Guest Author: Tom Uglow, Creative Director, Google Creative Lab
> No epilogue, I pray you; for your play needs no excuse. – Theseus
On the 21st to 23rd June 2013, the Royal Shakespeare Company put on a unique, one-off performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream in collaboration with Google’s Creative Lab. It took place online, and offline – at the same time. It was the culmination of an 18 month project looking at new forms of theatre with digital at the core.
Midsummer Night’s Dreaming occurred as a live performance in 4 locations over three midsummer days, following the time structure of the play (which, it turns out, meant mainly at night. Clue is in the title apparently). Simultaneously, an universe of 30 new characters were created on Google+ (i.e. Hercules, Theseus’s best man, Phoebe the Moon & Bottom’s Mum). Their role was to illuminate and augment the play. We didn’t really expect them to go spinning wildly off from the play into their own fractured and fragmented narratives online. But that happened. Even fictional characters like to document their mundane (fictional) experiences: a concept that an audience member described as “like a live online soap opera wrapped round the drama of the play”.
This piece isn’t about what we did or why – for that 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 really 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 from local theatre through to global 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 our thoughts, what we 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. People ‘watch’ plays, they don’t ‘perform’; cultural consumption is traditionally passive. I personally realised that physical theatre is magical, transformative. It is a form of virtual reality.
“We learn through doing” said Sarah Ellis. Wisely.
And what did we learn? Well, we learnt a lot. There is almost nothing that could not have been done 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 other players with similar ideas.
Fail once, fail twice, fail better said Beckett. Although I am not sure who was there to hear it. Maybe Mrs Beckett tweeted it.
This project started out as an essay for Sarah Ellis’s MyShakespeare project of 2012.
It began as a question: What would theatre look like if you invented it in 2013? Would this new theatre would be physical, with a stage, un-augmented by the dominant technology of the day? A format uniquely unaffected by the profound shift from static to fluid information?
Then, we thought the essay would work better as a single scene translated via social media. This became a single act. Then a whole text, perpormed live, in real-time, in Selfridges, with cctv, and celebrities. But we never quite got to that. Google finally committed to the dream in Jan 2013 and a more modest schedule that involved a full RSC production performed over three days in the middle of the night, a creative team of five writing 2000 pieces of material for 30 new characters to be shared online non-stop for 72 hours, and a digital team of three.
Our expectations also scaled up as the project became more visible; the more people we brought in the grander the vision became. We all know how that story ends. Several things didn’t change: 1) the principle – to illuminate a traditional play with online augmentation; 2) the core team (Geraldine Collinge, Sarah Ellis, myself and James Boyce); 3) the budget.
Looking back what we achieved seems unimaginable.
Energy and reach – the ability to reach so many people worldwide on our terms was unexpected.
Theatre – the RSC’s ‘scratch’ performance was transcendent and mesmerising.
Behind the scenes – the transparency of RSC process (e.g. Hangouts) was a special win.
The RSC went from 0 to >300k followers on Google+ moving them into the top 1k brand pages globally. Their page has 375,000 +1’s (‘likes’)
We assembled a community of more than 1k creators as part of the project.
On twitter we reached more than 20m people; we assume similar reach on Google+
#dream40 trended 4th worldwide on G+ for two days
The project lives on in as a timeline and in archive form at http://dream40.org
We made a film
What people said: storify.com/tomux/dream-quotes
Behind the scenes: storify.com/tomux/dream40
What would we do differently?
1. Do all the new writing a long long long way in advance. Like a long way. Really long. We hurt the production through the anarchic chaos of having creative arriving simultaneously to the performance, and trying to incorporate live content via the audience, and having creatives live-write for their characters. Having said that, it was great fun.
2. One vision directing every aspect. We had digital, artistic and creative directors without oversight of the other teams. It was a miracle the three parts came together at all.
3. Have a strong, obvious over-arching narrative that brings in the online characters. In television a show-runner makes sure every line, every character feeds back into a topline story arc. So photos, responses, quotes should all be part of a grand whole. Keeping it firmly in the world of the play and with characters who digress less wildly onto their own orbits.
