Interactive Digital Theatre: Live Like a Refugee

674 European-Commission-DG-ECHO-via-Flickr

“We worked in collaboration with a number of refugee groups, initially in Cardiff and subsequently in Newport too,” John McGrath, Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Wales told Searchlight Magazine Arts. “[The show Director] formed strong links with some of these refugees, and one of the very first people he talked with – Fissha – has stayed with the show and become one of the professional actors in it.”

He is talking about the recent production of Bordergame; an extremely innovative show which saw physical attendees take the 30-mile train journey between Bristol and Newport, while online viewers spied on their progress.

The story goes that the UK has collapsed and Wales has become the Autonomous Republic of Cymru. Paying audience members are the new wave of refugees desperate to cross the border out of the troubled NewK (New United Kingdom); and the free, online players make up the border agency tracking them. Over the course of an hour, these virtual players are presented with live footage of the train journey, along with a chat screen and an assortment of timed tasks.

Described by the BBC as “a new sort of art form,” its aim was to help the audience see the world from the refugees’ perspective. “This show really captured people’s imaginations,” Press and PR Manager Catrin Rogers told us, “if anything, more than we’d anticipated.”  The hype is possibly not surprising though, because if the rule of art is to “show not tell,” this truly takes audiences out of their comfort zones and offers them two distinct perspectives: hunter and hunted.

As we sit down to watch and take part, it is all very reminiscent of an undergraduate psychology experiment.  The webcam goes black as the train hurtles under the river Severn and we are shown a bunch of passport photos along with the individuals’ name, date of birth and gender.  There is little evidence to base a decision on but – as a group – we need to select somebody to be detained at the border.

What is fascinating is the way players round on one individual – Crump – based on no information whatsoever. As passports are checked at Newport the jibes continue. Yet back at the police station, when detainees are questioned harshly, the chat content gradually changes: “I’m starting to feel sorry for Crump now,” reads one comment. It is hard to tell how much of this is real participation of course, but it all does feel like believable forum chat. At the end a real refugee emerges on video to tell his true story.

In some ways this whole concept is so ambitious that it can never truly deliver. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the blend of online and offline interactivity. In the future it seems likely this type of genre is going to go a long way. “Other interesting companies working digitally include Blast Theory, Coney, Invisible Flock, Urban Angels [and] LIFT,” McGrath told us.

Cracking digital experiences has long been a challenge for theatre organisations. As Steve Ball, Associate Director for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre put it recently, “I don’t think the arts in this city [Birmingham] or even elsewhere, have fully realised the potential for digital application.”
“It is still something that is tagged on to a production in terms of film, or [to] start tweeting, or something like that. I’ve yet to see digital arts reach their full potential in terms of an immersive digital arts experience, and I don’t know what that would look like.”

Yet now there are a raft of companies who are putting concerted amounts of creative energy into finding the solution. Urban Angel, based in Nottingham, is doing some very cutting-edge interactive gaming work which blends digital technologies with immersive performance techniques. Artists Adam Sporne and Dominic Shaw have backgrounds in guerrilla theatre with hard to reach communities and young people. By putting audience members at the centre of the performance they hope to bring in new audiences.

Our lives have changed massively over the last few decades and “more adults do play more than they used to,” explained Sporne and Shaw. “People expect more of a personal service.” This stands at odds with theatre’s highbrow image of white, middle class 50-somethings, sitting in the dark consuming a play. What Sporne and Shaw are trying to do is ensure the audience “are not just passive observers but integral characters.”

Their most recent show, Genesis of Cr0n, saw audiences become spies who ran round the city meeting actors. People could play it in a day or do it over a period of time, and once the production had finished a new chapter was available online. Their aim is to try and “make things as close to reality as possible” which, like the National Theatre of Wales production, has real potential to show people perspectives they may not have understood before. The trouble with UK theatre is if it’s not based in London “nobody ever hears about it” added Sporne and Shaw.  Yet this is precisely why web-enabled projects have the potential to spread innovative ideas further than ever before.

Jonathan May is Digital Producer at LIFT Festival and connects technologists. His aim is to look at “how artists can rethink what technology can do” and vice versa.  He spends a lot of time searching for relevant artists and would like to meet “as many people with brilliant ideas as possible.” He wants to make experiences as engaging and interactive as possible – and doesn’t want to “put people off” with the word theatre.

Invisible Flock has the same mission. This company is driven by three artists who have been working together for five years and are interested in how interactivity enables them to explore audiences. Catherine Baxendale the Company Director described carrying a phone in terms of a “portal to the virtual world.” The latest game, which is in “play testing” mode at the moment, is called “If you go away” and takes people on a story-driven journey through a real city accompanied by a narrative on a smartphone or tablet.

We could continue listing innovative ideas for hours but it would be pointless because at the moment no one has really gone far enough or fully cracked the genre yet – but someone will – because interactive theatre that combines the virtual and the physical has the potential to bring in whole new audiences and help people see perspectives they would never have seen before.

Who else is trying to demonstrate what it might be like to be a refugee? And how else could you really put people inside that story? The possibilities in this kind of interactive storytelling are immense… we’ll be extremely interested to see how it all pans out.

First published on Searchlight Magazine Arts…

Speak Your Mind