t laugh, it sucks. So I’ve always got an eye on the audience.

Nowadays, the main competition for any entertainment medium is streaming services. Not only do their venture capital funding and economies of scale mean that they’re unbeatable production value-wise, but they can also offer highly tailored recommendations for said audience.

So a live experience has to offer something a streaming service can’t, which is why you’ll hear a lot about the ‘experience economy’ nowadays. It’s not enough to just have a pub; people can drink at home. But I can’t go to a pub quiz there.

I find interactivity is a wonderful way to get that truly live experience. And a whole bunch of other things.

What is it, in your opinion, that participants can get from interactive work that they can’t get from other artforms?

Any number of things!

Most interactive theatre at the moment tends to be pretty genre-driven. So the formulation I’ve recently started using for that is “what do we want to do, and what are willing to do to achieve that?”

Even within that, you get various ideas of fantasy-fulfilment (be a politician/general/crimeboss), puzzle solving, or collaboration and bonding with strangers. I’m most enchanted by that last one: in a world without much in the way of rituals, coming together is something quite important.

And it’s often fun! Adults don’t get enough time to play.

What avenues would you like to see interactive work head in the future?

If you read voidspace magazine, you’ll see lots of people making work that is often beautiful, and remarkably tender.

Within interactive performing arts, Nordic LARP is likely the best example of that, and I’d love to see more such work within the UK interactive theatre scene.

I’d have to point at Chloe Mashiter’s Shield and Torch, which I think is bringing some wonderful ideas along those lines into play.

You create interactive opera with your company, Virtually Opera. What gave you the idea to bring interactivity to this artform, and how did the concept develop?

There’s a long answer to this, but I think the main parts are first, a dissatisfaction with opera, second, a love of interactive theatre, and finally, a desire for rituals.

I love opera, and I want it to be better. I love what it can do at its best, but much of the time I find the culture around it frustrating, especially around how little new work gets developed, priorities within the new work that does, and tolerance of boring stuff.

But at its best, it creates work where when someone asks “why are they singing?”, you can point to a remarkable answer for why.

So when I encountered interactive theatre – first via Dungeons and Dragons actual play, which was a wonderful combination of sport, theatre, and community, and then Parabolic Theatre’s Crisis? What Crisis? I was very excited, because it was a truly live experience, and a lot of fun.

Like a lot of creatives, when I encounter something I like, I want to make stuff inspired by it. But that required an answer to two questions: why they’d be singing, and how to make it work.

The first one was quite easy, in the end. While lots of people will tell you people sing because they feel big emotions (and that’s sometimes true), for lots of other work (such as Akhenaten) it’s more about other larger-than-everyday things, such as rituals, the divine, or other bright ideas.

I lack ritualistic work in my everyday life, and I find the outputs of what we’ve done quite beautiful.

What does music offer to interactive media?

There’s lots of pretentious things I can say here, and I will.

Music is fundamentally quite abstract and personal. If I play a song from 15th century Japan, you would respond differently to the original audience because you understand fewer of its cultural signifiers. And that’s fine! Even if I played The Internationale, it wouldn’t inherently signify the ideas within it to everyone.

But music is also a collective experience. When we listen to something together, we are all connected in a quite unusual way. Music reaches inside us and has a bit of a fiddle. Even though you and I won’t get the same response listening to the same music, I’d expect you and I to get a broadly similar sense of what the music seemed like to us, because while we’re not exactly the same person, we’re from a similar-ish time and place.

It’s those two aspects that I think make music quite an exciting toy to play with for ritualistic work. It offers a whole world of set-dressing that is quite evocative in a subtle and personal way, but also quite effective in bringing a group together in a single atmosphere.

I often talk about ‘flavour’ – music doesn’t ask us to specify what exactly we mean, and sometimes that’s a useful ambiguity. For example, once your set dressing is partly musical, it’s much easier to change the background feeling/flavour of your world once the audience start relating to things.

