As it becomes harder to remember a time when ‘Google’ wasn’t a verb, questions are being asked about how our new technological landscape is changing the neuronal pathways in our brains. So what might this mean for our cultural lives? As Brighton prepares for its fifth annual Digital Festival I spoke with James Turnbull, Development Manager of The Old Market [TOM] theatre, about how theatre can be re-wired for the digital age.
Wander into any coffee shop in Brighton and I guarantee you’ll be within range of web designers, games developers, theatre makers, social media experts and everything in between. Creatives flock to Brighton, but what they don’t all do is talk to each other. Turnbull believes this lack of communication isn’t happening on purpose, and what we need to do is articulate “what that value [of talking to each other] is and [have] a really open agenda”. For this year’s Brighton Digital Festival TOM is hoping for a “cross-over between the much wider tech industry” they didn’t have last year when they “just brought work in that had digital ticks to it”. This year’s programme, he hopes, “could be a game changer” in paving the way for collaborations between tech and arts industries.
Turnbull wants to avoid the experience he’s often had in the theatre of applauding the use of technology but thinking “you didn’t do that as well as you could. You didn’t consult a specialist about that”. This phenomenon of not consulting tech specialists is strange – he points out – when we do this naturally if we want to work with choreography or song in a piece of theatre. The result is: “everyone’s kind of a novice. So we pick up a new toy and it doesn’t quite work, or it breaks.” Surely anyone who’s been involved in a fringe production with heavy use of technology can attest to that.
So what does true collaboration between these two distinct industries look like, “how do you cross-pollinate between them?” For Turnbull one key is to realise that we’re not so different after all, “ultimately we’re storytellers” – it’s not just us, it’s the gaming, PR and communications industries too. One part of TOM’s Digital Festival programme that’s particularly exciting is a symposium that’s running alongside the live programme. Story Hack will bring together a theatre maker with a story and PR/gamers/academics in a room for a day and ask “how would you tell the story? What will happen next”?
TOM has always been interested in supporting artists using new technology. For example the innovative 1927 were given space to develop their acclaimed technologically playful production Golem at the venue. The dream, though, is to take it further than this “ad-hoc” approach:
“[I want to] create a strategy about how we work and support companies using digital technologies, rather than just give them space, what more can we offer them?”
Turnbull hopes that by opening pathways for tech and theatre people to communicate during Brighton Digital Festival the two industries might realise how continuing to work together could be mutually beneficial.
For audiences Turnbull hopes to “push theatre outside the realms of traditional theatre… I don’t think it’s about developing future audiences to go to digital theatre”, it’s more asking “how do you apply those tools [of the digital industries] in 2015, [to ask] what theatre might look like in the future”.
Perhaps the reason we don’t engage with new technologies as much as we could in the theatre is because we’re scared of what they might do to the art form. Even Turnbull says the imagined theatre of the future, fully collaborating with new technologies, is “probably not called theatre at that point”. When challenged, though, he’s emphatic that this is “not about replacing it [theatre]”, that “there is “absolutely” still space for actors on a bare stage and TOM does and will continue to programme such work.
In TOM’s Brighton Digital Festival programme audiences can expect – amongst many others – traditional campfire storytelling transported into lamp-posts using digital mapping in Shared Space & Light’s Talking Posts; a mind-blowing individual augmented reality experience using cutting edge technologies in Circa 69’s The Cube; and a projection playground for children in Imaginart’s Sensacional.
The ultimate dream at TOM is “to link together the manufacturers, the wider creative industries, the commercial creative industries and the arts so they can all have a share in the space”. Turnbull stresses that at the moment the emphasis is on asking the questions, creating an open forum – “I don’t have the answers”. There is, he says with excitement, “a lot to learn and a lot to play for”.
Brighton Digital Festival runs from 1– 27 September at various venues across the city.
Live updates on the Story Hack symposium.