TOOLKIT SERIES 2- WEEK 2 Chinonyerem Odimba on Not Writing
Writing a play takes huge dedication. It takes time, head-space, leaps of imagination plus vision, bravery, commitment, compassionate enquiry beyond your immediate experience and perhaps…
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 next few weeks- we’re looking at work that takes place online, and how you can use digital resources to tell stories. First up SWAMP MOTEL Co-Founders and Creative Directors Clem Garritty & Ollie Jones on how they make interactive entertainment in our ‘weird new world’
After several years working hard to create fairly cult fringe comedy-theatre work for us as part of Kill the Beast, we formed Swamp Motel to lend some of our theatrical skillset to the world of brand experiences.
After three years of hard work we were starting to see the beginnings of a steady ship – then the pandemic hit and everything was cancelled and our existing body of work was made instantly irrelevant to whatever customer base was left. We began to panic and decided to try and build an immersive show that took place online – predominantly as a way to work out if it could be done. We had always hoped one day to be able to create our own experience and the pandemic seemed like a do or die moment.
Many hours of experimentation, guess work and friendly test runs later we had Plymouth Point – an online immersive detective adventure which set players on the path of a missing person and then drew them gently into a world of conspiracy, cults and corporate deceit. A few months later, we released a spiritual sequel named The Mermaid’s Tongue.
Here’s a list of some of the things we learned working in this weird new world.
1. Look at Zoom differently
A year ago nobody knew what Zoom was. Now it’s a huge part of our daily lives. So massive is its impact, in fact, that it has almost become the byword for all forms of video messaging. It can initially feel like a very distant, impersonal and buggy way of communicating. In reality though it’s a universally understood medium. Think of it as a seat in a theatre. Everybody understands it, everyone knows how it works. Online entertainment in this form is quite a new thing and audiences are still working out what’s required of them. Video calling is a starting point they can totally understand. So, don’t resent it, it’s on your side.
2. Make your audience feel important
Some ‘immersive’ shows have the audience as relatively passive participants witnessing a wider story first-hand. We wanted to ensure that our audience were the main characters; that they had agency and that success depended entirely on them and their abilities and choices. Plymouth Point and The Mermaid’s Tongue both ask a lot of the audience members. The story doesn’t move on without them, they are the axle to the wheel.
3. Prioritise entertaining them
Having said that, it’s important not to ruin their night by leaving everything in their hands. There needs to be the inclusion of signposts, clues and ways to ask for help if it’s needed. Entertainment has always been at the core of what we do and that is equally important
here. Where the (heavily tested) clues and signposts fail, there is a helpful character on hand to keep watch and ensure the audience group continues apace. Losing the pacing of the experience can really hamper the enjoyment, so as much as the experiences are designed to be a fun challenge, first and foremost we want people to have a good time experiencing the stories from start to finish.
4. Write characters that inhabit the internet
We wanted Plymouth Point and The Mermaid’s Tongue to feel like they were really happening directly to our audience, so we absolutely wanted to use characters to move the plot along. They come in a variety of forms. Many are met passively as characters that are mentioned by others, or discovered on various online sources as a photo, or an email or a reputation. Some leave voice notes along the way. Other, more impactful characters
interact with you directly. There’s an element of them being pre-recorded, but if that’s the case how can they speak to you? Luckily, technology is buggy and so, therefore, was the video calling. You can see and hear the (pre-recorded) character but they’ve got a bad line – so they can’t hear you!
5. Make a mockery of the writing process
Creating these shows was nothing like writing for stage, screen or radio. There remains no script – instead we have a series of spreadsheets, log ins, prompts, clues, folders and many, many online accounts. The final part of the ‘writing’ process is play testing, and all of a sudden it became clear that parts of the story worked beautifully and other parts were bamboozling. So we nipped and tucked and responded and recorded information, so although the script began as a series of ordered post-it notes, it ends as a baffling array of data.
