Sharon Clark- Banff development diary
Playwright Sharon Clark won a 2017 Bruntwood Prize Judges Award for her play PLOW. As part of her development support, Sharon is at the Banff…
It is important that we bring compassion and understanding to the situation we find ourselves in. This continues to be a tremendously difficult time for theatre and the artists who make it. If we are going to recover from the experiences of the past 12 months, we are going to need playwrights. That is a remarkable endeavour and a huge responsibility – something for which we all have the utmost respect and admiration at the Bruntwood Prize. That is why we are always striving to find ways to support playwrights and encourage people to have the courage to write.
Whether you have been able to be creative or not, we want to try and find ways to support you to continue to be engaged with the craft of writing for performance, engaging with an audience, telling stories and taking people on journeys. We truly hope that this series of on-line workshops – will inspire and support you to be creative and to find new possibilities for your work to be realised.
For the last few weeks we’re been looking at ways to write for some sort of digital outcome, and the tools and techniques you might use. This week, Bruntwood Prize winner Sharon Clark shares a toolkit with us. Sharon is a playwright, dramaturge and Creative Director of Raucous, a Bristol-based theatre company that fuses performance, music, film, AR, AI and creative technology. In 2018 she was awarded a Fellowship with the South West Creative Technology Network exploring advancements in immersion and performance, in 2019 she was made a RSC/Magic Leap Digital Fellow and in 2020 she became a fellow with Bath Spa University as part of the Bristol+Bath Digital Clusters looking at expanded performance.
To be perfectly honest, I stumbled into working with creative technology. Nothing about that decision was overtly conscious and I was certainly not bitten by the digital bug. It was simply that I had an idea for a play where I felt that a moment, a seminal moment of action, required a real punch. It was a scene of heft in the storytelling and rather than an audience merely observing it, I wanted them to physically feel it. The story I wanted to write demanded I pitch the audience headlong into the realm of magical realism and impending jeopardy.
So first it became immersive in a space, moved out of a theatre and into railway tunnels and then, due to the generosity and curiosity of Bristol’s Pervasive Media Studio, I began to explore the role film could play in the script, then fell in love with projection mapping which quickly rolled into explorations with robotics, original musical score, object based media (what we call familiars) and binaural sound.
Two shows and a new company later (Raucous), I have fallen down another rabbit hole of exploring how my theatre story writing might expand through mixing or layering realities – in my case I have become intrigued with the playwriting possibilities of fusing augmented reality with live theatre performance. I have also written for VR, and enjoy that medium very much, but for me live performance and AR are the most natural sisters.
I am not a technologist – in fact I am a total Luddite. My role as writer isn’t to design or operate the technology, my role is to invent and build a world, characters and a story that technology might enhance and amplify. I think about it as inhabiting new narrative corridors where stories can be found.
It is a widely held view in the world of AR & VR that theatre writers make the best writers for story driven virtual or augmented realities. That is because we know what it is to write for a 360 degree view where the audience is the central point. Rather than having to put away any skills I have learned as a theatre writer I discovered that in fact I have to lean even more heavier into those skills as this new form demands.
What can I tell you about this way of thinking regarding plays and my role as writer? Too many things. It’s an emerging form and so there has been much learning on my part (some of it rather raw and scratchy) but these might be the immediate ones….
‘I’ goes out the window. As a playwright you know all about collaboration of course, but in this approach to making theatre the collaboration comes earlier and arrives much bigger and noisier. The collaborators (AI and AR designers, technologists, composers, producer, designers, actors) start to work with me the moment I have an initial idea and before I even really have the story. We work from very early stage in what we call R&D ‘sprints’, and we show our early stage workings to critical friends as soon as we can – because we need to understand what the audience will be doing during the show, where they are, what they are feeling, how they are interacting. We also of course need to design, build and test all the technology. So….
