Robert Reid becomes a corporate monster in Isolate and Contain, interactive theatre that models what happens when the pandemic hits
The sky is falling.
For the past three years, ArtsHouse in North Melbourne has been producing a festival called Refuge that responds to issues of crisis and survival in a world very like ours, in which climate change makes disaster scenarios increasingly likely. These week-long events propose an alternate reality in which humanity is faced with a crisis. Its first, in 2016, was Flood. Last year ArtsHouse braced for the Heatwave and this year North Melbourne is faced with the Pandemic.
In theory, the potential for immersion and simulation is immense. In practice it’s limited by the day-to-day realities of the building as a public space and place of businesss. North Melbourne Town Hall has been set up as a functioning crisis relief shelter, but I can’t help wondering how functioning it can be without a crisis to respond to. The immersion is, and probably only can be, a wink and a nod.
Still, the notion of a festival as a consistent theatrical world is an ambitious one. If the event can’t reasonably be a week-long Nordic LARP or Secret Cinema, the light touches in the foyer – appropriate costumes and surgical masks on the front of house staff – draws a liminal reality around the building.
The festival opens conversations about the potentially awful realities our species faces in the near future. Events include an Escape Room by PlayReactive, a hypothetical by Michele Lee, a supper club hosted by Lizzy Sampson and Asha Bee Abraham, audio works by Ellen van Neerven, Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey with Live Umbrella Finland, facilitated discussions, demonstrations and more.
The week is launched with Isolate and Contain: Mapping the Pandemic by PlayReactive, an interactive seminar on the development of pathogens, their spread as pandemics and the management strategies we use to control them.
Anti-vaxxers, stop reading now. (Also, are you still out there, or have you all died of the common cold yet? I’m just asking because herd immunity, you know?)
We’re welcomed by Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin, Senior Wurundjeri elder of the Kulin alliance and the local Greens politician Rohan Leppert, experts and administrators. It has the feeling of a conference opening. Lee Shang Lun of PlayReactive, working the room like a Ted Talker with a mic strapped to his head, explains the format of the rest of the evening. There are elements of the Hypotheticals Geoffrey Robertson used to run on the and elements of the pedagogical gameplay strategies of companies like Boho Interactive.
Lee talks us through the stages of epidemiology, the steps of Alert, Delay, Protect, Sustain, Control, Recover, and his oration during the evening is interleaved by short talks with experts and elders. The first of these is Uncle Larry Walsh who tells the story of The Breath of the Mindye, a punishment sent by Bunjil in the form of diseased air.
We begin by demonstrating the spread of a disease through a population by throwing tennis balls at each other in the dark. First from Patient Zero, spreading from each person touched by one of Patient Zero’s tennis balls. It’s visually striking: fluorescent lights make the yellow balls glow bright against the night-blue background, but the mechanism was perhaps not the most audience friendly approach. Tennis balls raining down on a room full of people is almost certain to result in at least one or two people being surprised by a ball to the head. In less than a minute, only one person is left uninfected.
Each table is tasked with creating a virus as destructive as possible. The games we use to do this are all simple abstractions of complex concepts. We select scrabble letters to determine genetic sequences. We stack piles of letters to determine mutations. Our table manages to end up with a lot of mutations, but I’m not convinced our virus will survive long. The R0 of a virus, its reproductive ratio, is calculated by multiplying transmission probability by the number of contacts by its duration of infectiousness. Our table reaches an R0 of 38. The highest ever was the measles with an R0 of 18. Other tables reach R0s in the 700s. Our table suspects we’ve done our maths wrong.
We draw maps of the interconnected systems in the city. Shopping centres, public transport, open plan offices, school pick-up. We follow our Patient Zero through those systems, working out how many people they encounter. Darren, our table’s Patient Zero, works in the city and conservatively comes into contact with 200 people daily (on the streets, at work, in cafes, on the tram). Our table’s disease is airborne and strikes the digestive system, with symptoms of explosive vomiting and dehydration and an infectious period of seven days. Diseases are traditionally named after rivers they break out near (Ebola, Zaire; Ross River, New South Wales; West Nile, Uganda). We almost name ours Yarra River fever. Melbourne’s fucked if it ever gets out of the lab, hey?
As our various monster infections rampage across the city, we play the evening’s most insidious game. Once the whole city is infected and the panic is beginning to spread, the negotiations begin. Two people on the table represent a pharmaceutical company and the others are NGOs managing the crisis.
The pharma corps have vaccines that are variously effective, and we negotiate for the best deal on sales and distribution. While people are puking and dying in the fictional world around us, we turn our attention to budgets, bottom lines and just how much loss of human life is acceptable for a slightly higher margin on production. Naturally I lie my head off and negotiate directly with the other company. They’re in a much stronger position than me, it turns out, with much more efficient medicine.
She doesn’t know this, and I argue that we can’t possibly manufacture enough medicine in time to distribute to 4.5 million people separately, so we work together and split the profit. I’ve increased the margin on my vaccine 200 percent. I feel a bit bad. That’s not true, I don’t really feel bad. After all this is what pharmaceutical corporations do. But I think of Martin Shkreli – the guy who bought the rights to Daraprim, an anti-HIV medication, and increased the price from $17.50 a pill to $700 – so I don’t feel super great about myself either. The companies around the other tables started off charging $500 a pill for their vaccines so, on reflection, my $15 pills were very reasonable.
What’s sinister is how quickly the profit margin takes precedence as humanity goes out the window. It’s too easy to fall into the role of the unethical, unscrupulous corporation: all responsibility and care vanishes behind a smug veneer of deniability. We almost make our deal, but at the last minute government inaction and stalling on the price scuppers the lot. I don’t know how many people die as a result.
We conclude by playing the tennis ball game again, but this time with shields for some of us. The power of vaccination keeps well over half the room inoculated against the disease this time, although it still doesn’t stop the occasional sconing with a glowing tennis ball.
It’s an enjoyable, relaxed night. Our table becomes a little more familiar with each other. By the end we smile and chat with each other. Lee leaves us with a question: when the last time we needed to recover from an infection? How did we do it? What helped? Lee suggests we talk about this around the table once he has gone. Two of our table offer their stories, but it’s been a long night of playing at apocalypse so we break up to find cabs and spread our own diseases into the real night.
The sky’s still up there. But it can’t be long now…
Isolate and Contain: Mapping the Pandemic, by PlayReactive and Lee Shang Luan. Speakers: Professor Janet McCalman, University of Melbourne, Professor Jodie McVernon, Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, Kylie Carville, Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity and Steve Cameron, Emergency Management Victoria. Presented as part of Refuge 2018: Pandemic, at ArtsHouse, North Melbourne Town Hall, August 29.