Tag Archives: Midsummer Night’s Dreaming

Guest post – Shakespeare, social media, and everyday creativity

Over the past five weeks I’ve been working with Holly Reaney, as part of the University of Birmingham’s Undergraduate Research Scholarship programme. Holly has just completed the first year of her BA in English at UoB and has been helping me explore the wide and wonderful world of Shakespeare and the internet. Each week I’ve given her a project or prompt to explore and she’s then gone away to see what the world wide web uncovers. Below is a summary of her work in her own words. Thank you Holly for all your help!

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Shakespeare, social media, and everyday creativity

The undergraduate research scholarship is a scheme offered to non-final year undergraduate students in the College of Arts and Law at the University of Birmingham. The scheme aims to immerse and engage students in academia as well as enabling them to gain valuable experience in the undertaking of academic research. It was as part of this scheme that I had the opportunity to carry out research for Erin Sullivan, specifically focusing on the applications of Shakespeare in social media.

The first two weeks of my research focused on two major social media-based performances of Shakespeare’s plays: Such Tweet Sorrow (2010) and A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming (2013). Co-produced by the RSC, these adaptations attempted to push the limits of theatrical performance, aiming to make Shakespeare more accessible to the wider public. One of the unique aspects of the social media performances were their ability to occur in real time. Such Tweet Sorrow occurred continuously over five weeks. However, due to the length of the project and the vast amount of content which was produced as a consequence, it was sometimes difficult to follow. This challenge was combatted in A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming as it only ran for seventy-two hours.  Over the course of A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, 3,000 pieces of original content were released by over 30 original characters. This created a diversity of narrative and effectively established a very complete world of auxiliary characters. The vast amount of content showcases the wide range of creative abilities as well as the ingenuity which Shakespeare has inspired. In both of these performances the RSC achieve the aim of making Shakespeare accessible. Both performances serve to bring the play quite literally into the hands of their audiences, enabling them to interact and alter the performances in a way which is impossible on stage.

The second aspect of my research focused on audience-created responses. These responses occupy a wide a range of forms, such as memes and gifs on Tumblr, tweets from ‘Shakespeare’ or community based Twitter pages, and whole narratives in the form of fan fiction. All of these online communities attract similar audiences: young adults and teenagers with a vague interest in Shakespeare and who are active online participants. Tumblr is a primarily visual site, with the most circulated images being pictures of Benedict Cumberbatch in his performance of Hamlet or Richard III, Tom Hiddleston as Henry V and David Tennant as Hamlet or Richard II. These photos (excluding Tom Hiddleston as Henry V) were accessed through the National Theatre live performances, a system which enables select performances to be broadcast by a massive audience. The sharing of the photographs and gifs further increases the audiences for these performances (even if they have not seen the live piece) as the images serve to illustrate the original text in the context of these specific adaptations. However, only those who know the original text can appreciate the images in this way.

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Another element I researched with regards to audience-created responses to Shakespeare was fan fiction. Fan fiction is an interesting and creative way for audiences to respond to the narratives which interest them. It provides a way for audiences to develop a community based around similar interests whilst also offering an extremely versatile creative outlet. The inclusion of ‘comments’ and ‘kudos’ or ‘reviews’ and ‘favourites’, depending on which site, enables interaction between fan fiction author and reader, the opportunity to share criticism and to develop a community of like-minded individuals. Writing in a modern day setting, with the accompanying modern language, proved to be extremely popular on the creative front. There is a trend that these ‘modernisations’ tend to be based upon the plays which revolve around younger characters, such as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night. This could be because their situations are the most romantic or that they hold a level of relatability for the authors (teenagers suffering with love, anger, depression etc.). Prequels and sequels also heavily feature in the works, and these are possibly the works that are the most connected to Shakespeare, with some painstakingly obeying Shakespeare’s original writing style, featuring iambic pentameter, rhyme schemes and verse.

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Another form of audience-created responses are visual adaptations of Shakespeare. Web series hold a much broader appeal as they follow a linear narrative which aids understanding for those unfamiliar with the original play. By reimagining the original scripts in the vernacular the plots are made easier to follow and the occasional yet seamless integration of Shakespeare’s original lines ensures that the connection to the original text is maintained and honoured, whilst also not being inaccessible. Due to the open platform which is YouTube, levels of professionalism varied from the heavily produced and funded Titus and Dronicus to the completely amateur A Document in Madness. As with all modern adaptations, and internet adaptions, the plots are altered. In the case of Monty and Jules, the adoption of a university setting means that the feud is between two rival fraternities as opposed to the families. In this case the adaptation of the plot to the 21st century setting is exceptionally well done. The avoidance of murder and suicide was especially well executed as they still communicated the consequences of what in the play are the murder and suicides but managed to avoid the involvement of the police or similar legal authorities, something which often impedes believability of modernisation of Shakespeare’s plays. The modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays, especially that on the internet platform, is definitely well suited to the video form – especially the mix of vlog style and video calling used Monty and Jules – as it communicates an intimacy and believability which is often lost when productions are attempted on other online platforms.

