With organisations such as NESTA and Arts Council England, and now global corporations such as Google, devoting increasing resources to the exploration of digital in the arts we take a look at some innovative projects and ask what the implication will be as technology draws artists, producers and marketers ever closer together.
In May of this year the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) announced a partnership with Google Creative Labs and a plan to perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream over three days in real time. The audience for the performance was to be simultaneously small and huge, achieved by deconstructing the narrative and events of the play and portraying them to a global audience through online commentary, rich media and live streaming, all collated and presented though a Google+ community page. The events culminated in a wedding on the third day in front of a live audience.
This was the RSC’s second venture into digital drama following Such Tweet Sorrow, a twitter reimagining of Romeo and Juliet in 2010.
By and large Midsummer Night’s Dreaming was a success, reaching global audiences, drawing consistent engagement with digital commentary and achieving large video views, but it hasn’t been without criticism. For instance, collaboration with Google has been slated as being little more than a promotional gambit for its own social platform - Google+.
Tom Uglow, Director of Google's Creative Lab, said: "Google loves thinking big and we wanted to reimagine A Midsummer Night's Dream for a digital age. Adding a little of our digital fairy dust to the magic of the RSC ... allowing people who can't visit to experience and interact with the play via Google+."
Others have been less sure about the merits of the project. With Dominic Cavendish wondering “how two companies, giants in their fields, could produce an experience at once so immense and trifling”. Critics argue that a fragmented, bite-sized re-imagining of the play panders to the misperception that modern, and especially younger audiences, have smaller attention spans, resulting in the dumbing down of theatrical content and a less fulfilling experience.
However, project director Geraldine Collinge argues that by re-imagining narrative structures we can start to think about how the play would be presented if written today. She likens the way digital material is presented to how we would respond to real-life news events - responding to them in the context of others’ responses: “The question isn’t 'How do we share A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a new audience?' It’s 'How do we engage a new audience with it?' This is a communal event not a streaming event. When social media works it’s about a conversation – when it doesn’t work it’s about a broadcast.”
Rather than being confusing and inaccessible, Collinge thinks that new digital tools can bring a richer contextual understanding to a play that can’t be gained through just one reading or sitting. This is provided by rich media, a ‘cast’ of thirty-five specially-created virtual characters and interaction between them and other ‘audience members’.
Dan Reballeto, who played Puck, admits that some people found the project and the variety of media confusing, but argues; “It required a bit of familiarity with Google+ and a willingness to engage with the technology just as you need to be ready to engage with the language when you see the play.”
Other organisations are leading the field in the conception of entirely new performances that are rooted in digital technology. One such organistion is National Theatre Wales (NTW) who use the slogan ‘everything we do starts with a conversation’, and achieve this by embedding digital techonology at the very heart of their culture. Firstly, digital is central to the way NTW conceive of and create productions and content, primarily through their online community, which currently has over four thousand members who are “passionate about theatre [and who] come together to discuss, debate and collaborate”.
NTW’s The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning took the idea of live theatre streaming, as pioneered by NT Live, and Globe on Screen, and recreated it as a broadcast of CCTV-style feeds observed by audiences worldwide. Uniquely, viewers could chat and tweet alongside and were provided with links relevant to the content.
In Branches: the Nature of Crisis, NTW took performance, video and interactivity to another level, simultaneously streaming a live performance from a forest in North Wales to Cardiff, and from Cardiff onto the BBC’s thespace.org digital arts portal, whilst receiving SMS participation from the audiences and combining the feeds.
All of these projects engage with the modern audience’s expectation to be able to interact with theatre and art in similar ways to news events, television and music. They reflect the more immediate way in which audiences respond to theatre; offering and sharing interpretation, criticism and recommendations. Marrying the liveness of theatre with the immediacy of the social web seems like an obvious step to take.
Traditionally, the tools used by artists and those by marketers were separate, with individual budgets and different audience objectives. However, digital is increasingly pulling the two closer together, as the same technologies are drawn upon. More than ever before technology is creating richer performances, disseminating them to wider audiences and, crucially, enabling audiences to respond instantly.
Digital innovation in the arts is rapidly increasing in an effort to match and surpass its commitments to audience development, whilst pushing the boundaries of what art means. The creation of partnerships between artists, producers and technologists means that the sometimes grey area between art and marketing is sure to become a fertile ground for creativity.