Choose Your Own Documentary

Nathan Penlington, Creator of Choose Your Own Documentary

Nathan Penlington’s childhood obsession with Choose Your Adventure has led him down a number of exciting paths. He tells the story in his new documentary ‘Choose Your Own Documentary’, debuting at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

Like millions of children in the 1980s I grew up reading Choose Your Own Adventure books. The simple mechanic of choosing where the story would go next, and which page to turn to, redefined storytelling for a whole generation. As readers we became responsible not only for the outcome of the story, but for the journey, and in doing so Choose Your Own Adventure books neatly illustrated that our own lives are a tangle of narrative possibility. That is powerful stuff for an eight year old.

I’ve still got the books I had when I was a kid, and I’ve collected quite a lot more over the years from second hand shops. I loved them – falling through the fifth dimension and meeting the author Edward Packard inside his own book, breaking the rules and finding Ultima the planet of paradise, being trapped in a time-loop with an old man that keeps looming over you – are moments that I vividly remember. I loved them, and I still love them, but I was never even close to owning a complete set.

So you can imagine my excitement when a few years ago I found someone on eBay selling the first 106 Choose Your Own Adventure books in one lot – from #1 The Cave Of Time right through to #106 Hijacked. The night the auction ended I calculated my maximum tactical bid, took a risk, waited and placed a bid in the final minute. I won the books for a total of £41.01. If I’d made a different decision the rest of this story wouldn’t exist.

A few days later a huge parcel of books arrived. I cut through the tape, ripped back the flaps and began pulling books out – a tumble of titles that ranged from the prosaic Mystery Of The Secret Room, through the genre defying Space Vampire, to the suggestively ambiguous The Trumpet Of Terror.

The distinctive red and white covers instantly transporting me back to when I obsessively read and reread them as a child, turning down the corners, so if I hit a dead-end, I could go back and try again.

As I reached for the last book in the box: book number one, The Cave of Time, out fluttered four small pages. It was only as I grabbed them, I realised they weren’t pages from the book, they were pages of what seemed to be an old diary. A name scrawled across the top in blue biro – Terence Prendergast.

Those pages are one of the most heart-breaking things I have ever read. The diary contains the thoughts of a child growing up the 1980s, a child who has been bullied, has no self-esteem, and even though he loved Choose Your Own Adventure does not think of his own life in terms of possibility and choice.

I became obsessed with the diary, the obsession haunted my sleep, hung over my days. I had a gnawing need find out the truth behind the pages, I needed to know that Terence, who would now be a man around the same age as me, overcame those difficulties and emotions that had threatened to overwhelm him. It was almost as if the child I used to be responded to those pages like a letter in a bottle.

Collaborating with a team of filmmakers, Fernando De Jesus, Nick Watson and Sam Smaïl, we decided to document my quest to find Terence Prendergast. And for the past few years my life has become a Choose Your Own Adventure book: my search for Terence Prendergast has spanned four continents, and brought me face to face with the octogenarian originator of Choose Your Own Adventure Edward Packard, a self-help guru, a sword-swallower, a graphologist, a seaside arcade owner, and some ghosts from my own past.

And in doing so we’ve made a documentary with a difference; part spoken word, part stand up, part film. With over 1500 possible versions, and multiple endings, every performance is different. At each twist and turn it’s the audience who dictate which path the documentary takes – whether I meet with success, failure, or the unexpected, depends on the choices the audience make via remote controls.

The hardest challenge of making any documentary is that you can’t write reality, and the challenge of making such a complex Choose Your Own Adventure style documentary is that you definitely can’t write multiple realties. Despite this complexity, every story the show tells is true. Those stories are funny, emotional and profoundly human, and they are ultimately an exploration of what happens when you flip back to a corner you’ve folded down and turn to a different page.

Choose Your Own Documentary is at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2013.
Dates: 31st July to 26th August (Not 14th)
Tickets: £8-£11

Gilded Balloon Teviot, Venue 14, Edinburgh.
Venue box office: 0131 622 6552

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