NativeHQ wins Theatre Multiplatform award!

NativeHQ win Multiplatform Award

Big thanks to the theatre critics of Wales for giving us an award for the best use of digital/online content at the inaugural Theatre Critics of Wales Awards in Cardiff this weekend. We won it for our work with National Theatre Wales on The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, by Tim Price.

We designed an online project that created a native web experience of the play by embedding CCTV cameras into the set of the show, livestreamed the play and gave the online audience a chat space to communicate with each other and external links for viewers to explore the story in more depth that changed throughout the play to reflect what you were watching.

Multifplaform design awardWith Wikileaks, Anonymous and the Bradley Manning Campaign all tweeting links to the web production, nearly 10,000 people watched the play as it was beamed from Tasker Milwood school in Haverford West, Cardiff and Connah’s Quay in North Wales. On the final day of the show in North Wales, someone in the council switched off the internet for the weekend, so we were left streaming the production through a 3G phone tether!

Bradley has nearly been in prison without a full trial for 1000 days. It now seems very likely that he did indeed leak the documents that he has been accused of sending to Wikileaks and with many Americans baying for blood, it’s is likely he will face a jail sentence. But having been a catalyst for the Arab Spring and brought the truth of American action in war and foreign policy thinking to global awareness, it seems like this Welsh Geek has done more in his young life to change the world than most of us ever will.

Many thanks to everyone involved in the production – Lucy, David, Jacob and Mike, to the creative team Tim, Chloe, Natasha, Mike, the cast and crew, and special thanks to John McGrath, the artist director of National Theatre Wales, for his vision and bravery in making NTW one of the most innovative digital theatre companies in the world.

Find out more about the campaign to support him through his ordeal by visiting the Bradley Manning Support Network.

Engaging theatre audiences through the internet: presentation

Theatre and the Internet

I was recently invited to speak to an audience of theatre makers at Somerset House – a wonderful venue in London that looks out across the River Thames to the National Theatre (England’s, that is…). The presentation looks at some of the work Native has been doing with National Theatre Wales.

As well as developing the National Theatre Wales Community, we’ve been using the internet as part of a multiplatform theatre design for a number of productions, including the Passion of Port Talbot and The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning.

You can view the presentation file (I used Prezi) and listen to the presentation below (my presentation starts 32.20 minutes into the SoundCloud file):

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.

Online experience of The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning #ntw18

Right now we’re working with National Theatre Wales on a production called The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning. This is a fictional dramatised account based on true events. Writer Tim Price contributed a piece to the Guardian about why he wrote the play and here’s a brief intro:

Bradley Manning is the 24-year-old US soldier accused of the release of thousands of US embassy emails to Wikileaks. On Friday 16th December 2011, his pre-trial hearing opened in Fort Meade in Maryland. Manning faces a maximum sentence of life in custody with no chance of parole. But just a few years ago, he was a teenager in west Wales. How does his story impact on the people he left behind, and who is responsible for his ‘radicalisation’?

From very early in the production process it was obvious that the interest in the play and the questions it raises would be much wider than the venues around Wales – at schools in Haverfordwest, Cardiff and Connah’s Quay – and indeed wider than Wales itself.

Therefore as part of the online experience we had some discussions with the director John McGrath and decided together that a live stream was needed, to cater for this international interest and allow people worldwide to watch and take part. If you’d like to watch the live stream it’s free and you can book to receive a reminder to make sure you don’t miss it.

Unlike some other theatre companies which are within walls, National Theatre Wales’ primary presence has always been digital through its online Community. There is an expectation that the digital life of the production will receive attention and care. While this will raise the profile of the production this is not predominantly a marketing channel for the theatre but a bona fide way to appreciate the story, the ‘content’.

The artistic questions then become: what kind of online experience can we offer? How can we make appropriate use of the distinctives of online? How can we encourage people to participate in this and ‘sit forward’ rather than just consuming the stream like TV?