Between characters, music gives a whole way to show things that are sometimes hard to act. If a character is being quite formal, but is privately scared, there are musical ways to subtly hint at that. If two characters are fond of one another, we might expect their music to intertwine very comfortably, but clash if their ideas are opposed. Whereas if two characters just talk at the same time, we’d rightly go “I can’t hear a bloody word they’re saying, and it’s undermining my experience.”

How do your shows work, as interactive vehicles? How do you balance the performance element and interactive audience engagement?

As quiet, gentle rituals where we come together for a while.

While I over-theorise above, I think that’s the short answer. I’ve liked trying to make a kind space where I could come and just spend two hours listening and drawing a bit.

I think I’d say it’s not a question of balancing so much as integrating. The performance and interaction are one and the same.

The music’s all improvised, so it feels like entering a ritual where almost everything the audience do can ripple both through the world of the show, and the charm-music of it. But the audience’s tools for shaping the ritual are rarely music-based (who wants to be asked to sing in front of strangers?); it’s more about being a part of a community of some kind, for a while.

So far, the music has always been a thing-in-the-world, from how a hive mind expresses its collective consciousness, to how magic is conducted.

The performance of music is a thing-in-the-world that must be done, with some kind of world-appropriate reason for why, from ‘this is a hive mind, so music allows us to express its collective consciousness’ to ‘we are doing magic, which works via sung ritual’.

Which I think allows the interactivity to feed into the music, and vice versa.

What would you say are your main influences?

I could give a whole reading list, but for now: Parabolic Theatre’s adaptive narrative, a bizarre variety of folk beliefs and religious rituals, the Mahabharata, noh, some operas that I feel have really nice non-emotional reasons for singing, some very quiet, gentle TTRPGs, and some utterly pulpy fun.

Do audiences ever take your experiences in directions you don’t expect?

[Twitches slightly.]

Yes, and it’s delightful and normally encouraging.

I love it when it comes from a place of someone being invested in the world. In Come Bargain’s test show, people are asked to give offerings and someone – entirely unprompted – made an offering of their own hair, plucked out live on stage.

Which I had not expected to deal with, but it was right within the logic offered.

Sometimes people do come with a wrecking-ball attitude, trying to test out the edges of the world, but normally they quite quickly get the sense that they’re undermining everyone else’s good time.

In November Virtually Opera will be bringing us a new show. Tell us about it!

It’s called Come Bargain With Uncanny Things, and it’s an interactive immersive opera in which you come and bargain with uncanny things.

It’s set in an alternate London where magic is real, but in quite a gothic/Ursula Le Guin/Neil Gaiman way of magic at a price, don’t bargain unwisely, and other such fine folkloric traditions.

The audience are members of a community coming together to use uncanny things to solve small problems. If you want to come along and feel like you’re doing magic, I think it’s basically made for people like you.

Underpinning it all are ideas about how we relate to ourselves, one another, and the world around us. I think we’ve made something that really encourages and supports collaboration between audience-participants.

And hopefully, finding a place to be kind, gentle, and vulnerable with others while deciphering spells and crafting nice offerings to the Uncanny Thing. I’m very pleased with the team we have (Erika Gundesen, Charley Ipsen, Michelle Kelly, Zoe Flint, Sarah Griffin, CN Lester, Will Davies), and I hope we’ve been finding ways to make it such a space for our guests.

Any other projects that we should be looking out for?

Come Bargain’s the big one, but I’m hoping to have more news soon.

Though if anyone wants to collaborate, or need a musical/interactive person, I am available.

What advice do you have for aspiring creators in the interactive space?

Trust the heart of your show, and be kind to your people.

From that comes everything else – make shows small enough that you can pay everyone, and grow from there (unless you’re just starting, in which case, go wild for a year or two). Trust your team, because you’ve found the right people. Talk to the makers you admire. And know why your show is beautiful (if it is), and needs to be live/interactive.

I know it sounds pretentious, but I think that’s my best answer.

In November, Virtually Opera’s interactive immersive opera-ritual Come Bargain With Uncanny Things will run at the COLAB Tavern, London. Tickets available now.