Guest blog: Thoughts from the UPstream Lab by Matthew Linley

Matthew Linley from Eastern Angles shares his notes and thoughts from the UPstream Lab day at South Hill Park in Bracknell.

 

At the recent #upstreamlab Coney Island’s  Annette Mees began by describing the internet as two things -the  ultimate library, and a place that creates connections.  But it also happens to be huge, a space where you can be easily swamped and one that is ‘awkward to put boundaries on’ argued the RSC’s Sarah Ellis.

So why go to all that effort. Why get lost in digital?  Annette’s presentation went some way to summarising the case (certainly in terms of narrative work):-

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‘Digital is a different, but equal experience  to the live experience’ argued Sarah Ellis, (reminding me of this previous blog).  ACE’s Jon Pratty asked ‘How do you talk about a new art form?  With unformed performance spaces, unformed practices and a disperate, unformed audience?’  And is the work of Coney Island (or RSC projects like dream 40) really theatre?

Even though the internet has been revolutionising culture since the early nineties (as the Barbican’s current retrospective arguably reminds us) we are perhaps still in its teenage years in terms of development.  At Sunday #soundingout session Martin Franklin’s pointed out how when the electric guitar was first developed it was played as if it was an acoustic guitar, it was only in time its full potential was exploited.  (Simply streaming a live performance is kind of akin to playing an electric guitar as an acoustic guitar). There’s a middle ground (between at one end the highly successful screenings of Digital Theatre/NT Live and the ground breaking work by the likes of Blast Theroy, Gob Squad and Forced Ents) that’s ripe for exploitation – and for telling both new and old stories differently to new and old audiences.  Several projects that are beginning to explore that middle ground were represented in the room including two of the Upstream commissions Pursued by a Bear’s The Lamelar Project and the incredible sounding Journey to Mars project Mars One Extended from Catharina Cronenberger Golebiowska’s.

 

Building Online Communities

It’s all about the audience, screamed one slide.  But there was also general concensus that digital is not an easy solution for resolving ‘the audience’ problem. It isn’t easy to build  online communities for and around your work (especially if you don’t have organisational / brand muscle).  It’s not the case that if you build it they will come.

One of the Key challenges the RSC has found is bringing your core audience with you on journey, whilst at the same time catering for the new audiences discovered on the way.  I loved the idea of some of the Dream 40 audience asking @sarahrellis ‘but wheres the play?’

Panelists pointed out it’s far easier to co-opt existing communities, to work out where your audiences already live on the net and hang out there.  And once there to sensitively co-opt, entice and cajole.

It was also noted that just as traditional marketing strategies from the marketing world don’t necessarily work in the digital world, so online audiences also behave differently to live audiences.  Here are some of the suggested differences:-

 

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Windswept Productions’s recent Running Stag R and D stats crudely divided its online audience into passive and investigative, though the true picture is much more complex.  Interestingly Coney have found that the audience interested in going on the experimental journey are very different to the audience interested in the finished product.

 

Developing new work in that context

Technologies are leading to new possibilities, new potential

ART NEEDS TO LEAD THE TECHNOLOGY

  • Not ‘we need an app’ but ‘to realise this idea, this project we need…..’
  • Use the right tool for the job – if a postcard is the right thing, use a post card
  • You’ve got to know why you are using the technology and who you are doing it for.
  • New does not always equal better
  • Be platform agnostic (it’s the right tool for the job thing again) – dream40 the RSC project deliberately pushed back against Google on this.
  • Experiment, small steps, iterate, re-iterate, tell your audience what your doing.

 

Not surprisingly there was a lot of discussion (and perhaps not much consensus) about how you develop new work in such a changing and developing context. Issues of ownership, control, copyrights, licensing, sharing before its ready all came up, and kept coming up.

But there were too lively discussions about how digital can help bring an audience into the creative process, tying in their loyalty at the same time.  ‘Trail and play’ (said @martin_franklin here) – ‘allow yourself to learn in steps, be curious, not scared’ (said @juliaaatthehub). ‘People are really excited about being part of an experiment…make sure they are part of that story as well as that of the story world’ said @annettemees.  ‘Have big ideas, but test in small steps – test elements, refine, discard a lot of your early ideas’ she went on.  @sarahrellis added ‘It will be clunky, will be awkward and some audiences simply won’t get it.’

 

Towards a new Dramaturgy

Whilst it was never said explicitly there was a sense of the digital space developing a new dramaturgy.  Many of the principles of storytelling apply – but digital provides new opportunities, and new ways of telling, ways that are not necessarily linear and that are multi platform (that is unless you are David Mitchell)

So key dramaturgical elements remain … certain techniques work and work whatever the form …and of course ultimately the key question is whether what you are doing is any good?

The complexities of digital though demand new techniques.  A dramaturgy which explores ways of telling which might include ‘set pieces’, ‘semi-set pieces’, things that change but lead to the same point , and dealing with the unexpected.  Ways of providing strong frameworks, and ways of giving audiences clear pathways through, whenever and wherever they join and leave.

A dramaturgy that deals with the question of the life cycle of a work?  Or as Mees commented ‘How a work begins and ends? The narrative keeps spreading’…And  a dramaturgy which considers what is left behind?  What an audience member can experience long after any live elements have concluded?

Clearly it’s a dramaturgy which is likely to keep growing as more and more projects emerge.

There were handy tips too – like avoid mixing audience learning a new technology at the same time as having the experience, keep experiences simple (at least at first) and don’t underestimate the playful nature of the internet (Fairy Flying School of dream40 was one of the most popular bits of content)

 

Conclusion

As the chaos of these notes indicate it was a very thought provoking day.  Stimulating, challenging and refreshingly creative.

Useful Links from the day

U Stream http://www.ustream.tv/

Live Stream and Live Stream for Producers http://new.livestream.com/

Boinx TV http://www.boinx.com/boinxtv/

Wirecast http://www.telestream.net/wirecast/

Interesting camera developments Black Magic Studio Camera

Dream 40 http://dream40.org/

Coney http://coneyhq.org/

SHP Live http://shplive.tv/ (where the windswept stream is also still available)

@matthewlinley