When theatre goes digital

Jo Caird talks to theatre companies using digital technology as a powerful tool for creating interactive productions.

When we think about theatre and digital technology, what usually springs to mind is live screening. Broadcasting live performance online or direct to cinema or TV screens is a fantastic way of broadening access, but it doesn’t usually have much of an impact on the work itself. It doesn’t really affect audience engagement either – you’re still just watching the show, whether in a theatre, a cinema, or on a smartphone from a caravan in the Scottish Highlands.

More and more companies, however, are engaging with digital technology in increasingly inventive ways, putting it at the very core of what they do and pushing the boundaries of audience experience as a result.

When director Alexander Devriendt of the Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed came up with the idea for Fight Night (pictured above), a show about democracy and the act of voting, he “immediately felt that the audience have to be part of it. They have to feel connected, to be a player really.”

A lot of Ontroerend Goed’s past work has involved audience interaction, but for this one, which recently played in the UK and will be touring to France and Canada in 2016, digital technology was essential in terms of making the piece resound.

Audience members at Fight Night are handed small consoles as they enter the auditorium, which they use to vote in a series of ballots over the course of the show, narrowing down a field of ‘candidates’ until just one remains. The software immediately tallies the votes in any given ballot and displays the results on screens for all to see.

“You don’t have to pretend you’re a real voter; you’re a voter in the show, with consequences in the show,” explains Devriendt.

World Factory, which last week finished a sold-out run at the Young Vic in London, does something similar, getting digital engagement from audiences with the subject of international textile markets and manufacture by inviting them to take part in a choose-your-own-adventure style game. Using a barcode scanner, audience members hire and fire workers in a Chinese clothing factory and make decisions about holiday pay, backhanders, and working conditions.

Only when audiences experience such “ethical conundrums” for themselves can they understand “how complicated the circumstances are”, says Zoë Svendsen, the show’s director and designer. “We knew from the beginning that [with] a more traditional form of theatre [it] might be difficult to do justice to the complexity and interconnections of the topic.”

“More and more companies, however, are engaging with digital technology in increasingly inventive ways, putting it at the very core of what they do and pushing the boundaries of audience experience as a result.”

The fact that the game is operated digitally as opposed to manually allows play to be fast enough for real progress to be made in just an hour. By the end of the show, when the results are announced as to which teams produced the most garments, made the most money and had the lowest staff turnover, the software will have juggled 200 million mathematically different outcomes.

But digitisation wasn’t just a logistical choice, says Svendsen. “We were also enjoying this semi-automated system,” she says, “the shift from human interaction in transactions to machines, whether you’re buying things online or going to one of those shops with a semi-automated purchasing system where you scan your own product.” In World Factory digital is both a means and an end.

Another show that poses questions about the impact of technology on our lives – and embraces its potential for audience interactivity while it does so – is Shelter Me, an immersive circus experience running at Theatre Delicatessen until 5 July.

For Nich Galzin and the other members of international circus collective Circumference, technology is an essential tool in maintaining friendships and relationships while touring. “We wanted to make a show about intimacy and the connections that were being made that came through the technological connections. It seemed to make sense that in making the show we’d want to use that same technology as tools to interact with the audience.”

Shelter Me uses bulk text messaging to audience members’ own mobile phones to direct them around the former offices of the Guardian newspaper, since converted into an atmospheric performance space. Fragments of narrative encourage them to engage with circus performers, other audience members and people outside the theatre experience, coming together at the end of the show for a finale in which they share not just a technological space, but a physical one too.

“What we’re trying to examine is that technology can be very distancing, distracting,” says Galzin. “But most people don’t abuse it to that extent. What technology can also do is increase that connection and that trust.”

Format was important. Text messaging represents a “familiar and comfortable way of receiving information”, so it’s an effective way of getting audiences to engage. During R&D on the show the company found that even people who came along without a mobile phone were able to take part and enjoy themselves by partnering with someone else who had brought one.

Familiarity was a consideration on Fight Night too, explains Devriendt. Ultimately, the form has to serve the content. “The way I’m using technology is purely practical really. If it’s too new or too gimmicky, I tend to avoid it because it would always feel alien [to the audience], like a trick they don’t understand. So I only use technology in my performances when it’s part of normal life. Where you accept it as part of reality on stage, which is also the same reality as in the audience and in your life.”

Get the balance right – persuade your audience to engage with that reality – and digital technology can actually enhance the live-ness of a theatrical encounter, rather than detract from it.

“It’s all real,” says Svendsen, with a thrill in her voice. “Each night we don’t know the parameters of exactly what’s going to come up [at the end of the show] so there’s always that buzz in the room because no one knows which table it’s going to be.”

Jo Caird is a freelance arts journalist. She writes about theatre, film, visual arts and music for publications including the Guardian, the Scotsman and the Economist. Follow her on Twitter @JoCairdThis article was first published in June 2015.

For more try: Technology as a storytelling tool, Five ways film-making is evolving thanks to new technology or any of our other resources, guides and case studies.

How useful was this resource?