Playing to Two Audiences (what Pixar and digital theater-makers have in common)

Woke up thinking about #scratchr and this question:

How can theater-makers create work for 2 audiences: in-house and online?

I was reminded of Pixar’s “Toy Story”.

WAIT, WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU ON ABOUT?

Well, I went to the Battersea Art Center’s Hack and Scratch event last night not knowing what to expect.

[Side note: go to the BAC and get involved. It’s amazeballs. Seriously, go now. Go. GO I SAY!]

[Did you go? What’s wrong with you? Maybe you should consider taking part in their immersive theatrical event “The Good Neighbor” (deadline this Monday.) You will? Good.]

Much to my surprise, the night was perfect for me (a solo performer) and my companion (a digital director for non-profits.)

Richard and his producing team were unveiling scratchr.net, the online version of BAC’s famous Scratch events, where artists share works-in-development with audiences for feedback. The site is early beta (it’s the scratch version of scratchr.net!) and needs your input. Go sign in and poke around.

After watching the site presentation, we broke into three group discussions. I chose the conversation led by the lovely Katherine Jewkes on digital theater. A lot of interesting questions were raised and ideas batted about.

BUT HERE’S WHAT I’M STILL THINKING ABOUT

The next day, the question that sticks with me is this: How can theater-makers develop work for the audience that comes to the performance space and the one that attends via their web browser?

How can we create performance that isn’t simply broadcast via the internet, but has two unique iterations? That is at home on-stage and online, playing to the strengths and possibilities of both contexts?

WHAT THIS HAS TO DO WITH “TOY STORY”

I’m reminded of Pixar, and why they make such appealing movies. Pixar’s movie-making mantra is “story, story, story” and every scene they write must play to two audiences: 5-year-olds and 35-years. Because 35-year olds take their kids to the cinema. So Pixar thought, “Why not make a movie that the parents will enjoy, too?”

For example, when Mr Potato Head’s face is knocked off and then reassembled in the wrong order, the kids laugh because his face is funny. The parents laugh when he says, “Look, I’m Picasso!” The scene speaks to both groups.

Analogously, in order to make successful digital theater, performance practitioners should think about their two audiences — the groundlings and the gamers — from the beginning. How can each moment play to both? How can we engage the person looking back at us from the front row and the one watching online, and create a unique, theatrical experience for both?

Pixar shows us that your work can take multiple, very different audiences into consideration, and make work that engages them simultaneously. The line between a movie for kids or adults is false. How can we learn from this example and make theater that work onstage and online?

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4 Comments to “Playing to Two Audiences (what Pixar and digital theater-makers have in common)”

  1. Chris, good to meet you at the event.

    “How can theater-makers develop work for the audience that comes to the performance space and the one that attends via their web browser?”

    As far as the process is concerned, scratchR is absolutely intended for the people that attend the performance space. In some cases the only meaningful way to give feedback on an itch through scratchR is to have attended!

    There’s a bit of conversation on various blogs about the ‘false dualism’ between offline and online, it’s worth checking out. Offline and online are useful terms but it can be limiting to draw a hard boundary, especially in the way people use online now (mobile etc.)

    As far as using online as a medium goes, I agree that whatever happens should be designed to suit the medium. In the early days of television I gather that producers would just put a camera in front of a theatre production. That’s normal – it takes a while to understand what ‘suit the medium’ can mean.

    • Carl: Thanks for stopping by. Good to chat with you as well.

      I’m excited to see how ScratchR can help theater- and other performance-makers create shows that can be engaged with in-person, online, and the blurry areas in-between. Seems like a potent tool to develop ideas, engage collaborators and audience, and present works-in-progress.

      Thanks for referring me to the online/offline false dualism debate. I’m interested in learning more about what’s been done, what works and what doesn’t, and how people are defining the edges of the questions.

      Re: new mediums, absolutely. Film was certainly theater on celluloid initially; it was a breakthrough when they figured out how to make it look like someone walked through a door and came out the other side!

      So how can theater-makers — people who aren’t who used to thinking in that extra dimension — begin to think how their shows might suit this new (to them anyway) medium? Aside from use ScatchR, of course. ; )

      As Tom mentions below, I think it needs to start at the writing/devising/beginning stages of creation.

  2. Fascinating. For The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, we were beginning to think about this in the production (not the writing though – and I think this starts there!). So what we were doing online was trying to create a web native experience that could hold people’s attention within the logic of the web.

    We live streamed the performance but did not archive it because we wanted to stay true to the ‘live’ nature of theatre, wherever it appeared. We provided a space for the online ‘audience’ to interact with each other via a chat facility, and we provided links to news articles, websites Bradley Manning had created, interviews with important people in his life (e.g. his dad) etc and activated those links at points in the play where they were relevant. This enabled people to explore the story under their own control – a key quality of the web being the centrality of user’s decisions about what they wanted to pay attention to at any one moment.

    It was certainly much better than a straight ‘live stream’, and immersed people in the story we were trying to tell, to a far greater extent. A useful experiment!

    • Tom: Thanks for sharing about “Bradley Manning”. A fascinating case study. I’m very interested in this question of how a users/viewers/audience members experience of a show can be augmented during (and before and after) a live (streamed) performance.

      I think you’re right on the money when you say that theater-makers should be thinking about their digital audience from the beginning. Why not take it a step further: How can theater-makers can use the web to solicit material from “citizen playwrights” to create shows? Why not use the web to drive the creative process? (And engage audiences from the beginning.) This material could also be housed online to augment the theatrical performance and/or serve as a complete and separate online creative work it’s own right.

      My one-man show, Generation 9/11, was based on over 150 interviews, and I wanted to display these in an online gallery to a) get people interested in the show b) give and audience member context and another way to engage with the show and c) encourage people to submit their stories, which could then be incorporated into the show. But this idea came too late in the process to implement!

      On another note, the decision to live stream but not archive makes intuitive sense; I’m inclined do the same thing. Yet the appeal kind of liveness is curious; is it the sense that anything can happen or something might go wrong? That the live experience is less mediated in some way? Can something be live if it was filmed earlier? I’m reminded of sport events that are broadcast “live” several hours after they are filmed, as happened with several Olympic events in the states.

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