Theatre

In love with Shakespeare

In love with Shakespeare
In: Theatre, project, SOCIAL
#dream40 Epilogue [2013] 25 Things I learnt from Midsummer Night's Dreaming with the RSC

September 3, 2013

> No epilogue, I pray you; for your play needs no excuse.

- Theseus 

Introduction

I'm writing this after a magical Midsummer with the Royal Shakespeare Company producing and presenting #dream40 with Geraldine Collinge and Sarah Ellis.

Midsummer Night's Dreaming occurred as a live performance directed by Gregory Doran, spread across multiple (magical) locations, over the three days of midsummer, 21-23 June 2013 - following the real-world time structure of the play (so mainly at night). Simultaneously, an entire world of new and fantastical characters were born out of the play (for example, Hercules, Theseus’s best man or Bottom's Mum) - illuminating and spinning wildly off from the play into their own fractured and fragmented narratives online. These characters document their more mundane experiences during the progress of the play using Google+. A concept that one audience member described as "like a live online soap opera following the action of the play".

This document isn't about what we did or why (see about.dream40.org/why): Our collaboration on Midsummer Night's Dreaming was an experiment for Google and an experiment for the Royal Shakespeare Company. It wasn't simply marketing or sponsorship, it wasn’t a live stream - it was a trial, a rehearsal, an attempt to do something new. #dream40 was an experiment in online narrative for the digital creative world for theatre groups through to global creative agencies. It wasn't a passive broadcast of a play and it was always meant to be more about questions than answers - so that is why we want to share with you our immediate thoughts, what we personally learnt. It's for you, if you are interested in this sort of thing.

We soon discovered that our experiment had two paradoxes buried firmly at its heart.

1. Until we saw what we were creating we didn't know what we were creating.

2. Until new paradigms for interaction are defined it is impossible to interact within them.

And finally a truism: An audience with no idea what to expect can only have their expectations confounded. In other words, people ‘watch’ plays, they don’t ‘perform’; cultural consumption is traditionally passive not active - a huge hurdle to overcome.

So I feel that this document works best if we describe #dream40 as a rehearsal (which in many ways it was) for future digital productions. “We learn through doing” said Sarah.

And what did we learn? Well, we learnt a lot. There is almost nothing that could not, with the benefit of hindsight, have worked better, but there was also nothing wrong with what we did. And if it were a rehearsal we would be able to change up for the big night - instead of which (alas) these 'notes' are for those that might be playing with similar ideas. I hope they are useful.

Fail once, fail twice, fail better said Beckett. Although I am not sure who was there to hear it. Maybe Mrs Beckett shared it.

Structure

Let's start at the beginning. In October 2011 this project started out as a proposed essay for Sarah Ellis's rather wonderful MyShakespeare project of 2012.

It began as a hypothetical - What would theatre look like if you invented it in 2013? - and how inconceivable was it that this new theatre would only be physical, with a stage and un-augmented by the technology of the day? Added to this was the RSC’s unending desire to bring Shakespeare to new audiences all around the world.

Over tea and cakes this became a single scene translated on social media, which became an act, and then the whole text, with a live component, in Selfridges, with cctv, and celebrities. But we never did that, maybe next time. By the time we committed to the dream in Feb 2013 we had a much more modest schedule that simply involved performing the play over three days in the middle of the night, with little prep, and writing 2000 pieces of material for 30 new characters to be shared online non-stop for 72 hours.

Our own modest expectations also scaled up as the project grew and became more visible; the more people we brought into the vision the grander it all became. We all know how that story ends. Several things didn't change: the principle - to examine all the possibilities of illuminating a traditional play with an online augmentation; the core team of 4 (Geraldine Collinge, Sarah Ellis, myself and James Boyce); and the budget. When we look back at what we hoped to achieve even 6 months earlier, what eventually did occur seemed unimaginable. The welcome exposés of any cracks in the enterprise are merely the shadow of our dream.

Biggest successes

  • Energy and reach - the ability to reach so many people worldwide on our terms was unexpected.
  • Theatre - the RSCs ‘scratch’ performance was transcendent and mesmerising.
  • Behind the scenes - the transparency of the RSC process (e.g. the Hangouts) was a special win.

Biggest areas of improvement. (more on these below)

  • Overarching narrative - we didn’t give a coherent narrative experience.  
  • Active versus Passive - consumption of cultural content; people just ‘watched’.
  • Audience recording - (for me) removes the viewer from the magic of theatre
  • The Digital Stage - this could be a better user experience although the model was viewed very favourably.