Photos by Tom Beardshaw

In truth we are navigating our way through these questions but we do prefer to regard this is a standalone online experience – rather than an attempt to replicate the live corporeal theatre in a screen. The online view is different – it will depend on microphones at the venues and cameras which feed into what’s effectively a vison mixer and streaming software. This is not pre-recorded video either, everything will be happening live. (Thanks to Kinura and Pilot Theatre for their hard work on the live stream.)

Certain things become possible such as a live text-based chat with other viewer-participants (terminology decision pending) from around the world. I’m very curious about the kinds of conversations that people will have while the show is in progress and what links they will share. In practice there will be other forms of conversation around the wider web too, not just our spaces. (Incidentally if you are a blogger or social media devotee and you can get to Cardiff, Wales then you have the chance to take photos, record video and interview cast and crew at a sneak preview on 18th April 2012.)

Of course the story itself includes the theme of technology and its use by Bradley and others. I’d rather not say anymore right now – if you’re curious you can book to receive a reminder of the live stream.

You can also read updates on National Theatre Wales Community blogs under the show tag which is ntw18.

The Passion of Port Talbot: Michael Sheen

Michael Sheen multiplatform

It’s nearly a year ago since Michael Sheen’s The Passion of Port Talbot – one of the most acclaimed pieces of large scale participatory theatre in recent history.

The play that transformed the South Wales town of Port Talbot on Easter weekend 2011 was also live blogged to the world across multiple internet platfoms thanks to a project that we ran with a team of volunteers from the town. It’s one of the most exciting multiplatform events we’ve been involved with.

Port-Talbot.com was framed as a local blog within the world of the Passion story… writing as if everything happening in the show was happening for real. During the weeks leading up to the show, we built up the storyworld in the town, spreading news of a missing teacher from the town and a sinister multi national company ICU industries, which was due to arrive at the town soon.

We set in motion a transmedia experience with an alternative reality game (ARG) that took people from codes on graffitit defaced posters in Port Talbot town, to phone numbers, live events and the web, leading to the release of a unique short film with Michael Sheen as the character, The Teacher.

We lived blogged the events that took place in Port Talbot over the weekend, filming the action and editing and uploading it to the web within a couple of hours. The final crucifixion scene was witnessed by twelve thousand people on the streets of Port Talbot and tens of thousands more online from one hundred and twenty countries.

Live blogging has the advantage of bringing an event to the web, enabling people from all over the world (from 120 countries!) to feel involved and connected to events on the ground. With the Passion, we created the blog as a new character in the story – a media outlet that was part of the world in which The Passion took place.

Looking back to The Beach: the multiplatform design

It’s hard to believe that two years ago I was caked in sand, doing early development of The Beach theatre game.

I thought I’d blog some of the background to the multiplatform work we did, partly because we have come to regard this as one of the core specialities of NativeHQ and partly because multiplatform theatre is a growing area of innovation. I also wanted to pull together some of the relevant links in one place.

The Beach was a pioneering theatre production combining drama with gameplay, produced by National Theatre Wales in association with Hide & Seek. The live event ultimately took place on the sands of Prestatyn, Wales in late July 2010. If you’re curious about the live game itself start with the blog post about game design and others tagged ntw05 on the theatre’s community site.

But as I said, let’s consider the multiplatform aspect to the production.

Theatre-goers were given the opportunity to interact with the characters of Charlie and TJ in advance of the game via discussions on their personal Facebook profiles.

I was reminded of the importance of time here. Time is among a multiplatform producer’s best assets. I think one particular challenge we had was that we were building not only character profile pages (which is trivial) but social networks of audience members to be friends for the characters (which requires promotion of some kind). If you don’t have time to build these networks of friends/followers, you need massive exposure. That same summer in 2010 Bethan Marlow (who was one of my co-writers on The Beach along with Rhiannon Cousins) worked on Such Tweet Sorrow which was an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet on Twitter. The Royal Shakespeare Company, the producers of the show, made excellent use of the Twitter fever and their own reputation to build the characters social networks rapidly. Another advantage RSC had was that their production, while multiplatform, was online-only whereas we were sharing the attention between online and the live game on the beach. If anything The Beach used online as an adjunct to the live game.

