In Dec 2014, The Griffin Theatre and Google’s creative lab witnessed a one-day culmination of a conceptual project called 'The Next Stage’. The final output was a play written with digital ideas at it’s core, and as such I suppose was always likely to provoke. In the end we created a project that was so… so, something, that the audience revolted. They literally forced themselves upon the production (not physically) and changed the experience. That’s got to be interesting right?
It has taken me months to get my head around it and I am left with a few possible conclusions. 1. It must have been truly awful. 2. It must have been truly remarkable. 3. Both of those.
I have some prior experience integrating digital ideas into conventional western art culture: films, theatre, concerts, books, art. I have no problem with creative solutions that do not fit conventional commercial or even artistic ideas of 'success'. We are interested in what will make future generations pause and think. I would like future audiences to nod and understand where we were coming from, despite the failings, rather than reflect on 20th century models of culture. While it is incredibly valuable as a commodity, easily consumed cultural output is not our goal. We wanted to see what we don’t yet know - which is almost always where the edges around theatre, or books, or performance become uncertain, fuzzy, and frustrating. Personally I believe that a fascinating idea can trump an entrancing performance. That may sound both indulgent and frustrating, or simply wrong - but that is what we seek to do with our collaborations. We want to challenge your conventions so that we might create new ideas. As a cliché you would say that we want to move you out of your theatrical comfort zone. I think we did that.
(By the way, “I", is me, the author. “We” is Google’s Creative Lab and the Griffin Theatre in Sydney as we initiated the project and followed it’s progress with parental angst. If it feels like an individual “we” then you can imagine it as me speaking for Google and Lee Lewis for the Griffin. ‘You’ is you, the audience).
We were admittedly significantly hands-off, letting the writers and producers self-organise (as you will see in the films). We didn’t dictate what we expected and I don’t actually have the will-power to sit through three hours of post-digital radical-feminist interpretive dance. So I’m relieved we didn’t do one of those. Writing this does make me feel like I could have been more connected and done more to remedy some of the self-criticism in this post-mortem. Then again, so much criticism is done in ignorance of the experience and I think that is fine. Personally my cultural tastes are rather timid, if eclectic - right now I like Renaissance print-making, American Football, The Great British Bake Off and yoga classes on YouTube, but in principle I’m happy to critique anything. This trend doesn’t seem restricted to particular cultural forms - we exercise this right in politics, fashion, sport. Twitter isn’t helping here. It is almost an obligation to criticise without participating.
And there is relatively little knowledge, let alone participation in forms of this kind of contemporary digital culture, replete with fragmented, non-linear, dynamic qualities.
OK. Hang on. What are we talking about? Were you sort of with us but now just think this is nonsense? If so raise your hand. Great, you can put it back down now. See? Even digital can break the fourth wall. And if you want this essay to go back to the beginning and try and explain what we are talking about well we don’t have time. We made an entire mobile documentary for that - and you can visit it here. Right now we are talking about the aftermath of our play. The everything-that-went-wrong, or right, or… as I am sure they say in the industry, we are appraising the production retrospectively. Very retrospectively. The top-line description is that it was a play. In a theatre. That sort of overtook another play. But that play was pretending to be a talk. About plays. Anyway both plays were written by a group of young Australian writers. Their production ended up torn between wanting to be a play about the societal implications of technology, and wanting to utilise the actual technology to make a production. In other words the age old conundrum of painting a picture of the internet and simply using the internet (maybe to paint a picture).
Along the way, we learnt a lot about how the future of theatre might work when we start to ‘use’ the internet to make theatre. We saw how the structures of theatre don’t stop at the stage. Every bit of a theatre, from tickets sales to curtain calls is part of experiencing theatre. Even the family of the theatre live to make theatre - that’s not tautological but it it is conservatively recursive, because you realise that actually, to make 'digital' theatre - well, you can’t work with those structural conventions of ‘real’ theatre. Lee was fascinating on the potential of this project to evoke the death of writing, but perhaps you could go further.
To succeed digital theatre needs a state of permanent revolution. Not just audiences revolting but real changes to that family that sustains itself on the existing structures. And who would have to do that? The family. So is that going to happen? Well...