Numbers

You want numbers? Honestly, numbers are hot ice and mirthful tragedy.

  • There were 110, 000 unique visitors on dream40.org during the weekend of the project.
  • #Dream40 appeared on 25 Million twitter feeds.
  • The active online creative community included 1000 people from across the world.
  • The two project films were watched by 435, 000 people.
  • The Royal Shakespeare Company Google+ page increased in size by 742%.
  • 3000 pieces of content were released during the weekend of the project, half of this content was created by project participants.
  • Over the weekend a piece of content was released at least every five minutes.

The team at the RSC included a full cast for the week of the performance; the digital team had 2 producers and a team of 5 creative writers plus all the support of the incredible RSC family, PR, Events, Marketing etc; Google supplied 2 developers, 2 producers, and me working for 6 months prior to the event. Google also gave marketing support and volunteers for the event.

The project lives on in as a timeline and in archive form at http://dream40.org You can read all about it (and watch the proof of concept video) at http://about.dream40.org

What people said: storify.com/tomux/dream-quotes

Behind the scenes: storify.com/tomux/dream40

YouTube

What would we do differently if we had a time machine?

STRUCTURAL notes

Do all the new writing a long long long way in advance. Like a long way. Really long.
Action: this one is pretty obvious.
We hurt the production through the anarchic chaos of having creative arriving just prior to the show, and trying to incorporate live content via the audience, and also having creatives live write for their characters. Having said that, it was great fun.

One vision directing every aspect.
Action: have a creative director that sits across the new writing, the performance and the digital experience.
Due to various reasons each aspect existed almost independently of each other until the week of the show.

CREATIVE notes

Have a strong, obvious over-arching narrative that brings in the online characters.
Action: this role in television is the show-runner who makes sure every minor line feeds back into a topline (e.g. West Wing)
i.e. regular photos, minor responses, quotes from main characters so the story is more firmly in the world of the play and characters digress less wildly onto their own orbits.

We didn't let the main characters speak (which was correct,) but we should have involved them more online.
Action: the play must be real, and have integrity and you can't break from the words they say, or their characters -- but they need to exist more online.
We didn’t let people understand the link between the online and offline cast.

A story requires an audience to see themselves revealed through a character
Action: Have a hero online, as well as on stage.
Perhaps Puck got closest to this, and created the most interaction, but we could have made more of his part.

Stronger media channels 
Action: Build the story from the media channels not the characters.
Action:
 Tighter character arcs that really relate to the news cycle.
People understand how to share news and gossip. We allowed too much content to be led by the characters not the events.  This is the thing I feel we did least well.

Slightly less narrative fragmentation
Action: More depth to the story sub-plots (& fewer sub plots)

Maybe don’t do it quite as live as we did.
It was fun digitally ‘performing’ the play - but it created a less optimal experience for everyone.
Action: Bigger team, less improvisation, (all content ready beforehand)

Another outcome of learning-through-experience, we didn’t really have the budget for a production team that wouldn’t have flipped out if they’d seen what we tried to do.

Introduce your characters more slowly and clearly
Action: Clarify the characters and introduce them easily. (Big profile pieces)

Know your content.
Action: Create a content library (including imagery & video). Know it like the actors know the play.
As above, digital content needs significant pre-production and a showrunner is needed to make sure it responds to the original text appropriately.

THEATRICAL notes  

Have a stage performance that made sense of the unseen (i.e. online) characters.
Action: Build the ancillary cast into the staging and make the use of their phones make sense in the context of the page.

Contrive opportunities to 'show' the live action more
Action: any 'film' must be contextual, you can't just 'live-stream' - but we could have done this better than just letting audience members film and post raw from the room.

If the digital play calls for the play to exist  in the real world then even less 'stage' has to exist.
Action: Incorporate a modern-day off-site interpretation
This is an aspect that is more of a wish than a learning, but personally I would have liked to try one scene more closely integrated with the audience space. So less of a stage, and more contrivances to make the audience part of the action. For example the audience would ‘be’ the courtiers in Act I, or ‘be’ the guests at the wedding in Act V.

Physical theatre is amazing. Literally magical
That is quite intimidating. It is almost impossible to translate the play into a similar digital parallel.
From the actors perspective being in a dangerous space with no stage, make-up, lights seemed exhilarating.

