Guarini Alumni Research Award Recipient 2021: Piper Hill, Digital Musics

One of the scariest things for me, and I think a lot of us, is entering a space without knowing the rules — both implicit and explicit — by which it operates.

It's your first time at your partner's family's house for dinner; a teacher hands you a blank piece of paper; an acquaintance invited you to come jam with them and their buddies; you're playing a co-op battle royale game as a guest on a team that's known each other since middle school.

You might understand some of the expectations — say please and thank you; you should probably draw something; you should bring an instrument and do more listening than playing; hang back, observe their attack style, take orders — but you know that the given instructions — "just be yourself," "draw whatever comes to mind," "do whatever feels right," "just play the game, man," — are usually not enough to do well.

Being "yourself" might involve sharing a lot of personal information, leading you to find out that one of the rules of the household has actually been "don't mention ____ or ____" all along. Or maybe, once you've finished your drawing, the teacher says "alright, we're going to vote on the best three and those will be displayed in the hallway all week," — so "draw something you're comfortable with everyone seeing" would've been a nice instruction to receive earlier. What feels right to you — the sound you're making with the groove they're playing — is throwing everyone else off their game, and it turns out that they expected you to follow a particular chord progression and energy flow that was only communicated nonverbally through cues they've developed together over years of playing.

However, if someone helps you out at this family dinner, saying "hey, why don't you tell us about that thing you were working on recently," or if the teacher says "please draw something you'd like to share," or if the bassist says "we're probably going to start in this key, but we might change it up, if you get lost, just look at me, and I'll help you out," or if the team shares their strategy with you, that can help a lot!

It's usually impossible to know all the implicit and explicit expectations of a space, especially if you're new to it, but I always appreciate an earnest effort to keep everyone on the same page.

These fears are part of the reason why I often feel more comfortable playing single-player games and making art by myself. Collaboration is scary! But that's precisely why I find myself coming back to it. When it works, it feels magical.

I'd originally envisioned I'd use my entire time at The Digital Musics program to devise a grand multimedia interactive musical with dozens of collaborators, but the pandemic dampened that dream a bit. My first year, spending most of my time alone in my apartment, counting on one hand the number of people I'd come into contact with in a given month, my thoughts turned inward. The pandemic reaffirmed the importance of the virtual in mine and many people's hearts, so I took Professor William Cheng's "Video Games and the Meaning of Life" course. This course reminded me, among other things, that I've always loved making games for my friends and family to play.

After some early experiments my first year, I resolved that I would make an elaborate PowerPoint game. It felt like the most idiomatic and charged medium, as I used to make PowerPoint games in elementary and middle school, but hadn't since. PowerPoint is Turing-complete, which basically means it can perform all the basic functions of a programming language, and simulate any Turing machine. However, unlike a modern programming language, PowerPoint has funny limitations and an awkward clunkiness to it that sets up a comfortable boundary within which I feel suddenly freer to create.

When news of a fall term with an open campus and in-person classes hit, my thoughts returned to the possibility of making a musical with other people in a space with bodies. However, I didn't want to lose the interactive game element that I'd been itching for. So I decided to make A Show that Is a Game (and Is Also a Party and Is Also an Elaborate PowerPoint Presentation) — A Musical. I wrote, directed, and produced three workshop performances of the musical this past fall, and I think people had a good time overall!

Obviously, that was one of my goals (to give people a good time, both audience and performers) but I wanted a good time to be the type of good that helps people realize that more things are possible — in their lives, their art, their interactions — and subverts competition with care. The first of these workshops did that in part, but it was messy and a little too long, the audience grew weary by the end. But by the third workshop, we as a cast and crew had really settled into ourselves in relation to the show, and we were able to guide the audience throught the experience with confidence. If it weren't for the week in between each performance that we had to make changes to the show and rehearse parts that didn't go super well, we wouldn't have been able to make this much progress.

This show was a big ask of the people involved, both time and energy-wise. I asked not only for people's performance and technical labor, but their creative labor as well. Even though everyone was enthusiastic about the process, I didn't want anyone to feel taken for granted. The Alumni Research award allowed me to provide small honorariums to performers and crew members, most of whom were undergrads. Although it wasn't nearly enough to compensate for the actual labor they did, my hope was that it would reinforce the idea that their artistic labor is valuable and they should get paid for it, and raise their expectations for their future work.

The fall's workshops were valuable in learning both what worked and what didn't. Over the three weekends, I learned how to write clearer instructions (for both the performers and the audience), learned what games don't work at all, learned what makes people too scared to participate and what makes them feel safe enough to dive in, learned what visual aids to employ to help things make more sense to everyone. I've since begun revising the show for future versions, but I already know it's going to take years of trial and error before it's where I want it to be. It turns out that it's easier said than done to create comprehensible instructions that help people feel safe yet invested enough to take risks. The only way to know if something's going to work is to try it, and if it doesn't, try something else the next time.