Mixed Realities and Intermedia
Hello and welcome to the final online seminar in the Remixing the Classics series. My name is Erin Sullivan and I’m one of the co-chairs of the network, which is exploring how digital technologies are being used to remake classic literature and drama. I want to start by thanking our funders, the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council, our partner, the Association of Adaptation Studies, my co-chair Deborah Cartmell who you’ll be hearing from in a few minutes, and our project assistant, Beth Sherrick who has been working behind the scenes to make sure that everything runs as smoothly as possible. Please also feel free as audience members to use the chat constructively and respectfully during this event and in fact you might start now by letting us know where in the world you’re tuning in from.
I’m in my office in Stratford-upon-Avon in England at the Shakespeare Institute which is part of the University of Birmingham. Those of you who have been to previous events from Remixing the Classics will know that over the last few months we posted a series of online seminars exploring what digital technologies bring – artistically, pedagogically, politically – to the retelling of old stories. We’re really grateful to our speakers for allowing us to record the sessions which we’re making available on our project website as we go, and in a minute I’ll put the links into the chat for a few of the things I’ll mention, including the project website. We’re also hosting a hybrid workshop on the 15th of July focused on cross-professional collaboration and knowledge exchange. It’s going to take place in Birmingham in the UK and it’s going to focus a lot on networking and making connections in that region, but its talks will also be streamed online and we’ve a really great programme lined up that I think will be of interest to people internationally.
Again, in a minute I’ll share a link that will allow you to look at more information about that workshop. And finally we’re hosting an online conference about digital adaptations in August on the 9th. We’re currently finalising the programme and we’ll be sharing it on our website and on social media at the start of July. So finally, if you’d like to know more about these future events and recordings of past events, the easiest way to do so is probably to sign up for our network mailing list and again, I’ll share that link in just a second. I mentioned that we’re hosting an online conference on digital adaptations in August and also in relation with that we’re putting together a journal special issue on the topic, so I’m going to turn over now to my co-chair, Deborah Cartmell, to tell you a little bit more about that.
Hello everyone, I’m Deborah Cartmell, the Co-I on this project and I’m also the Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research at De Montfort University in Leicester. I’m really excited about this seminar but really sad it’s our very last one; it’s hard to believe they’ve just gone by so quickly. It’s been often observed that, on the whole, and with the exception of this extraordinary group of speakers, Adaptational Studies have been rather slow to integrate practice in the research and so this session is really most welcome. As Erin has said, there will be two more events, one on July 15th and one on August 9th and details of which will be put in the chat. We’ll be publishing a special issue of the journal ‘Adaptation’, published by Oxford University Press which will draw papers from all the events we’ve had over the course of this project.
If you’re not a contributor to any of the events, you can still submit an article for consideration and you can do this through our online portal. We also intend to edit a special issue on digital Shakespeare for the journal ‘Shakespeare’ which I also co-edit and again, submissions are most welcome in an area which is developing so rapidly and which is still sadly I think under-represented in these two journals. So we very much look forward to hearing from all of you and our speakers to you. So back to Erin. Thanks very much, Deborah.
So it’s now my pleasure to turn our attention to today’s seminar on Mixed Realities and Intermedia and to welcome our brilliant trio of speakers who have very generously agreed to share their expertise and time with us today. Over the last two years the phrase ‘the future is hybrid’ has become a commonplace. Digital and in-person modes of interaction increasingly intertwine with all of us discovering new ways to connect, both on screen and off. So in today’s seminar we want to ask what a hybrid future might mean for the creative arts and especially for new works that respond to classic texts. We also want to explore how artists have been looking at these boundaries between so-called real-life and online life, long before the pandemic, and in many cases decades before.
What kind of adaptations of classic texts have they created and how might they help us think through the hybridity of our own lives? As with our previous seminars we’ll begin with 10 minute presentations from each of our speakers and then we’ll use the second half of the seminar for discussion. We hope that you, the audience, will get involved. You can submit questions using the Q&A button in your Zoom toolbar and you can also contribute comments and further thoughts in the chat. Deborah and I will keep an eye on the Q&A and chat comments and we’ll drawn on them when we get to the discussion portion of the seminar. So without any further ado, I’d like to introduce our first speaker who is Lucy Askew.
Lucy is Chief Executive for Creation Theatre Company, based in Oxford in the UK, but performing globally through its prolific and innovative digital projects. Creation made international headlines in April 2020 when it reimagined its site-specific production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest for lockdown audiences on Zoom. In her review of the production for the Guardian, Mary-Ann Gillanson marvelled how even in the midst of the pandemic, Creation and its audiences were “creating live theatre together and making something that feels a little bit like magic”. Since then Lucy and her team at Creation have adapted a series of classic authors for online performances, including H.G. Wells, Lewis Caroll, the Brothers Grimm and many more,
and they’ve also developed a rich online drama programme for students. Lucy’s work with Creation has really pushed theatre makers and audiences to think about innovation, sustainability and inclusion in the performing arts and we’re very grateful to welcome her here with us today. So without any further ado, I’ll invite the rest of the panellists to turn off their video – other than Lucy – and we’ll turn over to her. Hello.
And now I’m going to do something that has got no less frightening for all the digital shows that we’ve done and I’m going to attempt to share screen. I’ve done it enough times now, you’d think I’d be able to do it without the absolute horror and terror that somehow it’s going to go wrong. So I’m going to share screen and you should be looking at a screen that says ‘Creation Theatre’ and has a logo on, so please do tell me if for any reason it’s not showing that, and I’m going to move that little thing so I’ll close the transcription box. Does that look all right, Erin? Have I got the right thing showing? Yes.
