Simon Russel Beal as Prospero in The Tempest

All the world’s a stage & all the tech, gadgets merely players

If you made theater for the internet, what would it look like?

A proliferation of immersive technologies is creating new challenges and opportunities for traditional cultural institutions like the Royal Shakespeare Company—whose mission is to preserve and promote works written over four hundred years ago.

By pushing the boundaries of modern digital technology the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) produces theater experiences that engage audiences in new interactive ways. Sarah Ellis, the RSC’s head of digital development, told a group in Portland that focusing on the story allows her to test the limits of tech with Shakespeare’s 16th century plays while reaching new audiences in the process.

Hosted by Oregon Story BoardLive Digital: Digital Innovation and Live Performance explored Sarah’s evolving approach to digital storytelling through deep dives into several RSC productions—notably an upcoming ambitious staging of The Tempest. “We will be using today’s most advanced technology in a bold reimagining of Shakespeare’s magical play, creating an unforgettable theatrical experience,” said Sarah taking time out from a week working with the Intel Experience Group.

Collaborating on magic

This trans-Atlantic partnership with Intel and The Imaginarium Studios has already dropped a few intriguing hints about the magic they will will create in November.

A look at the promotional image (above) of sorcerer Prospero’s face, dissolving into a digital sea of waves and light, might lead one to assume this talk focused on polygon meshes and live capture animation—but the technology is just one part of the equation. “Often, the ‘wow’ effect of digital is focused on showcasing technology and not the story. Virtual reality can get us back to the story,” Sarah said.

While technology has progressed far enough to make a live-action, projection-mapped character, the spirit Ariel, a reality for this production, Sarah’s inspiration comes from collaborative process. “What’s interesting is the alchemy of the theater space meeting technology and digital storytelling’s cooperative problem solving.” Sarah said. “Theater needs the technical, needs the story, needs… each other.”

Art is (already) augmented reality

Instead of starting her talk at the Oregon Story Board meetup with a flashy jump-cut effects reel, Sarah shared a 1553 painting by Hans Holbein the Younger. The Ambassadors is one of the first known examples of anamorphosis perspective, which uses simple visual effects to bend space and force the viewer to move about the room to experience the whole image. Information is hidden in plain sight, just waiting to be experienced from the right perspective—it’s already augmented reality.

Hans Holbein's painting, The Abassadors forces viewer to interact to view the whole image.

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1553. Image Google Art Project

Lessons in digital storytelling from a 16th century playwright

Sarah’s approach to digital at the RSC is based in measured, thoughtful risk-taking, with the story always front and center. “We’ve been able to innovate the stories of Shakespeare, because the stories are so, AWESOME,” she said. “You will not win if you try to one-up Shakespeare with your technology—no matter how cool the effect is.”

Early projects took small steps, commissioning technologists and artists to respond to Shakespeare’s works. Not every project succeeded as imagined, but each project informed the next.

“I fail every day and enjoy doing it,” Sarah said, with the pride of a digital enthusiast. Lessons from failures include the importance of collaborating with experts and the fact that when the technology just isn’t ready, you have to take a longer term approach with some ideas—while augmented reality devices have been around for a few decades, they’ve only just begun to deliver magical experiences at a large audience scale.

Most importantly, “When trying to disrupt storytelling, don’t believe your own hype. Don’t oversell the results of the technology. Let people find value on their own terms.”

Digital means bigger audiences, less control

To achieve the RSC’s ambitious goals for digital storytelling, the theater has found that partnerships with both artists and technology partners are essential. In 2013 the RSC partnered with Google for a staggeringly ambitious production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Together, they created a performance staged over three days, in the story’s real time, both on stage and in social media.

Imagining that characters from this dreamy tale used YouTube and Google Plus, Sarah and her team composed thousands of social posts and digital story assets that audiences could interact with as the story was progressing over the weekend. They created social media accounts for main characters and even key set pieces like the moon and a specific oak tree in the story’s forest.

Google’s Creative Lab writes about the collaboration, “We set out to stress test the relationship a modern audience has with live theater. Allowing technology to infiltrate that relationship, we explored the reverberation of storytelling through social media and encouraged conversations outside of the traditional narrative arc.”

This digital-physical hybrid Midsummer Night’s Dream attracted more than 110,000 unique views, a 400% increase in social media traffic, and thousands of user-generated content pieces.  All the while, no two audience members in the theater or online experienced the production in exactly the same way.

Although using a cell phone in the middle of Shakespeare’s home theater would normally draw scorn, Sarah noted that long-time RSC patrons actually seemed to embrace the added technological features. This comes as no surprise as arts patrons are curious adventurers who are searching for new experiences—if the stories are good, patrons won’t care how they experience the magic.

Though a cell phone on its own may never rival the grand spectacle on stage in Stratford, simply adding adding some (Google) cardboard can transport audiences into the middle of the action, behind the scenes and beyond

Art can disrupt technology

“Digital is not just online and virtual; it’s also personal and everyday. Technology has changed our workforce, relationships, maps, economies and priorities. However, artists can invert this so the technology itself becomes changed, enabling new thinking,” Sarah told the The Guardian in a 2015 interview.

The audience at Oregon Story Board may have come to learn how digital is transforming the theater, but most left, rapt and inspired, with a renewed appreciation for a magically good story. In the expert hands of Sarah Ellis and the collaborative team at The Royal Shakespeare Company, technology is deepening connections to and expanding the reach of the Bard’s works in new (but historically accurate) ways.

Certainly Shakespeare would have appreciated Sarah’s perfectly anachronistic conclusion to the evening: “Interactive in theater in 2016 is going to be like Hans Holbein, but immersive.”

1951 staging of The Tempest, Image The RSC

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1951 staging of The Tempest, Image The RSC