As an audience our notion of theatre is so rooted in the knobs buttons, seats, curtain calls, structures that let us know that we are AT A PLAY. Humans bring so much baggage that to break the contract of performance (phones!) causes significant problems. Theatre is about ritual and response. So how do you bring audiences, cast and theatre into a world that disrupts these unconscious elements of a performance? And what happens if you don’t do that adequately?
I call these movements segues and I see them in every aspect of our lives. The cues and devices that let your brain understand what is about to happen, that let your brain ‘adopt the position’ for a lecture, or a youtube clip, or a train ride, or a date. We live in a state of near unconsciousness because we are so happy not to think, and over centuries our culture has devised all these cues to remind us how to behave and what to expect. That is, in my opinion, what having a 'rich culture’ is - gazillions of layers of meaning laid down like dust on every word, every innuendo, every mis-en-scene. It covers almost everything, from ordering a coffee to standing in a lift and when we talk of ‘culture shock’ - what do we mean? We mean experiencing those moments in a different context where our unconscious expectations are confounded, where our brain actually has to get into gear and work out what’s going on. It’s hard work!
None of this is new, we all understand that notion at a pop-psych level, but what happens when you introduce culture-shock into theatre? Is it faddism disguised as digital? Or is it culture-revolution? There were so many questions we wanted to see explored. Simply subverting the fact that when you pick up your phone you know exactly what is going to happen could be beautiful theatre. And how might you allow people into your performance, on their phone, or reward them more effectively than the dopamine-fuelled compulsion loops of social media. Now, that would be success.
Audiences are anxious anyway. Anything outside their comfort zone causes unease. Experiments in theatre get to the core of that, breaking those boundaries, but normally within other boundaries. Can you feel comfortable whilst removing all the bits that make you comfortable? BY changing the ‘grammar’ of the whole experience? Is the sense of being ‘at a play’ important? What happens if you take away the beginning, so that the play has always already started? How do you extend the dramatic stage, the scenery, the back-stories out into the interwebs? We ended up with many questions like this that we didn’t really resolve, either in the content (what we created was too late to deploy) or in the strategic story-world of the production. The playwrights sought to impose a fictional, revolutionary ‘real’ performance (the story of our anarchic reactionaries) over the top of an artificial but much more believable fake performance (..a bunch of likeable, middle-aged, white people talking about the future of theatre in Australia. On a stage. In a theatre. I mean…). But it was quite funny that the audience chose the comfortable fake over the play they didn’t realise they’d come to see.
This facade upon a facade was to be structurally supported by the weight of material online. This in turn was to create the ‘reality’ of their world view. Online would be their truth, their manifesto and their actions - in films, comment boards, and fake news sites. But it turns out it is actually rather dangerous to inject radical revolutionary sentiment into an online world that is, technically, ‘real’ and filled with an increasingly unhappy Establishment who dislike the fragmented and frustrating lack of tangible fact in ‘cyber-space’. So if we had effectively distributed a vast horde of revolutionary material across the internet convincingly giving the impression that a bunch of radical young revolutionary hipsters were terrorising and threatening the ordinary folks of Sydney’s Western suburbs in the name of anarchic anti-tech, well, we might have caused ourselves even more trouble than not creating convincing levels of material. So perhaps we should breathe a sigh of relief that we limited the potential of a ‘realistic' dramatic story that bled from our story-world into the porous half-truth of the internet. Next time we might explore creating slightly safer ’theatrical’ internets, and to allowing our audiences into those online theatrical spaces for content that is too explosive (metaphorically) to blend into a public web. This is true in many spaces, we need the dark corners of the web to create subversive fictions as well as subversive fact. Somewhere to lie.
We had hoped, I think, to create awareness that there was a narrative, and that the story required you to potentially look for it, and that would reward you, and then on arriving at a theatre very much like the fan arrives at a book reading, you would know the story and be seeking a more ritualistic depiction than expecting a real event. I’m not sure they did know the story. Instead our audience arrived, handed over tickets for the talk and settled in for some more of what they expected.
At this point - I should say that I think the future of digital theatre is still performative, and physical and that it will skate across media and realities (of the play, the theatre building, the ice-cream sellers and the audience). But I don’t think anyone seems terribly ready to make that sort of theatre.
I like the idea of the digital (defined as the flow of information in and around a play) being like the lighting of a performance. It should not be something that you notice unless it fails. At which point the play breaks so completely that you cannot continue. And who can imagine a play without lights?
But stage lighting also had a moment where it was a new and invasive technology.
