“SELLING YOU QUIET”: THE NEW FRONTIER OF DIGITAL THEATRE

This is a slightly edited version of an article written for the Australian Writers’ Guild’s Storyline magazine,
published in January 2015 in Volume 34.

In a technologically-saturated age, when most art forms are moving towards modes of digital creation, distribution or enhancement, theatre is perhaps the only art form whose existence cannot be adequately captured or recreated in a virtual space. True, theatre is being filmed and broadcast in cinemas across the world and being made available online, both in Australia and overseas, but it doesn’t capture the same experience as being in a darkened space with a hundred other people, watching performers in a space in front of you. Perhaps the future of digital theatre lies not in accurately capturing the performance in a recording, but in something else, in the creation of a world in which the performance can sit.

Sydney’s Griffin Theatre Company, in collaboration with Google’s Creative Labs (henceforth referred to as ‘Google’), has instigated a digital theatre project which is attempting to test the boundaries of overlap between traditional theatre practices and the endless possibilities of digital technology. In short, their goal is to create a prototype in which the theatrical performance is just one element of a wider world, of a wider conversation about the performance, one which takes place on social media platforms, and actively encourages audience participation and interaction.

While previous experiments with ‘digital theatre’ projects have used existing works and anchored them in an online environment, Griffin is boldly going where few previous experiments in this mode of theatre-making have gone before. Seven writers from diverse theatre-making backgrounds are collaborating on a project entitled ‘Luck Bad Luck’ to create not just a new work for the theatre, but a new virtual world in which the play can sit in conversation with its audience. Part of the attraction to the project – for Google, for the writers; for Griffin as a company – is in trying to figure out how this prospect of ‘digitally-enhanced theatre’ might work. Theatre itself, by its nature, has always been bounded by time and space; that is, the whole condition of its existence is predicated on the idea that audiences and performers are sharing the same space and time at the same moment. But what if it was more than that – what if the narrative that occurs on the stage at a particular space and time, with a particular group of audiences, what if that is only one moment in the past and future of the characters? What if there was an entire landscape of characters and places which audiences could virtually encounter?

David Williams, one of the writers on the project, and Simon Wellington, Griffin’s General Manager, both make it clear that however you look at this venture, it is still very much a research and development experiment entered into between Griffin and Google without any clear idea of the result. As Williams says, “the project is less a technological exploration than a series of creative people engaging with questions of how technology might impact on storytelling and on theatrical storytelling in particular.” “What are the potential of different narratives,” Wellington continues, “online and on-stage, that are developed from the digital technology at the core of their premise [and] conceptual development; what are the connections between those narratives?”

Part of the experiment, not least from Google’s perspective, is to see how audiences use technology to participate in the theatre-making process and to follow its on-stage journey; how do audiences consume culture, how do they curate their own consumption of culture?  To aid the experiment’s development, three main audiences have been identified: a traditional theatre audience for whom “it is the same theatre performance every night;” an audience who “exists online, or physically separated from the live event of theatre;” and a third dynamic audience who, in Wellington’s words, follows the online narrative and then sees the theatre performance, sees the “portals or windows within that where the online world intersects and cuts through.” Crucially, and at this stage perhaps unknowably, do these audiences exist; are there differences in audiences? How do you find those audiences, physically and online?

From a writer’s perspective, the collaborative nature of this project is more similar to the model used by television production houses, where a stable of writers discuss and minutely plot each scene, beat and episode so that regardless of who pitches an idea, any writer can go away and deliver the scene or episode. “I think that writers work in conversation, and I suspect a collaborative approach to writing will become more common in the live theatrical world and not just the television world,” Williams says. Technology such as Google Docs enables the writers to write on the one document at the same, another way of having a creative conversation and (literally) being on the same page, while Google Hangouts allows artists in disparate parts of the country and/or world to hold video conversations in virtual rooms in real-time, regardless of where they physically are. While not a replacement for face-to-face interaction in the same physical space, these techniques are applicable not just to the writing process, but to the collaborative creative process as a whole. For Wellington, it’s a question of being able to work with a broad range of artists; the same techniques and technologies can be applied to interviewing, auditioning, and dramaturgy, and will be “financially and environmentally beneficial for us in the long run as well.”