While this was happening and the live rehearsals were beginning I captured a few One Minute With video interviews, which weren’t part of the drama but intended to be a chance to meet members of the production team behind the scenes.

The characters also produced daily phonecam videos where they gave story details and began to recruit members to the mission, i.e. members of the audience. These and the other social media activities were an integral part of the theatre production, the drama and its interactivity. Members of the audience began to consider themselves participants and had some early affinity with the characters. Because each video was uploaded while fresh it felt very spontaneous and dramatic, very much like theatre although the medium was online video. This contributed greatly to the later success of the live event. From a theatre production standpoint, the videos provided additional opportunities for the director Catherine Paskell to help the actors develop their characters in advance of the live game.

A key aim was to guide the online storytelling strategy and ensure that the drama was expressed believably through social media. I’m very pleased with how this was done and in the process I definitely learned some valuable insights about character and story from my colleagues on The Beach project.

National Theatre Wales Community in the Guardian

The Guardian published an article I wrote about the National Theatre Wales Community today in their Culture Professionals Network. Here’s the link – it’s called “The next step to social networking is to build your own online community” and looks at how the community, which is built on the Ning platform,  has been used by the theatre to develop as a company.

One of the most important ways in which the community has affected the growth of the company has been to enable them to invite participation in their development of policies and initiatives. Everything that they do is communicated through the community, including the framing of their approach to commissioning, casting and theatre criticism. The community site allows the to throw the virtual doors open and invite comments and debate about their work and the direction of theatre in Wales.

Encouraging people to participate in an online community isn’t easy – it’s not just a simple matter of ‘build it and they will come’. It takes commitment from the people at the top to set participation in online discussions by the staff as a clear priority for the work of the company, something that John McGrath the Artistic Director has given in spades.

John is one of the most committed bloggers on the site, regularly sharing his thoughts and reflections about the work of the theatre, responding to people who seek his views. We trained their staff to administer the network, to blog and to help people to feel welcome and encourage them to participate in the debates and discussions held online/

One thing is certain – setting up an online community for a major national institution has been an exciting process and has brought some changes to the way that the company operates – it changes the demands on the staff team, requires training and guidance and it changes the feeling that people have about the institution – hopefully people have felt more involved and listened to.ask for his thoughts and leading debates about where theatre is going – see for example this recent discussion on the shape of political theatre.

There is still a lot to do for the company to realise all the opportunities to connect and communicate with the arts community in Wales that this resource offers them, but they have made a tremendous start and we wish them all the best as they continue to develop their online community, and the theatre community as a whole in Wales.

Multiplatform design for The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning

The pre-trial process of Bradley Manning has started in the United States, with the 24 year old army private accused of the biggest leak of classified information in military history. National Theatre Wales is creating a new play written by Tim Price about the alleged wikileaker and the time he spend in Haverfordwest in Wales.

Tim has blogged on the Guardian about why he is writing the play and I have been commissioned by NTW to design the multiplatform element of the show. There is a group on NTW’s community site (built by NativeHQ) where the show and the issues around it are being discussed.

More will be revealed as we develop the show, which will open in Bradley Manning’s own Haverfordwest school in April, but for the moment, all I will say is that I’ve been thinking about how a live theatre performance can interact with a global audience through the internet, and how it can move beyond the broadcast thinking of the approach taken by National Theatre Live  🙂

Photos from the development of The Passion by Michael Sheen

Here are some photos I took during the development stage of the Passion project, while we were exploring the Port Talbot dunes and beach with Michael Sheen, Bill Mitchell, the cast and some of the crew.

Port Talbot: all about The Passion online experience

We’ve done quite a bit of work with National Theatre Wales, ever since the beginning when we helped them plant the seed of their online community and, among the most memorable and fulfilling for me, The Beach production in Prestatyn in July 2010.

Now Tom has written a long post about his experiences working on the online experience for The Passion, the theatre production in Port Talbot. Well worth reading if you’re interested in the intersection of theatre, community, storytelling and online.