Tag Archives: digital creativity

Celebrating the digital — anniversaries

June for me means a series of mini-anniversaries. First, and smallest, is the six-month anniversary of this blog. I started it in December to set down some of my thoughts on digital broadcasts and I’m happy to say that my first post on the RSC’s Richard II has just come out as a print review in the journal Shakespeare Bulletin. An interesting inversion of the traditional print model, at least in academia where we tend to hold onto our work for a long time and to make sure the ‘original’ version is in a suitably authoritative and often very expensive publication. So I’m delighted to be able to share my work freely on sites like this one and www.ReviewingShakespeare.com while also having it included in excellent journals like Bulletin, which are collected around the world by Shakespeare libraries and research centers.

More significantly in terms of birthdays, this month also marks the five-year anniversary of the National Theatre Live. It was June 25th 2009 when the NT launched its first live broadcast to cinemas with its production of Phedre starring Helen Mirren (garnering no less than a five-star review from the Guardian‘s Michael Billington). Since then the broadcast programme has included around five NT productions a year, with additional offerings from the Donmar Theatre, the Manchester International Festival, and occasionally the West End. I think it’s fair to say that NTLive has fundamentally changed the theatrical landscape, with other initiatives such as the Globe on Screen, Digital Theatre, and RSC Live further adding to what we might call this new theatre ecology. It’s interesting to note how present Shakespeare has been in all of these broadcasting programmes, and also how dominant British theatre has been across the board. So what next?

Since 2009 I think we’ve also seen a major expansion of new forms of digital performance — while broadcasting (live or otherwise) remains at present the gold standard in terms of wider audience appeal, there have been new experiments in kinds of digital theatre making that might give us some insight into where the performing arts could be headed in the years to come. In a thought-provoking blog post at the end of 2013, Rachel Coldicutt questioned the idea that arts broadcasting should even be filed in that ever-growing dossier labelled new digital culture:

It is also surprising that cinema broadcast is repeatedly referred to as “new technology” when, according to Wikipedia, the first “live television” event was in 1929 and Regent Street cinema showed its first films in 1896 … the notion that a live stream of a performance is “born digital” is sophistry; like saying Strictly Come Dancing is “born digital” because analogue television no longer exists.

Coldicutt’s analysis exposes our confusion about how we define ‘the digital’ — Is it the content? Is it the platform? Is it both? And while I think she’s right to point out the fact that live broadcasts are an old and to some extent old-fashioned way of understanding the potential of technology to transform the arts, I still think they still deserve space within the discussion since they are one of the primary ways in which many arts patrons will begin to experience digital change (and in this sense I think I would say that digital vs analogue tv, radio, satellite relay is significant, if to a large extent functionally invisible — I couldn’t listen to Radio 6 otherwise). While this might just be a change of venue rather than of show, it is a change nonetheless and one that I think may mark a wider shift in creative processes, audience relationships, and artistic forms. If we think about the digital music revolution of the late 90s and early 00s, it’s significant that most people weren’t necessarily looking for radically new forms of music, but rather new ways of accessing it (though forms have of course changed too, thank you Autotune).

Remember these guys? Napster, 1999.

But new forms are important too, and if we are discussing them then we should also mark the one-year anniversary of the RSC’s Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, the most ambitious digital performance of Shakespeare I’ve yet to see. The project took place over midsummer weekend in 2013, mixing together an audience-generated collage of Midsummer materials on Google+, a more formalized digital stage in which new social media content commissioned by the RSC appeared alongside selected audience contributions, a series of site-specific and time-specific live performances of the play (including the performance of acts 2-4 at the RSC from 2.30-4am, culminating in the midsummer sunrise), and finally a Sunday wedding fete along the River Avon that included family games and an open performance of act 5.

Taken as a whole (and to be fair, few audience members probably did experience this multi-day, multi-platform performance as a whole), this festive production pushed all sorts of boundaries. It invited audiences to explore the play itself through bits of live performance uploaded to YouTube (see one of my clips below), to riff on its themes of love, nature, and madness through audience sharing on Google+, and to think about the extended world of the play through new, playful content created from the point of view of Bottom’s mum or the snails, fairies, and beagles in Athens and the surrounding forests.

