The Story

Last Friday I went to The Story – a treat of a one-day event organised by Matt Locke – Channel 4’s Education & New Media Commissioner and former Head of BBC Creative R & D.  His idea was to offer an alternative to creative industries conferences with their “focus on collapsing business models, the end of once-certain monopolies, and the perpetual nail-biting uncertainty of living through change”. Instead he wanted to lift our creative spirits by reminding us of the ubiquity, variety and “sheer visceral pleasure” of contemporary storytelling. It worked for me, and I’m glad to hear there’ll be another The Story next year.

Highlights included sci-fi author Cory Doctorow imagining the future of the book, the fabulous graphic artist Sydney Padua offering a glimpse of the creative process behind her Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage fantasy “2D Goggles”,   and a hilarious, sad, autobiographical piece from online storytelling pioneer Tim Wright.  (Theer’s going to be audio of all the presentations on The Story site at some point. Meanwhile you can watch a video of Sydney Padua’s presentation on Suw Charman’s blog – and  I recommend you do.  )

A couple of the sessions were concerned with my particular preoccupations – collaboration and participation.  Aleks Krotoski, presenter of Virtual Revolution, re-mixed tweets, stills and webcam recordings to tell her story of the making of this BBC 2 series.  It was a story involving many air miles with a cast list of some of the most significant players in the development of the web. I’ve written before about this project which launched online last Summer as Digital Revolution. The non-linear proposition has involved, among other things, debate about the programme themes, a twitterstorm to find the series title, rushes made available online that can be remixed by web users, with Krotoski tweeting and blogging throughout.  From the perspective of factual television production this constitutes an unusually open, dialogic research process, and it must have been fascinating for Krotoski who had recently finished her Phd, to be at the heart of a big public conversation about issues she’s been grappling with for years.  But Krotoski grew disenchanted as the collaborative process gave way to the authored TV series, and she was required to shoehorn complex ideas into the narrow confines of the presenter piece to camera. The linear series is very conventional. But it did succed in tackling big emerging questions, like the cultural implications of the information we are giving away in return for free services explored in episode three, The Cost of Free.      

I had heard good things about Coney’s collaborative theatre piece – A Small Town Anywhere – but wasn’t able to get to London for it.  So I was pleased that Coney co-founders Annette Mees and Tassos Stevens were on Friday’s bill to talk about how they produced the piece – in which there are “no performers, only a playing audience”. The project arose out of a brief from the National Theatre Studio, and Coney searched for a narrative which could work with the possibilities inherent in the random community of the theatre audience on a particular night. They found it in Le Corbeau, a French movie from the 1940s about the events that unfold in a small town in response to a spate of poison-pen letters.

In adapting the film Coney interrogated the original story to tease out where they might “create spaces in which to facilitate audience action and interaction”.  Communication was a crucial theme in the unfolding story, so Coney elaborated a range of possibilities – town cryer, postal system, one-to-one etc – so that choices about communication modes and types – public, private, open, secret, announcement, gossip – in themselves created drama. On the night, each player is given a skeleton identity – a hat, a badge, and an objective.  Big events rock the town. The question for the evening is how the town will respond – individually and collectively. The results sound extraordinary, as each night’s audience made a unique event with its own dramatic arc, its own heroes.

Coney see themselves as fusing game-play with theatre, and some of the principles that guide them are familiar from new media participatory projects. When Mees and Tassos talk about “very clear paths of entry, paths of action” you might substitute “simple, realisable call to action”. It sounds like the development prcess would have quite a bit in common with the work behind the creation of an ARG – World Without Oil came to mind.  But this is a live event and all about, “the community of people in the theatre that night.” It’s quite hard to imagine the experience of “ A Small Town Anywhere” and I’d  like to find out what it’s like. So I’m pleased to report that the show will be touring later in the year.  I’ ll be booking early.