So far so good. Wonderful. Now I’m going to close the other screen so I can get to my controls for PowerPoint. So I’m Lucy, I’m the Chief Executive for Creative Theatre Company.
We are traditionally known – well, before the pandemic we were primarily a site-specific theatre company, known for doing adaptations of Shakespeare and classic texts, and so all over the place in car parks and parks and rooftops and industrial estates and bookshops and libraries. Like Erin said we pivoted very rapidly at the start of the pandemic to working online and doing digital work and since then we’ve done 13 online productions that really are specifically made for digital. So they’re not productions where we’re showing them to an in-person analogue audience, so we’re also streaming them or streaming some element of them; they are made for a live digital audience.
Of them I would say 11 of them fall very clearly into being adaptations of classics and of all of those, given the freedom to just pick one to talk about, I’ve chosen to talk about The Time Machine today, which is a production that we did in early 2020 and then remounted as a digital production. So I’m just going to go into a little bit about the origin story of why we chose to do H.G. Wells The Time Machine and that really starts with going back to Bram Stoker and we did a production of Dracula that started in Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford and the Director of the London Library came to see this production and approached me afterwards and said ‘I run a library in London, would you like to come and do a show here?’ and I turned up in London very much with the perceptions of it being like a council-run library that I’ve been exposed to most of my life and thinking there would be a children’s section and some books in plastic covers, only to discover the most extraordinary library I’ve ever been to in my life. So the London Library is a membership only library, right in the centre of London, which has the most incredibly prestigious membership list. So it feels like nearly every author of the 20th century was a member there. So Bram Stoker was a member of the London Library, which was why they were interested in having Dracula.
It’s an extraordinary building and if you love books, it’s worth if you’ve not been there, booking – they do a free tour where you can go and have a look round. It has these stacks with like iron grates that you can look through and that whole section of the building is entirely held up by the books. The weight of the books, the whole building has shrunk by 2 inches and if they ever take the books out, it’s all going to fall down.
So we went and did Dracula there but Dracula was a static production. This is one of our show photos from it. We were starting to work – without consciously knowing we were moving into a digital world, we were starting to do something slightly more hybrid here.
It has a lot of projection work on it, so it was a two person show and we use projection to create – you never saw Dracula; Dracula was always shadow and projections and playing on that fear of the unknown. But after that, having seen this extraordinary building, we were really keen to follow it up with something where we could really get our audiences immersed in this labyrinth of bookcases and so when we were invited to come back the following year, we looked at this list of authors and we picked H.G. Wells and we pitched that we would like to do a production of H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, where we could take small groups of audience and each audience would have their own time traveller who would then take them around the building and they would encounter some other live actors and sort of the story would unfold as they moved around the building. So this really – this here is one of our time travellers, Rhodri, who’s also in The Tempest, in the stacks there. This really started to move us into a more hybrid type of show.
We weren’t using those words then, this was all new to us. In a way we sort of thought we were doing digital but now we know its potential, we were really just dabbling in it. But we used wireless headphones, we used computer screens, we had a large screen with a life-sized character you met at one point, we used projection and for us it was quite an exciting way to be able to do something where you can have small audience in venues. You could never get enough, you know, we’re not a publicly funded organisation so to get enough volume of audience through a show with small audience numbers, is quite challenging.
But actually if you can multiply up your performers by having them live in some places and on screen in some places, you can start to do some really interesting things. So Time Machine at the London Library was essentially a hybrid performance and where it gets really interesting is that before we had written the scripts, we were approached by the Wellcome Centre for Ethics & Humanities and they said to us ‘we would like you to do a show that will raise public engagement with our areas of research’ and the kind of research they do at the Wellcome Centre for Ethics & Humanities – there’s no shorty way to say that – is they do research into neuroscience, big data, genomics, global connectiveness. It’s really all looking at kind of ethical challenges that may face humanity in the future. So obviously we jumped at the opportunity because that’s a really exciting proposition to tackle. So Jonathan Holloway who wrote our adaptation, went to the Wellcome Centre and met with several of the researchers for a day. He just had coffees all day with different researchers and they just told him about their research and their specialisms and then he went away and he wrote The Time Machine for us.
So it created this sort of version of the H.G. Wells story where there were elements of the book – the book became a character in the show – but it was really taking H.G. Wells’ end point where we’re in the future and where The Time Traveller previously has sort of speculated on why society is split into this kind of underground and above ground, the Eloi and the Morlocks structure, we used their research to fill in the gaps in between those two points.
Now what was incredible about that, you know, like the most bizarre experience for us was that a lot of their research at this point in 2019 was saying, you know, ‘there will be a pandemic, a SARS-like pandemic, millions of people will die. It will be spread by air travel, there will be a lot of politics around vaccine inequity and the only country that will be relatively unscathed is New Zealand’. So this was a play that we’d written and this is the play that we were performing in early 2020 and then, you know, Coronavirus/Covid/the pandemic, began to unfold and we were sharing this story with audiences which felt so prescient and what was meant to be science fiction started to become fact. In terms of our other digital adaptations and adoption and really our commitment to digital, this is a really, really pivotal piece of the Creation story because for us it gave us this insight into experts who we were talking to, so while other companies were sort of coming into the pandemic thinking ‘oh no, we’ve got to close. Well maybe we’ll be able to do a show in four weeks.
Maybe we’ll be able to do a show in the summer. Maybe we’ll be able to do a Christmas show. Things will get back to normal soon’, we’d sort of been tipped off and we knew this is going to take two years, this is going to take a long time. So we adopted digital work, we took all the incredible things that came out of The Tempest with Big Belly and our co-production with them.
