Theatre Thought: The rise of the ‘Digital Theatre’

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the digital in theatre, and how this affects us as an audience, and as industry professionals and theatre makers. At the moment, it’s all about the digital; everyone is embracing it and if you’re not then you’re being left behind. At least, this is what we are expected to believe. There are debates, of course, that nothing can take away from the purity of an actor and an audience interacting, nothing more. What digital is needed in that relationship? Well, to that, I respond quite simply: to enhance, and to allow the imagination to be taken on more visual journeys than just an actor doing it for the audience.

It’s not just inherent in the shows we are producing, which are now relying upon projections and technological placement alongside the actors to make the work, but also in the way in which we are interacting with theatre as a whole, and to a further extent, being marketed at. To give an idea to some of the most recent developments in making digital theatre (although to be clear, I don’t think we truly know what that means yet) here are some examples of work happening or launched this week:

myShakespeare

myShakespeare produced by The Royal Shakespeare Company

Linking in with the World Shakespeare Festival and proving that once again The Royal Shakespeare Company is serious about exploring the potential of the digital space to explore the work of Shakespeare, myShakespeare is a presentation of global discussions and threads that mention Shakespeare in the digital world. Or as The RSC is calling it, the digital heartbeat of Shakespeare. Now here I have to be open and say that I do have an active interest as I’ll be writing a series of blogs for the project later in the year, but don’t let that stop you checking it out.

There are several parts to myShakespeare, first there are commissioned pieces of art that are being presented through the website, all influenced and challenging the notion of Shakespeare. Secondly, and this is what excites me, there is Banquo, the data visulation tool that is built into myShakespeare. For several months Banquo has been combing social media sites, Twitter, Flickr and Ebay for references to Shakespeare. Banquo allows you to see these mentions in visualisations, but also allows you to travel back in time, or to define by play.

It’s still in the early days, but given that the World Shakespeare Festival is soon to start there will bound to be lots of watch out for.

Video Season Launch – Headlong Theatre

The new season for Headlong has been announced, and whilst it is a very impressive season, it is the accompanying video trailer that came with the announcement that has caught people’s eyes. At five minutes long, the trailer depicts the various central characters and themes of the productions in the new season. Delivered in high definition, and with production values that put any flip camera to shame, Headlong has not just produced a piece of marketing material, it has produced a piece of art in itself.

The video has caused quite a stir on Twitter, with a heated debate about whether a theatre company should invest in film-like trailers for their productions. Is it an investment or a waste of money that could go into a production? Is it taking away from theatre as a live element? Is it wrong to call it a trailer – is this too close to film, and thus, what language can we use for when theatre explores theatrical work in new mediums such as videos? Personally I don’t think it matters, because what gets me is the quality of the video, and the commitment that Headlong has made in producing it. It’s bold, and big and I like it. Will it make audiences buy a ticket? We’ll have to see about that.

If anything, seeing work of this standard does question the nature of video trailers for theatre, and what they offer their audiences. Too often we are left to see rehearsal footage, or just pictures floating across a video. It’s good to see some artistic merit going into producing a video, and one that links together a season is a nice quality too. Another move for marketers to explore their work digitally? Yes. Oh and the use of music within the video is fantastic, and is bound to attract attention from people who will see this as a more a music video than a trailer for a theatre season. Very clever, Headlong.

Radicalisation of Bradley Manning

The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning by National Theatre of Wales

The National Theatre of Wales is the perfect example of a company that, from its very founding, has sought to challenge perspectives on theatre. It might be Wales’s National Theatre but it has no walls to call it its home. Instead, NTW roams Wales freely, hosting productions where it can bring the community straight into the heart of its pieces. NTW has been a strong player in embracing the potential of digital to create a community for its disparate audience. There is the fantastic NTW community portal which offers discussions on message boards, blogs and lots of thought-provoking engagement from both the NTW staff (who are considerably open on it) and the Welsh community at large.

After the success of The Passion, NTW has sought to continue its engagement online, bringing audiences from across the UK into its work. Its latest piece, The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, is currently on tour, and NTW has developed an online viewing platform where you can watch the play streamed live and engage with others at the same time. Working with Kinura this platform really allows for engagement to take place when watching something from the comfort of your home. It’s not a new technique – Pilot Theatre has been working with the company whilst developing this for its own work – but it’s still a relatively new way of working. The video quality is always increasing, and I’m genuinely excited by the prospect of theatre being live streamed across the internet. It’s going to be a growing trend in the next year.

Performances of The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning are playing until 28 April. See the online platform here.

Tag 2012

We all remember Such Tweet Sorrows (and if you don’t, you can read my thoughts about the project), and whilst I’ve come to accept that it was ground-breaking it did leave a lot of sour users in its wake. There has been the odd glimmer of excitement with people using Twitter as a tool for creating theatrical work, but nothing as big as Pilot Theatre’s new piece Tag 2012 which had a soft launch this week.

“People are disappearing. I don’t know why. But I’m starting to see patterns,” says Mark Yates, a 44-year-old lab technician and blogger. You can find Mark on Twitter or explore his website here, but the premise is simple: people are disappearing, and no one is doing anything about it. Is it aliens? We’ll be sure to find out. Happening across Twitter and written in real-time by Daniel Bye and Dan Rebellato, the project began life over 200 days ago when the ‘characters’ first began tweeting. The project has already had a R&D period and looks to be gearing up to make some interesting breakthroughs in the coming months.

I’ll be completely honest and say that I’m not sure what to expect from the project. It’s happening across Twitter, and the ‘characters’ are already out there… we’ll just have to see how it turns out. Follow the Tag 2012 Twitter account.

Some thoughts:

The various digital projects shown above are all unique in the ways in which they are approaching theatre and the digital. There is a certain element of play and experimentation involved when working with new formats of presenting work. We have to understand that if we want to really get anywhere, if we want to push boundaries and push our audiences too, we have to experiment and learn to fail, too. I’m starting to feel like we’re seeing theatre companies and venues just beginning to explore the potential of digital. There have been large leaps into the unknown in the last year such as NT Live!, the various AYT projects we have conducted with organisations, and looking ahead we still have NESTA and BBC’s The Space to look forward to.

It’s an exciting time to be exploring digital opportunities, but the only thing I want to stress is that all of the above examples don’t have marketing at the focus of their work. Yes there are marketing elements to them, and perhaps you could argue that Headlong’s video is purely marketing, but there is a clear artistic merit surrounding each work. It’s those who choose to experiment, to push boundaries and to be willing to engage with their audiences in new ways who are leading the digital breakthrough. Don’t worry, though, all this talk of digitalisation sometimes makes my skin crawl when all I want is to be sitting in a real theatre, surrounded by a real audience, watching real actors. Thankfully theatre isn’t dying out, it’s thriving. Although can the same be said for music after Tupac performed at Coachella Festival as a “hologram”? Ah, the future is most certainly digitally driven… but let’s not get too carried away shall we?