“He doesn’t like to be interrupted,” I’m told before entering the RSC’s Ashcroft Room to sit in on rehearsals for its interactive project, A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming. I hastily switch off my phone. As the first journalist allowed to sit in on the new Artistic Director Gregory Doran’s rehearsals with the company, I’m anxious to make myself scarce. Doran, however, is affably welcoming and after being briefly introduced to the cast I sit back and watch as they skilfully negotiate a couple of scenes from Shakespeare’s fantastical comedy. In the Swan Theatre below, the sounds of Titus Andronicus‘s notoriously grizzly murders echo up from the matinee. What’s different about this show, however, is that the space in which the actors and director are working – a rehearsal room with a carpet taped to the floor and large windows looking out over Stratford-Upon-Avon – is where the play will actually be staged. Well, here and across a range of online platforms; the project, a collaboration with the Google Creative Lab, is a combination of live events and digital content, taking place in ‘real time’ over three days. A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be staged in full in the Ashcroft Room and the green outside the theatre, acting as a ‘metronome’ whilst online material is created and shared around it, offering multiple perspectives on an appropriately kaleidoscopic play-text.
Geraldine Collinge, Director of Events and Exhibitions, explains: “the project is about re-imagining theatre – so, if theatre was invented now, how would we do it?” The experiment is to “take away the narrative structures that we currently have in place” when it comes to drama, and to explore fiction through the processes in which “news is reported and shared today” She elaborates, referring to a series of shocking celebrity photographs currently doing the rounds of news websites and social media: “we’ve all seen pictures of it, we’ve all read about it, we may have even commented or written about it. I wasn’t there and you weren’t there, but actually we’re all a part of it.” It is this idea of “amplification” and the retelling of news that formed the basis of A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming. “Then,” she says, “we established some rules: if you’re thinking of fiction like a news story, then obviously the fictional characters wouldn’t blog or tweet about their activities, but other people that were there or have an opinion on it would”. This led to the development of the original online content – including images, animations, blogs and tweets from secondary and imagined characters – which is collated on a dedicated website, http://dreaming.dream40.org, and tweeted under the hashtag #dream40.
Inevitably, I suggest, cynics may paint the project as a ‘dumbing-down’ of Shakespeare, and one that – with its deliberately fragmented form – plays into contemporary audiences’ perceived lack of concentration. Collinge, however, is keen to stress that in developing A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, the creative team focused at all times on “keeping the play at the heart of it. It was really important for us that we weren’t rewriting the play, or writing it in twitter-speak or anything like that.” When I mention some of the problems of live-streaming theatre, and the strange dilution that often occurs when a theatrical event is taped and transmitted, she’s quick to pick me up on my mistake and stress that audiences should “think of it as a social project, rather than a streaming project”; whilst images and clips from the performance in the Ashcroft Room are shared online as part of the production, “it’s not that we’re pointing a camera at the actors and streaming them, it’s that it’s all going through this next layer of the secondary characters, who’ll capture extracts from the live on mobile phones”.
This answers my next question, about the design aspects of this particular production – the RSC’s fortieth venture into the forest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (hence the hashtag). “It’s deliberately un-designed”, Collinge says, “with the aesthetic of a rehearsal room. We’re not saying that this is film. They’re not in makeup – some of them weren’t even shaven yesterday! It’s got a very different aesthetic, and its very important that we’re not using high-quality cameras.” The stripped-back approach becomes evident when I later go up to the Ashcroft Room where, appropriately for a meta-theatrical production, the first scene being rehearsed is Act I Scene II, in which Peter Quince, Bottom et al prepare for the play-within-the-play, “the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe”. Whilst Quince briefs his actors under the direction of Gregory Doran, the rest of the cast experiment with different costumes from a rack at the edge of the room. “Too Liz Taylor”, someone chimes in as Alexandra Gilbreath, playing Titania, tries on a flowing green frock. She picks up a long black gown instead. ‘No, that looks a bit like you’re graduating”. The sound supplied for the production is similarly improvised and unfussy – a piano and various percussion instruments create the magic of the play, and different effects are experimented with throughout the rehearsal.
What’s interesting, I realise when discussing the project with Collinge, is that A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming touches not only on the ways in which we engage with the news and popular culture, but also, more importantly, it begins to reflect the very immediate form that theatre and arts criticism now takes, as critics and general audiences alike tweet and blog their responses, often from the foyers of theatres during the interval. With A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, people are actively encouraged to photograph and tweet during the actual production: a rare occurrence then, to be told “please ensure your mobile phone is switched on for this performance”.
This hasn’t been the RSC’s first foray into digital theatre, but it is certainly its most ambitious. When the company attempted an online performance of Romeo and Juliet in 2010, Such Tweet Sorrow, “there wasn’t enough to it”, Dan Rebellato, who wrote Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, opines on his blog. The general consensus from “online-savvy members of the theatre community” was far from positive, and “the people in control of the feeds seemed freaked out by interactivity and unsure how to respond to criticism”. Whereas, Rebellato writes, Dreaming has had “constant characters, rich additional resources, strange interactions, loads of subplots, and by the time people were commenting on each other, it created a deep forest of story that you entered and could play in, be transformed by”. The atmosphere of the theatre certainly seemed transformed when I visited during the run-up; Collinge gained a rather exhausted but eager glint in her eye when I asked if the RSC has plans for future digital work or further collaborations with Google Creative Lab, answering “I hope so”. There was a buzz about the place, a sense of possibility and spontaneity, that’s rare to encounter in a professional venue, and most of the staff I encountered involved in the project were similarly wired. “Quick bright things come to confusion”, Lysander warns Hermia in Shakespeare’s play: was this the case with the round-the-clock, multi-platform narrative of A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming? In the spirit of interactive theatre, how was it for you?
Visit www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/midsummer-nights-dreaming/ for more information.