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BWW Interview: Nat Henderson and Joe Strickland Discuss CONDUIT, MYLES AWAY, 52 SOULS and Digital Theatre

BWW Interview: Nat Henderson and Joe Strickland Discuss CONDUIT, MYLES AWAY, 52 SOULS and Digital Theatre
Nat Henderson and Joe Strickland

Nottingham-based theatre company Chronic Insanity are pioneering a new genre with a brand-new approach to theatre. Way before the pandemic started, they were experimenting with digital theatre, creating shows that suit the latest technological advances and modernise the medium. We had a chat about what it means to make digital theatre, their upcoming shows, and the natural change in audiences.

You make digital, technology-led theatre that's quite different from traditional - is it easy to make your way in an industry that's historically quite averse to progress?

Nat: I think sometimes our industry tips into purism. There's a definite clinging to the liking of the traditional.

Joe: A lot of things have changed with radio, cinema, television, YouTube, the internet, streaming services, and now TikTok, social media. It feels like each time there's something new in entertainment and a new technology comes along, we think it's going to be the end of theatre.

And of course it isn't! CDs and MP3s didn't stop live music. Televised sport doesn't mean that people don't go and watch live sports. Live experiences are always going to survive, but there are people who worry when a new thing comes along, like virtual or augmented reality. They think it might be the last nail in the coffin, but I don't think it will ever be like that.

Nat: No, I don't think it will either. Even if 70 years into the future everybody has a VR or AR technology, if it ever takes off majorly, there will still be a market for live performances and you'll still want to be sat in a room watching performers.

The world has changed so much with technology, but theatre hasn't really kept up with the pace. Now there's a new audience who are growing up with it and might feel excluded from the traditional approach to theatre. What are your thoughts?

Nat: Theatre definitely has a specific age range they cater to, quite often. And that's fine - by all means grab hold of your market and don't let them go if they're going to be consistent in buying season tickets and coming to everything you do. A bit of background info on me: I did my undergrad thesis on in-yer-face theatre in the 90s and I'm currently doing a Masters in English, specialising in theatre. I'm going to do next year's thesis on elitism in theatre.

Historically, theatre has been very closely linked to things that are quite elitist, like the monarchy. Especially now, because theatre costs so much to make - in big theatres that turn a profit, because fringe is a different matter - people are very frightened to try something new when the old stuff has done so well. Les Mis has made so much money, and Hamilton, whilst it's very innovative, it's still done in a very traditional style. Clearly there's still a market for it, but there is a reluctancy to embrace the new and what might cater to younger audiences.

Joe: We need to embrace new technology. Audiences are growing up not knowing a world where it didn't exist; the internet is ubiquitous for a lot of people and is being considered a human right now, it's so integral to so many ways we live our lives. Telling stories that don't include that feels weird. If you look at live theatre - or "analogue" theatre if you will - as telling stories that take place between people who share the same space, then digital theatre might be better suited for stories that take place in digital spaces and within digital communities, between people who are connected despite the fact that they aren't physically near each other.

It might be an interesting avenue to explore: those stories might appeal more to people who spend most of their lives within those stories, or within those groups and communities. That's one of the ways theatre might appeal to a younger audience, to tell stories that ring more true to them. There are also always going to be stories which are universal - about freedom, power, family, love, or fear. A lot of theatre shows have those in there, but they are also stories very much about the Restoration era etc. Even though they have those intrinsic elements that are freedom, power, love, you don't know that unless you're familiar with the story.

If you're an audience member who's 16 and who's never been to the theatre before, you might have vaguely heard about King Lear but you don't know what it is. It's also minimum 30 quid, more likely 60. And the seat might be so far away you can't see.

Nat: And it's three hours plus an interval.

Joe: And you have to go to a building where you've never been before...

Nat: And it's really intimidating...

Joe: You're surrounded by people who you're going to presume are super intimidating because surely they go to the theatre all the time and you think you might make an embarrassment of yourself and you don't want to... I think there are so many things that are in the way for younger audiences. Digital theatre overcomes a lot of that by being so accessible and on demand.

Nat: It's also a lot more practical too.

Joe: There are so many benefits to it, which means that, hopefully, people can create digital theatre that's attractive to different audiences. It will also last longer than, say, this current pandemic.