We really grasped all those things and ran with them because we knew we were in it for a long haul, we knew this wasn’t something that was going to go away quickly, so we did the production of The Tempest within three weeks of the first lockdown on Zoom and completely fell in love with it as a medium to connect with audiences in a different way and a new form of story-telling, and after that the logical thing to do next was to move The Time Machine onto Zoom. We had a little pause at first because we weren’t sure it was too soon and whether people would be ready for it and in the end we felt like actually, we wanted to share this sort of take on what was unfolding with more people. So I’m just going to show you a really quick clip of the trailer for that Time Machine.
[video playing] And I’ll stop sharing there so you can see my face for the last little bits of talking about The Time Machine. What was so interesting for us was being able to take a show we’d made in a physical environment, which in itself was quite hybrid and quite digital and quite immersive, and transfer that online and discover that it gave us new possibilities. So the Zoom version of the show had more multiple narratives, so there was choice, the audience could make choices at different places in it, we split the audience at different places and they went into breakout rooms and experienced slightly different things. There is a poll at the end of the show and you could choose, you had the choice really of how the show ended so you could go for a more Utopian, hopeful end to the show or you could go for a much bleaker version of the show.
But we really found through that that it was particularly exciting to work on a story that is – we were able to transpose it into a far more sci-fi future and we really went for the sort of spaceship style backgrounds and dystopian sort of Dr Who feel to it and I think we sort of carried that thread through a lot of the work that often what we found exciting about our kind of work is being able to go – fantasy worlds that would be difficult to create in a sort of analogue world, we’re developing a new visual language for how we can do that online. But also it was also written as this very direct address. Jonathan when he wrote it said ‘it’s almost like a lecture, it’s part TED talk, part theatrical experience’. So actually that format, when you are working digitally like we do and your performers, they were from home in front of web cams with green party table cloths taped up, you know, we were in full-on lockdown, when your performer’s talking directly to a web cam, it’s like every single person in the audience is getting their own individual performance, it’s a one-on-one dynamic then. So that kind of direct address, that kind of really intimate dialogue with an audience member, is really heightened whereas having experienced it at the Library myself, it was incredible to be in that space, but actually in an audience of 20 you can be at the back and you can have other people in front of you. So we found that the move online really took the show into being a different thing.
They were both wonderful in their own ways but there were benefits and there were things we’d discovered in the digital version that we couldn’t possibly have foreseen when we were doing the one in the library. And I’ve done more than 10 minutes now and I could keep talking but I will stop there so that I don’t eat into any of the interesting chat time at the end. Thank you. Wonderful. Thank you so much Lucy, I can see we already have questions coming and we’ll save the discussion for the end.
But please do, if you have questions as you go, feel free to put them in the chat and in the Q&A and we’ll collect them up for that. Wonderful, so our next speaker is Emma Cole. Emma is Senior Lecturer in Liberal Arts and Classics at the University of Bristol where she researches experimental approaches to performing ancient tragedy today. She’s the author of ‘Post-traumatic Tragedies’, which was published by Oxford University Press in 2019, which documents the central role classic drama, and tragedy especially, has played in the development of avant-garde theatre.
She’s also the holder of a UKRI Innovation Fellowship which she’s using to explore the intersection of immersive experience and the classics. Through this research Emma has worked with Punch Drunk Theatre Company on two projects. The first, Kabeiroi, used mobile phones to take audiences on a journey through the streets of London, and the most recent, The Burnt City, tells the story of the fall of Troy in Punch Drunk’s new performance based in East London. In her published writing Emma has talked about the synergy and unique partnership that can be found when ancient texts, and especially those that are incomplete and fragmented, come together with immersive forms of theatre making. I’m looking forward to hearing more about this work and I’m very pleased to welcome Emma here to the seminar this evening. Thanks so much, Erin, and thanks to Erin and Deborah for inviting me to speak today.
I’m just going to share my screen now, here we go, and talk to you all a little bit about a couple of digitally inflected adaptations of ancient Greek literature. The first one Erin’s just teased for us, it’s Punch Drunk’s Kabeiroi and in the second one it’s a pandemic pivot that I was also involved in but in quite a different way. So Punch Drunk’s Kabeiroi – and I’ve got a short clip which I’m going to play in the background while I’m speaking – as Erin mentioned is a play that was based on a fragmentary text by the ancient Greek playwright, Aeschylus. The play exists to us today in only three fragments and the three fragments really tell us nothing at all about the narrative, but Punch Drunk were interested in what we know about the story, which is the play involved Jason and the Argonauts, it was part of their early Argonautic voyage and it involved them getting stuck at an island where they were initiated into a mystery religion.
I was brought on board to Punch Drunk’s production in 2017 to act as the academic advisor and to give some added information about what this lost narrative might have involved, which was going to assist them in turning these three fragments into a 4-6 hour performance which took place on the streets of London for just two audience members at a time. So no small order to turn three fragments into a 4-6 hours performance! For the production we used technology in a range of different ways. There were three core parts to the resulting performance.
The first bit was an audio tour which used mobile phones and headsets to take the two audience members on a trip around London. This culminated in the British Museum and you can see in the still on the slide here a sample of two audience members in the British Museum. At this point the headsets were taken off the audience members and they were just left with a smart phone and the performance transitioned into a kind of scavenger hunt experience before the final third of the production which was a more traditional immersive theatrical performance – if we can use the word ‘traditional’ to talk about immersive theatre. Over the three parts the audience was tasked with completing a quest narrative and was required to follow customised real-time instructions which were at first delivered by the audio headset, but then later delivered by text messages as well as more analogue forms of communication like hand-delivered notes and books and leaflets retrieved from lockers and storage units. The audience participants were tracked using satellite navigation throughout the performance. For Director Felix Barrett, the fundamental purpose of the project and also it’s use of technology specifically, was to blur that liminal space between the imagined and the everyday world which was joined by the narrative journey.
