“But tell me, where’s the stage?”
A talk and discussion for the new StoryFutures/Present platform.
Transcript / including links and images
Hi I’m Jason, and I’ve been working somewhere in between arts and technology for most of my adult life. Which, now I think about it, sounds like some kind of admission. It’s not. It’s me trying to come clean that I’ve been spending my time hanging around with experts in different fields. Learning from many trades, whilst not quite achieving a mastery of any one. But hopefully it gives me some insights into how stories meet platforms.
“Without art, the future would never change”Paula Varjack
I like to begin with this quote from the artist Paula Varjack, as it helps me to think about what kind of future I want, and how I hope we’ll get there.
Today, I’m going to set the scene for this series of talks about Story Futures by first taking a short detour to the past. I’m going to talk about some of the ways artists have twisted, bent and broken technology to make sense of the world and to connect to others in it. I’m also going to talk a little about my own practice, and how that’s influenced how I think about storytelling in online or digital spaces.
I’m also going to talk about what it’s like when the niche area of work you’ve carved out is suddenly the place everyone wants to be. Or at least, is the place everyone thinks they want to be. Because right now we can’t go back into the theatres and arts centres. And they’re the places that – for much of my life – have defined the production and consumption of the work of theatre.
In talking about these things the plan is to touch upon insights into digital storytelling that I’ve been gifted or found along the way.
I’ve been working in and around theatre of various scales and forms for a number of years. Including large scale outdoor shows, as a dramaturg, a technician, designer, and writer.
I’ve also been tinkering with technology in performance for as long as it’s been feasible and affordable to do so. I recently finished a PhD which focused on one-to-one performance enacted through technologies like video conferencing or text messaging.
Some of the work I do is to research various combinations of arts and technology and to pass on that learning. Some is to build infrastructure, some is to support people telling their stories from a conference lectern, from a theatre stage or through a digital platform. Sometimes I tell stories of my own, but I’m happiest creating spaces where stories tell themselves.
I was also lucky enough to be working with Contact Theatre in Manchester at a time when it was making a concerted effort to turn towards the digital. Part of this was building a relationship with the New York based technology lab Culturehub, an off-shoot of experimental theatre space LaMaMa. In practice, this gave me the opportunity to work with pioneers in networked performance. We’d use new media tools and video conferencing gear to make hybrid stages, with performers and audiences in different cities sharing the same experience.
And for a long time I was also given the support and space to prototype and develop new streaming and video techniques working with production teams and theatre artists.
The word collaboration will come up time and time again during this talk. I think one of the reasons for this is that many of the areas of performance, design or visual art I’ve found myself involved in, don’t seem to intersect, even when they work with similar tools towards similar ends. I hope during this time we learn how flexible the boundaries between disciplines can be.
I’m happiest working collaboratively with other folx to tell stories or build narratives. These might be ideas cut from whole cloth, or tales assembled from the life experiences of performers or participants. It might be the story I think some research wants to tell, or it might be creating or occupying a space just to discover what stories might live there.
But. I am wary of the structures we use to create and tell stories, mainly because I’m wary they reflect societal structures that are imposed on people in the wider world.
Stories shape the way we exist: with a deft blend of the logical step-by-step and the rush of emotion, they hold authenticity and truth within them. But these truths are contingent. They require belief and will use handy shortcuts to create characters that fit, and in so doing they can run down familiar rails. Using predetermined categories of character, avatar, landscape or culture can fragment a story as much as it reaches for something universal.
As I have said, my background is theatre, and theatre is always a collaborative effort. Theatre is made by artists who might be performers, technicians, designers, directors, dramaturgs or stage managers (even when the stage is an undercroft, a car park, a tower block or, now, a screen).
The process of theatre making also includes the producers, the programmers, the venues and the marketing teams. It will, of course, include the audience, although it often feels that ‘audience’ is a somewhat contested term, being somehow simultaneously a homogeneous block of spectators, and also a cluster of individuals who require perfectly tailored experiences.
The more I learn about theatre making the more it becomes clear that, whilst individuals with particular skills are central to the task, a complex and continuous collaboration between all of the people involved in creating, distributing and engaging with the work makes for better work.
