Theatre Café’s website: Text Library and multilingualism

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Company of Angels is a theatre company based in London, England which produces plays for and about young people. I received a phone call from them a few months ago asking if NativeHQ could build a custom website for Theatre Café, a pan-European festival where new texts and their translations are performed script-in-hand.

This website is now live at www.theatrecafe.eu.

There were several aims for this website. It had last for years to come and be extensible enough to serve events in Leeds, Berlin, Frankfurt and Amsterdam in 2014 and 2015 as well as subsequent events. An event is an opportunity for anybody to preview the work of new emerging playwrights and translators. Theatre practitioners use it to find collaborators and texts for future productions. Hence an events calendar was vital. Perhaps the most distinctive feature is a Texts Library for browsing the available scripts, navigable by title, country, languages in which the text is available, and number of cast members. On top of all this the interface had to be available in four languages: English, German, Dutch and Norwegian although the variety of languages represented by the texts is far greater.

Like many of our projects Theatre Café’s website was built in WordPress, which continues to be a reliable and flexible content management system capable of handling these unorthodox features. Importantly the client retains freedom to maintain the website in the future in any way they choose, without software licence fees. This could be regarded as the ‘If you love somebody set them free’ principle of free and open source software.

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If you’re wondering how the Texts Library was achieved, it makes heavy use of custom post types which is a very useful WordPress feature for when posts or pages are insufficient. On the dashboard there are now dedicated post types for texts and for authors. Texts can be viewed singly. Alternatively the text library, an author or language is then automatically rendered to the visitor according to a template using user search criteria and interface language choice. We are very pleased with the result and would like to credit Marc Heatley Design for partnering with NativeHQ on this unusual project.

Video: Democratic Deficit event / Fideo: digwyddiad Diffyg Democrataidd

Gwahoddodd Llywydd Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru fi i’r Pierhead i gadeirio trafodaethau grŵp am sut mae cyfryngau digidol yn gallu cyfrannu at ddemocratiaeth gwell yng Nghymru, fel rhan o’r digwyddiad Diffyg Democrataidd: Lleoliaeth – achubiaeth datganoli? ar 12fed o Fehefin 2013. Maen nhw newydd rhannu fideo o fy nghrynodeb o syniadau a sylwadau yn ôl i bawb. Roedd sôn am y we, newyddion lleol, sgyrsiau aml-blatfform, data agored a gwleidyddion a newyddiadurwyr ar-lein. Dyma fersiwn gwreiddiol o’r fideo heb lais cyfieithiad ar y pryd.

The Presiding Officer of the National Assembly for Wales invited me to the Pierhead to chair group discussions on how digital media can contribute to better democracy in Wales, as a part of the event Democratic Deficit: Localism – the salvation of devolution? on the 12th of June 2013. We mentioned the web, local news, multiplatform conversations, open data and politicans and journalists online. I gave my summary of the discussions in Welsh and here is a dubbed version of the video with a live translation into English.

Scratchr: towards an ‘open source’ for live performance

For a few months we have been designing, developing and growing an online platform and community called Scratchr in close collaboration with the team at Battersea Arts Centre, London.

Do watch the above video as it explains more about the scratch process the BAC team have been refining for several years, in which an artist has the valuable opportunity to try out work with an audience of participants who then help shape it. As a means of making art, the scratch process is more like a conversation than a one-way broadcast. If you know NativeHQ then you’ll have guessed that this mentality of conversation-not-broadcast and process-as-product twigged our interest straightaway! The brief which led to the nascent Scratchr software platform and community started out as a question: how do we take the offline scratch process into online? In other words how can we reimagine and support the outworking of the scratch process using digital technology?

It’s still very early in the life of Scratchr. Like the artistic process, it’s a co-creation with the community of people that is forming there. I like the idea of giving people a broad description ‘it’s a platform for artistic collaboration and idea development’ and letting them work it out in wonderful ways. We do need some guidelines on what features are intended for what purpose. But we don’t want to prescribe exactly how it’s used. One never prescribes to an artist.

Check out the Scratch Blog for a couple of recent highlights. See also: the Digital R&D Fund blog post about Scratchr.

A friend recently asked us if we could have done something similar with Facebook or a pre-existing platform. I would say ‘no’. It would have been very difficult to change people’s perceptions of such a general-purpose platform and also bend the software to our will. That’s why we took the decision to build using WordPress multi-site and BuddyPress. We are not tied as a company to this software other than the fact we like it and know it to be flexible. Still, it has taken a lot of coaxing to have it perform exactly as we want it and it would be rash to say that’s it’s all there even now (the beta test group is testament to this). The decision to take this more difficult route wasn’t about picking up more development work – if we could have picked a platform which allowed us to begin even more rapidly then we would have! But we felt that the requirements of Scratchr were unique. (Thanks go to Marc Heatley for invaluable work with us on this.)

WordPress and BuddyPress are released under the GPL which is a free software licence – in other words, the software gives us freedom to copy it, modify it and use it for any purpose, independently of the software developers. The principles and licence underlying the software itself are also happily in keeping with our aim of being unrestrictive to BAC as a client and to embrace the results of good collaboration around the globe. I mean, it would seem odd to pick proprietary restrictive software for a project that celebrates collaboration, freedom and openness.

If you’ll permit I’m going to offer some half-developed thoughts that have resulted from this project – and grown from previous work we’ve done with theatre and live performance.

Many people would agree that another valid term for free software is ‘open source’. Now, there is something in the way the artists are using Scratchr which could be described as ‘open source theatre’ or ‘open source art’. In other words, they are sharing the process, they are inviting collaboration, they are not as ‘closed’ as theatre and live performance can sometimes be. Maybe some of them wouldn’t mind if you borrowed their ideas and adapted them (but that’s a tentative observation rather than a piece of advice). But I’m still trying to resolve what it means to use the term ‘open source’ in this context.

