Nathan Penlington hits NYC Tribeca Film Festival

May 16, 2014, Article by Tom in Books, Theatre & Comedy

Nathan Penlington, author of The Boy in the Book, describes his recent adventure in New York…

In April myself and Fernando Gutierrez De Jesus, Sam Smaïl and Nick Watson, the three film makers I’ve been collaborating with, were invited to the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. We were to present Choose Your Own Documentary as part of Storyscapes, a showcase of five different works exploring the intersection between technology and story.

Our Choose Your Own Documentary is a live experience, combining storytelling and film, which tells the story that became my new book The Boy in the Book; how I found four pages of a heartbreaking diary, written twenty years ago by a boy called Terence Prendergast, hidden inside a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and my obsessive quest to discover what became of the troubled teenager that wrote those pages. The twist with Choose Your Own Documentary is not only is it performed live, but the audience gets to vote what happens next, by using remote controls, in the manner of Choose Your Own Adventure books themselves.

The quest to find Terence Prendergast became an adventure of its own, and now the show was taking me on yet another adventure by presenting opportunities across the Atlantic. After checking in with the festival, and saying hello to the production and technical staff, I had a day free to myself.

I set out on my own, taking the subway down from the numbered avenues of Manhattan through the alphabetized stations, the Avenue’s U and X, of the bottom end of Brooklyn. My destination was a place I’d never been in reality, a place of myth and mystery, two words that instantly conjures illusion and oddity: Coney Island.

At the peak of its infamy Coney Island was alive with fairground rides and games of chance, dime museums, sideshows and freak shows, all of which have an inherent lure for me. All that survives of that rich complex history are the hundred year old Cyclone rollercoaster, the Wonder Wheel – an open ironwork Ferris wheel, a handful of modern rides, a few classic cons – shooting at tin cans, throwing rings over bottles – and the only permanently housed 10 in 1 sideshow left in America. It was the sideshow I was here to see.


Passing through a curtain, I found myself in the middle of the rotating show in progress. Run the way they used to be, there is no fixed entry time, you watch the show from the point you arrive until an hour later when the show starts to repeat itself.

On stage was a strong looking woman standing on a sheet completely covered in large shards of broken glass. She was trying to coax a heavy looking man from the audience into jumping onto her back, putting a huge amount of weight onto her feet, and in turn onto the broken bottles sticking into her skin. Half the audience watched through finger covered eyes in a combination of revulsion and compulsion, the other half enjoying the spectacle. The rest of the acts followed in quick succession: a man drilled into his nose with a power drill, a woman swallowed multiple swords at once, a young guy dislocated his shoulders so he could fit through a stringless tennis racket. This was the Coney Island of which I’d dreamt.


The next day it was my turn to take the stage, our first US performance, for the press and judging panel. The lights dimmed and the show’s opening warning scrolled across the screen: ‘WARNING!!! This show contains many different endings. The adventures you have are the result of your choices. You are responsible because you choose! Choose wisely. Good Luck’. And with three steps I was on stage. I looked out into the audience, delivering the first lines of the show, and into the eyes of the unmistakable face of Robert De Niro. He was there, remote control in hand, watching our very British adventure, full of awkward moments of comedy and tender moments of revelation. When I first started out on my quest I never, ever imagined that would happen.


A few days later we went to the awards ceremony. The Storyscapes award went to Clouds, a piece about coders that is interacted with through movement, and by wearing the Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles. We never expected to win, the absolute thrill of just being able to perform the show to American audiences, and have the same kind of emotional engagement we’ve had back home, was reward enough. Then, across the room, between the groups of red carpet dressed filmmakers and actors, Fernando spotted Jeff Goldblum, star of The Fly and Independence Day , and dragged us across to talk to him. For Fernando, a huge fan of Jurassic Park, this moment was the winning prize – as his smile in the photo evidence proves.


On our final day in New York, I set out early on another quest, to find the street artist Teofilo Olivieri who appears towards the end of The Boy in the Book. Last time I was in New York I accidently found him displaying his work, paintings that use the covers of discarded hard backed books as his canvas, on the corner of 23rd street and 6th avenue. On this visit I wanted to give him a copy of my book, to repay him for the joy finding his work gave me. Walking down 6th, I counted down the streets, 27th, 26th, practicing what I would say in my head. 25th, 24th, the act of giving him the book would be closing another circle somehow. 23rd. I turned the corner, along the wall where I expected to find the inspiration of unexpected art, nothing.

But, as you’ll discover if you read the book, I don’t give up easily. I’ve passed on the quest to my friend Gemma, who has just moved to New York and is looking for adventures to help explore the city. She has said she’ll take to the streets of Manhattan, armed with a camera, and one day in the future I hope she’ll be able to send me proof The Boy in the Book has reached another person who has been saved by books.

Tour dates and more information about Choose Your Own Documentary:

For information about Nathan Penlington’s other projects:

The Boy in the Book is published by Headline on 22nd May.