Occasional audience interactions with planted actors in the street helped to achieve this goal and also made it difficult for spectators to tell who was a performer and who was a member of the public, so what was real and what was part of the fictive universe of the play. Overall, Kabeiroi was for Punch Drunk an experiment with new ways of working and it used technology to try and put the audience at the heart of the experience and it cast the audience actually as Jason, so as the lead protagonist from the lost tragedy. The use of the digital helped enable a seamlessness as the audience was gradually immersed into this world and positioned as Jason, and it also helped facilitate the dynamism of the experience, enabling the immersion to last for that 4-6 hour period. So it’s used here by Punch Drunk to push the company in a new direction, to facilitate innovation and the idea was that this would then be teased out in later projects in which they would work with some other texts. Before I go onto my second case study I just wanted to flag up that Punch Drunk also tried to do a digital inflective adaptation of a classic text in the same year for a pedagogical purpose, which was for their production, The Oracles, which was for Key Stage II students and it was something that was aligned with the maths curricular.
Whilst I was involved with Kabeiroi I wasn’t involved with The Oracle, so I’m not going to talk too much about it, but I just wanted to flag up another way that the company were using technology. This production started with a game which students were encouraged to play in the classrooms, so their Maths teachers would employ it on an iPad in the classrooms and the game then turned into a real experience with, at the end, the students being invited to Punch Drunk’s offices. As you can see in the photos here, when they entered the offices they were given these lanterns which were equipped with hidden positional tracking and operated as magic touch devices, which enabled the students to do things like open locked doors once they had successfully completed a Maths based activity. The lanterns worked by sending a signal through the body which then interacted with a sensor based installation.
So it wasn’t so much having to swipe something like a card onto a sensor, but it meant that the actual students, so the participants in this experience, themselves became the source of the magic. So again we’re seeing another way that the digital is becoming inflected in Punch Drunk’s productions and their adaptations of ancient mythology and literature and the kind of experiments that the company are doing which are trying to put the audience at the heart of the experience and as the protagonist of a performance. But to return to my primary case studies I wanted to introduce you to one further work which is The Gentlest Work, an adaptation of the Orestes story from Greek literature. While Punch Drunk’s Kabeiroi took a really unknown fragmentary story, this production involved perhaps the most widely known example of Greek tragedy which is the story of the House of Atrius told in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, our two Electra plays and also the play Orestes. By Jove’s mission, who were the creators behind this work, is to tell old stories in new ways and to take myths apart and weave them back together for a contemporary audience.
Whilst I wasn’t involved as a creator of this production, I am a Trustee of the company so did have some oversight in the work. The Gentlest Work was intended to be a more traditional staged performance but is an example of a pandemic pivot and it opened in June 2021 as a digital installation of creative responses to the myths of Orestes and his family from queer perspectives. When the company pivoted to the pandemic they were able to invite external collaborators from the UK, USA and Hong Kong to produce over 65 fragments which ended up being put in a digital installation. The fragments included over 30 films, 20 audio recordings, a bespoke poetry collection and then other images and texts. This preparatory work, or these fragments, were based on over 3 years of preparatory work for a more traditional production, as I said before, but because the company were experimenting with digital ways to present this work, they were able to actually share these raw fragments in an innovative way.
The fragments were all installed on a padlet platform as a labyrinthine installation. Audiences could explore the installation at their own pace, choosing where to roam, what to engage with, and potentially what to return to over subsequent days. Visitors were then encouraged to contribute to a response wall at the end of the experience where they could post their own text and images in response to what they’d seen. If I can just get onto my next slide – there we go – oh, now we’re playing a new video.
I do have screen grab – there we go – of what the padlet platform looked like, so you can see the different paths that audiences could move through the experience and the different fragments that they could respond to. So here again we have a theatre company using the digital for artistic innovation and although unlike Punch Drunk this wasn’t using the digital as something that was a concept which they intended to engage with from the get-go of this production but was driven by the pandemic, here it really enabled artistic innovation and it helped the company reach new audiences, connect to new collaborators and also further their artistic practice because they gained key learnings about embedding accessibility into a project from the very beginning and also investing in platforms which offer stability and flexibility. So although we have two very different examples of digitally inflected adaptations of the classics, I wanted to end today by posseting that the two examples perhaps represent a trend in the remixing of ancient Greek classics for the digital era. Both Kabeiroi and the Gentlest Work represent a shared interest in the idea of working in and around fragmentation. Technology has long been used in classics for the reconstruction of fragments, whether that’s in looking at palimpsests or in trying to read papyrus scrolls that would, when you unravelled them, would just dissipate and enable you not to be able to read what was written on the papyrus. When looking at examples of innovative practice with the classics we’re seeing technology meet fragments again, albeit in a very different way.
Both Kabeiroi and the Gentlest Work were interested in using technology to explore the idea of the fragment. With Kabeiroi this was in the form of taking an unknown classic and reinventing it by reconceptualising a lost narrative that’s only available to us through glimpses of a fragment, whereas for the Gentlest Work the company were interested in the idea of actually fragmenting a known text in order to create a defamiliarization effect, digitally inflected examples of the classics, thus helping to expand the canon and the range of possibilities available to contemporary artists, pushing their creative practice in new directions for new audiences, and to continue to blur the boundary between artistic output and everyday reality by inviting engagement on the streets and in our homes. And at that point I will stop sharing my screen and hand over to Erin to introduce our last speaker for the day.