Unlike many of the theatre-makers who are streaming their productions at the moment, you've been making digital shows for a while. Tell us about your company

Joe: Yes, the first digital theatre show we made was before the pandemic started! There's an independent cinema, a creative space, in the middle of Nottingham called the Broadway Cinema - they're like a multimedia space and have an art gallery. We did a show there called PVC, which was a virtual reality show. It was a Martin McDonagh-esque ambush gone wrong, a black comedy-styled thing. The audience came into the space still, there was a single chair with a headset, it was like an empty art gallery.

They'd put the headset on and they'd watch the short film, which was a 360° video and they could spin the office chair and see all the action around them. The film was about 12 minutes long, and in the course of 12 minutes, we built the whole set of the film around the person, so that when they took the headset off they found themselves in that world. There was blood on the floor, everything that existed in that space - then a phone rings and they have to make a decision regarding how they're going to engage and how they are going to be a part of it.

We transferred that one to the Nottingham Playhouse in February as well, and audiences seemed to enjoy it. At the Playhouse we had what you'd call a more traditional audience; at the Broadway we definitely had a younger audience because they'd heard about the new tech, the VR, and they wanted to try it out. Both kinds of audiences enjoyed it. Now, going into adapting things for digital theatre, it's a nice study that shows that both traditional and young audiences will like and enjoy this type of new, digital theatre. There's a new way to make theatre.

Nat: When the pandemic hit, we had a bunch of shows lined up that were mostly live with sometimes digital elements interwoven in them. Obviously, now everything is postponed. But we realised that we had a great opportunity to move further forward with what we were doing anyway utilising things like Zoom, and webcams, and digital spaces to make theatre. Joe is doing a PhD in... What is it again?

Joe: Technically it's in Digital Economy, so the value of digital things and specifically personal data, and there's a subcategory in that where I look at audience behaviour data, how valuable it can be to mix reality and storytelling. How much can we understand about audiences and how we can use that information within the story that we're telling to make that story interactive or fit in the environment that the audience is using.

Essentially, I'm looking at trying to replicate presence, when there's a physical performance in front of you but within an online channel and within a digital theatre piece. I had all these ideas on what we could do with the research I've been doing in the past couple of years, and then we had this opportunity to actually try out some stuff and make some digital theatre when an audience doesn't have live theatre. It just came together nicely.

Nat: Joe's been thinking for a long time about that live-ness means and what other people may think live-ness means, how fluid that definition actually is. I definitely come from a more traditional understanding of theatre, my tech experience is quite limited - I did an English degree at Nottingham, that's where we met. Basically, I think that the reason why we work together quite well is that even though tech isn't my foremost interest, I'm interest in doing new things. Sometimes, I find theatre quite boring - I think it can be quite stale.

Don't get me wrong: I'll watch a Shakespeare and I'll really like it - but if it's not inventive in some way or reason I'm like "OK... Is this the 50th version we've seen like this?". A modern dress Romeo and Juliet? We've seen that. I think theatre can absolutely afford to push themselves further in the artistic sense, and not just with digital adaptations. Just do it.

Tell us about your upcoming shows!

Nat: Should we prelude with Life_Stream? It was the first one we put on in lockdown. Joe had a script that was lying around: it was three monologues that would have been performed on stage and interweave. It was about the internet, about how easy it is to be manipulated. Or brainwashed into thinking that the far right in America is a good idea - that monologue followed a YouTuber who has a relatively large platform of followers talking about the far right and how she is related to it, how she understands it. Then we have a journalist who's much more the older generation, and we're looking at how they interact with the internet.

Joe: Yes, that was adapted from a script for the stage, so it's styled as a video conference set-up. We're spying on different characters through their webcams; they're not performing for anyone but themselves, and they're interacting with their webcams as people pick up their phones. We started coming up with ideas, and by doing that we came up with other stuff that didn't fit that show.

We're doing our 12 shows in 12 months project, and we still had a long time to go - we still had funding that we were very fortunate to get before everything happened, so we have the means to pay ourselves and other freelancers, we just needed to decide what we wanted to do. We have funding, we have time, we have an opportunity - what are we going to do to make the most of this? So we tried to make a season as diverse as we could.

Nat: Within the digital stuff we were doing. The pandemic is still ongoing, we have no idea what's going to happen in terms of a second wave. Theatres are closed spaces where people are very close to each other, so social distancing within a theatre would be quite interesting. I don't think it would be particularly logical as a company to start looking at physical live theatre. So we kept going with the digital stuff. We had quite a lot of interest - people didn't have anything else to do!

