Truly involving theatre

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Jo Caird Blog: Truly Involving Theatre

8 March 2011

In the past couple of years I’ve spent far too much time on Twitter, so I’ve been aware of some of the interesting theatre-related events that have taken place there, such as the RSC’s Such Tweet Sorrow, which saw an online cast improvise a story based on Romeo and Juliet over the course of five weeks, and American playwright Jeremy Gable’s The 15th Line, a four-hander which took place entirely on Twitter (you can read its script here).

This Sunday though, was the first time I’ve actually engaged with and physically taken part in such an event. It’s not often that I look back on a series of tweets to jog my memory about a piece of theatre, but that’s exactly what I’ve had to do in preparation for writing this blog post.

You Wouldn’t Know Him, He Lives in Texas / You Wouldn’t Know Her, She Lives in London, which is performed simultaneously at theatres in the two eponymous locations via Skype, is a collaboration between London-based Look Left Look Right and The Hidden Room, a company based in Austin. The premise is that transatlantic couple Liz and Ryan have brought their friends and family together so that everyone can get to know each other and make the pair feel less like their relationship exists only in virtual reality. The audience, both those physically in attendance and anyone who’s following the performance on Twitter (by using the #texaslondon hashtag) and Facebook, are encouraged to take part by asking questions and posting comments during the show.

It’s a brave and original idea: interactive theatre is exciting enough when it’s just a matter of responding to the action going on in a physical space – as with last year’s remarkable You Me Bum Bum Train. To then open up that interaction to the digital realm and run the real and virtual scenarios side-by-side has the potential to create an entirely new type of theatre experience, one that is almost limitless in scale.

Schemes like National Theatre Live – where NT productions are beamed live to cinemas around the country and the world – and Pilot Theatre’s live streaming of performances on the Internet – have already gone some way towards taking theatre to larger audiences than just those able to physically get to the venue. Enabling those virtual audiences to become directly involved in what they’re seeing is an even more exciting step and one that has the potential to bring added value to the theatre experience.

That step, however, is not without its challenges, as I can testify from my experience at You Wouldn’t Know Him this weekend. It’s at the meeting of boundaries that problems arise: the interactive and the scripted, the live and the virtual each more or less succeed on their own terms in this show – it’s when the drama forces them together that things get tricky.

The show’s whole premise requires interaction from the audience, but at the play’s dramatic apex (at least at the performance I attended) it suddenly felt like questions or comments would have been unwelcome, an interruption. No longer involved in the action, we felt like mere onlookers, a standard audience at a conventional play, but with an awkward sense of what had been lost.

Crucial to the success of any theatre experience is the suspension of disbelief; this is enough of a challenge when your audience are all sat in one place together, their full attention focused on the drama being played out before them; how much more difficult does this become once you start inviting people to include themselves in the imaginative process and think about their own role in the action alongside that of the actors? Not to mention the issue of making those virtual audience members/participants feel involved enough to suspend their disbelief when sat at a computer potentially thousands of miles away?

You Wouldn’t Know Him, He Lives in Texas stumbles at this hurdle, but Look Left Look Right and The Hidden Room should be applauded for their attempt to explore this new territory and create an entertaining (albeit occasionally uncomfortable) evening along the way. I very much look forward to further experiments. Theatre has only to gain from this type of innovation.

Jo Caird is a freelance arts journalist and has been deputy Off-West End editor of since June 2009.

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