Technology Planning and Analysis

Theatre & Tech: A Perfect Match of Innovation & Cash?

The National Theatre of Wales is running a very unusual immersive production at the moment called Bordergame. This presents an innovative blend of offline and online and sees physical attendees take a train between Bristol and Newport (31 miles), while online viewers spy on their journey. It was constructed over several years in consultation with the Cardiff refugee community, aims to explore immigration (via the English/ Welsh border) and has been described by the BBC as “a new sort of artform”.

This is clearly not everyone’s cup of tea – I’m not suggesting it is. It would alienate many traditional theatre-going audiences. And actively annoy vast swathes of the population. Yet the reason why it is interesting is it presents the cutting-edge of interactivity, engagement and experience – a trend that brands the world over are clamouring to be a part of.

Why should anyone care about these art forms?

New theatrical experiments could help us see where technology can take audiences. This means hard cash for those involved. And could not be more relevant in a world where the term ‘content marketing’ is chucked around indiscriminately and where ‘content marketing’ and ‘journalism’ have almost morphed into one and the same.

Yet beyond the blanket terms, nothing has really changed since George II commissioned his four-part coronation anthem from Handel. High quality, well thought out products (whether that is journalism, art, theatre, music or experiences) drive engagement and prop up brands.

Take Punchdrunk - a pioneering immersive theatre company (The Masque of the Red Death in 2007 was critically acclaimed and completely different). This organisation is now producing interactive physical experiences that mirror its core work for brands like Sony PlayStation.

But where this sort of thing becomes really different – and potentially lucrative – is when you blend online and offline experience together. And today, aside from the National Theatre of Wales there are a number of theatre groups at the forefront of digital engagement. These include Blast Theory, Coney, Invisible Flock, Urban Angel, and LIFT, which all incorporate art, gaming, theatre and social media.

We’re looking to attract “audiences who don’t see themselves as theatre-goers,” stresses Jonathan May, Digital Producer for LIFT, whose job it is to bring artists and technologists together to create unusual experiences. This point is concurred by Catherine Baxendale, Company Director for Invisible Flock and Adam Sporne and Dominic Shaw, Artists for Urban Angel.

How are theatrical organisations using technology?

Invisible Flock’s new production “If you go away” [video trailer] is still being tested at the moment. This is an interactive game which will be played through real-life cities and accessed via a mobile phone or tablet. It blends virtual reality with GPS tracking and will enable individuals to interact with other players.

The reason it is interesting comes down to its approach to engagement. As Company Director, Baxendale, explains it was born out of thousands of conversations with individuals who took part in the long-term “Bring the Happy” project – an online map which has charted locations people were happy in over the last five years.

The three artists who make up Invisible Flock are all self-taught technologists who use technology to maximise the user experience. As Baxendale puts it: “it is important that they write the code and the technology” because “they use technology as a medium rather than a tool”.

May, Digital Producer at LIFT who brings individuals together across disciplines says: “Working with artists and working with technologists is very similar but they approach the problems differently. What I’ve noticed is that technologists work methodically and know the end point.” Artists on the other hand tend to be more about developing a journey.

This is exactly the type of collaborative work that is going on in agencies on behalf of brands across the globe. Yet in the arena of theatre, the entire aim is to entertain and engage and it is all being funded by public bodies like the Arts Council. What these groups lack in money they make up for in creativity and integrity.

Urban Angel is doing some very cutting-edge interactive gaming work which blends the real and virtual world. It is also working with university computer science departments to utilise state-of-the-art technology but artists Sporne and Shaw still believes there is “further you can go with it”.

The most recent production, Genesis of Cr0n, began in real-life and still continues online. As the website puts it “[This] was free to experience and took place as part of the GameCity8 festival. However, this is not the end but merely the beginning of a further adventure, Apocalypse of MoP that continues the story online.” The online element is, in fact, being used to test a new W3 provenance standard for the World Wide Web devised by the University of Nottingham.

These partnerships can be invaluable for theatre groups. For example, LIFT worked with Google Hangout via the Google Cultural Institute to deliver theatre streaming to an international audience. Normally it is expensive to produce bespoke systems but this was just a hack job on an existing Google product.

According to May, Google was very pleased because it meant Google Hangout was being used in a way it had “never seen it used before”. LIFT has also partnered with the Technology Strategy Board – now called Innovate – to pitch for a startup which could deliver a specific solution for a one-off event.

Yet none of these ad hoc partnerships really go far enough. At present the world is in a complete state of flux. Technology companies (big and small) have the kit but still aren’t sure on its wider application. And everyone wants the secret to drive deeper audience interaction. Theatre companies are ideally placed to find out the answer… but unlike everyone else they lack cash.

It strikes me that there could be some excellent opportunities for collaboration here.


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect


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