Thank you so much, Emma. Wonderful. So yes, I will introduce our final speaker who is Kate Pullinger. Kate is Professor of Creative Writing and Digital Media at Bath Spa University where she’s also Director of the Centre for Cultural and Creative Industries. Kate is the author of the ‘Inanimate Alice Digital Fiction’ series which has won numerous creative and educational awards and about which she’ll be talking to us today. In an article on the series, Kate describes how this ground-breaking, multi-modal project has ‘become one of the most popular digital stories in classrooms around the world’ and it’s as a result of the series’ global outlook, its strong development of Alice’s character and its embrace of interactivity in many different guises that it’s managed to evolve and grow over the past 10 plus years – 15 really.
Kate’s the author of several other novels for both print and digital platforms and last year won the Marjory C. Luesebrink Career Achievement Award from the Electronic Literature Organisation. She’s the academic lead for Amplified Publishing, which is exploring the future of literary publishing. So I’m going to thank Kate and just make sure, Kate, that we can see you.
So thank you Kate and if you want to start, I think my display got mixed up. I’ll invite you to go ahead and start and share your screen. Thank you for being here today. Thanks Erin. Hopefully that is working.
Is that working? Yes, that’s perfect, thank you. Great. Well I’ve really enjoyed the series so far. Deborah and I were colleagues a long time ago at De Montfort. I was at De Montfort a decade ago so it’s been really nice to revisit such interesting work on adaptations that’s been going on. As Erin said I’m going to talk about Inanimate Alice a little bit today and it’s a project that started in 2006 and is amazingly still running, which is, you know, 2006 when it comes to the digital is really ancient history, speaking of Greek tragedies, etc, so I’ll talk a little bit about that.
But one of my current research interests is literature in the metaverse. I just wanted to talk a little bit about what I’m doing currently and this question of is VR literature? Really what I mean by that is for the last 20 years really I’ve been thinking about what it means to put text on a screen and through a new research project that I’m involved with, which is actually led by Bristol University, Emma’s university, by a team of engineers at Bristol University, a project called ‘My World’, I’m starting to think about what does it mean to use text in immersive media and again, I mean literature but I literally mean text on the screen, words on the screen. So that’s a current research interest and this is just a summary of what we’re trying to dig away at a potential research question.
I hope you can see that, I’ll just move that to one side. So I also wanted to mention the Writing Platform which is a 10 year old online magazine that I co-edit with the team at Bath Spa and also our partners at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, where we try to look at where creative writing meets technology. We publish for academic research and we also publish articles for the general public and we have a small commissioning pot, so if you’re interested in writing for us, do please get in touch; we’re always on the lookout for reviews of projects as well as articles about projects, if it’s something that you yourself are working on. And then I also just wanted to mention Ambient Literature, a two year research project that I worked on where we were thinking about – we were really focusing on smart phones and the way in which your smart phone surfs waves of data and what would it mean for story-telling to try to harness that data and bring it into story-telling.
So I wrote a ghost story called ‘Breathe’, that’s the URL, you can access it on your smart phone for free, it’s about a 15, 20 minute read and it accesses every reader’s data on time, weather and location and then personalises the story to every reader in ways that I hope are both subtle and uncanny. So if you want to have a look at that please do. But I’m here today to talk about Inanimate Alice. I’m going to go to the website and hopefully this will work.
Yes, it is loading. Just let me enlarge the screen. So this is a project that, as I said, started in 2006 and of course you can’t make a project about a little girl called Alice without directly thinking and linking to Alice in Wonderland. But our adaptation of Alice is very loose and indeed really the rabbit hole that Alice falls down is the rabbit hole of technology. There are six episodes that exist currently, plus a virtual reality episode and a whole series of what we call interstitial episodes which are a combination of work that has been made for the classroom, but also work that’s been made in classrooms by children.
When we started working on Inanimate Alice, our understanding of interactivity was kind of limited to games and one of the conceits of Inanimate Alice is that the story starts when Alice is 8 and in each episode she is a year or two older and the games that are embedded in the stories reflect Alice’s own development as a games developer. She wants to be a games developer when she grows up. So yeah, we had this idea of moving forward step by step and increasing the interactivity, but in 2009 I had a Google alert set-up for Inanimate Alice and in 2009 I came across an alert with a whole bunch of new episodes and I knew that we weren’t working on an episode ourselves at that point so I followed the links and discovered that a teacher in the US had been using it in her classroom with teenagers.
She, in her terminology, were considered ‘hard to reach’ and they’d gone ahead and produced a big range of Alice stories of their own and for me that was a moment that really changed how I thought about interactivity and of course how I felt about participation and, you know, it was around the same time that Henry Jenkins started talking about participatory media and spreadable media, etc. So one of the really interesting challenges of Inanimate Alice over the last 16 years has been the search for business models, the search to try to find ways to support this work beyond public funding and a couple of years ago it moved from being a free resource online to behind a pay wall and the producer of the project, Ian Harper, continues to try to find ways to expand the world of Inanimate Alice and to continue to develop it. But before I go back to my slides I just wanted to show you our map of Alice, a really useful resource where it shows the centres of research as well as classrooms where it’s currently featured, financial support for the project, exhibitions, awards it’s won a lot of awards over the years which is part of how it has kept going and at the moment there’s a national curriculum push in Portugal using Inanimate Alice in the classroom. So I will return to my slides – that worked.