Overall, Shakespeare and the digital world appears to be based around accessibility and community. Audiences are engaged and interacted with in ways that are impossible on a traditional stage. The online world gives everyone’s voice a chance to be heard and way for their own creativity to be displayed.

Guest post by Holly Reaney, BA English (University of Birmingham).

Celebrating the digital, part 2 — new directions

Earlier this week I posted a piece about three recent digital Shakespeare anniversaries — the 6-month anniversary of this blog, the 5-year anniversary of NTLive, and the 1-year anniversary of the RSC and Google+’s A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming. Today I want to follow that up with some discussion of the recent re-launch of the digital arts site TheSpace.org, and the possible new avenues it may open up for online creativity and performance.

Originally developed as a pop-up site for the digital side of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, The Space returned last week as a new and more permanent gallery for the digital arts in the UK. While the old Space included a wide range of digital offerings, including the free streaming of recordings of 37  Globe to Globe Shakespeare productions, we are told that the new Space will leave broadcasting initiatives to BBC Arts Online and will instead turn its focus to more radical engagements with creative form. That means content that is more like Midsummer Night’s Dreaming and less like Globe to Globe streaming, as demonstrated by the kind of work generated by the #hackthespace all-night opening event at the Tate Modern last weekend.

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Hackers hacking. #hackthespace

While the new version of the site is still young and content is in the process of being developed, there are a few initial offerings that caught my eye. The most high-profile piece featured in the new Space was an iPad drawing from David Hockney of a lily against a mauve background. I say was because in the process of writing this post I realized that the lily, titled ‘1062’, has been taken down, and all the links to the Telegraph coverage of it are now mysteriously broken (to be fair, The Space responded to my tweet below saying that the Hockney was a a special and time-limited offering just for the launch). At the moment the drawing can still be seen in this Channel 4 story about the new Space, about halfway down the page. A couple of things about the work really interest me — first, the title, which to some extent highlights the potentially mechanized status of digital art (especially considering the fact that Hockney, unlike some artists, doesn’t tend to use numerical titles for his paintings), and second, the fact that the ‘drawing’ is actually an animation that allows you to watch the composition of the flower from start to finish. For me the work was much more interesting for the insight it gave into Hockney’s process, and I’d be interested to know if the 2-minutes’ worth of animation was in real-time or sped up. How long does it take to create a piece of digital art?

Leaving the question of the disappearing Hockney aside, the other work on the new Space that most interests me is a theatre piece called Longitude. Written by Tim Wright, one of the creatives behind the RSC’s 2010 digital experiment, Such Tweet SorrowLongitude uses Google Hangouts (as did Midsummer Night’s Dreaming) to broadcast three 20-minute episodes of a new play about global climate change and water shortage. It’s fashioned as a thriller, set in a near future that sees ocean levels rising, weather patterns intensifying, and clean water disappearing. The action connects actors in Lagos, Barcelona, and London, roughly all on the same longitude line, as they communicate with each other about a dodgy water deal that seems destined to go wrong. There’s still one more episode to go on 23 June at 6pm GMT, with a Q&A to follow, and episodes 1 and 2 can be watched online in the meantime (see ep. 1 below).

I’ll be interested to know more about the logistics of the performance, specifically how the live action and broadcasting is coordinated, since I had initially assumed it was pre-recorded based on cued technical break-ups in some of the video conferencing that were part of the dramatic action. With Auslander fresh in my mind I’m also interested in how the production’s liveness, a feature emphasized in its promotion on Twitter and The Space, might contribute to its status as theatre rather than television, film, or something altogether new. In any case it’s a really interesting example of possible new directions for digital performance, and the fact that it’s also partly commissioned by LIFT (the London International Festival of Theatre) points towards a growing and more widespread interest in what the digital, in all its infinite variety, may have to offer the performing arts today.

So lots to celebrate, I’d say, and much to look forward to. While I think that it’s right that we question the remit and scope of the so-called ‘digital’, and that we push ourselves to define how we’re using it in different contexts (a point discussed in part 1 of this post), I also think it’s important to allow it space to range somewhat wildly across form and platform, and to see what happens. By ‘what happens’ I mean not only what creative artists and producers come up with, but also how audiences of all different  digital competencies engage with and use it. And it looks like we’ll have more opportunity for this in the near future — just yesterday The Space announced a competition for £20,000 of seed money for the UK company that submits the most promising proposal for a new work of digital theatre. So stay tuned.

Image by kind permission of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Core by Kurt Hentschläger, A digital installation commissioned by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, with support from Arts Council England as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.
The new face of digital theatre?

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.