Theatre — 05 November 2012
A documentary where you choose the ending

What happens next? You decide. Nathan Penlington has made a documentary where the path is controlled by a live audience. Dan Frost meets the man inspired – nay obsessed – by the Choose Your Own Adventure books 

Like many children of his generation, Nathan Penlington grew up an avid fan of the Choose Your Own Adventure book series. For those not versed in teen literature of the 1980s, these were ‘game books’ that put their (mainly male) readers in the driving seat. Upon reaching a cliffhanger moment, the reader is given a variety of choices what to do next: choose to kill the pirate? Turn to page 50; Want to run away? Turn to page 63; Ask for his help in return for some gold? Turn to page 72. As such, there were hundreds of possible routes that you could take through each book, and a variety of endings – including death.

More than two decades after he read his first Choose Your Own Adventure novel, 36-year-old Penlington has created a live theatre-come-film-come-comedy-come-spoken word show which uses the same format. Audiences watch a documentary that he has made, and vote via remote control at key points to determine what he does next. It sounds fun, but potentially a bit gimmicky – until you hear the story behind it.

“I was really into the books when I was a kid, and I’ve carried on collecting them,” explains Penlington. “A few years ago I bought a collection of 106 of them on eBay. I started flicking through them and realised that they had all belonged to one kid who’d written his name across the top of each book: Terrence Prendergast. Inside one of the books, I found four pages of a diary, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. I was hooked from then on.”

The pages dated from 1990, when Prendergast was either 14 or 15 (one entry reveals that he was born in 1975). Among the entries was what appeared to be a list of insecurities and perceived personal shortcomings that he wanted to overcome: “Stutter – practise speaking”, “Posture – walk properly when slim”, “No friends”, and, “Laugh – practise laugh”. 

The name Elaine also appears, but on its own and without explanation. It doesn’t seem to fit with anything else, until you get to the next section of the diary – a gripping chronicle of events that goes some way to explaining why Penlington became so intrigued.

What begins rather sadly, with Prendergast being bullied in the early-to-mid 80s, gradually takes a turn for the rebellious. There’s talk of skiving and being caught smoking, and an entry that tells us, “Elaine ran away”. Then, quite suddenly, comes: “Two days before summer holiday stole money from parents, bought airline ticket, ran away to Scotland, came back next day”, followed soon after by: “Left school with intention to kill myself. Stole, suspended and expelled”. The entry then finishes with a kick-to-the-stomach cliffhanger: “Elaine – drugs, guns.”

“I was instantly hooked,” grins Penlington with boyish excitement. “I’ve read it in so many different ways. You might read it as an explicit cry for help. And you might read it another time and think ‘maybe it’s just a complete fantasy’. Either way, it was kicking around in my head for a long time. Eventually I decided that I had to find out what happened – if he was OK.”

Rather than just hunting down Prendergast for the hell of it, the comedian and spoken word artist decided to make a documentary of his quest. And not just any documentary, but one that employed the format of the Choose Your Own Adventure books that both he and Prendergast had so cherished, and which brought their lives together. He teamed up with some filmmakers, and Choose Your Own Documentary was born. 

“I always wanted to do it in that format,” says Penlington. “But the idea is stupidly complex. A Choose Your Own Adventure novel is difficult enough to write as fiction, so forcing it not only into a live show but into a live documentary show was a big job. The biggest challenge we faced was how to make everything compelling – regardless of which route the audience chooses.”

This was no mean feat – there are more than 1,500 combinations of the journey, all of which needed to hold an audience’s attention for 90 minutes on their way to one of six possible endings. 

Among the people that audiences might meet along the way are a self-help guru, a sword-swallower, a seaside arcade owner and the originator of the Choose Your Own Adventure series, Edward Packard. I ask Penlington if they had to engineer certain meetings or events in order to keep the different narratives entertaining.

“No, it’s completely real,” he insists. “It really was an adventure, exactly as it appears in the documentary. Though we are faithful to the books, in that if you choose badly you can kill me. That’s the only fictional thing that could happen in the show.”

Penlington reveals that it was an emotional journey, which was “more revealing about me than I thought it was going to be”. But the emotional response of another person was of greater concern. 

“Part of my anxiousness was how to raise the issue and explain it all to Terrence if we ever found him. It’s a really difficult thing – how would I feel if someone contacted me about a diary I had written when I was 15, to say they were making a show about it?”

And did he ever find Prendergast?

Penlington flashes a sly smile: “That very much depends on the audience.”

Choose Your Own Documentary, Southbank Centre, November 6-10, southbankcentre.co.uk

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