New digital fund sees innovative technologies brought centre stage

South Hill Park's digital lab and Greenhouse begin work with three companies who received seed funding to explore digital technology and live streaming in theatre. Liz Allum met with one of those companies, Pursued by a Bear Productions, to find out about their seedling of an idea.

When you touch a butterfly, it leaves a tiny trace of dust on your hand. The colour of a butterfly’s wings are made of thousands of reflective scales, overlapping and fitting with one another like roof tiles and it is these that they leave behind on your skin. The scales are naturally shed throughout a butterfly’s life, so an old butterfly will have patches of wing that are as clear as glass.

Contemporary theatre and film company Pursued By A Bear, along with two other companies recently received a small pot of funding to test out innovative methods of integrating technology into theatre making. Bracknell’s art centre South Hill Park hosts a state of the art digital media lab and SHPLive.TV has teamed up with Greenhouse, a 3-year funding initiative that aims to support contemporary theatre in the south east and east of England.

Three companies were awarded seed funding to develop new digital performances using live streaming. As part of the development, South Hill Park provides the companies with space, equipment and mentorship to begin to explore the possibilities and pitfalls of their ambitious ideas.

Pursued by a Bear’s writer and film-maker Grant Watson has a vision of digital media in theatre being used to create an ‘ecology’ of stories, a network of character, back story, moments and experiences that audiences can access in their own time.

He says "it’s not really polite to wander in to a theatre show three quarters of the way through and demand to be caught up on what you’ve missed", but with social media and the creation of an archive of layers of story, audiences can find their own route in to the story, and stumble upon ideas and images in their own time. This layering, much like the butterfly’s wings, creates a web of connected stories. How apt then, to use the digital web of interconnection as a medium for telling this story.

The story is just a seedling at the moment, and they are guarding it quite closely, not wanting to pre-empt the exciting advance trans-media campaign that will launch soon. However we can expect to see a tale of the impact of climate change, an eco-thriller, centred around scientists, part fiction part fact, and their exploration of the consequence of our heating up the planet on the fragile and vital little butterfly.

Any eco-system, even an eco-system of stories, relies on its inherent interdependence to survive and, when you create an imbalance within it, you begin a process of deconstruction and ultimate collapse. Conversely, it is the nature of interdependence that gives us the ability to take action to protect our environment.

When we see that everything is connected and reliant on those connections, we see how even one small action can bring about as much positive impact as negative. This chain reaction, this natural process of interdependence, a tessellation of data, is mirrored so beautifully by the Internet and social media connectivity.

The project will culminate in a scratch performance towards the end of 2014, that will see a thrilling collaboration between the UK-based company and Philadelphia-based theatre company Tiny Dynamite, both in devising and in live performance. Through the use of Skype, live streaming and networking technologies, the performance will quite literally happen globally, connecting two or more countries in the same live ‘space’. This is an innovative and exciting project and the company are visibly bubbling over with ideas.

It is a clear progression from their previous work, fusing film and visual media with contemporary performance, and strongly narrative-driven pieces. Kalashnikov: in the Woods by the Lake was produced in 2011 and used multiple video screens showing both film and still image, merging multiple worlds on one stage. It is clear that this company is fuelled by a passion to tell stories in new and innovative ways.

Audiences can be hard to draw in to work like this, especially outside of London, and so using digital media to reach audiences beyond a small arts centre’s normal scope is a great move forwards. The aim is to engage new audiences, those who wouldn’t necessarily access the theatre itself, but whether this is a step too far for these kinds of audiences, whether they will see the very clear potential in this work, only time will tell; we are breaking new ground.

As we see street theatre really blossoming in the UK at the moment, there is a clear drive to take theatre out of its comfort zone and into audiences’ own spaces. To take performance out of the black box or the auditorium, that can feel so excluding to some, and into shopping centres, libraries, high streets, we remove some of the barriers to engaging with the art form. This is taking theatre to audiences, rather than asking audiences to come to theatre.

So, placing theatre on the very devices our audiences carry around with them, into their pockets and living rooms, is surely the next step. Testing grounds like these and the small pots of funding that go with them are vital for pioneering work, to ensure that innovation is not just for its own sake, but that it really enriches and expands the timeless art of storytelling.

Look out for the scratch performance of The Lamellar Project at South Hill Park, Bracknell, and for the work of the other two companies selected for this fund: Catharina Cronenberger Golebiowska's intergalactic story of isolation Mars One Extended and an immersive identity squatting project inspired by the Grant Shapps scandal—