Great storytellers have always experimented with new formats, from Homer to Orson Welles to James Cameron; from the birth of the soap opera to 3D cinema. The ambition behind the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Midsummer Night’s Dreaming is grounded in this history of experimentation—a chance to tell a classic story, by the world’s greatest ever storyteller, in an exciting new way.
Every director at some point takes a company and tries to re-imagine Shakespeare for their time on their stage. We have the same ambition. We hope to create a production that can be experienced around the world, and will be talked about for years to come.
One of the wonderful things about experiencing Shakespeare is the time it takes simply to immerse yourself in the language, and from then to understand what is going on. We want to do the same - but the other way around - contemporary language in contemporary streams of social media - which are just as incomprehensible until you immerse yourself in the stream, follow the characters, 'hear' the story and comprehend layers of meaning. Or just follow Puck.
Conventional theatre starts with a stage. An audience comes, sits in front of it, they suspend reality, enter the narrative's reality and are entertained. But why a stage? We don't need a stage. Modern theatre makes the audience walk, or puts them in a car, or makes them the actor; our stage is online, it is fragmented, glimpsed, experienced and amplified through sharing - the narrative exists around us and immerses us. Remember Charlie Sheen’s dramatic online breakdown in 2011? No one was in control of that story, and yet the world followed an electric plot that twisted and turned and looped back on itself. Most significantly, we found ourselves telling and re-telling Charlie’s story. Collectively we moved the narrative forward from multiple viewpoints, with differing degrees of accuracy. All via a deceptively simple mechanism - putting a hashtag [#] in-front of a word: #winning.
Today’s big news events—riots, bombings, royal weddings—all become subject to this anarchic, multi-dimensional, multi-authored storytelling. About 18 months ago we started wondering if one could apply the same treatment to a fictional narrative, like a play? Could we bring a play out of the scenic world and into the real and online worlds? Could we generate the same storytelling impetus using Google+ as a platform? Conveniently, the RSC came for tea at Google around the same time asking similar questions. Fast forward a bit, and RSC and Google chose A Midsummer Night’s Dream to augment, in a slightly Stoppardian way, as Midsummer Night’s Dreaming. A world of peripheral, unwritten parts occurring simultaneously within and around the main play - for example Peter Quince’s wife’s passionate blog about declining standards in amateur dramatics; unsung courtiers such as Baron Beagle & Abbess Volumnia’s surreptitious courtly intrigue; even the Moon [Phoebe] gets a voice online. To a play already filled with confusion, multiple realities, and identity theft, we’d add a reflected play on a second, online stage. And because this is the RSC’s 40th interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we called the second stage dream40.org
Dream#40 Trailer #2 by The Brothers McLeod
Where theatre conventionally seeks to bring the audience into their world, and create a reality around them - we are going the other way - taking the world of the stage and putting it into real life.
We decided early on that the physical play will take place once, in real-time, i.e. over three days- which conveniently covers Midsummer weekend: 21-23 June. We also knew that the play itself would be sacrosanct, the main characters will not break into ‘yoof’ speak, or be seen doing the Harlem Shake (even though that would be quite funny). It will be directed by RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran, and performed by RSC actors as originally written. Every line is to be spoken, not just for the critics, but for the audience who will respond to those lines.
Concurrently the reflected play will be performed somewhat less conventionally over the same three days online. The play starts incredibly dramatically; Theseus declares that the teenage Hermia will be put to death if she doesn’t marry Demetrius (against her will). If this was happening in the real world, there would be uproar, at least in the local press. There’d be news articles, protest letters, and infographics about the merits of arranged marriage —so watch out for all of those online. In the very first line of the play Theseus declares he’s getting married. A Royal Wedding! Obviously this will generate fashion articles, invite tantrums, budget concerns, and a lot of comments about cake. And so naturally, we have created newspapers, fashion magazines, and fairy bloggers to cover this part of the story. Our chorus will discuss, gossip and describe. On a wooden stage this would sotto whispers, "rhubarb rhubarb", in our play “rhubarb rhubarb” is the most audible part of the whole play, with only glimpses of the original words. The loudest voices in our play are those without their own lines (much like life).
And as in life these opinions tend to loop over themselves in time, creating additional noise and confusion. We are inviting additional commissioned content from a wide selection of ‘chatterboxes’ who will bring the wit and humour of the internet to bear upon the narrative. And, of course, dear audience member, your input is warmly welcomed too.
We are inviting everyone on the internet to take part. We’d rather like 10,000 contributors extending the RSC across the world, commenting, captioning, or penning a lonely heart column for Helena. Maybe people will invent their own characters. Or make fairy cupcakes; share photos of their dearest darlings as changelings; send schoolboy marginalia about “wooing with your sword”; compose florid poetry to Lysander’s sister; or debate with Mrs Quince on declamation. Or just watch online. Hopefully for three days we will blur the boundary between today’s news agenda, filled with violence and despair, and an ancient forest filled with lost teenagers, a drug-addled fairy queen, and a weaver with an asses head.
Meanwhile the one-off physical performance will culminate in a terrifically non-digital spectacular: the wedding. Sunday June 23 sees an entire day of festivities in Stratford-upon-Avon, building to the Mechanical's production of Pyramus and Thisbe, which you can watch sitting alongside Theseus and Hippolyta. That makes it a play, within the play, within our play, and hopefully an amazing 23rd of June, online or off.
This form of theatre is novel, especially given that we all grew up with simple broadcast models like TV. So we figured you might need a guide; a conductor for the play. Clearly there was only one candidate for that part. And so Puck will be the sole character who can step out of the main story and the main stage, to comment (naughtily) and repost the important bits online. Should you get confused just follow Puck, or watch his column at dream40.org.
The Royal Shakespeare Company wants to define future paradigms for digital performance. Google want to explore those paradigms too - using tools like Google+ and YouTube to push, fracture, break and recompose. This is a creative experiment, an attempt to see what happens when you take the old and beautiful, and reframe it within modern, noisy, and uncontrollable tools. It will be a fairly epic collaboration, a different way to create and consume theatre. We don’t know what this reflected, glimpsed play will feel like, or how successful it will be. But like most experiments, we should come out of it wiser. Shakespeare is the most powerful storyteller we could use, and Google+ is an elegant platform for this reflection. The RSC have been generous and brave in this undertaking, and we hope the fun and creativity of the project will shine through. If nothing else it should promote discussion about the role of digital in theatre, hopefully it will bring a worldwide audience to Shakespeare, or be a magical introduction to a magical play. If it provokes ideas and create memories, that’s a success for us.
Join us at dream40.org
And this also seems like an appropriate place to put an early film we made to explain how it is all meant to work:
[footnote to this video: when we started this it was a strange little experimental side-project and we felt it belonged with everything the RSC had ever done on the Dream, hence #Dream89. It only got promoted to #Dream40 when it all got a bit serious and we decided to do the entire play.]