Back in 2009, I wrote an article proclaiming that a technology revolution had taken place and finally theatre was embracing a digitalised medium – and us as the audience could no longer ignore it. Since then, there have been increasing amounts of experimentation, delivery of high-tech multi-million pound productions and a blurring of the boundaries/lines between theatre, film and media. Technology meeting theatre is here, and companies such as Pilot Theatre, Proto Type Theatre, and Blast Theory, to name but a few, are increasingly bringing digitally-minded audiences into a new, technology-driven form of theatre.
As technology has been developing over the past few years, we’ve also seen our everyday activities rapidly integrating technology. The mobile phone, which would once bring us voice calls and text messages, now has the power to make us connected at all times through the Internet and video calling. Equally the internet has revolutionised entertainment in our homes: where once upon a time we’d dial-up, now we’re connected at super broadband speeds allowing us to download packets of data instantly.
Technology might have been invading our homes and our theatres, but there was little movement in seeing theatre being channelled back into our homes utilising technology. 2010 saw the launch of Digital Theatre, a pioneering experiment that digitally captured some of the UK’s highly sought after theatre from companies and theatres such as The Almeida, The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and The Royal Court presenting them in a downloadable format. I for one was taken aback by this sudden ability to have theatre on my laptop, on my TV(connecting laptop to TV monitor), in the kitchen or just about anywhere I saw fit. Naturally, Digital Theatre was hailed as revolutionary but also greeted with mild amusement at the thought of theatre in your home on demand.
Since Digital Theatre’s launch, a niggling feeling has been eating away at me. If theatre organisations were keen to get their audiences to view their work more widely and when they wanted to, surely there must also be companies wanting to give a more personal theatrical experience in your home. The first sign of things to come crept up rather unnoticed in the form of Tim Etchells’s A Short Message Spectacle (SMS) presented at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival in May 2010. By giving over your mobile number, as an audience you were suddenly jolted into Etchells’s poetic if slightly psychedelic clown-infested world via text messages. The beauty of SMS was its unpredictability, the sudden engagement you would have upon receiving messages, thrusting you back into the narrative regardless of time or location.
The action of delivering a text message may have been minimal, but it was Etchells’s ability to invade his audience’s minds through a device which has rarely been used as the sole staging of a piece. Were we moving towards theatre invading our everyday lives? Etchells had planted a seed and it was only a matter of time before the next experiment would take place.
Next was Such Tweet Sorrow, the reworking of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for a modern teen audience, in a collaboration between The RSC and Mudlark. Using the platform of Twitter, each character had a profile, and the story would unfold in real time. You can read my thoughts here, but on a personal level, it failed. What it showed, though, was a move towards drama with epic stories transcending the stage, into our everyday lives. Twitter was the platform, and as the majority of its users connect whilst on the move, Such Tweet Sorrow had the ability to bring the drama into your life, regardless of location. Who needs the theatre when the theatre is coming to you?
Whilst Such Tweet Sorrow might have missed the trick of integrating technology, drama and a mobile platform in a single existence, Blast Theory proved it had what it takes in Ivy4Evr. As an initial pilot between Blast Theory and Channel Four, Ivy4Evr was an interactive SMS drama, where you were not only connected (through your mobile) with Ivy, a young teenager dealing with sex, drugs and boys, but also had the ability to communicate with her. Using a computer that analyses the response from text messages received, Ivy has the ability to respond directly and individually to each audience member beginning conversations and plot developments all through messages sent back and forth. As a piece of interactive drama it was outstanding, revealing a compelling story of teenage life. Yes it was aimed at teenagers with an educational slant, but it has revolutionised my thinking about mobile personal theatre.
These uses of technology to develop theatre audiences are inventive, fun and are truly pushing the boundaries between conventional theatre and us as an audience, connected globally and remotely from theatre spaces. 2011 is already shaping up to be a year of technological performances for theatre, where both Digital Theatre and Blast Theory are presenting new work for a digitally minded audience.
The Internet has revolutionised our engagement with the world, and whilst we can watch videos of shows uploaded onto YouTube (copyright permitting), and can go to the cinema to watch The Met Opera or National Theatre beam theatre around the world, we have yet to experience theatre from different countries in the comfort of our homes and of an excellent standard. Gulf Stage, a project with Digital Theatre, The British Council and Qatar, sees the beginnings of this development of international theatre for an international audience. Last year, Qatar hosted the Gulf Co-operation Council Youth Theatre Festival, a youth-led theatre festival with countries such as UEA, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait presenting six original productions. Digital Theatre captured each of these productions and working with The British Council, is now presenting them free to watch online through the Digital Theatre website.
What are the chances of me going to the Gulf to see theatre? Very minimal. Whilst some large-scale theatres such as The Barbican produce international work, there is little theatre from the Middle East entering our theatres. Gulf Stage, however, will allow us to watch a series of shows of a professional standard from the comfort of our homes – for free. The British Council is breaking down those boundaries of cultural differences, and allowing a global audience the chance to view theatre without traveling the globe to do so. The future of international theatre? It could well be.
Finally I want to return to Blast Theory and its continued engagement in creating theatre that engages its audience individually within the unconventional theatrical setting. Whilst the Sundance Film Festival might not be on my usual agenda for theatre viewing, it just so happens that Blast Theory’s latest work, A Machine To See With, is being given its grand unveiling to a cinematic audience. It is being described as an “interactive heist movie”, where the audience plays the lead character. Signing up for the production sees your mobile phone going off upon reaching a set destination. in which a 45 minute series of events take place, led by a voice over the phone. As the protagonist, you must deal with a bank robbery and its aftermath on the streets of Salt Lake City.
It sounds like a farfetched idea, but considering its placement within the Sundance Film Festival, the action thriller aspect conveys exactly what film audiences can easily immerse themselves in. A Machine To See With is another great example of digital theatre, which puts you as an audience member into the heart of the drama using a mobile device. If it ever comes to the UK I’ll be leaping at the chance to take out a bank robber or two… or maybe just a few bankers!
Is theatre in the middle of a digital revolution? I think the answer is obvious: yes.