And just my next few slides are made by Ian as part of a pack that he’s currently working on for pitching to investors. So this is the team that is behind the project and the virtual reality episode that was made a couple of years ago, the lead on that was a wonderful Australian web artist called Mez Breeze. Just a few stats here, I think there’s eight languages, the fact that the text on the screen has been available in multiple languages for many years has been a great thing for the project, and then also as you can see from the citations on Google Scholar it continues to be a work that’s studied by a lot, which is also how we’ve been able to expand our research community around it. And then again this slide reflects Ian’s drive to figure out a business model and find a way to fund future development.
I wanted to bring it right back again down to finish to this idea of text and immersive media, what will happen with text on screens in the future in a world where visual media is so dominant. These two screenshots are from Laurie Anderson’s wonderful work, ‘The Chalk Room’. Laurie Anderson, the American renaissance woman who some of you might know as a musician, but her VR work is really worth seeking out and very beautiful. But as you can see here, the photographs here show the audience in the immersive environment, they’re in their headset but they’re also – this is a reflection of what they’re seeing – and they’re in a text environment and this is really common to a lot of virtual reality, and some augmented reality, experiences that I’ve done – or whatever the word is – myself in that text is often there but it's always there as a backdrop, it’s always there as a kind of wallpaper almost and there’s good reasons for that because the idea of trying to read in one of those headsets is nightmarish, you know, the whole business of spectacles and the VR headset, or indeed the tiny field of vision that you get on many reality headsets currently. They’re not reading environments, but of course they could potentially be reading environments one day and you know, that’s kind of where I’m interested in trying to think about literature and immersive media.
So I’ll end there. Those are my contact details and I’ll go over to questions if there are any. Wonderful, thank you so much Kate, and thank you to all our speakers for this great panel today.
As always I’ve learned so much. So I’ll start, we’ve had some questions come in and I’ll start with one that’s in the chat, if that’s all right. It’s one for you, Lucy. It’s Claire Monk, she writes ‘in view of the fascinating genesis of Creation’s production of The Time Machine, can you also tell us a little bit about Creation’s involvement in Big Telly Zoom production of EM Forster’s The Machine Stops in June 2020?’ She says ‘you may be about to do so anyway, thank you’.
And no, I didn’t go on to talk about that because there’s probably not a lot that I can say because the – so Big Telly and Creation did the co-production on The Tempest and then we remounted our Time Machine at pretty much exactly the same time that they did the Machine Stops, so we sort of both went on our own little creative journeys with very weirdly coincidental – and it was completely coincidental – similar titled but very, very different shows. And obviously Machine Stops is prescient in a whole other way to the Time Machine and like so perfect timing for them. So yeah, they actually were on top of each other, so I didn’t even get to go and see it because I was literally pressing buttons and operating things in Zoom for the Time Machine during every one of their performances so I’m sorry I can’t fill in on much.
And then we came back together to do Alice so it was like a little, in that journey of co-productions it was one that we weren’t really involved in. That’s brilliant. It’s interesting, I know that you collaborated a lot in the past with Big Telly but it’s interesting in all your talks about the way in which technology allows collaboration in different sorts of ways and, you know, working with long-time collaborators and maybe looking at others as well. While I have you Lucy there’s another question in the Q&A from a practitioner point of view.
Richard Nunn says he’s very interested in the Time Machine play, ‘I’m curious how you made the backdrops look so realistic looking as I’ve done two digital plays in lockdown where the backdrop was nowhere near as realistic’. It can be a challenge. A lot of it’s in the lighting.
So we did make sure that all our performers had lights that they could position correctly to light their green screens well. A couple of them had green screens but for those who didn’t we sold them – well, we Amazoned them £1.89 party table cloths that they then sellotaped to the wall behind them. Because Zoom has like, you know, in-built AI for the virtual background so it does photo recognition and it doesn’t need a brilliant green screen. If you were doing filming for green screen you would need a proper green screen and proper lighting and, you know, you’d need another level of detail and how well it’s done, but actually Zoom helps you, it does a lot of the work for a virtual background. I think the other thing that aided it and makes them look really good is that we were using non-photographic backgrounds, we weren’t trying to make it look like they were, you know, it’ a different scenographic language, virtual backgrounds.
If I try and put a photograph up to make it look like I’m really in this room it’s always going to look a bit flat and a little bit eggy. I think it’s actually a really exciting medium to explore because it means you can do more with kind of collage and layering and playing with that flatness and fantasy worlds like we did there and using virtual backgrounds that move and like layering them together and we now do fancy vision mixing, we can do even more extraordinary things with it. But we’re moving on to going even further with that and looking at working with visual artists and kind of returning to that sort of, you know, historical prescient of scenography and flats and the artistry of painted backgrounds and the idea that, you know, visual artists could paint backgrounds or draw backgrounds for us and then they can become our virtual sets is really exciting. Wonderful, thank you. And I see Richard says ‘brilliant, I shall pass that on about the lighting’.
I’ll turn over to Deborah for the next question. Yeah, I can see that Richard’s got a few more questions but just to follow on from something you just said, Lucy, and Erin’s mentioned too that all your projects seem to involve – sorry, I’m being selfish and asking my own question! – all your projects seem to involve or require collaborations with others and I just wondered what your thoughts are – all three of you – about whether or not it’s time to rethink how we regard authorship in literary studies, or maybe for Kate, in the teaching of the practice of creative writing. What’s happened to authorship? Sorry, it’s a hard question.
