Three Fringe Shows Which Use Tech to Get Personal
We speak to three theatre makers whose Fringe shows use technological innovations – some sensational, some simple – to get closer to their audiences
Theatre has a complicated relationship with technology. We tend to think of theatre as an ancient, analogue art form, one which relies on lo-fi magic and the warmth of bums in seats. In contrast, tech is clean steel, iPhone white, glitching, freezing FaceTime. Try searching Google images for ‘digital’; every result is a chilly, futuristic blue. But tech can bring us even closer to the action. We speak to three theatre makers whose Fringe shows use digital innovations – some sensational, some simple – to get up close and personal with their audiences.
User Not Found
The technological challenges in making User Not Found have been a first for Dante or Die, the theatre company co-founded by Terry O’Donovan and Daphna Attias. “We’re the least technical people in the world”, Terry laughs, before he launches in to describing the complicated coding behind the show’s innocuous-looking smartphones. The result of years of research, User Not Found examines the murky world of digital legacies: what do we leave online when we die, and who stands to inherit it? Written by Chris Goode, and created during a lengthy collaborative process with tech company Marmelo, the play takes place in Jeelie Piece cafe and mimics the recent boom in café culture. “We go to use the WiFi and we’re alone, but we’re together,” Terry explains. “It’s a perfect setting for the story, which is all about the public and the private.”
Each audience member receives a smartphone and a pair of headphones (not to keep!), and these familiar tools help to immerse punters within the mind-set of Terry’s character. “People in cafes with their headphones on, isolating themselves despite being in a public space – it’s a thing we do all the time,” he says. “The idea is that my character is in your head, you’re hearing the details of the sound world that I’m in, you see all the details on my phone, it’s like you have the same gaze as my character.”
There’s not currently a legal framework to protect or support people as they inherit the digital estates of loved ones: it’s upsetting to think that Zuckerberg could own all the photos of you and your mum. As User Not Found makes clear, our interactions on social media platforms are intricate, and not easily downloaded or deleted: “it’s a living thing, you can’t just save it all”.
There is digital detail laced through the show, even in the wireless lamps “that could be in any café… and then they suddenly [become] this magical part of the experience”. Marmelo has built a full captioning service within the handset, too, so that anyone with hearing needs won’t require an extra device to become immersed in the show’s world. As Terry describes it, User Not Found uses cutting-edge tech to create deceptively simple effects: “We’re mimicking the everyday, so people won’t realise the amount of work that’s gone in to it. You’re looking at a phone, nothing ‘special’…” – don’t be fooled.
In contrast, Ming Hon’s Chase Scenes lays bare all of its constituent parts. The cast frantically re-enact and re-film roughly fifty-nine chase scenes cut from pop culture, while the original clips play out behind them. “We’re like a rotating film crew,” she explains. “It’s a greatest hits, and each scene is a minute or less. The runner is always running, and it covers action, comedy, thriller, horror… all of it!” A trained dancer and choreographer, Hon describes her interest in breaking down the physicality of running: “A lot of the time when the runner is running, they’re running on the spot – it creates this weird tension, a strange image of someone trying to run away, but they’re stuck.”
After working as a film classifier, Hon has a formidable mental library of clichés and stereotypes from all your favourite film moments. To recreate them, the cast use two cameras with live projections, so that the audience can see the shots forming through the lens, and she describes how easy it is to recognise classic tropes: “Okay, this is the horror one – go close-up on the face, or do a stalker-cam from far away!” They take it in turns to become props master, make-up artist, runner or camera woman, and she laughs as she describes the chaos: “With the props and so on, it just looks absurd from the outside, but on screen the framed picture makes more sense than what you see live. A lot of the time we’re running in distress, in this very vulnerable place, right next to someone, and they just look at the screen – because they’re getting a different context.”
There’s a timeliness to this kind of filtered physicality, too. “We’ve been seduced by this idea of a beautiful woman running away in a horror film,” she says. “But there’s a certain type of reality to women portraying [the act of] being chased. There are a lot of Hollywood hunks in there too, though… also performed by us!”
In Flight, the audience is in the hot seat. It’s the latest instalment in a series of shows by Darkfield, a company which uses the pitch-black confines of a shipping container to create unsettling experiences for audiences unperturbed by claustrophobia. David Rosenberg, co-creator with Glen Neath, describes how sitting in the dark “creates this gap that the audience can find themselves inside. It’s a way for them to become the protagonist.”
“The intention was never to frighten the audience,” he laughes. “But – we do want to directly address fear and anxiety.” Last year’s Séance led audiences by the hand through an unnerving ghostly encounter, and this summer the container’s kitted out to replicate the interior of an airplane – that may, or may not, be about to crash. Not frightening at all. “You know where you are, and then the lights go out… and you’re not so sure! Okay, it’s not going to be for everyone,” Rosenberg admits.
Flight touches on a near-universal fear. “Everyone’s experienced an unexpected jolt, and you question… if this is IT, then what? But we’re approaching it from a very different angle. It’s all very high-brow,” he jokes. “It’s about these incredibly wild ideas that theoretical physicists have, that innumerable other worlds co-exist, and any time there could be a different outcome for something, both of these outcomes happen – and [it’s also about] how physicists are the same people you trust with your life when you get on a plane.”
You’ll be handed headphones as part of the pre-flight briefing. Similar to User Not Found, Flight’s aim is to create a sense of strange, shared intimacy: “We’re interested in when audiences are both alone and together, and headphones create this – an isolated experience, but [the play] doesn’t make sense unless you’re still aware of the group that you’re with.” To make the experience even more immersive, they use binaural sound – a 3D way of recording that can make you feel like someone’s whispering in your ear – and “and a thing called tactile transducers, which is when you feel vibrations but you don’t actually hear them.” Rosenberg takes pains to emphasise that no-one will feel travel-sick as a result, and has the sheer cheek to suggest that Flight could be considered a public service. If you’re scared of flying, he says, “just think of it as the cure.”