6. Use the real alongside the fictional
Almost everybody knows a huge amount about online interaction. So much of our experiences take place on public websites with the pre-existing content forming part of the story. Not only is this effective as a mutually understood dialogue between writer and audience, but it also heightens immersion and deepens the experience. We have chapters of the story that take place on Facebook, YouTube, Medium, Wikipedia. These are spaces that make translating the story to audiences simple, taking place on platforms that they know how to read. Here is where we sow the majority of the fiction. However, parts of our stories are real and did genuinely happen – and this is a fantastic tool when you’re trying to make a story feel like it’s happening in the real world.
7. Understand the limits, lean into them
Unless your budget is enormous, your mastery of the online space is going to be limited. That’s a good thing, you know the boundaries you have to play within and now it’s a question of making the best of it and looking at these obstacles in a new way. When we began building Plymouth Point we had a very limited understanding of how to make a website with a template, and that was it in terms of specialisms, so that’s what we stuck
with. Avoid stretching yourself – you’ll only reveal cracks that the audience may spot and you don’t know how to fix.
8. Work with other people
However, if you do choose to step out of your comfort zone, do it with somebody who knows what they’re doing. We took a big technical step forward between Plymouth Point and The Mermaid’s Tongue. If we’d attempted to do TMT without working alongside our developer the whole thing would have collapsed. We’re now at the point where we’re heading back to Plymouth Point and using new expertise to improve moments that we
initially built in a very rudimentary manner.
9. Don’t think the live element is extinct
Every show we run has a live element behind it: a stage manager, and they’re absolutely crucial. They troubleshoot and tech manage, but beyond that they inhabit the role of your ‘guide character’ who’s on hand to provide help through the various chat functions the experiences take place on. There’s too much margin for error to allow audiences to take on the show alone, a misinterpreted clue could see them entering an endless rabbit hole
of dead ends, sandering off into the world wide web on a wild goose chase. It’s just like a live show in that respect – things can go wrong and someone needs to be there to jump in to fix anything.
10. Think fringe
One thing that’s been universal is our reliance on free to access/very cheap online resources (Facebook accounts, etc). You get a lot of bang for your buck. Hopefully the previous points make clear the impact these sites had on our build process and storytelling ability – and the whole process was kicked off by wondering what we could achieve by spending as little money as possible.
Exercise 1 – Myths, Legends and Conspiracies
In Plymouth Point we took the myth of The London Stone and turned it on it’s head for amodern audience. Legend tells us that the Stone is believed to have been an altar for human sacrifice. We took this and jammed it together with the conspiracy theory of Baal: a theory which states that sacrifices are made each Spring in order to bring continued prosperity. With Plymouth Point, we put the idea of human sacrifice at the heart of the story, this time set in modern day London’s fancy financial district. Try finding an old myth, take an element from it and explain how it responds to something that’s happening in the world today.
Start off by finding a pre-existing myth. It can be something obvious (think The Loch Ness Monster, or the curse of Tutankhamen) but ideally you’d do some deeper digging and find something a little more obscure, perhaps something that feels familiar but isn’t too well-known. Once you’ve found your legend you’re going to tear it apart, find the interesting, key elements to the story. Myths are often rooted in truth, the germ at the centre of the story once actually happened. You’re now going to write a ‘blog post’ about the myth’s true meaning and how it responds to modern day.
Exercise 2 – CCTV Stories
I want you to find two different images of the same place, taken at different times. For example a picture of the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral – you should be able to track down two images which look similar but are populated by different people, different actions etc. Next, pretend these pictures were taken 3 minutes apart. Now, tell me what happened in those 3 minutes. Where did someone go? How have things changed? Why? How can you
craft a short narrative from these two images?
Exercise 3 – Think Live
Script a scene that requires responses or engagement from your audience. Now, try working with the actor (without changing the script) to see how you can believably make this feel live. If this is going to be something you’re putting online for people to engage with, the lighting will have to be controlled, there shouldn’t be any visible clocks or watches etc. How can you use technical trickery to make people think the performance is
live? Can you use the chat function in a zoom call to integrate performance and live responses? Can the performer send the audience member a text message during the performance? Trying to keep the script as live as you originally intended it is the aim here, and hopefully by doing so you’ll discover new creative opportunities to engage your audience along the way