The phrase Story Futures invokes to me a kind of Grand Designs flair, it gestures to possibility and to opportunity. There is a sci-fi sense of unimagined vistas and new frontiers.
Yet, I think at this moment in time it is very difficult to imagine these things without also thinking about the technologies that make them possible. Technologies that far from being ethically neutral, exist within the frameworks and structures that perpetuate the status quo.
Raymond Williams suggested that technology does not come into society as a radical change maker, or as a harbinger of change. Rather, it is the capitalisation of technology that brings it into common usage, a colonisation of the new by an already dominant ideology.
David Buckingham leans in on this thought, describing technology as
‘ … both socially shaped and socially shaping. In other words, its role and impact is partly determined by the uses to which it is put, but it also contains inherent constraints and possibilities which limit the ways in which it can be used, and which are in turn largely shaped by the social interests of those who control its production, circulation, and distribution’David Buckingham, 2008
New platforms for stories aren’t neutral.
Audre Lorde reminds us
‘There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt’Audre Lorde – Poetry Is Not a Luxury
We must not only recognise the way in which our stories come to life, by being shared and spoken, but also we must recognise the contexts in which new stories are told.
Right now, we’re told the digital tools we use to engage with each other require more attention, more effort. At this moment our lives are lived alongside the background hum of a global pandemic. Our socialisation is suspended or replaced by technologies that might feel a bit like work. Maybe like the WhatsApp buzz before a meet up with friends, but without the eventual pay off of actually getting together.
This is not to say that we can’t build radical stories within existing structures, indeed artists are eminently capable of bending structures to their will, and to discovering the edge cases and grey areas that even the developers of virtual spaces have no knowledge of or interest in.
Stories shape the world.
Yet, the stories we tell using online and digital tools are as much an interrogation of the places we tell them in, as they are of the characters in the stories themselves.
As storytellers in a connected world, it is our duty to also reveal how the technology influences the telling, how the infrastructure drives the story and determine who takes part. To do this we have to understand how the spaces we tell those stories in often reinforce the existing shape of our world.
This is especially clear now, as we take a hard look at the stories of our past, and who defined them.
So it is up to us to make sure there is space for all stories, and to make sure that the spaces we occupy to tell these stories don’t privilege one storyteller or one story over another. This is only ever achieved by working collaboratively with creative teams that reflect the world we live in, and the worlds we want to live in.
And it should not need to be said but it seems it always does need to be said, the greater number of different voices and perspectives we include in our storytelling teams, the better our stories will be, the better worlds we will create and the richer the tapestry of experience we will generate.
I’m often surprised at how the category of digital seems to pop up as though it is something quite new and different, the digital strategies of government and brands, the arts centre, theatre or gallery offering up a new season of digital works. As though digital or online activities haven’t already intertwined so successfully with our lives that it would take some huge effort to de-digitalise. Designer and urbanist Dan Hill says:
‘Technology is culture; it is not something separate; it is no longer “I.T.”; we cannot choose to have it or not. It just is, like air’Dan Hill, 2013
Yet, sometimes it feels like we don’t interrogate enough the ways digital services shape the way our world operates. Of course there’s brilliant work being done on algorithmic bias by folks such as Safiya Noble, Cathy O’Neil, and the Algorithmic Justice League to name but a few. Journalists and researchers have investigated and illuminated how social media interactions have influenced voting intentions, or deliberately sought to shift the emotions of their users.
Yet there is a power in the way that storytelling can expose the very shape of the space in which it operates. Of course, artists have always worked with new technologies, the pen, the theatrical light, sound systems, synthesisers and lasers. But the framing of an experience as art means that it also gives us license to question things that might otherwise be accepted as given.
I’m just over 50, yet before I had said my first word, media artists were already subverting performance and technology to create new hybrids. When I was a teenager, artists were already experimenting with video systems to create stages that spanned continents. The last twenty years or so have seen huge leaps in the development of digital communications technologies, and have seen these technologies become widely available. They have become second nature, part of our everyday.
