Twelling Stories

Prompted by Hannah Nicklin’s notes from the Such Tweet Sorrow session at this weekend’s Devoted and Disgruntled.

According to every piece of market research I’ve seen, before most people go to the theatre, they want to know what the story of the show will be. This, I think, is doubly the case with narrative operas and ballets, where ambiguity will almost certainly be provided by some combination of set pieces, song, mime and foreign language, but it’s not restricted to these forms.

When you think about it, this is kind of weird.  It’s like reading the York Notes before you read Middlemarch, or fast-forwarding to the end of a film before you’ve watched the beginning. In almost every other form of narrative entertainment, the ending is the prize you get for staying the course. But the moment something becomes a classic, the rules appear to change.

This, I think, is partly prompted by the real and perceived stock of common knowledge. For a fleeting moment after graduating from my English Literature degree, I could tell you which bit of Greek the “hole in the wall” story came from, and which Shakespeare play it recurs in, but as life grows and things intervene, my certainty about this has receded. But the point, I suppose, is that I did know. I’ve read Chaucer and the Greeks and looked up every reference in “The Wasteland” and been bewildered by Ulysses, and so my education has given me both the confidence and the opportunity not to worry – to feel that, should I get lost in the twists of the tale, I’ll be able to recover. And also, I see a lot of shows – and the more you see, the more confident you become.

Traditionally, the Education and Marketing departments of big theatres have put a lot of effort into assuaging this story anxiety. And now, Digital departments are doing the same. As things become ‘classic’, there’s this strange idea that you can be told not just how it’s going to end, but also everything that happens in between. Perhaps it’s because the realisation is considered to be so masterful – a work of art in its own right – or it may be that the contents of the story is thought to live so much in the hive mind that we may as well all know in advance how it completes.

But why is that? When you see a new play or a movie or pick up a novel, the thrill of discovery can be so enormous, so overwhelming, so exciting, that knowing the ending in advance would be mortifying. The producers of Lost went out of their way to simultaneously reveal the ending throughout the world, because they knew how much the echoes, rumours and leaks would spoil it for every viewer who was delayed. And anyone who has ever seen a football fan cover their eyes as the results flash on the screen knows that the drama of the unknown ending creates a unique set of conditions for hope, excitement and despair.

So in my own work at the Royal Opera House, I’m starting to reconsider how we do this. The increased popularity and possibility of online video created a new opportunity in the mid-2000s: suddenly we could show rather than tell, and we consequently fell into a pattern of creating film trailers to advertise our shows. Many of them are very beautiful, but as we make more, I’ve started to question who they are for – people who already know what they’re going to see? We’ve experimented with fragmented narrative and social-media interventions, and some have worked, others not. And as the opportunity for people to take part in a performance in their own homes (via a Wii or a Kinect) gets ever closer, so a new seductive avenue of distraction opens.

Looking at Hannah’s notes on Such Tweet Sorrow, it’s clear that we can make this too complicated. While there is certainly a space and an opportunity to create new experiences, all this extra stuff might just be off-putting: if you need to create a real-time, cross-platform narrative adventure to get teenagers interested in Romeo and Juliet, then I think the worst you can be accused of is trying too hard. It’s not rocket science, it’s a love story – more simple and complex than anything else in the world. We should be trying to create digital experiences that augment theatre, rather than aiming to replace or over-explain the thing that is taking place on the stage. And just as Shakespeare retold Arthur Brooke, there will doubtless be countless further retellings of the tale, but these should be wedded to the story rather than its means of delivery. As an unreconstructed post-structuralist, I would hope that our digital forays start to create new opportunities for both entertainment and interpretation, allowing the audience to have fun, participate and understand as much as they wish. It’s the spaces in between that are so interesting, and which we should use technology to help our audiences explore.

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