Playing 'Truth or Tale!?' / by Lenni Sanders

Our recent performance at Truth or Tale?! at Manchester Museum was a wonderful opportunity to experiment with new ways of interacting with our audiences: in a lot of ways it was a game as well as a performance. It took the form of a game show in which we, as hosts, asked people to step “into the studio” (behind a table): it was little things like that which helped people not to take it too seriously, as well as when we asked them to give a big smile for the camera (non-existent). Donning badges labelled Professor, the audience members stepped into that role and , responding to our questions about artefacts from the handling collection they had in all likelihood never seen before, they spun us a variety of tall tales.

It was a totally open show that could go in any way the audience member we were interviewing let it. It was dependent on our making the audience member feel comfortable enough to let loose creatively, so it helped that our setting was so goofy: a cheesy 70s game show, with a simple theme tune that plays over and over again over the course of the game, and two beaming hosts absurdly proud to be the people behind “the nation’s only museum’s collections based game show for professors!”

It raised a lot of questions about the nature of play. Some of our audience members giggled all the way through their quiz, and the element of playing pretend, that we were all colluding together to pretend they were a professor, felt totally in the foreground. But we also had audience members who told us their tales in a really quite straight faced manner, which felt playful and imaginative as well because of the nature of the stories. Something very unusual seemed to be happening with these second kind of audience members: we were playing, but in a serious way: our imaginations were all engaged in building up a story together, about how the “Professor” trekked for miles to find this sample, or how rare this material is because is made from space explosions. It showed how a game where you work together to make something can feel silly, or surprisingly real: these stories felt, for the 5-10 minute duration of each performance, real and plausible to me. In one of these games where we all pretended seriously, another audience member walked by mid-game and was drawn in to believing our professor’s story, which was a delightful thing to happen, because it meant the imaginative world we had made, and the way we were acting together, was believable.

The relationship between host, assistant, and audience member felt very playful in that we all had fairly clearly defined roles (and perhaps this made it more safe and easy for the audience member to know what to do!): the host banters with the audience member about show biz and asks the questions, the audience member makes up answers, and the assistant plays to the camera and makes a show of live typing and printing out the audience member’s story. The way the assistant host scrabbles to type out the flurry of the audience member’s imagination and organise it into a rather encyclopaedic, matter-of-fact account of the artefact they are describing, happens in plain view of the audience member but at the same time is hidden because they can”t read the screen while they examine the artefact and talk to the host. So there are two games happening simultaneously, and I think part of the reason audience members often laughed when they were asked if they wanted to take their story away with them, is because they had partly forgotten this secondary game of live typing was happening.

Truth or Tale?! is a game of endless variety and I think people really enjoy having an opportunity to play creatively, and somewhat subversively take on the role of the professor or expert while saying all kinds of ridiculous things, which they get to take away printed in exactly the same format as our fact sheets containing the actual truth about the artefacts. We really loved getting to play it at Science Uncovered.