Allan Kaprow’s Hello was made as an “interactive video happening” as part of the TV show The Medium is the Medium broadcast on Boston’s WGBH TV Station in 1969. It used the TV station’s closed-circuit, outside-broadcast system to connect four remote locations using five cameras and 27 monitors. Groups of participants were sent out with instructions to perform actions based on what they saw through the monitors: maybe saying “Hello I see you” when they saw an image of themselves or others they recognised. Kaprow functioned as director, switching the images the monitors displayed from one camera to another. In doing so he conducted a technologically mediated, wide-area game of tag.
Kaprow was interested in ideas of ‘communications media as non-communications’ and ‘oneself in connection with someone else’. Hello works as a critique of the disruptive nature of mediated interaction. Using the close-circuit of the TV infrastructure it short-circuits the TV network, highlighting the potential for human to human connectivity rather than the broadcast mode it normally operates as.
Asking the question who gets to be seen.
In the new time of Zoom, where hook-ups, family quizzes, birthday parties, weddings and even theatre is being constructed in real time over the screen, it would be crazy not to mention one of the most ‘celebrated examples of pre-Internet telematic performance’ (Steve Dixon, 2009):
The Hole in Space.
This was created by artists Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz in 1980. Using borrowed satellite broadcast technology they opened up a “virtual tunnel” between The Broadway department store in Los Angeles and the Lincoln Centre in New York City. With cameras and screens in both locations, live feed from one location was back projected in black and white and at life size into the other. Audio was also transmitted, allowing passers-by an unprecedented way to communicate between each other thousands of miles apart.
It was only up for three days, yet new relationships were struck up, folks returned each day to see and chat with each other. Relatives and friends in the two cities made arrangements to meet up through the artwork. It became influential both in the arts and technology worlds, with Steve Harrison (then part of the Media Space project at the Xerox PARC) citing the artwork as changing the way he thought about video-mediated communication, emphasizing the extent to which it fundamentally influenced his own work and that of others.
So, streaming audio and video between different places as part of an artwork is by no means new, but it is distinctly more affordable!
We’re drawn to platforms or systems that are designed for theatre or gaming, of course we are, with their ready made toolsets and protocols. There is also some fascination in creating an artwork in places where such things are rarely enacted.
Kaleider’s You With Me is a one-to-one audience experience which takes place entirely within the bounds of a 45 minute telephone call. The performer and participant never see each other, and hear each other’s voices only through the phone. The director Seth Honnor imagines the perfect set up for the piece as just ‘a place to be in the city centre, a telephone number to call, a time to call that number’.
For the participant, the call shifts between different styles of conversation. At times as playful as a game, at others contemplative and reflective, almost therapeutic. For them the work feels relaxed and open which shows how deftly hidden the tightly scripted structure is.
There is orchestration too, a whole team of observers and facilitators keeping the performer grounded with information about the movements and actions of the participant. This feeds into their improvisation, bringing a kind of ‘how did they do that’ magic to the game.
The structure of the call begins with some simple instructions, turn left here, go north. This swiftly becomes a game of hide and seek: ‘try and lose me’ says the performer. This starts a breathless chase through a crowded city. This game of chase can’t really be won or lost, in most cases the participant always remains under surveillance, but some are too darn good at hiding and manage to escape. But this is folded into the work as well, escape is a rush whilst being tracked by an unseen voice is sorcery.
Participants have said in this moment they feel like a suspect operating out of normal parameters, becoming aware of the busy city, the busy citizens, as an audience for their own transgressive behaviour.
Once the game is over, the participant is invited to “share a drink” with their performer. Not physically in the same space, but each wherever they are. It is in this section that the conversation tends to turn to the introspective and intimate.
Describing this part of the show Honnor, calls up an analogy of a Blue Whale: for the most part existing on the surface of the ocean, basking, breathing, drifting, then, taking the deepest of breaths, it dives right down to the depths.
The participant almost always makes the deep dive. Maybe this is because of the adrenalin rush or endorphin released after running through the city, but time after time they will go to what Honnor describes as ‘the conversation in their lives that they are not quite having’.