And I bet everyone complained that it was ruining theatre.
So what did we definitely learn?
We learnt that we hadn’t rehearsed enough. Despite a years worth of production we weren’t ready when the audience, who amusingly we had challenged to interact with the production, chose the experience that they had originally been promised. Being unprepared for that possibility left everyone perplexed.
We created an anti-current of electricity between audience and performer, creating an audience as a group who actually felt able to object, who were not willing to go with the players to their story-world. Perhaps that was due to not extending them credit, not allowing them into the idea of the performance at an earlier stage, and instead maintaining the illusion of a ’surprise’. Theatre is collaborative, and we forgot to include our audience in our collaboration except as hostile witness. Even very simply, one has to make the superseding production more compelling than the original, and exciting enough for them to ‘upgrade’.
Instead we created the fractured and rarely fulfilling spectacle of ‘people using computers’.
Technology is only any good when it gets out of the way. Instead we made a production that made a play about technology and then put technology into the play in a way that was obstructive or difficult rather than seamless - it was tech-for-tech theatre. Next time, we will do better. Next time we will hide the technology and make plays about love, or politics, rather than surveillance. Next time I will probably stop the play when it wants to be edgy. The best theatre generally seems to be about humanity and humanity is richer and rounder and more subtle than the space we found ourselves in.
Too long to dream. We probably let the writers fight for too long. I suppose we hoped that whilst it would be fraught, and maybe fractious, it would also be productive and there would be lots of ideas and content and a collaborative core would emerge - but it came over a little more like an invisible blood-bath. Perhaps the idea that the writers create theatre is also limited. Or at least as we move the edges of theatre into digital, or play with notions of interaction the single-genius playwright is the limiting factor. To produce broad, rich narratives you need many threads - but within one story-world, represented through multiple formats - which doesn’t leave our 21st century Pinter’s or Beckett’s much time.
Segues: for a digital theatre work to ‘work' the audience must be allowed a number of psychological conceits. For example they must be able to buy 'tickets' to the ‘theatrical experience’ and given a way to appreciate ‘the context of the play’ in a clear form - even if that is days or months before the event. They must be allowed to understand a performance has ‘begun’, to understand their role as an ‘audience’ of a play (regardless of how the play is enacted), and, at some point, they must be allowed to understand that the play has finished and they may leave (normally this is by 'applauding’ or maybe booing.) Ending is so important. Otherwise we are all just a bag of loose ends and we forgot that the audience needs that. A sense of engagement and of completion is essential to any enjoyable task. And that includes revolutionary digital theatre.
The incompleteness is an inevitable by-product of a work that exists across mediums as the ‘whole’ is rarely experienced identically by an individual in the same form (unlike a physical book or film). Our future audiences will have a shifting sense of the whole ‘play’ having experienced different content at different times, with different voices creating alternative contexts, and yet through that multiplicity of experience you will all believe yourselves to have a full, rounded, complete understanding of the story. That sounds crazy and complex but it is really closer to what happens normally, day-to-day. Everyone sitting down and being told the same story is quite rare.
And when the curtain didn’t fall on our little production the conversation definitely began - and I think, in itself, that is what we wanted to create. There is so much more to discuss. Maybe the sign of a poor essay is that the author feels incomplete, the reader feels over-informed, in which case I apologise - but a remarkable aspect of an experiment like this is that it does open so many unseen doors. Our ‘play' was like a toddler racing through a new playground, finding new spaces, exciting ideas, unrealised potentials and not conforming to adult routine and rituals that make sense of such novelty. It was slightly senseless, but in a good way.
This play was destined to fail when it set out to confront an audience without any of the conventions that would allow the audience to understand that it was even theatre. Making an audience so uncomfortable and out of place that they revolted, and demanded to be returned to the previous ‘play' and let it be allowed to continue. We rather liked that a fake talk about innovation in theatre should prevail over innovative theatre itself. Worth a small wry chuckle.
Overall it would be hard to call it a huge success. It’s not exactly headed off-Broadway. Yet failure is just short-hand for working out the details. There is no easy way to create, nor a hard way - only the it-could-be-better way. I know our playwrights, audience and anyone involved (like me) will have sparked many new thoughts, and new productions may emerge out of those sparks that might even get to a curtain call. (Unless they decide not to have one).
Thank you everyone for your patience. We learned so much and will not forget it quickly.