Mediating theatre via a screen isolates the participant. 
Screens break the willful suspension of disbelief. When we physically sit together as a collective audience (simultaneity) this we become part of that moment; the actors transport us as a whole (transformation) to another world. But operating a phone or ipad drags us out of that world into a solitary world connected to our lives. Which is not where we should be at that moment.
NB: Mediating reality or fantasy through a screen removes the possibility of being present in the reality/fantasy. This probably applies to life in general.
Action: Ban screens unless they are integrated into the dynamic of the performance.

The power of the music!
Action: Incorporate music into the online experience in a significant way
The musical arrangement in the live created magic and drama and tension - right down to the live blackbird at daybreak in Act II - we failed to transfer this to the online. Which was a shame.

TECHNICAL notes

Make it easier for the audience to consume content passively.
Action: better catch-up tools like a "previously on #dream40" either video, or rolling summary;
A lot of thought around Passive versus Active experiences. We knew audiences are passive, especially for cultural content and we didn’t accommodate them enough in the design or experience of the page. Ultimately theatre has a 600 year tradition to 20 years of the internet so either you have to work very hard to overcome that sense that a play should be ‘watched’ - or - just give the audience more passive tools to ‘watch’ the show. (easier).

Google+ wow.
Action: Learn it better and use it widely beforehand. Communities, Events, Circles, Hangouts, +1's, Pages, API’s etc. Fb wasn’t that useful but Twitter, Vine, Instagram and Storify were great.
ALL these we learnt through doing - but we could have worked with them more beforehand.
The internet is a very complex tool. We could probably have used it better….

SETS

The live performance with its 'scratch' setting had little set issues.
The digital stage worked best for people who are comfortable with tweetdeck. i.e. few.
The digital stage (part1) confounded some, annoyed others, and delighted a few.  However it was just the set - not the play. Not sure where that leaves us.

Our stage was a best guess, built by Jude and Tim from Potato, it suffered from trying to show too much, yet also carried too much exposition. It had to show the story but also not baffle first-time visitors. It also had to do battle with the Google+ API which is still quite restrictive and meant you could not engage, or comment on the page - that aspect will certainly get better.
Action: maybe, do nothing - use what is there rather than create elaborate digital edifices.

The view of the stage works best if you move around. Online.
Action: allow and encourage multiple ways to experience the action online (and maybe offline)
The interesting part is that while the site was very pretty - audiences used it in conjunction with their native G+ and Twitter in three tabs to get the best experience and with the media content as well.
I think it was essential to have a focal point, but also to have a flexible solution as well (the G+ site) where people can tailor their own searches and find the best experience for them.

One size won’t fit all.

PARTICIPATION  notes

Don't confuse the hell out of your audience
Action: clearer upfront passive experiences (i.e. catch-up trailers, "so far on #dream40", better, richer guides)
However much we hide behind the "first time" or “experient” argument, clearly the structure was baffling to some we could have done better at guiding our audience.

Set homework rather than an open invitation 
Action: Choose one or two strict activities, create roles and jobs and assign those roles.
This project was true to the general 90:9:1 rules around participation, and I think because culture is invariably passively consumed the actual interaction rates were low. I think we could have worked harder with the community and also created much narrower definitions of what we wanted. Those who did engage clearly loved it, which is great to know.

Ask clearly and make it easy
When we specifically asked people to do something it worked well - for example we asked a fashionable friend to post fairies photos from LA via Instagram and she responded brilliantly. However we had a community of 1k people who actively signed up yet we didn't successfully 'ask' them to do as much as they clearly wanted to.
Action: Be clear with the community about tasks and delivery earlier.

We obey 4th wall dynamics even when told not to:
Action: don't fight the desire to consume passively - give easy ways to 'just watch'.
It was optimistic to imagine that our audience would disobey the natural instinct to 'watch' a play rather than interact - although those that did generally found it incredibly rewarding (thank you!) those that didn't found the fragmented, fractured and intentional disorganization deeply off-putting. We could have helped them more.

Once more for emphasis: Passive beats Active consumption of culture.

OTHER notes:

Know your level
Working with the RSC actors was an incredible artistic experiences. It was a privilege to get to work with the some of the best in the world, and, perhaps, in retrospect, highlighted the distance between the digital experience and the transformative power of physical theatre.