Led by their performer, the participant ends up adrift in time and space. Being gifted a peculiar moment to make conversation with a stranger, one they will almost certainly never meet out in the real world.
These conversations are characteristically intimate, which brings into play ethical issues for the company both around privacy and confidentiality for the participant, and highlights the vulnerabilities of the performer. Measures are taken to ensure the safety of both, and decompression is built into the structure of the show itself.
Audiences are delighted with the run-around game, and insanely curious as to how particular actions or interactions were made to happen without any obvious agent. Yet the strongest emotional feedback came from the conversation they had during this moment of stillness.
The infrastructure once again provides a place for fragmentary stories to flourish, for deep emotion to come into play. This is a form of mediated intimacy, an exposure of self and the sharing of private information made possible by the limits and the parameters of the performance and the technology.
My background is largely in theatre. by navigating that world, it becomes clear that theatre holds universes inside it. The word theatre is derived from the ancient Greek ‘viewing place’: so, theatre is defined not by architecture but by the action and intent of the people who assemble there.
And whilst the word theatre still seems to mean Shakespeare, the school play, or Cats. I’ve been lucky enough to see many works that expand and explode that simple definition. This might be in the intimacy of a one-to-one experience, the immersive obsession of a durational performance, or the spectacle of a site specific or outdoor show – punctuated by fireworks and chance encounters. What is key is an in-the-moment liveness. A sense of palpable presence between these people, at this time, in this place.
A similar or related driver is to do with creating an environment in which stories or interactions seem to naturally come into being. Creating a kind of storytelling framework or scaffolding.
This might be down the rabbit hole of the immersive worlds of companies like Punchdrunk or dreamthinkspeak, or in the riotous training grounds of Louise Mari and Nigel Barrett’s ‘Party Skills for the end of the World’.
That last show having been recently (and quite successfully) re-imagined inside the conference software Zoom.
There is a rich history of relational artworks in the gallery. Although, you could almost say that all gallery work exists only in the momentary relationship between the spectator and the artwork. But what I’m talking about here are the artworks that come into being in the moment they are engaged with. Artworks that corral a temporary community around a significant artefact or instruction, things that can’t be said to exist at all without human action. Without the liveness of engagement.
In theatre, performance and live art there are numerous examples of works that engage through interaction of one type or another.
These might be instruction based works that directly ask audience questions, creating fragments of stories from the interplay between performers or audience. Or playable theatre that goes with the flow of audience choices. These are examples of the creation of a kind of theatrical infrastructure within the temporary community of performers and audience, a space where stories are nurtured and encouraged to grow.
For Borderline Vultures, an immersive environment constructed in 30 rooms inside an abandoned factory, the audience could largely make up their own rules. Yet this was never formally disclosed. As the audience entered, each individual was asked to put on a numbered lab coat, then ushered into a testing room. No lab technician ever followed them, instead they were shortly joined by another audience member. A friend remembers swapping his lab coat with theirs, thinking to somehow mess up the show, but it soon became apparent that no-one was coming to check up on them. But he felt no disappointment, rather there was liberation in the realisation that-do-what-thy-wilt was the order of the day.
Because of this, when making work at the intersection between technology and theatre I find myself preoccupied with this same sense of liveness. These ideas of community. What is it that makes this moment special? What is it right now that has never before happened in this place with these people?
My research really began in the intersection of two broad ideas. The first I heard in an interview with theatre maker Chris Thorpe, in which he describes theatre as a laboratory in which we can discover more about who we are. A kind of theatre-as-lab. The second was a stat from a Pew Research study which claimed more than 50% of our interactions with each other, are now conducted through digital means, such as email, texting, or through video.
So this leads me to the notion that by taking an art or theatre driven process into the spaces of social media, text messaging and video calls, we might learn more about who we are and how we are in those spaces. We can apply the theatre-as-lab approach to the worlds we spend half of our time in.
John McGrath, during his tenure as artistic director of the national theatre Wales, said that a key question a national theatre can ask of itself and its audience is:
‘what is it to be in this place and what do we want this place to be?’John McGrath, in conversation with Rebecca Atkinson-Lord
By framing interactions as art there seems to be a shift in the ways we let ourselves engage with them. It’s reality, but slightly not. There is a freedom to be had in the understanding that this is just play or make believe. But it also forces us to question things, if we can do what we like, what are the things that influence our choices? What are the things we’ll do?