Joe: One of the most interesting things was that Life_Stream was as popular as we'd thought it would be. We had a certain number of ticket sales we needed to hit for the project to be viable and we hit that without really any problem; people watched it, we got good feedback, so all the stars aligned and we were in a position where we could move forward with this. It's something where we have some confidence and that feels worthwhile.

The first show that's coming, Conduit, is very much about being physically distant from somebody. It's not set within a pandemic at all, but to say that it's not influenced by that is almost impossible. The idea is that there is a character who has a partner who isn't where they are and isn't easy to contact. They use the audience, who plays the part of their friend, to feed back to different ways of using different technology to try to feel like their partner is closer to them when they can't be close physically.

The show is a sort of exploration of the feel of different technologies, whether it's a video, ASMR, 360 video or 3D volumetric video to move closer and closer to where technology might be replicating physical presence. Each time, through various anecdotes, we reveal more and more of the story so you can eventually piece together the world where the story takes place and what's happening in their relationship.

The second show is Myles Away - there's a tech company where lots of their workers are virtual workers and the audience takes the role of one of them. It's the day of the company's big launch of their new product, which is this sort of virtual reality software. Things keep going wrong, people keep getting locked out of their accounts, and eventually when we get to the presentation it becomes clear that the company's founder - who we know has recently been forced out - is sabotaging the launch of the product which was essentially theirs, but now that they've been forced to leave they aren't in control of it anymore.

A product that they invented for very altruistic, selfless reasons is being capitalised on by the company in ways that are not exactly as moral and beneficial. It's about capitalism and discrimination, and how it all fits together. This one uses VR experience as part of that - it can be experienced as part of the show or as a standalone. We're giving the audience as much as we can within the digital story, but also within the means of experiencing it. And obviously, you don't have to be there when digital media is happening, so people can decide when they want to experience the performances and VR, in what order - they can do it straight afterwards or they can take some time. We're giving more control to the audience.

Nat: We've definitely added that interactive element too. The last show is called 52 Souls. It was originally intended to be the show we were going to take to Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year. It's retained some of that, but we've also made it digital. The original plan was to have 52 monologues around the very universal theme of death and the afterlife. The audience pick from a deck of cards which monologue they want to hear.

We were going to have four performers who would learn multiple of them and then it was going to be a random assortment that would be picked out each night, but when it all hit we couldn't do that anymore so we opened it up to 52 performers to each do one monologue instead and recruited the original four too. As an experience, you get your ticket and you can either use a physical deck of cards to pick the monologues or a virtual one. You can look at the ones you want to watch or you can get a random assortment.

Joe: Also, all those monologues are going to be slightly different genres: there will be melodrama, poems, songs, magic, puppetry. Some of them are very short and some of them are longer. It's a variety of performances.

Nat: The universal element is definitely something that we're focusing on, but we're trying as much as possible to be varied in our approach, who we cast, how long things are, or how dramatic, how humorous, and even the medium. It should be an interesting experience.

How do you handle the tech side of things?

Joe: Not that I know a huge amount about this industry, but I think it's more similar to the way you would make a video game or a piece of software: you need to do some testing. All of our shows are on demand, so audiences can access them whenever they're free and wherever they are, which means that we try to record or get versions of the performances as early as we can so that we can donate as much time as we can to editing them and compiling them and produce the show.

We also need to try the show out, test it on all kinds of devices - laptops, phones, televisions connected to the internet - to see how it looks on the different things people can view it on, laptops of different ages, powers... We need to understand if it needs plug-ins, particular browsers; we do a lot of tests and experiments to make sure that the performance that we want can be accessed whenever one can see it as we want it. I guess that it's quite similar to when you're touring in traditional theatres: each night you perform the show, you might be performing on a stage of a different size, people might have different technical capabilities...

Whoever wants to view it, we must make sure that the show fits any potential virtual stages that people might view it on. How we get around to that is trial and error. We test the show over and over again making sure that it runs, and functions, and that it's accessible for everyone. It also means that we have to be on call during the performance week. Everyone who gets a ticket has our email and we encourage them to contact us if anything isn't working. It's essentially theatre tech support.

We did a show recently - it was a private YouTube video and people were having trouble because they were logged in to one YouTube account but access had been given to a different account that they also owned, so I was trying to troubleshoot those problems and figure out how to let them navigate the tech that they were using to watch the performance. I think we're fortunate that our audiences are quite young and tech savvy, but we had a couple of instances where people were less experienced with YouTube or the foibles of these different platforms and the ways that they can sometimes mess up.