From a guild perspective though, the collaborative and experiential model of theatre-making poses a slew of new questions: if a group of people are employed as writers on a project, what agreements do you employ them under? If only one element of the final deliverable – performable – event is a live performance in front of an audience or camera, how do you credit or protect the writers and creators of the virtual ‘bonus’ content that surrounds and anchors the live event? Can the traditional agreements and models still be applied to these new hybrid forms of theatre-making?

Inspired by Tom Uglow, Creative Director for Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney, Williams believes that there may certainly come a point in the not too distant future when we won’t need to consciously know or remember information because our smart devices will be able to ‘think’ and ‘remember’ for us. What will become valuable is the ability to join the dots of knowledge together and be able to use them effectively, the ability to synthesise and analyse what information we do have. The impact this knowledge-revolution could have on the theatre and practitioners is fascinating. “Theatre is an old art form – I suppose its unique promise has been it’s one of the few moments in contemporary life where people gather and spend a sustained amount of time focusing on a particular set of ideas. We can turn the television off and walk away from it, or come back to it later; it’s not live. Even watching a sporting event, you can watch it at a time that’s convenient for you. The idea that we as individuals have to wait for things, that we have to obey someone else’s sense of space and time is a very archaic one.” Perversely though, it’s one that theatre demands. “When theatre happens, it has a fixed start time, you can’t be late or you’ll be locked out. Theatre is a pre-digital hold-out. How does theatre retain that core identity in relation to the digital world, how does it engage in that world? What about it does that, and what about it changes.”

If you look back over the past three- or four-thousand years of theatrical storytelling, the same fundamental elements have remained constant: audiences, performers, stories being told. What has changed is the technology that allows us to tell the stories – everything from seating and costumes, to set design, smoke machines and digital lighting techniques and mechanisation – but the same fundamental elements remain. We may be able to create and make additional content available; we may be able to cater to increasingly tech-savvy and informed audiences more and more; we may be able to offer a deeper engagement with – a more immersive embrace of – the process of writing and theatre making, but we will still be telling stories in theatrical ways which excite, move and challenge us.

Theatre buildings will more than likely continue to exist, buildings like Griffin’s Stables theatre, but the ways in which audiences will engage with performances within those spaces and buildings has the potential to change uniquely and incredibly, and it is into this brave new world that companies like Griffin are starting to venture with their digital theatre projects. What theatre is beginning to offer us even now is time out from our constantly-connected lives, and that will only become more valuable, says Williams. “Perversely, we’ll want more connectedness with the shows, and the framing around shows will become more connected; we’ll want the value-added content, and it’ll become more and more sophisticated. It’ll become a commodity – we’ll be selling you quiet.”

As Wellington says, “that’s why we’re here, that’s why we do it, creating that live experience in a theatre. The Stables has 105 people sitting in a room responding immediately to a work; that’s the chemistry that makes it so special.”

Complementary to the notion of audience-types are the ways in which digital technology, and especially smart technology, might enhance the experience for audiences. Smart technology especially, is now at the point in its development and utilisation where sets of data can be encoded with specific GPS coordinates to be unlocked when in the immediate proximity. Williams likes the idea of audience members potentially being able to select an option on their booking form that allows additional content to be sent to them days, weeks or months before the date of the performance. “Imagine if when you walk around Sydney, your phone flashes up at particular times when you’re at a particular GPS-coordinate. This restaurant, say, is the first-date location of two of the characters in the show – do you want to watch the video of their first date, did you want the menu? Do you want recommendations from fictional characters? How big a world can we create? How immersive a virtual world can we make, and how [does it] build extra capacity for storytelling?”

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