You need time… time, time and then a bit more time. It’s not an overnight cook but a long slow fermentation. The script will change many times as discoveries are made and as the writer you have to roll with it and help the technology be in harmony with the world you have built and the characters who inhabit it. Tech never quite works as you thought it would and so the story needs to be fleet footed to form a robust creative alliance. Test, test and test again. First preview should never be the first outing of this idea. You need to run it by an audience WAY before this.
There is always this other presence in your script… and it’s the audience. They are now active and your key collaborator. They are in the scene, actually pivotal to it and they have a a visceral, physical presence – they are no longer passive, silent observers. Your script and your writing needs to pay the audience equal attention to every other element in the production. Because you are working with immersion and technology they have to find out what role they are serving in the play – are they a character? If a character how do they learn this? Do they affect the action? Do they have impact on the story? I have had to redesign how my scripts look on the page so that everyone could understand how everything sat together – technology, audience, actors, sound, AR, space, objects.
Choose the right tool… if you decide on using VR make sure you have interrogated yourself that your story is right for VR, that it is designed for VR and that it can only exist in VR. Don’t, like a magpie, get distracted by shiny new things. What technology or immersive technology you use has to serve the story 100%. For me story is first and foremost – technology/AR/AI are recent additions to my writing toolbox that I can utilise to make the story pop out and heighten the experience for the audience.
Never forget that your narrative must also deliver surprise and tension – don’t just rely on tech to pull a few tricks out of the bag. The story has to be as robust and compelling as the technology.
Look at each narrative beat and map it out (see exercise below). How do you deliver it? Music? Performance? Tech? Projection Mapping? Smell?
How much interaction do you want? How much does your story need? Don’t build in interaction just for the sake of it. You really need to consider your audience’s agency in the story. Do they affect it? Can they change its outcome? Do they need to? How can you, as the writer, make them feel more comfortable in taking a risk with you and interacting directly with the story? What do you need to build into your script that will help audiences directly engage without fear of failure or ridicule?
The story world must be thoroughly examined, rules defined, environments built. The tech must echo this world, exist in this world and follow the rules of this world. The story and the technology must be seamless. Then the audience has to totally believe it.
Hard-to-visualise places that build atmosphere can be realised with digital technology.
These new tools can really free you as a writer. For me, it frees what I am able to imagine as a writer. It frees what I am able to build. It frees how I build a personal contract with the audience. It allows me a sense of scale to my story telling – larger or smaller – that can inspire awe and wonder from an audience. It gives me more creative control as a writer.
It can make you a more immediate, heightened and imaginative story teller.
I Don’t Know… and that’s okay. This took me some time to understand and then some more time (and some pain) to adopt. You are the writer yes, the world starts with you, the story starts with you but in collaborations such as these you can’t be the expert in everything. I often have large chunks in the script that are blank and holding places that describes a broad set of actions but not how we deliver, and then knowing how we deliver informs how the action plays out. You are more band leader than writer…
Because the world of theatre working with digital technology/AR/VR is still in its infancy it is hard to recommend writing exercises. The process is still a little like laying out the track whilst the train is coming down the line.
However what I find useful is to write out the story as a series of narrative beats as soon as we have it and before I start scripting – this happens, then this happens, then this happens….
Transfer these moments on to a narrative beatsheet and start to allot each moment its own form. So for a specific moment does it give most impact if it is delivered through dialogue or would it be stronger for a soundscape to step up, or augmented reality, or robotics, maybe smell can do the heavy lifting or projection mapping? This helps form a template that all the collaborators can work from and gives you, the writer, a clear roadmap as to the elements you are writing for.
This is a short film resulting from a period of R&D funded by Digital Catapult of exploration into new places we might start our storytelling. It illustrates how I think of the audience as a collaborator and how I have to consider who they are in the world of the play.
Here is the opening to The Stick House (2015), the first immersive theatre piece with technology that Raucous produced.
An ice cream van sits outside the space.
It is old and rusty and looks filthy.
It suddenly chimes out.