4. We didn’t let the main characters speak (which was correct,) but we should have involved them more. The play must be real, and have integrity and you shouldn’t break from the words Shakespeare wrote, or their characters — but those characters needed to exist more online and interlink with the new cast more intelligently.
5. A story requires the audience to see themselves revealed through a character. Action: Have a hero online, as well as on stage. Puck got closest to this for us and created the most interaction online. He was brilliant but we could have made more of his part.
6. Create strong media channels. 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.
7. Introduce your characters more slowly and clearly. Clarify the characters and introduce them easily. (Big profile pieces).
8. Know your content. Build a content library (including imagery & video) which can be drawn on – digital content needs significant pre-production to make sure it responds to the original text appropriately.
8. Have a stage performance that made sense of the online characters. It was a shame that the online characters did not ‘appear’ in the live performance – which in turn could have made the use of their phones make sense in the context of the play.
9. Contrive opportunities to ‘show’ the live action more, ‘Film’ must be contextual, you can’t just ‘live-stream’ – but we could have done this better than just letting audience members film and share raw from the room.
10. Screens break the wilful 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. Mediating a shared reality or fantasy through a screen removes the possibility of being present in the reality/fantasy. This probably applies to life in general. Ban screens unless they are integrated into the dynamic of the performance.
11. The power of music. The live musical arrangement created magic and drama and tension – right down to the blackbird at daybreak in Act II – we completely failed to transfer this to the online. Which was a shame.
12. Know your tools better. I came away impressed with Google+ but we should have used it more widely beforehand. It has endless confusing but epic properties. Communities, Events, Circles, Photos, Q&A, Hangouts, +1’s, Pages, API’s etc. Fb wasn’t a focus but Twitter, Vine, Instagram and Storify were all great tools.
13. The digital stage confounded some, annoyed others, and delighted a few. It suffered from trying to show too much, yet also carried too much exposition. Trying to show the story but also not baffle first-time visitors.
14. To ‘watch’ the play, the online audience took a ‘research’ approach. While the site was pretty, the audience indicated that the play worked best in conjunction with their native G+ and Twitter i.e. as if they were browsing a news event, rather than watching a channel. Allow and encourage multiple ways to experience the action online (and maybe offline).
15. Don’t confuse the hell out of your audience. 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. Create catch-up trailers and hold the hand more.
16. Ask clearly and make it easy. When we specifically asked people to do something it worked well. Yet 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. Choose clear activities, create roles and jobs and assign those roles to users.
17. We obey 4th wall dynamics even when told not to. It was optimistic to imagine that our audience would disobey the natural instinct to ‘watch’ a play rather than interact. Those that did found it rewarding but those that didn’t found the fragmented, fractured and intentional disorganization off-putting. We could have helped them more. Don’t fight the desire to consume passively – give easy ways to ‘just watch’.
18. Know your level. Working with the RSC actors was incredible and perhaps highlighted the distance between 10 years of social digital and 500 years of theatrical practice.
19. Be in the room. We made it so hard by having the digital, creative and theatrical teams on different sides of the planet. That was dumb.
20. If you don’t tell people, they won’t come. Online advertising works. I know you think I would say that, but it is true.
21. Involve everyone. Alix Christie brilliantly suggested (the day before) that a journalist would have wanted a hangout round-table on issues around subjugation and misogyny in Athenian/Fairy marriage. Talk to everyone about your idea, all the time. No one will steal it.
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 it was a blueprint for something with enormous potential. 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.
There is more we could have done with the content and activating passive audiences. This is the power of retrospect. Also I disliked the way we used phones and cameras. They broke something – so we need to integrate the hardware, more intelligently. They need more context to be less clumsy. The actors were unperturbed, nor was everyone in the audience bothered – so possibly just me.
Throughout the project I was astonished by the Royal Shakespeare Company, it’s bravery and energy, it’s ability to conjure fairy worlds, and its belief in trying. Both from the board but also the people there, everyone was so many passionate, courageous, involved – so I would like to offer a one-person standing ovation to the entire Company. Bravo.
This was a disruptive experiment and a hugely successful one if judged simply on what we learnt and where we now move forward from.
My 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”.