At this stage of development, and in true R&D style, theprocess is being put at the forefront, with any resulting product feeling almost beside the point
As a Digital R&D funded project, the Leeds-based Unlimited Theatre has been working with digital storytelling experts Storythings to create a unique take-home experience of their new play, ‘The Noise’. The exact shape of the product isn’t yet set, but by developing a number of very different prototypes over a series of workshops, the group aims to end up with something that captures the essence of the play’s script in what they’re calling a ‘digital bottle’ – with the project being called Make Some More Noise.
So it’s with great curiosity that I headed to a rehearsal space in West Yorkshire Playhouse on the afternoon of the 13th of June to attend the second of the project’s ‘Community Lab’ workshops with twenty other volunteers and theatre staff. You can find a report of the first workshop here.
There are some very interesting assumptions behind this project. The idea that theatre and literature are two sides of the same coin is intriguing – but the implication that technology has underused theatrical potential excited me even more. The theatre staff explained to me that scripts are sets of instructions (and often not even particularly clear ones) – but that they have the potential to be so much more. The modesty of the simple rehearsal space, clipboards and paper prototypes belied a rather profound idea. This project is really going back to first principles, challenging everything that is taken for granted about script reading, formatting, and writing. Imagine you never knew about a script’s function as a tool for performers and production staff and you’ll immediately find yourself experiencing a curiously fresh, and completely valid new kind of literature. Inject some atmosphere – make the text move and influence you a little bit – and you’ve made that literature perform.
You have also, in a sense, repurposed technology. Until recently, we have focussed on the functions of our devices. Devices designed for reading have features geared to prioritising usefulness – features that must be invisible and in the total service of supplying our unconsciously scrolling fingers with what they expect. But the project being developed by Unlimited & Storythings is not about creating the most expected reading experience. Instead it meets the reader halfway, guiding and lightly influencing their imagination. The technology takes on an influential role in the story as it appears to the reader – it partially leads ideas, rather than responding to predicted behaviour. It becomes a director; a performer.
By removing the effort of reading a playscript – and replacing this effort with something more akin to entertainment, and by making their system open source and shareable, Unlimited hopes a wider audience for plays can be found. The project aims to emulate something of the experience of attending a performance and these workshops are a key part of the process to find out quite what that will mean in the end.
At this stage of development, and in true R&D style, the process is being put at the forefront, with any resulting product feeling almost beside the point. I attended the second in their series of workshops. Unlimited’s Jon Spooner and Clare Duffy have started on the script, and the afternoon began with the writers gathering feedback from the attendees on the ‘story so far’. The enthusiasm of the theatre staff and the volunteers was palpable and the feedback sounded constructive (I haven’t read much of the script but it’s clearly a mysterious Lost-style thriller with plenty of secrets to be revealed.) Several core insights from the previous workshop were shared during this introductory phase. For example, the question ‘what would the user like this ‘app’ to be?’ raised points about the way reading is usually an immersive, individual activity, while theatre is, by its nature, communal. The issue of interpretation was raised, too – how much should the team be expressing the director’s voice and to what extent should they allow readers’ imagination to tell the story?
The insights from the first workshop included a few points on the reasons people buy playscripts. Scripts are mementos – souvenir objects for those who’ve seen and enjoyed the show and want to remember the experience as a whole. They’re also purchased as a memory aid for those who want to find particular reference points again, such as teachers. It was found that different levels of participation appeal to different readers: some just want to read, some want to linger over certain passages, and some want a complete ‘bells and whistles’ experience with directors’ notes and everything else.
Sophie from from the technical team at Storythings then explained their goals. “What is the reading experience of the playscript? Can we make it easier to read?” Storythings have been trying to marry the ease of reading with a sense of atmosphere and some different ways of bringing the dialogue to life. The technical team were keen to emphasise their prototypes are unpolished expressions of ideas and not to be seen as part of the final work at this stage – “They’re building blocks to what we might make,” explained Sophie.
Five stations were set up around the rehearsal room: four tables with different names where each of the ‘tests’ would be undertaken, and a ‘den’ area in the corner with feedback slips and a coffee machine. Insights in mind, we were shown round the four tables, then unleashed on the tests.
I started at the table called ‘Ambience’, where the team explained they were attempting to introduce something of the light and sound of a theatrical production to the reading experience. They handed me a tablet where a sample of the script was scrolling steadily up off the page like the end credits of a movie. Visualisations and colours subtly shifted behind the words, and there was atmospheric music and some background effects to suit the scene. I felt this worked very well, and it almost had the feel of a video game intro, building anticipation and interest. I was fascinated to find the addition of music really did affect the way I was was reading the characters’ lines to myself. It’s just another sort of theatrical direction, of course, and as I used it I wondered whether there are any clear reasons we shouldn’t embrace a director’s influence in our reading of their play.
The other tests were interesting too. A paper prototype showing various script layouts raised interesting questions about why there is a convention for this, and whether it can be improved. The scrolling tablet demo suggested there might a role for serendipity in reading scripts, with a flick of the finger revealing different quantities of text and the scroll happening at varying speeds, such that you never knew quite where the page would settle. A mocked-up intro screen displayed some tantalising lines and rather beautiful iceberg photos, but could have evoked a little more suspense. I met Jon Spooner, the Director and co-writer of the play at this table, and he mentioned something that had come up a few times that day – the prospect of making the app start with an orientation screen showing you how to work it, a bit like a game. In fact, this was the unspoken, yet unavoidable, theme of the day: could what was being made here be more closely related to games than books or theatre?
The feedback session at the end was constructive, with the paper script layouts coming under particular scrutiny. Personal preferences aside, the question of relating physical space on the page to dramatic space seemed very pertinent, and not just to actors. Space is a well-established pacer for our reading; without those barely-conscious cues, the experience can be disconcerting. A conversation presented as an unbroken stream of dialogue can make us feel like we can’t get our breath. It may be that some of the tests were a little too avant-garde, or perhaps it’s just that, as with all these innovations, we need time to adjust to something new.
And there’s the rub. Jon said he writes “the show says ‘Hello’” at the top of his scripts, because the first few minutes of every play are a greeting, an airlock that takes you gradually into another world. With ideas as unconventional as the ones being mooted at this workshop, and at least part of their intended audience acclimatised to the habits of traditional theatre, this project needs to find ways to gently warm its readers up. The team may not be able to get the masses recreationally reading playscripts from a standing start, but it seems to me that they are certainly headed in the right direction to pave the way for more interesting innovation in this area – a broad area, encompassing behavioural psychology, design, literature, theatre, and dare I say it, games.
Leila Johnston is a writer and managing editor of The Literary Platform. She is the author of How To Worry Friends and Inconvenience People and writes regularly about hacking for Wired UK.
Promotional image for Unlimited Theatre’s The Noise by Alex Murray