No, it’s a question I’ve thought about myself quite a lot, as I’m sure the others have. I’ve seen a real kind of – certainly all the work I do in the digital realm is collaborative but as the kind of lead writer I feel strongly that an authored voice emerges from the collaboration. So that notion of the author’s voice, and I guess even in a film extent, the orator comes through the collaboration. But in terms of teaching I’ve really noticed especially at Master’s level, students who want to do a Master’s in creative writing cling onto the 19th and 20th century notion of the lone artist in the garret producing the work that will then make them as rich as J.K.
Rowling. That remains a really prevalent way of thinking about authorship but I don’t think one rules out the other and I think for me personally they exist in my person: both of those notions exist in me as well. So yeah, I hope that’s useful Deborah. It’s really interesting, Kate.
I wonder if Lucy or Emma have anything to add to that? Yeah, I would say it’s a really – and it feels like a lot of the structures we have in place that support a traditional model of authorship and the world is struggling to catch up with what that means, and one of the examples I would give is that it’s nearly, I mean I tried, it’s barely worth my time trying to get the rights for an established story for a live digital production because most publishers and agents who are dealing with those rights can only classify it as a stage production or as a film and as soon as you talk about digital, they start looking at distribution and they’re thinking that you’re making a big film and they’re thinking ‘what, you want to make a film production of this really well-known book? Of course we’re not going to give you the rights for that’ and you’re going ‘no, it’s only going to exist in real time on Zoom. It’s only going to exist for the audience’ but there just isn’t a mechanism for those kind of rights and we have it a lot with music as well with kind of PRS and the musical rights for what we can put in a show and then what we can do if it’s live, what we can do if it’s recorded, what we can do if it then has a digital archive for access in the future, but hopefully the more all of this is adopted, a lot of those sort of, that side of it, the royalties side of it and the more complicated bit will become clearer because this blurring of liveness and recorded and the digital legacy of things is going to keep evolving. I mean that’s why I wanted to mention business models when I was talking about Inanimate Alice as well because as Lucy says, these things are complicated and they’re also new.
So the kind of search, even on the level of language, what you call these things remains problematic. With regards to the productions which use Greek tragedy as a source text, the ones that I’ve been talking about, this idea of it being really new and people kind of feeling their way in the dark is really pertinent. With the Punch Drunk piece I found it quite interesting that they wanted to market it as Aeschylus’ Kabeiroi reinvented, because it was attributing a sense of original authorship to the Greek playwright, even though the three fragments that actually survived from that play were not staged in the production. One of them was used in the advertising but it wasn’t actually spoken in the play, and the narrative that Punch Drunk ended up creating was devised in collaboration with myself but wasn’t, you know, it was our guess at maybe what the play might have originally involved but then reconceptualised for an entirely new format. So it was quite interesting that they really wanted to communicate this sense of there is an authorial voice underpinning this that we have reinvented, even though actually there may have been absolutely nothing that really reflected that original authorial voice in the final product.
Yeah, that’s really interesting, the kind of need for an author to validate the piece as a work of art. I’ll pass you back to Erin now for the next question. Wonderful, thank you. Well I have another big question for you from Gemma Alread in the audience.
She says ‘a very vague yet wide question. What is the future of digital’ - as we maybe hopefully move out of the pandemic, so she asks, and Emma and Lucy, you both mentioned how some of the projects you were talking about were pandemic affected, Gemma asks ‘will digital art-making continue now we are coming out of the pandemic?’ and I’ll leave it there open for everyone to chip in. Yes, it will! [laughing] I think for us it’s like we’ve discovered the tip of the iceberg and we are so excited, there are so many more, you know, every project throws up a whole load more questions and thinking oh, what would happen if we did this and what would happen if we did this? So for us creatively it’s such an exciting medium to work with but also just the access gains, the people that the work can reach now that it can’t reach in a – and you know, as producers, so much of our time in an analogue show goes into things which are nothing to do with the creative output. It’s like the chairs and the height of the chairs and moving the chairs and ticketing and getting an audience in, you know, there’s a huge amount of practical logistics and money for us that goes into that.
It almost feels to me like with the digital work, a greater percentage of our time is really interrogating what we’re doing with our craft and what this particular story is going to be. So I don’t think it’s going to go away at all. I actually think it’s coming into its most exciting bit because there was a period towards the end of the pandemic where it felt like everyone was piling into digital and it felt like a lot of that was quite disingenuous digital adoption. So organisations who didn’t really want to be, artists who didn’t really want to be online. People did some great work and then you talk to them now and they go ‘oh, I hate being online, I hate Zoom’ and like didn’t get that spark of joy from it but was sort of doing it because they couldn’t do anything else. I’m quite pleased to see those people going back to what they love and what inspires them and it actually getting to a slightly smaller group of people who are really passionate about it and the scope for where we can all take it now I think it’s just so exciting.
[laughing] I would completely second what Lucy’s saying, that it’s not going anywhere. So the Kabeiroi example and the oracles that I gave from Punch Drunk’s work, they were both from 2017 so they were pre-pandemic and they’re using digital technologies in a different way. They weren’t doing, they weren’t using Zoom and YouTube and the kind of pandemic pivots that we saw for By Jove’s work and for other companies as well.
They actually paused those digital works during the pandemic when they had to furlough their staff, so it was something to do with the scale of the company that they then actually had to cease work. So we will see a return to digital work with Punch Drunk. They have a collaboration that they announced about a year ago I believe with Niantic who are the team behind the Pokémon Go augmented reality app. So they’ve got a digital project in the works with Niantic so we will definitely see more from them. And the same with By Jove actually.
