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Review: TattleTales at Bard's Apothecary - Melb Fringe

Review By Tessa Stickland

If you play D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) or any other TTRPG (Tabletop Roleplaying Game), you’ll love TattleTales. Same goes for lovers of tarot cards, astrology, and the mystical.

TattleTales is an improvised story, as told by the “mysterious” Storyteller, using randomly drawn tarot cards as prompts and decisions from audience members to further the story.

If you’re familiar with TTRPGs, this will sound like a familiar structure. The setting is drawn from audience choices and tarot cards. The character types, traits, and abilities are chosen by drawing Major Arcana cards (the main archetypes within a tarot deck). The success of the choices made is decided based on the card drawn, much like rolling dice. And the story is guided by the Storyteller, like a GM (Game Master (aka DM (Dungeon Master))).

Heck, I’m sure there is a TTRPG system out there that uses tarot cards. However, TattleTales isn’t a TTRPG experience. It’s similar in many ways, but carves its own path as a theatrical work.

The Bard’s Apothecary is the venue for TattleTales this Melbourne Fringe. The downstairs room is set up with tables and chairs, a couch, and tealight candles. It’s intimate, cosy, and inviting.

Upon entry, you’re greeted by the Storyteller — as performed for the Melbourne Fringe run by one of the TattleTales creators, Davey Seagle. He wears black simple clothes, no shoes, a bone necklace, and has streaks of dark makeup decorating his face (remarkably not feeling reminiscent of any particular culture, steering clear of any appropriation).

He has a table with candles, crystals, cards, and a well hidden iPad for music changes as the story naturally progresses.

As the Storyteller, Seagle speaks with this vaguely fantasy, medieval, Shakespearian affectation. He wouldn’t be out of place as a soothsayer in Game of Thrones.

I was impressed with Seagle’s ability to make this voice sound somewhat natural — or, more to the point, not sound cringe. It’s so easy to go overboard with a character voice like this. It’d ruin the show if he did. The balance in his vocal performance lets the audience suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in the experience.

Seagle grounds the character by letting his natural laughter slip into the character's voice. When a tarot card is drawn, he’ll occasionally chuckle “Ooh, that’s a fun one” in almost his normal voice.

Now, you might be thinking “Immersive theatre? Audience interaction? Me making decisions? Yeah, not for me…”

But think again! TattleTales is designed to work and be enjoyable no matter how much or little the audience wants to participate. Personally, I think it’s likely to be more enjoyable if the audience is actively engaging and interacting — but I say that as someone who loves audience interaction.

At the top of the show, the Storyteller informs the audience that any time they don’t want to participate, they can simply raise their arms in a cross against their body. No words needed. The same action can be used to steer the story in another direction if any element of the story is uncomfortable or triggering for anyone.

It’s an important and necessary step to allow for an inclusive experience. As the Storyteller says themself, what’s the point in sharing a story if it’s not the story people want to experience?

Similarly, if audience members can’t decide when asked for input, they can pull a tarot card from the deck and let the fates decide.

So, if participation isn’t your thing, you can still safely attend, free from judgement.

The night I went had a smallish audience turnout. At lots of shows this is a negative. But it was a special experience with a limited audience, enhancing the intimate vibe. I was only sad more people weren’t there to enjoy it as much as I did.

The Storyteller divided up the room into three groups. Each group was assigned a character to make decisions for throughout the story, as designated by the tarot card drawn. The groups would either take turns making choices, or briefly discuss and act as a sort of hive mind.

I’m not sure if a larger audience means a fourth audience controlled character, or if the Storyteller simply assigns larger groups to control each character’s fate.

I know for myself and some of the other attendees it was a bit awkward working with strangers in these groups, as we didn’t want to step on each other's toes when making choices. But I fell into the groove of it soon enough, deciding to just be bold when it felt right — which in turn, I think, allowed my group to also feel confident to make choices of their own.

The type of choices offered aren’t as open ended as you’d find in a typical TTRPG. The Storyteller never throws you in the deep end by vaguely asking “What do you do next?”

He presents various options to select from, as inspired by the meanings of the tarot cards. But there is plenty of room for any bold audience members to add their own idea, or mix up a combination of the Storyteller’s suggestions.

Because of this ‘multiple choice’ approach, it allows for a story to be told even if every audience member is too intimidated to contribute. They can either pick an option at random, “Uhh, the second option…”, or they can draw another card which the Storyteller interprets the meaning of to make the choice.

This is where I see TattleTales’ main divergence from TTRPGs. It’s collaborative, but controlled primarily by the Storyteller. The characters in the story aren’t fully embodied or roleplayed by the audience. No one is expected to do voices (though I reckon it’d be cool if that happened) or act out scenes. The Storyteller does the heavy lifting, guided by the crowd’s ruling.

Because TattleTales is designed to work even without a bold audience, there are times where the story stayed too vague for my personal preference.

More time was spent describing the meaning of the cards over furthering the story or describing the details. I assume this is affected by how decisive the audience are during any given show. A more decisive audience might equal a more detailed story? And my audience was somewhere near the lower-middle end of the decisiveness scale.

But, then again, the vagueness might be by design. Because it allows each viewer to interpret the story in their own way. This fits with the show’s goal of creating a shared experience that everyone feels agency over.

It’s a taste thing. As someone who regularly plays D&D and has done a bit of improv — my personal inclination is away from ambiguity and towards specific details.

Earlier, I briefly mentioned music. Obviously, music can do a lot to establish atmosphere. But how does that work for a show that could go anywhere? Well, the Storyteller has a selection of atmospheric tracks loaded up, controlled from the hidden iPad. I’m sure they’ve got plenty of music I didn’t even hear.

It’s key for the Storyteller to manage the music transitions. It gives them total control of tone and pace, and saves them from trying to read minds with a Sound Tech.

Because of the collaborative and improvisational nature of the show, you could go time and time again and share a totally different story.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Storyteller has a few go-to story beats up their sleeve in case the show lulls or gets stuck — but even then, the cards and the audience will always pull the show somewhere new.

What story did I experience? Well, I can tell you spoiler free:

A tale of ambition on the high seas near a cursed island. Three figures vie for power: The Tower — power hungry, ready to conquer, ready for mutiny; The Moon — a wielder of magic who lied their way to captaincy; and The World — the ex-captain, lying in wait to protect the ship.

Stuck in the water with no wind, The Tower brews discord. But, before discontent boils over, The Moon secretly conjures magical wind, sending the ship hurtling towards the nearest land: fiery, dangerous, and blighted — but full of magical potential.

In their attempts to seize control, all three heroes fail: each ending up with only a tiny crew and small or broken boat – limping on to new horizons.

Image Supplied


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