Feature

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Sharing the Shakespeare Experience

We talk to Catherine Mallyon and Sarah Ellis from the RSC about digital capacity, confidence, and what you do with the attention of 30M viewers.

Tandi Williams
Sep 11th 2014

Native: What does digital technology mean for the RSC?

Catherine Mallyon: Digital is now part of everything we do and want to do, and it’s hard to imagine how we could do a day’s work or engage an audience without the digital world.

It opens a whole richness of activity in creation of content, enabling greater accessibility and engagement and reach. It’s about conversations with us, and the communities we can create now that we couldn’t in the past. Technology is also having a significant impact on our stage production.

It’s how we work; we don’t have to treat it as some kind of difficult mystery. We recognise the tools it can provide us with, but at the same time, realise that it’s the people in the company that will use those.

‘Digital is now part of everything we do and want to do, and it’s hard to imagine how we could do a day’s work or engage an audience without the digital world.’

The RSC has produced two experimental digital works in recent years, what have you taken away from these experiences?

CM: Both Midsummer Night’s Dreaming our recent collaboration with Google, and our previous experiment Such Tweet Sorrow, were new to us, and pretty new in themselves actually – although we’re always hesitant about claiming things like that.

We connected with so many people who are invested in the RSC and care about this organisation. It provided an opportunity to be playful with something new and innovative. One of our front-of-house team members played the baker in one of the scenes. Another got their family involved and uploaded content. Our organisation can be brilliant in bringing people together.

Some of those components won’t be seen by the public, but it’s important that they are recognised within the organisation at all levels. They are the most joyous moments that can’t be explained with statistics but are absolutely essential.

 

How did your partnership with Google come about?

Sarah Ellis: We wanted a partnership that would allow us to work at a large scale. Google was ideally placed, as we wanted to amplify our content across a broad platform to new places and frontier places for theatre.

We wanted to be bold and ambitious in our thinking, and work with an organisation that really understands the culture of the internet.

We tried to imagine a piece of theatre for the internet today – one that would inhabit the internet and share the RSC experience as widely as possible.

Understanding that we were putting both organisations into a place of experimentation gave us permission to try some different things. We realised there were lots of similarities in how we work, such as how we looked at quality.

CM: We had the confidence to press go because we have such strong teams within our organisation. As an organisation we are good, if not very good, at partnership working. That’s not to say it’s easy of course, but we understand the frameworks we’re working within.

SE: The project reached 30 million people on social media through all channels: Facebook, Twitter and Google +. We had a core community of 1,000 people over six weeks. We uploaded 3,000 pieces of content, of which 1,000 were audience members uploading their own and 2,000 were RSC commissions.

And we entered the top 1,000 Google + accounts worldwide. So the impact was great, but also very short and quick.

 

So what next?

CM: That in itself is one of the challenges, is what we do next. If we’re dealing with a sell-out house it’s 1,000 people, if we’ve got three sell-out theatres, we’ve got 1,700 people. But if we’ve reached 30 million people, what does that mean for us as an organisation?

Is it the same as our other productions, in that it has an audience, and we do another one? Or is there a way of keeping that engagement going?

There are also potentially significant opportunities commercially. How do we make money a natural part of online engagement? We’d like to connect someone engaging online, who is enjoying the content, contributing themselves, and being part of that community, with our retail offering in a completely natural and appropriate way.

We’ve just done our ‘Live from Stratford upon Avon’ first transmission into cinemas and schools and over time that will become an income stream. There are a lot of our organisation’s activities that could be monetised, for instance extending our education programmes internationally.

 

How do you approach digital planning and decision-making?

CM: We have specific objectives around digital activities and projects we will undertake. In our overall objectives, we talk about reaching people every way we can: which includes online as much as in person.

At the very top level, we focus on what the company wants to do in terms of quality of our work, the reach of that work, and the level of engagement of people with it – be that on the stages, online, education, events and exhibitions. An element of that will necessarily take place digitally, will be communicated digitally, and that’s how it is. It’s not another discrete strand

We want to make sure that we remain coherent as an organisation, and focus on our key objectives, while at the same time allowing people within our organisations to be creative and try new things.

And that’s as much a challenge in any line of our work, digital is no different in that regard, it’s a part of the same approach to our organisation. How do we make sure the audience are getting what they want alongside our programme of work?

 

What role does the board of trustees play in developing the RSC’s digital strategy?

CM: There is a great commitment and enthusiasm for digital work – and they want to engage in a questioning and supportive way.

I’m on the board, as well as our Artistic Director, and there are interesting connections because of that. In all areas, our Board is good at pushing us to make sure we are engaging as we should, asking what we’re doing, and offering their expertise where appropriate, demonstrating that they’re open to new ideas, and want to see us trying new things.

As with our work on stage, it’s about supporting focussed experimentation. There are risks – some projects might not work, and that’s fine. We have to take those decisions and support the team in doing that.

For the Board, and for us, it’s about making sure the organisation is confident, as well as having the capacity to deliver.

 

How do you build confidence and capacity within the organisation?

CM: I think we need to continue to invest in the right tools and in people – both their numbers and capabilities, and find time for people to be creative in this area.

We’re currently working on a business case for a new approach to our online activity: looking at what we need in terms of people and infrastructure.

Within that we have enough room and potential for new projects, although we don’t necessarily know what these will be or will produce.

We don’t have to discuss the detail of what those new things will be. But we know if we do this, we will make it possible for us to experiment and do new things.

I see parallels with our physical capacity – we recently refurbished the theatre and put a marvellously equipped auditorium.We don’t know every detail of how we will use it, but we know we have the infrastructure and capacity to respond to people’s imagination.

 

How do you build a case for major investments in digital?

CM: When we want to make significant investments in the digital domain, we need to be able to provide the evidence – be it qualitative or quantitative – to support that decision.

We don’t necessarily know what all the outcomes of digital are going to be, but we have given thought to what we think they might achieve.

It’s not solely data and bits of kit, but what we can use it for, and that’s what we need to inspire board members and ourselves to rise to the challenge and see what we can deliver.

 

Some people say there is a digital literacy issue in senior arts management. Do you agree?

CM: If you look around the arts world – across senior management teams and arts organisations – there are people that absolutely understand the potential and the reality of the digital world.

It’s easy to get confused between technical competency and engagement, and the fact that leaders have to be open to new ways of working and new ways of creation. We might not do it ourselves, but what we have to do is enable, and I see a lot of that out there.

It’s now part of the professional working world, a level of competence in digital areas. This varies from role to role and the particular requirements of the functions people are undertaking. But it’s a rare role that doesn’t require an ability to engage digitally.

Externally, a lot more people are thinking about what digital means, and it’s important that we’re part of that debate.

 

What do you think Shakespeare would make of your digital experiments?

CM: The original Shakespearean plays used the cutting edge technologies of the time to produce extraordinary effects for example with masques. I would have thought that Shakespeare would be doing the same thing with the digital world now.

Part of the challenge for us is to use exactly what we have now in our contemporary world, as Shakespeare did in his contemporary world.

 

Catherine Mallyon has been Executive Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company since 2012. Sarah Ellis is their Digital Producer.