Arts

Zoe Seaton on how Big Telly's plunging down rabbit hole of online interactive theatre

Jenny Lee chats to Big Telly Theatre Company's Zoe Seaton about how Covid-19 restriction has unlocked a whole new genre of theatre making for them as they premiere their latest digital live show Alice next month

It's been a learning curve in terms of Zoom rehearsals, Big Telly's Zoe Seaton says of Alice, A Virtual Theme Park

THE worlds of theatre, art, illusion and technology collide in Big Telly Theatre Company’s latest online production, an imaginative remaking of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The Portstewart company have responded to the current crisis in the arts sector by utilising new methods of working and producing new work for audiences to watch online.

Rather than showing prerecorded performances, Big Telly are pushing the boundaries of digital storytelling in what its artistic director Zoe Seaton describes as “a different art form”.

Just two weeks into lockdown, Big Telly put on their first paid-for show on Zoom – a risky strategy when so many outlets, including The National Theatre, were offering free online shows.

Their unique version of The Tempest with actors located in their own homes creating sound effects and visual backdrops that transported audiences into Ariel’s world and Prospero’s island, was highly successful, catching the imagination of the international press.

They followed this with two further online productions – Operation Elsewhere and The Machine Stops.

“We had to cancel six projects when we went into lockdown. We had 15 or 16 freelance actors on our books whom we were contracted to pay until the end of March. So my aim in those early days was to create work for them,” says Seaton.

She believes the secret of their success is the live interactive nature of their theatre.

“We haven’t had any resistance whatsoever to ticket sales, and I think that’s because it’s all live. When I first started directing The Tempest online I had thought of using bits off pre-recorded material but I cut them all because I just felt it started to go flat.

“We were very clear at the beginning that this wasn't about conventional audience participation and it’s been really interesting seeing the extent to which audiences have let us step into their world and living rooms.

“We have asked people to turn out their lights at one point, to get under a blanket and to put on war paint, and people are really up for it.”

For their forthcoming production Alice, A Virtual Theme Park, Big Telly have teamed up with Oxford-based Creation Theatre and Charisma.ai, an artificial intelligence storytelling technology company, who among other things have created an animated Cheshire Cat.

I asked Seaton, does she believe that artists and organisations need to pull together more than ever at this time of uncertainty for arts organisations?

“Yes, technology removes geographical barriers, but above all everybody needs to be really innovative and really brave.”

In Alice, A Virtual Theme Park audiences will be invited to dive out of their settees and down the theatrical rabbit hole, meeting their favourite characters from this much-loved classic along the way.

Seaton describes the show, which has a cast of seven, as a “cross between a roller-coaster ride, a game and a play”.

“The Queen's croquet game is a cross between a computer game and a theatre scene. Audiences will draw hedgehogs on their phones and they send them into the Zoom world. I know it sounds ridiculous, but we wanted to be wildly ambitious and imaginative with this.

“The idea of setting the play in a theme park is an unconventional way to unlocking Alice’s adventures, and plays upon the skill of the actors, storytelling and drama,” she adds.

And what’s the biggest challenge in directing something like this?

“It's been a learning curve in terms of Zoom rehearsals. I’m not the most technical, and while I have confidence in my brilliant technical team, there is always an element of worry when you are not in total control.”

Seaton admits she has “never been busier” and her head is buzzing with new ideas for both physical and virtual theatre.

“It’s been a really exciting time and made us push the envelope further in terms of the work we were already focused on.

“I know you shouldn’t say that about lockdown, because people who are running venues are in a very different place, and I have a real empathy for that.

“But we were already tackling theatre slightly differently and lockdown just accelerated the transition into the digital world for us, and has enabled us to reach international audiences.”

Already in the pipeline is a socially distancing game-type production, in which the action plays out on a street, with audiences staying in their home and communicating via a neighbourhood WhatsApp group.

Alice, A Virtual Theme Park runs from August 1 to 30 on Zoom. The running time will be approximately 1-1.5 hours. You can book tickets via Creationtheatre.co.uk/book-shows.

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Arts