Entertainment

Granny Jackson’s Dead: The Irish wake that combines tech and tradition

The team behind a first-of-its-kind production hope it will spark a conversation about technology and the ethics of digital memorialisation. Sophie Clarke finds out more from Zoe Seaton and Bernie McGill

How technology and arts will come together during the premier of Granny Jackson's Dead at February's NI Science Festival
Tech is evolving much faster than people’s understanding of it and their ability to make choices around it, including where grief is concerned

‘Hijacking the familiar’ is the ethos of Big Telly Theatre Company and artistic director Zoe Seaton’s latest creation Granny Jackson’s Dead is no exception.

Doing away with the theatre completely, this new play takes place in a domestic house (47 Malone Road) in the style of an Irish wake. However, as the company are pioneers of this style of immersive production it is safe to say proceedings will be far from conventional.

Aiming to tackle tech and tradition, Granny Jackson’s Dead seeks to explore topics including grief, memory and commemoration against the backdrop of the digital age.

“I read an article which was written by Dan Hett whose brother Martyn Hett had died in the Manchester arena bombing,” Seaton explains.

“Dan was a game designer and he decided to memorialise his brother by making a piece of interactive fiction which I thought was really interesting but also really shocking.

“It made me think about how we’re going to deal with digital legacy and the digital hereafter, which feels like a very a live issue.

“I decided that the best way to discuss it and tell this story was through the eyes of a family actually memorialising.”

Following Granny Jackson’s death, her family grapples with the decision to let her spirit go free whilst also preserving her memory - combining tales, tea, sandwiches and songs, with virtual reality, AI, the intriguingly named ‘grief bots’ and holograms.

How technology and arts will come together during the premier of Granny Jackson's Dead at February's NI Science Festival
Granny Jackson's Dead deals with themes of digital legacy and the digital hereafter...

“We talked about what would happen if in this wake house there is tea and sandwiches, stopped clocks, covered mirrors and all the traditional elements people expect but alongside that there is also a VR experience, or a generative AI version of granny - how would a family deal with that?” explains Seaton.

“It’s a bit like Years and Years by Russell T Davies, where he takes massive issues but shows them through a domestic lens.

“It’s about intimate rituals and personal experiences and where tech might sit within that world and how we’re going to feel about that.”



Although there can be bleak connotations when it comes to wakes, Seaton and the team have chosen to emphasise the fact that they are also a celebration of life, allowing them to approach the project in light-hearted and humorous way.

“When you start talking to people about wakes and funerals people tell you stories about something that happened and how they just couldn’t stop laughing,” says Seaton.

How technology and arts will come together during the premier of Granny Jackson's Dead at February's NI Science Festival
Technology and the arts come together during the premiere of Granny Jackson's Dead at the NI Science Festival

“I’ve never been to a wake that felt serious; there’s always laughter and there’s always joy, and that’s what we’re leaning into – the celebration and also the fact that grief only exists because there has been joy and love.”

However, what makes this production truly unique is the team behind it.

In addition to partnering with Manchester Metropolitan University, the National Centre of Social Research and the Centre for Cultural Value, Big Telly also collaborated with writers Owen Booth, Bernie McGill and RB Kelly on the project. Each writer was tasked with exploring the storyline from a distinct character perspective.

How technology and arts will come together during the premier of Granny Jackson's Dead at February's NI Science Festival
Some of the high-tech behind-the-scenes work involved in Granny Jackson's Dead

For example, McGill was exploring the voice of Granny Jackson herself.

“We haven’t written a script, instead each writer produced different material for a different character.

“I’ve written a monologue for Granny Jackson but not very much of that will actually appear in the show itself - it’s more of a back story and bedrock from which everybody can jump off,” McGill tells me.

“When myself and the other writers met originally we were all in agreement that we didn’t want to work too closely together.

“We wanted to have our own take on the story so that things wouldn’t be too neat because that’s the way people interact with each other.”

I’ve never been to a wake that felt serious; there’s always laughter and there’s always joy, and that’s what we’re leaning into – the celebration and also the fact that grief only exists because there has been joy and love

—  Zoe Seaton

Having written the acclaimed collection of short stories entitled Sleepwalkers which deals with themes such as illness and bereavement, McGill believes that it was her sombre style that secured her the job working on Granny Jackson’s Dead.

“Issues of grief, loss and relationship break ups are probably themes I naturally gravitate towards,” she continues.

“And I am sure that was one of the reasons Zoe asked me to do it because she knows my work and she knows that I have a certain melancholic bent when writing which is what I’d say she was looking for,” she laughs.

Seaton confesses that she initially struggled to decide on a writer, and it was not until she realised that she needed more than one that other elements of the production began to fall into place.

“What we ended up with in terms of our source material was rather than having a script we had a lot of different back stories which gave us an incredibly rich starting point for improvisation,” she adds.

How technology and arts will come together during the premier of Granny Jackson's Dead at February's NI Science Festival
Granny Jackson’s Dead's cast and crew hope to spark a conversation about the advancements in technology and the ethics of digital memorialisation

The implementation of immersive technologies within theatre is still a relatively new concept – however, this is not the first time Seaton and Big Telly have dabbled in digital drama. During lockdown the company put on digital productions of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and The Tempest.

“I’m really interested in things feeling live, we didn’t record anything for any of the digital work we did during Covid, and it was very much about the story world being extended beyond the screen,” says Seaton.

“And what feels interesting about this production is that I don’t think people will feel like they’re going to the theatre in the traditional sense, things happen at the wake, people are caught up in an unfolding situation.

“I like theatre when people have to get involved but not in a participation way - more like a fly on the wall.”

It is the hope of both the cast and crew that Granny Jackson’s Dead will spark a conversation about the advancements in technology and the ethics of digital memorialisation.

How technology and arts will come together during the premier of Granny Jackson's Dead at February's NI Science Festival
Granny Jackson's Dead is unlike any other theatre production...

“There are things that the characters do to remember Granny and I think that they’re things that most people wouldn’t do.

“But technology is changing, and the grief tech industry is massive – there are apps now that will create an algorithm or regenerative AI so that when someone dies you can still text them.

“Tech is evolving much faster than people’s understanding of it and their ability to make choices around it,” says Seaton.

The show is set to open as part of the Northern Ireland Science Festival which is place from February 15-25. nisciencefestival.com/events/granny-jacksons-dead

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