We are in a period of significant change. The interconnectivity that the web offers and the quick rise of pervasive media has changed how we communicate with each other, how we access information, how we experience news, stories and the world.
These changes have had a deep impact on storytellers of all kinds. The tools we use to tell tales are evolving, becoming more modular and tailored, more participatory and more engaging than just the printed word or the moving image. These new forms of digitally-enabled storytelling move beyond reinterpreting a text for radio or screen. We need to find new structures, and new relationships with audiences.
Better Than Life, led by Coney, an immersive theatre company that specialises in creating new forms of responsive playing theatre, brought together an extraordinary multidisciplinary team involving award-winning interactive theatre makers, digital broadcasters, developers, multi-platform creatives, academics, VR experts, a magician and many more.
We wanted to create a project that focused, in particular, on how live performance fits into the landscape of this terra nova. The aim was to see how to create an event for a large online audience that combined digital connectivity and interactivity with the liveness and shared experience of theatre.
In particular, we wished to understand what kinds of agency and control audiences might want and enjoy when engaging with this new form of live performance, and we set up a system that allowed both audiences – in the live space and online – to participate in and comment upon the show in several new ways. A total of eight public rehearsals and performances took places in June 2014, with over 300 people taking part either in the live space or online. At the end of the R&D process there emerged a narrative of a new medium. The material in the R&D wasn’t normal theatre and it wasn’t quite broadcast and it wasn’t a game. It was a cultural experience that built on the live-storytelling and visceral nature of theatre, but combined it with the social interaction of MMO (Massively multiplayer online role-playing games) and the delivery infrastructure of online broadcast.
The show was held at a ‘secret’ location in London, with 12 people attending and entering the fictional world of the “Positive Vision Movement” (PVM). In the live space, the audience promenaded through the storyworld of the PVM, following three actors, playing, solving puzzles, chatting, debating and witnessing magic as they went.
Online, people spoke and instructed characters, found commentary, spoke to each other, made choices and switched camera views at will. At points, the online audience could even take control of lighting in the space in order to create specific atmospheres, or shine light on a particular place or person.
In every show the audiences were monitored carefully, questioned at various stages within the show and, in some cases, interviewed in depth about the experience.
Interestingly, interactivity – the ability to ‘take control’ of a situation, make a decision about plot or performance or change the mood through lighting or sound – was not rated as highly, by either audience, as the opportunities to socialise and engage with each other.
Data suggests that the online audience, in particular, enjoyed the ability to form strong social bonds each other, and that they favoured elements of the show in which they were able to connect and communicate directly with performers in the show.
This would suggest that this new kind of hybridised digitally-driven storytelling and play environment is seen first and foremost, as an opportunity to connect with others in a theatrical context – interacting with each other more as one might at a music festival or a house party. This is not then simply theatre with an online component bolted on.
For the three R&D partners, the project was also a great ‘social’ success in terms of what we learned from each other. The project genuinely worked within the gaps of the knowledge overlaps between Coney, Goldsmiths and Showcaster, and we pushed each other to deliver a project with as many interesting new features as we could cram into one production space.
Better Than Life explored what is possible – and proved that hybridised models of entertainment and performance can open up experiences to audiences that genuinely span beyond the geographic boundaries of a single location or building.