An ugly parody of music.
It plays The Song of the Beast – though we don’t recognise it as this yet.
On presenting their tickets to the usher the audience is stamped on the wrist.
The stamp leaves no mark.
They are given a board to put around their necks.
The boards have a name on.
It is not their name.
They are ordered to line up
The doors swing open and we are led into pitch black space by torchlight.
A gauze screen descends that straddles and fills the space.
A projection of a young girl running through a sun-dappled landscape.
The sunlight from the film blinds us
The scale is huge and fills the space.
Twenty feet high.
Her pale face and red hair make us feel like dolls.
She is filthy, thin and unkempt.
But she is oddly happy.
She looks at us and laughs.
Music fills the space – a melody full of longing with a slightly bitter aftertaste of what is to come.
The young girl then suddenly runs from the screen, escaping from its confines.
She runs across the walls where she becomes her true size.
She looks at us and then silently urges us forward.
She runs ahead – we have to follow.
Through a tunnel archway.
Hurry, hurry, hurry.
We are late.
She finally comes to rest by a huge round gaming table with two 9 foot high chairs
Images appear on the gaming table.
Shot from POV looking down.
We gather round.
Two sets of huge hands move playing cards, the likes of which we have never seen before
One set is filthy, with frayed shirt sleeves and bitten finger nails.
The other set is monstrous.
The atmosphere is tense.
Sergei is sat at the table playing cards with the Beast.
The projection of the young girl on the wall stands to the side of the players.
She hops from foot to foot, playing with her hair.
She is bored. She has been here many times before.
We hear the sound of horses on a cobbled street, women’s shrill laughter and the repetitious sound of scales being poorly played.
Sergei Monsieur… please…
Beast The call is with you.
Sergei All I have left is my coat. It is fur. I bought it in St Petersburg. It is worth…
Beast Precisely nothing. I have no need of a fur coat. Especially one that crawls with wildlife.
Sergei You would beggar me?
Beast By the state of you Sergei that is something you have achieved without my assistance.
The transition into the space is undertaken without a spoken word and no physical presence – in fact the first three scenes of the play were delivered through film and soundscape alone. The script is written to give the collaborators a sense of the atmosphere you want them to imbue into the space without too much prescription.
You might want to look at the work of these practitioners in the field to give you an idea of what might be possible, however technology developments are eye wateringly rapid so what tools and ideas you are considering can evolve on an almost monthly basis. Furthermore, not all of these companies work entirely with narrative and a few describe their work as ‘artwork’. The boundaries of how we define work is also shifting…
But that’s the beauty of it. It provides a toolbox for making theatre and writing for theatre that is constantly evolving and shape shifting. As a writer it expands the scale and therefore subject matter of the stories I can tell, it allows me to whisper directly into each individual audience’s ear and it provides me with a platform to play with space, place and time.
Sharon is a playwright, dramaturge and Creative Director of Raucous, a Bristol-based theatre company that fuses performance, music, film, AR, AI and creative technology. For 8 years she was Literary Producer at Bristol Old Vic and has previously worked with Theatre 503, the National Theatre, the Arcola, the New Diorama, Theatre West, Bath Theatre Royal, Sherman Cymru and Watford Palace Theatre. In 2017 she worked with Aardman Animations on the BBC virtual reality film, Is Anna Okay? She is a resident at the Pervasive Media Studio and senior lecturer at the University of the West of England.
She was awarded a Bruntwood Judge’s Prize in 2017 and her plays have also been shortlisted for the Yale Drama Prize and the PapaTango Prize. In 2018 she was awarded a Fellowship with the South West Creative Technology Network exploring advancements in immersion and performance, in 2019 she was made a RSC/Magic Leap Digital Fellow and in 2020 she became a fellow with Bath Spa University as part of the Bristol+Bath Digital Clusters looking at expanded performance. Raucous was a member of the 2020 Digital Catapult cohort exploring new narrative corridors with The Foundling.