Integrate integrate integrate
To integrate the digital, creative and theatrical performances more closely we could have benefitted from working centrally as opposed to different sides of the planet.

Marketing matters.
If you don’t tell people, they won’t come.
Action: Tell people, online, offline, repeatedly and with subtle persuasion.
nb. online advertising works. I know you think I would say that, but it is true.

Involve as many people as possible
Some genius ideas arrived too late, such as Alix Christie from the Economist who asked (the day before) why we didn't have a journalist involved as they'd have wanted a hangout round-table on issues around subjugation and misogyny in Athenian/Fairy marriage. So true :(
Action: Talk to everyone about it, however untheatrical they may be. Then ask again.

Conclusions

At the end of the project we must re-examine the hypothesis and interrogate our ambitions.

Have we explored? Certainly. Have we reached new audiences? Yes. Was it successful? No idea. We believe we have the blueprint for something new that has enormous potential; in our execution the narrative was there, the online creative frequently hilarious and moving, the physical theatre was literally stunning and enchanting - so it felt slightly like a win for the old form over the new. But, as a kindly friend put it, something that shouldn’t have worked, did sort of work - and for that reason we are very happy with the outcome of our experiment.

There is more we could have done with the content structurally (or perhaps, less), and with how you activate passive audiences. This is the power of retrospect.  Also, I, personally, hated the use of phone cameras in the theatre. They broke something. Not necessarily the camera, but certainly the way we used them, i.e. the way we always use them. (Interestingly not to the actors, nor everyone in the audience - so possibly just me!)

Maybe the upshot of this play is that we should live more in the reality of our daily lives and invest less in the gibgabs and gewgaws that mediate our world for us through a screen. My main learning is that while we can connect and entertain and play with the play online ; we cannot (yet) compete with reality - even a feigned fairy reality.

Throughout the project I was astonished by the Royal Shakespeare Company, its bravery and energy, its ability to conjure fairy worlds, and its belief in trying. Both at a company level, from the board down, but also the people there, everyone, all of them - so many passionate, courageous, involved individuals - so I would like to offer my own one-person standing ovation to the entire Company. Thank you.  

Artistic projects like this do not fit one-size-fits all metrics; and I’m not sure what those metrics are anyway - though I do know that targets breed strategies to hit targets, so you’ll forgive us for ignoring them. Hitting targets reward organizations not audiences, or artists, or culture. This was a disruptive experiment and a hugely successful one if judged simply on what we learnt and where we now move forward from. We hope you understand why we did this and that you enjoyed and continue to enjoy it.

Our hope is that the next time someone wants to have a non-linear play that leaks across multiple realities in real-time performed physically and digitally simultaneously to a global audience they will not have to explain it from the ground up to blank looks and puzzled faces. They can point at the RSC's seminal 2013 production and say "like that, but much better".

T

Without whom...
(these should probably be alphabetical, forgive me)
RSC:
Gregory Doran, Geraldine Collinge, Sarah Ellis, and an awesome cast of thousands
Google:
Tom Uglow, Martin de Fleurian with help from Rowan Gifford, Robin Morgan, Peps Scialacomo and others.
Grumpy Sailor: James Boyce (online production)
Potato: Tim Paul and Jude Osborn (digital development)
Also starring: Thomas Pursey as himself (epic digital wrangling / showrunner / fixer)

The Creatives:
Ben Pacey, The Brothers Mcleod, Byron Vincent, Molly Naylor,  Rob Young, Tim Wright, Agathe Cury, Andrew Fox, Aoife Mannix, Lizz Lunney, Jim Billy Weaver, Sophie Walton, Tom Cross

The Cast:
Theseus - Peter De Jersey
Hippolyta - Alexandra Gilbreath
Egeus - Jim Hooper
Hermia - Anneika Rose
Lysander - Mark Quartley
Demetrius - Simon Manyonda
Helena - Lucy Briggs-Owen
Philostrate - Mark Hadfield
Peter Quince - Paul Chahidi
Nick Bottom - Joe Dixon
Francis Flute - Chris Lew Kum Hoi
Tom Snout - Ricky Champ
Snug - Felix Hayes
Robin Starveling - Jim Hooper
Oberon - Peter De Jersey
Titania - Alexandra Gilbreath
Puck - Mark Hadfield

Project directed by Geraldine Collinge (RSC) and Tom Uglow (Google)
Play within the play directed by Gregory Doran (RSC)

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