These kinds of interactions allow us to question not only the scenario we find ourselves in, but also who we are when we’re there. Giving us an opportunity to try out different versions of ourselves. It can also take us away from rigorous demands of what success and failure look and feel like out in the real world. Choosing to do things in this way or that, might no longer carry the weight of having to do it correctly, nor the anxiety of getting it wrong.
My research practice was in creating one-to-one mediated encounters. In making that work I very quickly discovered that unlike much of the theatre I’d made or helped make before, constructing mediated encounters involved many more, and different variables. There is precious little control of the stage, this might be to do with the different devices people use to engage with the work, or when and where they were when they chose to dip into it. It might be discovering when bandwidth mattered and when it didn’t, what time zone audiences or performers might be in, when jitter and lag was part of the thing and when it got in the way.
It involves a ceding of control over how people choose to take part, being more aware of their agency, where they chose to place their attention, and what drags them away.
The only process that made sense in developing this kind of online or digital work was to constantly play-test. Figuring out what works and what doesn’t through the feedback of testers, performers and sometimes strangers we met along the way.
During my research I made two final pieces of work.
One was a video encounter between two strangers over lunch: one in Manchester and the other in New York. Each one, both performer and participant in their own experience. The technology used was professional and expensive, video conferencing hardware which made it easier to build a space in which the projection of the other side of the world became more of a portal than a postage stamp.
The participants described the experience not as transporting themselves somewhere else, but instead that the far location was brought to them. Creating a distinctly private and temporary place just for their meeting, just for them.
When one or other left the screen, they noticed an immediate sense of absence, even more than should someone leave the room by the door. A vanishing trick. This has been a characteristic of a lot of the work I’ve experienced in this technological space. It’s vital to find ways to connect with performers who’ve just left the stage, or to allow audiences to decompress at the end of an emotional piece of work. Always, but particularly in lockdown, once the leave meeting button has been pressed we are once again alone.
My other research piece was built around text messaging.
Prompted by a message on a poster or on a business card found in unfamiliar surroundings, driven by curiosity or desire, strangers began text conversations with me. Some lasting for days, others for months at a time.
Later, talking through their experience, what stands out most for them was the potential for the unscripted and the unexpected. In particular their ability to choose what aspects of themselves they might share, and the enjoyment to be found in the fragments the other party would share with them. Although rarely did they choose to share details of gender, race or age, or even their name.
Also of interest was the way that the conversation seemed to bend and reshape time, that the action of reply always seemed to be in the moment, despite texts often being read long after they were sent.
Artist and theatre maker Tim Etchells, talking about his work, mentions his woodwork instructor teaching him the value of the right tool for the job. He turns this on its head by saying instead that
‘the most interesting results in the work are reached by using the wrong tool for the job’Tim Etchells
Artists and arts practice allows us as makers and participants to explore the world and the tools we use to engage with it. To discover more about the unknown unknowns that permeate the release of new technologies. Using the wrong tool for the job, helps us investigate how new tech enables and moulds particular activity, and the way it can be reclaimed for our own purposes.
I’ve talked about using art practice as a way to interrogate our digital surroundings. But what has taken up most of my time during the pandemic is helping artists reconfigure their work for a remote audience.
Key to this process has been (you can probably guess this) the collaboration of all parties involved. I’m not the guy to tell you this is how you stream your show. Nor to pretend I know all the ways that might work or go wrong. Instead, we’ll talk about what the show is and means to you. What beats are important, what elements will survive or thrive in the shift to an online version, and what sections will have to go or find another way to be told.
Following the conceptual and dramaturgical chatter there might be a period of playtesting. At first all bets are off, tests will cross platforms, use video or audio or neither. Test in Twine, Twillio, Youtube live or Zoom.
This generally inclines the work to a particular platform or format. Material is worked, refined, tested to destruction, rebuilt, fed back on and tested again. Equipment is borrowed and exchanged, the wrong cables bought and new ones substituted.
