Features Q&A and Interviews Published 20 June 2014

A House with Many Rooms

Annette Mees of Coney talks to Tom Wicker about connecting live and digital theatre experiences.
Tom Wicker

From an undisclosed physical location and branching out into the boundless digital space of the internet, an experiment is taking place that – its creators hope – will radically change the way we conceive of theatre. The plot is cloaked in secrecy, but Better than Life is simultaneously bringing together live and online audiences in an interactive experience centred on the mysterious Positive Vision Movement.

The show is the brainchild of theatre-makers Coney, whose work has consistently challenged the conventions and limits of traditional stagecraft and sought to explore theatre’s wider cultural potential. To this end, Better than Life is being financed by the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts. A strategic partnership between the Arts Council, Nesta and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, it supports ideas that utilise digital technology to enhance audience reach.

“Because it’s an R&D, what we really wanted to do was investigate what it would be like to create experiences that were of equal value but different,” explains Coney co-director Annette Mees. The title of the piece is deliberately provocative. “It’s almost like a note to self to never think of the online audience as secondary,” she says. Better than Life is about exploring the ways in which being connected to a live experience online “might actually be better than being in the space.”

By virtue of the relative newness of the ideas Coney is exploring theatrically, Mees is keen to stress that this project is very much an experiment rather than a polished final piece. From building the technology into the physical space, to adding the actors and audiences, each of the show’s ‘rehearsals’ so far have been about testing what works and what doesn’t. “We have a lot of investigating to do in the arena of what it means to make live theatre online,” she feels.

From the current boom in on-demand sites like Netflix, iPlayer or iTunes to connecting people across the world, whether socially or politically, the internet has become an exemplary “dialogue tool,” says Mees. And it’s a resource that theatre, in so many ways the archetypal shared experience, has barely begun to tap into. “We should be there, because we do live really well. I think the world is looking for the next step in using digital, and we’re really well placed to be part of that conversation.”

Taking theatre into the digital realm, making it portable via phones and tablets or accessible from offices and kitchen tables, also has the potential to grow audiences and break open traditional theatre-going brackets. “It’s about lowering the barriers,” Mees argues. Her hope is that as more of the work represented by Better than Life is done with online streaming and community-building, it will attract people who are housebound, who don’t live near the traditional habitats of theatre, big towns and cities, or who “might not feel comfortable going into big cultural institutions.”

For these reasons, Mees is a big fan of outreach initiatives like NT Live, which broadcasts popular National Theatre productions in cinemas around the UK. “I used to live in a little village and I know that a lot of people who went to the live screenings would never have gone to the theatre itself, but now they’ve been there’s bigger interest,” she says. However, what is particularly exciting about Better than Life and potential future ventures into digital theatre – and what distinguishes Coney’s work from live screenings of existing productions – is the agency it offers online audience members.

From the ability to switch between multiple perspectives to engaging individual actors in conversation, “How do you make an online audience feel they’re in there, part of the experience, live and connected to the moment?” The possible answers to this question fascinate Mees. She compares what Coney have created in Better than Life to “a house with many rooms, coming together in one physical place but also in this enormous, cavernous space that is the internet.” It’s interactive theatre transposed to a potentially borderless digital landscape. “And it’s about enabling audiences to affect the story, to make choices. To make it theirs.”

In developing Better than Life, Coney have looked for motivation to various platforms beyond the traditional strictures of theatre, including the architecture of online multi-player gaming. “More and more, fixed boundaries are fading and ideas are coming together,” Mees believes. “I mean, I’m a theatre-maker, but I take inspiration from all these different forms. I’m interested in creating new mash-ups.” And what she jokingly describes as “stealing bits” has rubbed off. “If my life depended on it, I could probably write a line of code,” she concedes, laughing.

Mees envisages digital theatre as a potential “gateway drug” to bring in new audiences. As such, she hopes that the research produced by the Better than Life experiment will lead to a wider dialogue between theatre-makers, with serious creative ramifications. “We want to share our findings in a few months, and to keep talking to the industry,” she reveals. “We want to start thinking about what’s most interesting about this. How can this be the root of making new kinds of work? How would it fit into theatrical programming? There are so many questions to be asked.”

The future, it would seem, starts here.

Better than Life is supported by the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts – Nesta, Arts & Humanities Research Council and public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. 

For information on remaining show times, go to betterthanlife.org.uk. Next Friday (27 June), there will a showing at 1pm for international audiences. 

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Tom Wicker

Tom is a freelance writer and editor, based in London. He has acted in the past, but the stage is undoubtedly better off without him on it. As well as regularly contributing to Exeunt and OffWestEnd.com, he reviews for Time Out, has reviewed Broadway productions for The Telegraph. He has also written for The Guardian and the online world affairs magazine openDemocracy.

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