We still have to be able to make sure that is people aren't good with tech they can still see the stories we're telling - we need to make sure they can get access as easily as possible. If you go to the theatre, you get to the door, you get a drink, you sit down, it starts. That's relatively easy, and we don't want people to have to update this and find a password to get to that - it's draining, and it makes people feel like they're an idiot and ruins the mindset for the performances that we want to give them. It's all about trying to be as mindful and have as much empathy as possible.

What's the biggest challenge you've faced making these shows? Something you didn't really anticipate before starting?

Nat: Probably the tech. It's its own kind of entity, and I'm not as literate as Joe is.

Joe: I'm only literate because I've studied it - I didn't know a huge amount either before I started my PhD. Besides the tech, I think a lot of other elements of theatre have carried across quite well. Directing a rehearsal over Zoom has been very similar to directing a rehearsal in real life; marketing a show through social media has been pretty similar; trying to create a show and share it with people has been quite similar.

Doing costume and set design has been pretty similar, because it's just what the camera can see - we just can't order things and alter them as easily, but building up the space where the performance takes place has been very similar. I think it's just the delivery that's changed, which is fair. No one's done a huge amount of this before, so we're trying to come up with stuff as we go.

Nat: Theoretically, the starting point would have been a challenge in terms of thinking of theatre that actually matches the media, thinking about what actually makes digital theatre digital, the difference between a recording of a performance and what we want to do. I wouldn't put Life_Stream in the same category as what The National Theatre is doing. It's about the internet and very much takes place over the internet; we utilise elements of the audience's experience like a person who's sitting at a laptop screen to make the show work. It suits the medium.

What kind of impact would you like to have with your shows?

Joe: A lot of people are used to doing theatre in person, which makes sense because theatre has been done in person for thousands of years, but I'd love people to see that you can do it digitally and there is another avenue. I'd like them to be inspired to make work pursuing multiple different avenues. In theatre there's still, basically, a performer and an audience - and sometimes an immersive show may blur that line or get rid of it completely - but it's still all very similar.

In a digital space, you can make pieces of digital theatre that are so wildly different from one another and still sit under that label of genre. I think it's really exciting and inspiring to have so much choice. For people who are tech savvy enough, they should put things out there. We want to accompany each piece with a blog post about how we made them, we recognise that this is something people might not know how to do and they might want to know how to do.

Nat: It shouldn't be kept a secret for only us to know how to make digital theatre. One of the biggest things about digital theatre is that it should be democratic in that way.

Joe: We don't think we're going to be the best digital theatre-makers. We're just the people who had a couple of ideas and are in a fortunate enough position to fund it, who have the tech to make it, and who have the platform to put it out there. We want other people to make digital theatre. We want to see it, we want to consume it. What we want is to be the start, I guess. Obviously, you can find examples of digital theatre dating back probably a couple of decades, but now is the time to make more work under the digital theatre label.

Is there anything you'd like to add in regard to digital theatre?

Nat: One thing we feel like digital theatre has as a massive benefit is that it's accessible. Theatre in the "analogue" sense, like Joe calls it, isn't. Because you're pioneering a new art for with digital theatre, you can go back to the basics and work out things like captions. You've already typed a script on your laptop, so you can very easily do captions because the whole thing is electronic and digital.

The accessibility part will hopefully be a positive that other people can see for themselves and can use as a reason to keep going. I think it's also about comfort: streaming services are so popular because it's so much easier to sit in your own living room and put Netflix on than go to the cinema. I don't think there's anything wrong with encouraging an art form that people can watch from the comfort of their own homes.

Joe: I think access is a really important point. That can inspire people to make more digital theatre, but also I'd like to show people who make in-person theatre that there are access needs. There are audiences who don't see shows because they need certain elements to be able to enjoy theatre. This is a very good opportunity for people. And it's not like audiences are being quiet about it - they're just being ignored. This is a time where people are realising that this is handy and there are other people who are saying that, yes, they've been saying that this is handy for ages and nobody's listening.

A lot of people for lots of different reasons are starting to look at other people's experiences of the world and realising that they're not the same as their own. I think, for loads of reasons, this is the time for self-reflection on an individual level, on a professional level, and on an artistic level. Access is the tip of a massive iceberg of making people comfortable, welcome, able to be an audience member, and eventually make theatre themselves if they wish to. It's the first step.

Learn about Chronic Insanity and book for Conduit, Myles Away, and 52 Souls here

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