Luminato: Protokoll in the Virtual World

The cast of Best Before.

Von Milan Radovanovic

15.06.2010 / The Torontoist

There are performers, but no actors. There are observers, but no audience. There is a script, but no planned story. In other words, it is a play, but also a game.
Mixing traditional theatre productions with elements of more modern art forms, like film or art installations, is a growing trend in Toronto theatre. But Toronto has never seen a mash-up like Best Before, which is part of Luminato 2010's theatre lineup. The latest work from Helgard Haug and Stegan Kaegi of Rimini Protokoll, one of Germany's leading alternative theatre companies, Best Before literally allows the audience to take control of the play into their own hands (via handheld controllers), transforming the Berkeley Theatre into the city's largest gaming console.
Think of a multi-player, more socially-conscious version of Second Life. Each audience member is assigned his or her own avatar, and together they make up the citizenship of BestLand—a world that will see a disease epidemic, a recession, a natural disaster, a war, a shooting rampage, and a mysterious black hole of death all in the span of two hours. Luckily, to help the BestLandians through such hardships are four "experts in daily life"—read "non-professional actors"—who assist the audience in making key decisions as the avatars age from birth to death at one hundred years old, from the basic "Am I male or female?" to the complex "Am I ready to die?" Other times, decisions are made as a group: do we want to welcome immigrants into our city? Legalize drugs? Go to war with WorstLand?
Though the action of Best Before takes place within BestLand, the show was commissioned by Vancouver's PuSh Festival, and has strong ties to the real issues within that city. The four onstage experts—traffic flagger Ellen Schultz, game tester Duff Armour, computer programmer Brady Marks, and Vancouver politician Bob Williams—all live and work there, and throughout the play, they tell personal stories that represent some of the current social issues that define Vancouver. For a show so reliant on the virtual, the Best's best moments come from reality.
For instance, Williams recalls how his mother faced social ruin at fifteen when she had him, while some female avatars ponder the decision of abortion. And Schultz reflects on her own mortality, the moment she lost faith in religion, and the loss of a good friend, all while the avatars near their own "Best Before" date. It's these moments that save the show from remaining a glorified session of The Sims, where half the fun is seeing how much you can make your characters suffer by blocking them in a corner until they eventually pee themselves (come on, you did it, too). The doses of reality make the audience care about the well-being of their avatars and BestLand.
Best Before is an intriguing theatrical experience, but it's nowhere near perfect yet. One problem is that those injections of reality don't quite happen enough; long stretches confined to the onstage world of BestLand begin to feel tiring and redundant. There is room for improvement in the technical aspects of the game, perhaps allowing easier methods of tracking your own avatar among 199 others. And the show is in desperate need of some kind of wrap-up ending instead of the abrupt "You're dead—GAME OVER" finale it has now. Still, the show is a huge step toward the future of the theatrical experience, one that is deeply connected to new technologies that help create one communal experience in which audience members interact with each other as well as the performers. It's all part of Rimini Protokoll's "Reality Trend" theatre movement that is gaining significant attention in Europe. With this production, it's clear this direction is nowhere near its Best Before expiration date.


Best Before