The New Life of Andrew Gillanders’ Parasocial Parallax – The ScratchThat Scoop

Ailie McLeod

Parasocial Parallax, created by ScratchThat alum Andrew Gillanders, has been revived following its appearance in Brisbane’s 2022 Anywhere Festival. This interactive play will be on at Pip Theatre this November 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 9th, 10th, and 11th. Tickets can be purchased here.

Check out their Instagram @parasocial.parallax

But first! Read here, where last year Chelsea Ryan interviewed Andrew on the first iteration of Parasocial Parallax.


From Anywhere Festival to Pip Theatre

Why did you decide to put the play on a second time?

Grace [Longwill], the lovely director I’ve worked with, who has given herself completely to this story, always strongly held that a second life was needed. I believe theatre is a transient artform. We do these things to be there in the moment, so I was incredibly hesitant to do it again. If you look at people in my position, coming out of university, trying to put on your own shows, there are plenty who attempt to do the same thing again and again and falter. That’s not because they’re not hard working or good artists, but sometimes it’s hard to catch lightning in a bottle. At the end of last year, Grace came to me after many times of me saying no, with “What about Pip Theatre?”. I started talking to the folks at Pip Theatre, and got really excited. I came back together with our writers Stanley Benjamin, Jamie Stevens, and Rory Hawkins and I said, “This is what’s going to change”. I took that year of reflecting, and having produced Banshee’s Luck, another immersive work, understanding everything that we failed in the first production, I was able to come back to the character of Mackenzie, making her with so much more agency and story at her core. Finding that opportunity to tell a new story, not rehash and repeat what we did last year, that was why and when I said yes to Grace.


Will it be a new experience for people who have already seen it before?

Yes, absolutely, and if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be doing the show. I can confidently say it’s a different experience because Mackenzie’s a different character. If you’ve seen Anywhere Festival’s incarnation of this show, you will almost long for that Mackenzie in the way of an old friend. But when you see the new Mackenzie, audiences are going to love her, have fun with her and it will be a new journey.


How did you find the balance of giving both Mackenzie and the audience agency?

That was one of the most difficult and novel writing problems in this show. This is the 4th interactive text I’ve worked on, and I’ve picked up a lot along the ways. I dislike a lot of interactive theatre shows. And I love very few, but I love them with such intensity I want to contribute. Last year things happened to Mackenzie; this year Mackenzie happens to the audience. Mackenzie is Mackenzie, which is very different from other choose your own adventure stories, where usually the audience is the character. You are not in this performance. This story is about the audience controlling a character. That’s what’s happening in the world of Mackenzie, she is letting these social media fans into her life. So, finding that balance was about really honing in on that truth of this play.


What have been the main differences of the creative process from Anywhere Festival to Pip Theatre?

I don’t want to comment too much on the directing realities, as I’m not the director. From my perspective as a writer, things are more difficult, but the level of focus, the level of discipline we had coming into this iteration is so much higher, and that’s how we’re approaching everything. “Cool, we’ve got professional lights, how do we use them with accuracy?” This isn’t a black box, do the blocking the day before. We know what works, we know what doesn’t work, so let’s do it and let’s do it well.


What were some of the failures that happened last year and what did you learn from them?

One difficult failure for me to see every single time it went up was how long our opening scene was. Every writer edits the hell out of their beginnings; we didn’t. My priorities coming into this year were designing a new narrative structure and finding a way to allow the audience to come back and experience the story again. Which is critical; you have to see this show multiple times. This year you will see three loops through the one ticket. That also means the first scene gets progressively shorter and tighter. We’ve changed the structure to allow that hopping back into the same loop to be more engaging. The other massive change we’ve made is it is a much more fun show. I’m a dramatic writer, I want to tell big stories with big emotions. But the best parts of the show were when audience members were having fun with it. A wonderful part of the theatre is you get to laugh and gasp with people beside you, and that energy is infectious. Messing with the show, finding secret endings, breaking things. This time it’s raucous, it’s zany. I hope audiences come with the mentality to play the game because they’ll have a lot of fun.


How has your creative writing practise developed between Anywhere Festival and now?

Over the last 12 months, including Banshee’s Luck and this, I have found parts of my own voice. A lot of writers talk about finding your own voice and I thought I found it before, but apparently I didn’t. Maybe in three years’ time, I’ll look back and say, “Oh well this shmuck also had no idea what he was talking about”. I’ve always loved monologues, but I found a beauty in asides and being able to directly address audiences and explore that in a way that is part prose-writing and part stage-writing. Some of the best moments of this new script shows that.


The Collaborative Process

What has it been like to work on the stage writing specifically with writers from a creative writing background?

Amongst the writers, there is a spectrum of stage to prose. We’re all prose trained but it’s uncontroversial to say that I am the most stage inclined. It’s about finding the strengths and advantages, because there are some really beautiful things that you can do with prose that you can’t do with stage writing. I really fundamentally believe the building blocks of a good story are across forms. To explain the way we’ve worked is, I have had really prescriptive; “This is what our plot structure needs to be. Ninety minutes is going to be sixty-eight A4 pages. I need you to choose these types and organise them like this”. Then let’s get around the table and talk about the story. We shoot back and forth. This is a very collaborative and iterative approach. It’s really fun working and learning in that way, and I’ve learnt a lot. I hope the others have too.


