Taking a byte from a digital feast

The Edinburgh Festival is in full swing. New theatre productions are being road-tested and new ways of delivering shows for new audiences are setting the city on fire.

Twitter reports from local companies like Eastern Angles and HighTide, and from performers like Polly Ingham from Bury’s Theatre Royal, keep the rest of us up-to-speed with the frantic world of parties, performances and the exciting art of emailing fliers.

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival has always been on the cutting edge of arts and culture but this year the world seems to be at a tipping point. Performance is no longer just about someone performing live on a stage and promotion is so much more than sticking up a flier on a lamp-post or a poster on a boarded-up window of a disused shop.

Digital media has revolutionised the way we interact with one another and the way we view the arts. Digitally-based multi-media presentations are being seamlessly interwoven with more traditional artforms.

DanceEast’s Heather Eddington has made a career out of combining live dance performances with pre-recorded audio-visual elements. These are used to interact with the live dancer or used to punctuate the action on stage.

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Similarly, in the theatre, drama is given atmosphere by the use of digital backdrops. In the National Theatre’s production of War Horse, the brilliant full-sized horse puppets quite naturally stole the show, but one of the reasons they were as effective as they were was because they were being operated within a landscape that was being shaped by digital backdrops. These atmospheric devices were feeding onto the back of the stage a non-stop collage of images, colours, effects, photographs, historical records and music, which was informing the action taking place centrestage.

It was a perfect blend of art-forms: traditional acting, music, puppetry and new digital media.

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But one of the joys of digital media is that it is not just available to big theatres with vast budgets. It has really democratised the arts and given the performers more creative tools to tell their story.

It has also rewritten the guidebook on the way that shows are promoted. Performers can email fliers and video teasers to potential audience members on their mailing-list, and forward performance details and footage to festival websites. Facebook profiles can be created for the company, or even for fictional characters within the show; or performance videos can be deposited on their MySpace pages to build up a viral awareness campaign.

The secret at a festival like Edinburgh or on a subsequent tour is to get everyone talking about it. You want to be the cult show that everyone is talking about. The ultimate goal is to cross over into the mainstream.

Having a cult, underground status and a reputation for staging sell-out shows that no-one can get into will provide you with the necessary street credibility, but in order to make the show pay you need to cross over into the mainstream; and to do that you need to receive promotion from the printed media which will be attracted by the show’s underground cult status.

But you can’t escape the knowledge that the world of the arts is changing. We are in the midst of a genuine digital revolution. The way we are living life is changing and, because arts and culture reflects the world in which we live, the way we are entertained has also changed.

A prime example of this is Hugh Hughes’ new show Stories From An Invisible Town, which invites audiences to interact with and build up a fictional community that features the Hughes clan in a virtual world. Hugh takes material from the website to feed into the show. Audiences don’t need to have seen the website before attending the show but it will enhance the experience if they have had a tour round the virtual world and maybe even helped influence the way it develops and functions.

As the virtual world changes and grows so Hugh adapts and modifies the show, telling stories about himself, his brother, sister and fictional family. The show is at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich on November 6 and 7.

The New Wolsey has pioneered new theatre and fringe theatre as part of its annual Pulse fringe theatre festival, which is staged in June. It is designed to showcase the best new fringe theatre from across the eastern region and from around the country. It provides a proving ground for new work which is then taken to the Edinburgh Festival before having a further life on tour around the country.

But, in recent years, successful shows haven’t always needed the four walls of a traditional theatre building in which to set up home. As audiences diversify and performers reach out to various non-traditional audience members, sometimes shows are best encountered in unusual locales or in community spaces where you can just bump into a performance.

In this year’s Pulse festival, the Diamond Jubilee weekend was marked by a three-day camp-fire series of performances staged in and around five VW camper vans pitched in a car park in St George’s Street, Ipswich. In the Bury St Edmunds Festival, walkers on a guided tour around the town were ambushed by actors performing scenes from Shakespeare.

Even in the world of cinema, which in the past was the most securely indoor of activities, one of the biggest success stories of the last five years has been the rise of Secret Cinema.

Secret Cinema is a pop-up event which appears at short notice in predominantly London locations and screens films in atmospheric and themed locales. Audiences, who are often encouraged to dress up to boost the special nature of the night, learn of the time, location and title of the film only by accessing, with passwords, information online.

Until this summer, Secret Cinema had screened only classic movies – films like Casablanca, Blade Runner or La Dolce Vita. This summer they screened, for the first time, a new film – Ridley Scott’s Prometheus – and it did so well that it added a highly identifiable and significant amount to the overall box office. This adaptability is possible only with the advent of new technology.

At the other end of the scale from Secret Cinema is the realisation that digital technology also allows anyone to access film, television, even theatre performances, on their mobile phone or tablet and take part in a cultural experience in their own time and wherever they may be.

Digital technology may look daunting at first but it is a tool like any other; and, providing it is used for the right job, can open up a whole new world for people.

It can liberate the arts, it can reach out to new audiences, it can allow artists to speak to audiences across the world, to those unable to reach traditional theatres, galleries or concert halls.

In the 21st century there is not just one cultural audience but hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of small audiences with their own niche interests; but the vast majority overlap with one another. Digital technology allows artists to do relevant work in new spaces and spread the word to new audiences. This has to be welcomed.

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