6 Lessons We’ve Learned From Making Our First Digital Performance Piece
by Antonia Georieva & Aslant Theatre
If you are new to the world of digital performance like we were a couple of months ago, questions of form inevitably come to the forefront: is it live-streamed or pre-recorded; if live, does it take place on Zoom/another platform, or is it being performed on stage and streamed live; if pre-recorded, again is it performed in a theatrical venue or recorded in other locations. The answesr to these questions determine the kind of work you would be doing.
With our digital debut Echo/Chamber (performing at Brighton Fringe 28 May – 27 June 2021), we went down the pre-recorded route, creating a hybrid of a piece that is filmic but has its roots in our theatrical practice. If like us you are a theatre-maker considering the jump into the wondrous world of digital performance, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Isaac Hesketh (left) and Oliver McFadden (right) in Aslant Theatre’s digital debut Echo/Chamber.
- Plan, plan, plan (but be ready to adapt)
This should go without saying, but don’t underestimate the process of creating a digital work because it will be unlike anything else you’ve made before. Give yourself enough time and be prepared for all of that to go down the drain as soon as you start. Equipment deliveries may be delayed, people’s schedules won’t match, things will come up and you will find yourself reworking and reworking your initial schedule. Know what parts of your plan are non-negotiable and be prepared for how you would cope with the worst-case scenarios: actor dropping out, equipment not working properly, impossible time constraints. That being said, I firmly believe that each challenge unlocks other possibilities that you might not have considered, so as much as you can plan, try to also stay open and flexible when changes inevitably come your way.
2.Keep it simple
If you are a theatre-maker by craft, it is quite likely that in some shape or form your digital performance will involve an area that you are not specifically skilled at unless you already have a background in that area (for example, film or audio might be the most likely options). So, try and get a basic understanding of some key principles in those areas before starting out. Are there basic ‘rules’ for working in that medium? If you’re new to something the chances are you don’t know it well enough to break the rules yet. In the case of Echo/Chamber, while we always thought of it as a piece of digital theatre (and we can discuss the semantics and definitions another time), what we were formally making was a performance captured with a camera and presented on a screen i.e. a film. With a little trial and error, we soon discovered that the simpler and more straightforward the shots, the better the end result was, so we focused on efforts on the delivery of the performance and kept the cinematography elements on a more basic level.
Oliver McFadden (left) and Isaac Hesketh (right) as Paul and Drew in Echo/Chamber.
- Good sound is king
In the digital form, when the audience’s attention is fixated on receiving all the information from the screen and speakers, there is no room for error. Bad quality sound will read very loudly and it can make or break your piece. Consider how you are capturing sound from your performers and don’t underestimate the presence of background noise. If you live on a busy street, maybe you need to record that voiceover in the dead of night in your closet under a heavy blanket. If your shoot location is in Central London and you are recording on a day with massive protests going by, do you wait for it to pass or somehow make use of it to feed the performance?
- Marketing never sleeps
This will be true for any production, but it’s certainly the case for digital performance that is pre-recorded and running for a relatively long period of time as is the case of Echo/Chamber. As a small company, which has only created work on the fringe scale so far, with our longest run being 1 week, marketing a show that is running for a whole month online has certainly been a big learning curve. Online audiences tend to operate on a slightly different time scale than in-person ones. For one, unless there is a particularly good reason to limit the audience capacity, online shows are unlikely to ever be sold-out – one reason that can be a particularly strong motivating factor when it comes to buying tickets in advance. So the real marketing push begins once the piece is up and running. And while the ease and flexibility that on-demand access affords is certainly a plus, the marketing for something like that needs to be constant, varied, and engaging. You are not just selling an event that takes place on this date at this time. You are trying to convince people to see this story over any other thing they could be doing.
- Timing is key
Digital performance may very well be here to stay, and that is a good thing, considering all of its benefits such as increased access and flexibility and its potential for global audience reach, but thankfully live theatre is also back. The question to ask now is why do a digital piece at all (or an even bleaker one: “Would anyone ever watch it?” How will people hear about it? Is it part of a festival? As in our case, Echo/Chamber was part of Brighton Fringe, and while live events still went up in Brighton, there was a gap that online performances were filling during the fringe. However, this is also a time when live theatre by and large has returned. People who haven’t been to the theatre and now are in a position to do so are perhaps way more likely to spend an evening watching a live show than staying in front of a screen. There will be an audience for anything, but the truth is you have to make it worth their while. Consider the timing of when your show is launching and what else it is in competition with (including live theatre and lovely sunny days).
- Make the most of going digital
One of the greatest benefits to exploring digital performance is the potential it has for engaging with new audiences and building a following across the world. It is also a relatively new form of engagement or at least one that many theatre-makers have turned to over the past year, sparking innovation and new ways of doing things, so make the most of this period of experimentation. Find out what aspects of digital performance you can take on going forward and how you can build that into your practice and your artistic output in a sustainable way. And don’t underestimate the connections you can build through that. Digital performance makes it easier not only for audiences but also for programmers, producers, and collaborators to access your work and learn more about you.
Image from Echo/Chamber by Aslant Theatre Company.
Ultimately, there are pros and cons to each and every facet of digital performance out there. The important thing to remember is to do what is best for the story you are trying to tell and to build on your practice in an authentic way. Embrace curiosity and explore the digital medium to the fullest.
Echo/Chamber is running as part of Brighton Fringe via Living Record Productions through the 27th of June. More information and tickets are available here: https://thelivingrecord.com/events/echo-chamber/feed.
To find out more about Aslant Theatre Company and follow their work visit their website: www.aslanttheatre.com.