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.

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  🙂