It was at once resolutely in-time and immersive, as anyone who went to the small 2.30am performance will tell you, while also being committed to being open and out of time through the online audience platforms that you could dip in and out of over three days. I loved its scale and vision, even if ultimately it might have been too much for one person to navigate. Most pilots start small and then scale up — if anything this project went big and future versions might want to scale down. But it did start to show us the many different possibilities for where digital performance might choose to go, a topic to which I’ll return in the next few days.

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Shakespeareans in Paris: Notes on the Digital

Back today from a week-long conference in Paris, where I was talking about ‘Digital Shakespeare and Festive Time’. Unsurprisingly the email backlog is about a mile long, but I thought I’d jot down a few notes about digital Shakespeare at the conference before I forget…

Well, there actually isn’t too much to say — this was a fairly un-digital conference. Not that that’s a bad thing. There were several interesting plenaries, panels, and seminars, and I certainly didn’t mind spending as much digitally unmediated free time as possible around the Latin Quarter in Paris. There was a conference hashtag, though no one quite knew what it was (#shakes450? #shake450? #ParisShakes?). And there were only a few sessions that touched upon digital humanities issues, most often through the question of digital methods, rather than direct address of digital Shakespeare as subject matter itself.

Instead, much of the conference actually looked back — to Shakespearean celebration over time, and especially to the anniversaries in 1914 and 1916 that saw Shakespearean commemoration embedded in the traumatic politics of the Great War. Interestingly, some papers suggested that this was when we saw the emergence of a so-called ‘global’ Shakespeare, wrapped up in the processes of global politics, finance, and culture, that has become such a frequent focus in Shakespeare studies today.

A couple of exceptions though to the relatively un-digital conferencing I did last week. The first is that I met in person for the first time three MA graduates of the Shakespeare Institute’s distance learning programme. One is French and is now pursuing a PhD there, another lives in Abu Dhabi and is setting up a Shakespeare society there, and the other is based in Paris and is now doing a PhD with me and one of my colleagues. I’ve ‘known’ each of them for several years, but this was the first time that I got to see them in the flesh, give them a hug, and congratulate them on completing the MA (each with great aplomb). It was a lovely continuation of our relationships, and the shift from digital to in-person and now back to digital felt completely natural — we might be spread across great distances, but in festive moments like conferences both time and geography contract to bring us together in the most concentrated of ways. The only slightly unnerving and even funny moment was when one of the students recognized me in the queue for the bathroom and came up to me and asked — with puzzlement but also enthusiasm — ‘Who are you??’

The other noteworthy digital moment was the final plenary, given by Professor Sarah Hatchuel of the University of La Havre. Her excellent paper looked at how many of the blockbuster Shakespeare films of the 1990s are being pulled apart and repurposed in the digital world. She offered examples of YouTube mashups, video game homages, and theatre trailers, but without a doubt my favorite was the ‘Hamlet gone viral’ social media video created as a senior English project by a very creative high school student:

It’s the drama of Hamlet told through the world of online communication, and there are several moments that offer both witty and critically astute takes on the action and characterization in this story (a personal favorite — the Gmail nunnery scene at 4.00). I think what the project does especially well is suggest the extent to which we enact our own experience of interiority online. So Hamlet uses Google and Ask.com to look up information about grief, to ask anonymous questions about what to do if…, and of course he uses Facebook to navigate the confusing personal relationships making up his social world.

One thing that came up in the questions, and that is of especial interest to me, is the fact that most of Hatchuel’s examples (including the Hamlet) are primarily comic. While she rebutted that some of them were rather serious, I would suggest that the most effective and interesting examples were indeed essentially funny. For me this raises the question of how digital works as an artistic resource. Given the fact that much of our digital and digitized life is made up of the experience of fragments of information washing over us almost constantly (news headlines, interesting links, funny animal pictures, Upworthy videos), it makes sense I think that digital creativity is especially adept at the art of juxtaposition, wit, and subversion. A big question for me though is whether or not it can work in other genres too. Digital media constantly makes us laugh, but can it also make us cry? If so, what might that artform look like?