Is it the same team from last year?

No, unfortunately, the lovely Alec Hastie is in England and a couple of similar unavailabilites. No one has said they don’t want to be part of it. It has been really delightful bringing on people and watching the same flash in their eyes as they realise, “I’ve never seen a show like this before”. I’m really excited to work with the new team. I have strong friendships and great professional respect for all of my collaborators, and would jump at the opportunity to work with any of them at any point in the future.


Immersive and Interactive Theatre

Have any new influences impacted the writing during the transition from the first to the second iteration of the play?

There’s plenty of things I don’t like. At the top of the list is Bandersnatch, Netflix’s Black Mirror choose your own adventure. Why people like Black Mirror—it’s this messed up twist at the end of something. The issue with Bandersnatch is the writers can’t help themselves and at the end of every path you go down there’s a Black Mirror twist. Which sucks for interactive narratives, because you want to choose your own adventure. You leave that experience being frustrated and displeased. Anybody who knows anything about my writing knows that I don’t have a collegial relationship with my audience. I’m happy to mess with them. But I took that lesson from Pander-snatchas well as reading a QUT doctoral student’s paper called, The architect of forking paths: Developing key writing strategies for interactive writers by Benjamin Carey, and using both of what’s bad, (Bandersnatch), and is lovely high degree research. It’s about finding ways to let your audience into that control and then into the ambiguity. The audience does get punished for its decisions, but it’s not because we changed the audience’s decision. The audience’s decisions are always king, but that doesn’t mean they know where the story is going. That’s what drives me through immersive experiences. Escape rooms are fun because you solve the puzzle, not because you open a box and it stabs you. You need to reward the game player, but rewarding can sometimes be taking audience down a path they didn’t expect.


How do you control a situation that you want to give the audience as much control as possible?

The audience has no idea what they’re doing and are very predictable. Last year, our voting was based around a heart and head, and almost without fail audiences would on their first loop, vote heart, because people like being nice people. In Banshee’s Luck, I was very aware of this and so what we worked with was three bad people and you had to choose to kill one. Using this very simple technique, you can push audiences towards good options. If there’s anyone listening and saying, “Screw you Andrew, I’m going to do the bad option, good, you should come along and do that”. You’d be surprised how easy it is to make a stooge out of an audience member and that is definitely something we play with. If you try to break the world for the sake of breaking the world, don’t be surprised if you’re actually unoriginal.


How do you rehearse the multiple loops and audience interaction?

It’s essentially a ninety-minute script and each loop are thirty minutes long with some devised improv as well. The actors need to learn ninety minutes. I picked Eliza Allen [as Mackenzie] and was so excited to work with her again. To me she’s the antithesis of a method actor and that’s what’s necessary for this role, the ability to just swap in the moment. One of my big failures last year was we were really focused on symmetry of the story, which I still hold is important. But sometimes in rehearsals, and this is my fault not theirs, they would start in a scene and then end up in another one because the lines were too similar. This year, while it is still a symmetrical story, it’s very unique at the same time. I believe that has helped the actors hold on to those story beats.


The Future

What is the future of Parasocial Parallax?

Parasocial Parallax has more life in it, but unless we get picked up by a theatre production company, I’m confident to say this is the last chance to see it in the immediate sense. I would love to see these words end up on some more permanent paper, but I understand that’s an extreme privilege in theatre. The best time to see Parasocial Parallax is going to be in November and I wouldn’t be holding your breath to see it again.


Are there any other projects that you’re working on?

I’m taking a break away from interactive after this. There are some really important stories to me, stories about Bipolar Disorder I want to tell. In the next couple of years, I don’t think I’m going to be working on interactive work, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t taken a lot of what I have learnt and that’s definitely going to appear in future work.


How are you going to take what you’ve learnt into non-interactive shows?

Anybody in theatre has heard the phrase, “Why this show, now?”. Critical to that is the reality that theatre is not attended by many people; most people don’t care about it and most theatre shows are shit. So, when we do theatre to a smaller audience for less money, “Why are we using this space?” That’s why I’ve been messing with interactive so much because you have to do something with the audience that’s right there. We all have Facebook, Twitter, whatever you want, you’ve got it all in your pocket. If you’ve got a story, you can take it off your chest right now. “Why are we in a room with other people?” The lessons I’ve learned in interactive, directly and will always inform why I am telling stories in rooms with people.

Interviewer: Ailie McLeod is a transdisciplinary performer, an emerging writer, dancer and stage manager. She is currently in her third year studying a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Drama) at QUT. Last year Ailie’s play Manage, was her playwriting debut. Her performance credits include being an ensemble member in IMRSE’s CAKE, Hairspray the Arena Spectacular, and Queensland Contemporary Youth Ballet. Other credits include stage managing for 2am: The Extended Cut, Pengelly Productions and Brisbane Performing Arts Challenge. Upcoming projects for Ailie include assistant directing Sugar Mountain which will be a part of Vena Cava’s 2023 Freshblood Festival. 

Editors: Rory Hawkins and Brock Scholte