As part of this pattern new parameters become available. What once was a 90 minute small scale theatre show becomes an episodic game.
An audience is invited to stage but instead of getting up from their seats, their images are individually brought to screen in Zoom. In a 15 hour durational conversation, the performers share a screen rather than the table they would once have sat around. A dancer deftly manipulates text as he shares the icons on his desktop and the music from his archive, creating meaning live and in the moment.
This year I worked as part of the team delivering the
Gateshead International Festival of Theatre online.
The artistic director, Kate Craddock, had already programmed the festival, as she has done for the past fifteen years. It was all set to be staged in various local venues, artists were signed up and contracts had been drawn. Then came lockdown. In dialogue with the artists and team, Kate determined that a new incarnation of the festival could take place in online spaces, featuring recordings, adaptations and new work from the commissioned artists.
The festival became a hugely successful experiment, the execution of which involved the artists, festival team, participants and audiences. How the work would be presented was always developed in conversation with artists. Some would simply pick up a platform and run with it, others would carefully navigate the possibilities, working with the team to figure out a suitable workflow. There was always learning. For experts and neophytes, every new interaction seemed to create a new insight into the shape of the digital spaces and how we could play there. In the same way that theatremakers will work with the shape, sound and energy of a new venue, so too online spaces demand that kind of investigation.
For GIFT it was decided early-on that rather than embrace the potential to stream to everyone in the world (whilst everyone in the world is also checking out Netflix, playing Red Dead online or reading a book). Rather than stream to an unlimited audience, we would play to small houses. Limiting capacity in much the same way as the real world festival would. This created an oddly familiar festival vibe of people queuing up for return tickets, and cursing for sold out shows.
It was also surprising how much of the pre-show experience, both backstage and in the waiting rooms, felt so similar to the experience in an actual theatre. For us backstage, there was the curious admixture of anxiety and boredom that sits in your stomach before the doors open. For those in the waiting room, there was the anticipation of the show about to start. And often, once the doors had opened, those same waving of hellos, and nods of recognition between the audience, but this time in the chat or on the screen.
Using new platforms threw up a number of barriers to access. Such as video conferencing tools which don’t allow the user to place the BSL interpreter where they’d like them to be. Platforms that made it difficult to allow BSL questions in the Q&A. New challenges in captioning and audio description. Yet these challenges have started our brains whirring, and we’re already figuring out what research needs to be done to work on these challenges.
If we can’t solve access problems when we’re only able to engage with each other online, when can we?
Many of these platforms are built for a specific purpose or suite of purposes. They may be configured for boardroom style turn taking, or like this one, for a webinar lecture. But a theatre is neither of those things. Part of what theatre is, is the sharing of space between audience and performer. In searching for how to make some kind of simulation of that process, we might open up the chat, or encourage conversation on social media. There might be moments where audiences are asked to turn on and off their video, or hold up signs. Working both within and without the tools available allowed us to somehow generate the feeling of festival.
So, in conclusion.
- Work in collaboration with the widest and most inclusive teams to make the best work you can
- Turn your focus on how platforms shape stories, and work to make sure no voices are lost
- Figure out what structures from different artforms might work with your platform and your artform
- Learn from each other, so we can all stand on each others shoulders
‘Reach for the top of the tree and you may get to the first branch but reach for the stars and you’ll get to the top of the tree‘Lemn Sissay @lemnsissay
In the video the talk is followed by a Q&A discussion.
This session was hosted by Åste Amundsen, StoryFutures Doctoral Researcher with guest speakers Adam Ganz, Head of Writers Room, StoryFutures Academy and Dr Aneta Mancewicz, Lecturer in Drama and Media, Royal Holloway, University of London
The Technology and the Society (1974)
Introducing Identity (2008),
book chapter ‘Youth, Identity, and Digital Media’
Art and Artists
Collaborators & colleagues
Ian Biscoe, telepresence engineer, remote performance maverick and projection specialist
Gudrun Soley Sigurdardottir
Hidden Track – Playful, political theatre
This work by Jason Crouch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.