• Canoe

This Incredible Digital Life

Julia Thomas is creating a new digital version of This Incredible Life, using footage from Canoe's 2018 production at Ffwrnes, Llanelli. Here, she talks about where the idea came from and how the process has developed.

Back in March, the arts were shifted to the digital realm in a bid to keep spirits up, to entertain, enlighten or distract as we tried to make sense of this loss of physical and emotional connection that is inherently human. I am not alone in trying to work out where I fit in all this. As a theatre director, I have spent 6 months mourning for this loss, hoping that by watching something online, I’d be satisfied, or I’d find some comfort. But more and more, it made me feel angry and let down. This has nothing to do with the work being made, creativity and resourcefulness have been rife. But it brought the reality of how crucial being an audience is in this live art form into sharp focus. I have always been unashamedly driven to make theatre because of audiences. Let me be clear, I am not an artist. Or at least, I am not motivated by this title.

I have strived to be a conduit, the link between the story, and our experience of that story. A visual translator of being. People are the thing.

When Arts Council Wales announced their sustainability grants, I knew I had to use this opportunity to stop grieving and start learning. I needed to challenge what I had always known, not throw it away but make it work for now and the future. I have spent the past 3 months revisiting a play that I directed twice, forensically dissecting it to consider how it could be experienced digitally so that the audience are not passive, but consciously engaged. This Incredible Life by Alan Harris was commissioned to explore the impact of story-telling and memory within families. It is bonkers. There are scenes about bodies being frozen in chest freezers in a home-made cryogenics plot and a horse being bought from a farmer named Brian in Llansteffan to be slaughtered in order to convince the local press that there are gangsters in Swansea Docks. It has Alan’s brilliant sense of imagination, the ease in which he writes the eccentricities of being human is a joy to breathe life into and the gentle way that the play explores how we can love no matter what the obstacles are, feels necessary right now. Both productions were born out of breaking down barriers to experiencing theatre and incorporated film and live music.  So it felt like a perfect play to ‘digitalise’.

There are three layers to this process, the first is the collaboration with the creative team, the second is the development of an intergenerational project and the third is establishing conditions to experience the play.

The collaboration with brilliantly talented creatives- a film maker, an animator, a digital associate, a sound designer and two actors has been an interesting combination of familiarity and the unknown. It is like being in a technical rehearsal all the time, but not in the same room. In many ways it has required far more trust and brought delightful surprises to the process. As the director without any technical skills, I feel that I can’t ‘do’ in the same way. I can guide, support, hopefully inspire but I have a greater sense of powerlessness than I usually would in a rehearsal process. And this doesn’t worry me. Which is odd.

The intergenerational project is an experiment in how investment in a narrative because of personal connection shifts the sense of being distant from it. For this I am working with writer Connor Allen who described what we are exploring as ‘not about making theatre digital, but about digitalising theatre’. I thought this was pretty cool. I’ve thought a lot about the theatricality of space and how losing this would be a massive blow to what theatre is. And Connor’s observations really resonated with this.

And finally, how we experience the production. Can we still be an audience? How do we achieve that sense of the collective? Should theatre be on demand? Or does that defeat the conscious decision to engage in a shared space with other humans? I’m hoping that I will have some answers in the coming weeks as we go live on the 14th October. This day is about connection and for two weeks afterwards we will compare what happens when the same work is ‘on demand’. I hope to build up some practical ways of resisting the churning out of something digital for the sake of it. Instead I want to utilise the tools now available to me and revel in the theatricality of an art form that has stood the test of time. I don’t want theatre to lose what it is, but to awaken to the steps it has to make to enrich our lives in the challenging reality of the Anthropocene Epoch.

Join us at 7pm on Wednesday 14 October for a special launch night social event as we explore how audiences can come together to experience theatre in the digital realm. Theatre is a communal experience and, while we can’t come together in an auditorium, we can try new things to find out what it feels like to be an audience online. Pour yourself a drink and mingle in our pre-show foyer, hosted live from Ffwrnes Theatre, Llanellii. Reflect on the play in a post-show discussion with the cast and creative team and continue hanging out with your fellow audience members.

This Incredible Life will also be available to watch on-demand at your leisure from 15 - 28 October.

For further info and booking, visit: theatrausirgar.co.uk/en/shows/this-incredible-life-live-stream ... [Message clipped]  View entire message

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