As I’ve alluded above, the discussion as relates to software is very well advanced. For example there are four specific freedoms associated with the GPL and such licences have allowed for a galaxy of innovation from GNU/Linux to Firefox to Raspberry Pi to cloud computing. In the world of content such as text, video and images there is a parallel in Creative Commons and GFDL licences which enable reuse with conditions – leading to amazing projects like Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap.

But software and content are very different from live performance and its various offspring. In the world of theatre and live performance the conventions and rules of play for ‘open source’ are still being worked out. Sure, you could share a script or a planning document under Creative Commons BY-SA and many artists have done. But that doesn’t feel to me as if the potential for widespread collaboration has been fully realised. I appreciate that the original principle behind free software was user freedom but I think that this also changes the culture in the field and in the industry; it changes the way people and companies create.

A hallmark of success could be new forms of work that have never been seen before. We see this happening in other fields. Journalists are grappling with what the internet can do to improve their work to make reporting and analysis more collaborative – and to better serve society (hopefully). Businesses, filmmakers, musicians and other content creators are experimenting with crowd funding platforms like Kickstarter which promise to give us a wider variety of products and innovations.

What then is open source theatre? What would be the Firefox or the Wikipedia of live performance? I’m not necessarily referring to the scale of Wikipedia but to the fact that it’s living proof of newer forms of collaboration. If we believe that such a thing as open source theatre is possible and opens up new opportunities for more people to participate, what would that look like?

The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning – using the internet with theatre

During April 2012, National Theatre Wales produced an important new play about Bradley Manning, the alleged Wikileaker who spent some of his early teenage years living in Haverfordwest in West Wales. NativeHQ designed and ran the multiplatform element of the production, in which we produced a global live stream of the play during every one of the live performances.

NTW’s Artistic Director, John McGrath, got NativeHQ involved very early in the development of the production, as writer Tim Price was developing his early drafts. We had a chance to think through the various options for placing the play into online spaces and settled on the live streaming concept, using surveillance cameras built into the set.

Tim wanted whatever we did to point to Bradley Manning, so we conceived of a web page which would go beyond simple live streaming to include live chat among virtual audience members and links that connected what was happening on the live stream with source material such as new stories, weblogs, interviews and even an archive of the website that Bradley created during his time in Wales.

Being integrated into the creative team provided us with an important opportunity to work with the very talented team putting together the show. Kudos should go to Producer Lucy Davies, Production Manager David Evans and Assistant Producer Michael Salmon , designer Chloe Lamford, Lighting Designer Natasha Chivers, sound guys Mike Beer and Matt Gibson, techie Jacob Gough, Stage Managers Fiona Curtis and Gemma Thomas, Costume supervisor Jo Nichols and AV designer Dan Trenchard. And of course Hoffi, who co-ordinated the website build, and Kinura who managed the live streaming infrastructure. Wales is lucky to have an impressive theatre community and tradition emerging here under John’s guidance.

Learning about theatre and multiplatform

There was a huge amount of learning about the process of theatre co-creation and how multiplatform production can find a place within this process. The big lessons are around time, budget and working closely with all those who are affected by the multiplatform work – it’s often new to theatre practitioners and going through the implications for their work can often take time and careful explanation.

The live streaming wasn’t without its technical problems – the last performances in Connah’s Quay, which were run by Carl, faced the challenge of a complete shut down of internet accessibility by the council, which seemed to have closed for the weekend. Carl and Michael Salmon stepped up to this by livestreaming the show to the world via a 3G connection through  Mike’s smartphone – impressive stuff, that hopefully none of the audience noticed.

In total, about 9000 people from over 70 countries around the world accessed the livestream, and it got wide coverage – it was tweeted by Wikileaks as well as the Bradley Manning Campaign, and a couple of theatre reviewers took the time to review the online experience, as distinct from the corporeal show. Dylan Moore from the ArtsDesk called it the ‘cutting edge of theatre’, while Daniel B Yates for Exeunt magazine used the opportunity to discuss the use of the internet in theatre and the nature of ‘Liveness’. Both reviewed gave the online experience four stars.

Reflections on live streaming theatre and immersion in web storytelling

Unlike physically live theatre, the use of live stream displaces the viewed by physical location and interaction. We become voyeurs. We played on this, and the themes of the story, by using the aesthetics of surveillance cameras. We also wanted to deepen the viewers immersion in Bradley’s story by offering them places to go through the links that were put onto the site during the show.

This was also important as it gave the viewed some measure of control over their own experience while keeping them in Bradley’s story – the web is a user centric, active medium, with that google search bar sitting at the top of the web page, making it easy to leave if the viewer is bored or distracted. In a theatre space, they are physically constrained, making it easier to hold attention. Adapting the story effectively to the web meant thinking carefully about the nature of the web medium and working to take advantage of its character in the multiplatform design.

The web offers new interactive possibilities to theatre makers, and we chose to take full advantage of the liveness in time that streaming offers, while thinking carefully about the way context collapses – viewers encountered it in offices, cafes, living rooms, kitchens or bedrooms. It was important to enable people to not only follow along, but share, comment, speak back, write and create themselves.

NTW18 was the latest in our journey of experimentation with multiplatform technology and John McGrath’s National Theatre Wales. It’s a journey that has taught everyone involved invaluable lessons on what is possible, what is involved in creating virtual spaces that work together with physical spaces, and the potential of the internet as a vehicle for storytelling and live multiplatform experiences.