Friday 14 September 2007

Website-specific theatre*

So here’s a funny thing, I was just checking my Facebook account and noticed that I had two new friend requests. Neither were from people whose names I recognised. One had a message attached saying “John Donnelly said I should get in touch”, and then, more oddly - since these two requests were supposed to be from different people - the message from the second prospective ‘friend’ just read: “Same here.” Was it mere coincidence that I had just joined the Facebook group for Donnelly’s forthcoming play Songs of Grace and Redemption at Theatre 503, or had I just made friends with two fictional characters?

As a way of marketing a piece of fringe theatre, using Facebook came into its own as a virtual Royal Mile throughout August with at least three new groups springing up every day to shove paperless flyers in your face in the months leading up to the Fringe. But this is far more interesting. By putting characters from a play on Facebook (or similar) writers, performers or directors can offer tantalising glimpses into the play, characters’ back-stories, or even playing out parts of the script in “Wall posts” - interacting all the while with potential audience members. It’s a clever new variant on the old guerrilla-marketing tactics deployed by films like The Blair Witch Project, or the LonelyGirl_15 phenomena on YouTube.

I wonder if we’ll reach a stage where this sort of thing becomes de rigueur. As West End musicals start to crank up their publicity campaigns ahead of opening, will we all be being invited to make “friends” with Edna Turnblad and Velma Von Tussle and watch videos of these fictional creations singing in real-lfe settings, while reading about their likes and dislikes? When the RSC comes to the Roundhouse, is Hamlet going to be friend-requesting me, so I can continually watch him update his status: “Hamlet is too much i’ the sun”; “Hamlet is a rogue and peasant slave”; “Hamlet is but mad north-north-west” etc. Will it become the natural first step for any method actor playing a part to immediately register their new character on Facebook? (Incidentally, on the subject of Hamlet, who thought this was a good idea?)

Of this current experiment, Donnelly says:
“If Songs of Grace and Redemption is about anything, it’s about living in the moment. And the characters try and sometimes fail to do that. Partly they do this by reinventing themselves, and Facebook seems like a good way of doing that, so it’s not completely random. The characters who’ve poked/made friends with/bitten you are doing it because they’re lonely. So be nice to them.”

The Facebook group in question is here.

Theatre 503's website

Update: Ian Shuttleworth reminds me that the Channel 4 series Skins was probably the first to use this virtual character interaction, with its cast of characters all having their own MySpace profiles.

In the meantime, fragments of Donnelly's imagination have now started flirting with me. I was surprised to discover that one had written the following on my Wall: "Hey sexy boy. when am I going to see you next for cocktails and gossip?"


I saw A Disappearing Number last night and when the red mist clears I'll write it up. Andrew Field describes the show brilliantly here and has pretty much the same problems with it that I did, albeit with an apparently better temper about the whole thing.

*Term first coined as attempt to describe Hippo World Guest Book. Remind me that at some point I want to write an article about representations of the internet in theatre.


Anonymous said...

a student production of the lonesome west at warwick did that in the summer term too, it was most bizarre getting befriended by two versions of the same friend.

this is claire in case you didn't guess, anonymat is the only way round some technical difficulties with your comments page, sorry!

Andrew Haydon said...

Ha! It seems like I'm miles behind. Have just been having in interesting chat with the writer Jack Thorne (Skins, Shameless and the excellent Stacey/Fanny and Faggot which are on soon at the Trafalgar Studios) on Facebook about his part in the Skins MySpace interaction. It sounds fascinating. What seems unclear is what one is supposed to do with these "people" once one has befriended them.

Anonymous said...

do? well what you do with most facebook friends i suppose: jest, draw, play poker, persuade them to become a zombie, etc. hohoho.

That's very interesting, about jack thorne i mean, skins being a sitcom the "situation" is constantly evolving so i imagine they'd be lots of thrills to befriending these characters. with lonesome, the "characters" fell off the edge as it were once the production was done.

i can see its uses as a sort of hot-seating method (for both play/TV situations that is) but i think it's more likely to be easily exploited by TV as a natural extension to the permanent storytelling quality of the genre.

Anonymous said...

I'm way behind in only seeing this post now. But this is old hat to the alternate-reality-gaming genre. Which is mashing with theatre in very interesting ways. way ahead of Skins.

the lack of clarity about what one is supposed to do in the 503 example is rather telling.

have a look at amongst many other things, it took some players to break into the deserted theatre.