So although they weren’t planning to work digitally originally when they started conceiving the Gentlest Work, they were able to harness a huge range of possibilities through working on the digital medium and they did a range of things. So the Gentlest Work, the example I chose for today because I thought it was the most interesting and it was using padlet in this way that I don’t think other people were doing, and padlet definitely had limitations but it was a different type of use of the digital during the pandemic. They also did some Zoom performances, one of which was a one-woman show and then the other which involved a couple of actors and maybe a bit more with what Lucy was talking about with all the behind the scenes manipulation which I think was a real steep learning curve for them. But they’ve definitely found that there are an enormous number of benefits available, particularly for pedagogical purpose actually.
For the padlet project they’ve had a range of different schools contact them with teachers wanting to use the production and gain access to the padlet platform and the archive of work. So it’s something that they will be wanting to experiment with in the future. Not exclusively but it’s definitely going to be part of their practice going forward.
Wonderful, thank you. I had a follow up question but Deborah, did you want to come in on that one? I can also wait for mine. Go, I can follow that.
I was just going to, it was just a follow up with Lucy and Emma what you were saying but also drawing on something Kate said about the practical challenges of – Kate, you talked about finding a business model that can work for new forms and pre-pandemic hybrid innovative forms – and I also then wondered about companies and artists who are making hybrid work during the pandemic and afterwards the challenges of sometimes finding audiences because potentially your audience and reader could be anyone in the world but maybe kind of finding a way to present the work to create a revenue stream for it can be challenging. I wondered if any of you would be willing to sort of share thoughts on that, especially for audience members who might be interested in work like this but not really sure how to make it happen in practical terms. I think for us, we sort of openly say ‘our business model wasn’t working before the pandemic’. We were always, if we got lucky and we had good weather, you know, if we didn’t have snow at Christmas and we didn’t have rain in the summer, we might cover our costs and we might make a small profit, but quite often we were unlucky and we’d get to the end of each year and go ‘oh no, we lost some money again’. So for us actually with digital we found a lot of routes through of ways to make it work as a business model. There’s a lot more funding available so it’s put us into an innovation bracket so we’ve had Innovate UK funding, we had quite a substantial amount of Innovate UK funding.
We now can get local enterprise partnership funding for innovation work, you know, we’ve done reasonably well with bits of money from the Arts Council, again because it takes us out of being in a pot of producers making similar work in Oxford to being a national and international producer of digital work. So we find that from funding it’s opened up a lot more opportunities but also in terms of audiences it’s allowed us to do proper long-tail marketing. So, you know, we’re able to be – obviously we’re nothing like Amazon but we’re able to be more like Amazon in that we can put on a play that’s really rarely performed, so we can do the Witch of Edmonton or we can do the Duchess of Malfi, which is more often performed but we can do this quite niche.
I couldn’t do the Witch of Edmonton for our Oxford audience, I wouldn’t sell enough tickets, I know, and the costs are higher with venues and sets and performers and digs, but we can make that as a digital show because there are enough people at a global level who want to come and see the Witch of Edmonton. And a real excitement sometimes for these really niche stories that you don’t get to see very often, you know, actually people don’t – it’s really interesting because you would have thought people want to see the analogue show and they want to see it in person, but if you’re really invested in that piece of literature and you really, really want to see it perform by professional actors, it’s really exciting to dial in and watch a production of it on the other side of the world. I mean we find all the performances now have audience members in pretty much every continent, you know, we’ve got about 45 countries that people dial in from. So I think yeah, it’s not totally a hugely commercial business model yet but it’s showing a lot of potential to become something more sustainable. Thanks very much. I’ll leave it to Kate and then I’ll turn over to Deborah.
Just to add that I think finding your audience is always a challenge, no matter what form that you’re working in, digital or whatever. So I would agree with Lucy there that there’s all kinds of ways to go about funding work but it will remain a challenge and it probably always will be a challenge. I think we don’t yet – because we’ve such a plethora of high quality, very high quality visual media available to us all now, I find it difficult to kind of think into the future in terms of what audiences of the future will actually want to participate in and I think that the pandemic has had a really interesting effect in that, in that we’ve all learned how to access work online in ways that we might not have done in the past and so really it’s the key to understanding what we want to take from that, the key to that is understanding what we want to take from what we’ve learned and keep continuing to develop. So yeah, it’s a challenge but it’s also a really interesting challenge I think. That’s really fascinating, Kate, thanks for that. It’s about trying to future-proof the work that you’re doing really isn’t it? I’ve got a question here from The Other Way Works and it is ‘would you say’ – I think this is to everyone – ‘the complexity of the narratives and written styles of classic texts is negatively impacted by the adaptation to digital modes? Are there other gains that might outweigh any impacts?’.
It’s a kind of classic question about what’s taken away and what’s actually gained from the work that you do. That’s a great question. When it comes to the Greek tragedy examples that I mentioned, I wouldn’t like to think of it as kind of a negative impact I don’t think of the narratives as being simplified when they get put into the digital medium, or the transition from the written text into the digitally inflected production as losing anything, even though it might be put into a different form. I wouldn’t want to say it’s negatively impacting.
It’s definitely different and passages of the text might be lost in the transition or the translation from the original text to the digital format but when we think about the history of Greek literature in particular, we’ve got a really long process from which these plays were originally written to what form they survive in today and so for the original Greek tragedies that we have that survive in full, what’s written down is more often than not quite a corrupted text. The actual terminology that classicists use, it’s got interpellations from actors which is where the version that we have have actors who have decided ‘oh, my monologue wasn’t long enough there so I’m going to add in a couple of lines from myself’, we’ve got insertions that scribes have put in. For some plays we’ve got