We’ve been getting together to do some training for the past few weeks with all the actors for our upcoming show, which we still haven’t quite announced officially yet. We would have been taking the promotion shots for it today if not for the typhoon. In the meantime, here are some shots from our training, along with some guest participants. Thanks for joining us!
Continued from Part 1 which can be found here: Making App-based Theatre
One of the biggest challenges for us when working with new technology in theatre is finding ways to make the technology fundamentally serve the functional needs of the show, rather than decorate it superficially. However, integrating technology like this involves a lot more risk. If the ‘technology’ involved is limited to projections in the background etc., then the show can carry on if something fails, and the audience might not even notice. If the ‘technology’ is responsible for the structure, timing, location and audio of the whole show, then if something fails, there is no show any more. So while this makes the use of technology arguably more integrated and innovative, it makes the whole thing a lot scarier to create.
The Development of Lost Shoreline
When we started our creative meetings with the full team for Lost Shoreline, I still didn’t really know what was possible in terms of technology. At that time, I was still planning to create a self-contained app that didn’t require an internet connection to function, and worked more like a multiple-choice adventure game with mp3s and a basic GPS map. About 4 months before the show, the skeleton of an app that I’d made was still only a kind of custom google-maps thing with some audio capability.
However, in the creative meetings we kept coming up against the issue of organising the audience to make sure we didn’t end up with 40 people in a small room at the same time. We were coming up with ways involving probability to try and make it as unlikely as we could, but whatever we did, without a connection between the phones, there would still be a possibility of having the whole audience in the same place at the same time.
Since most of the team didn’t have much experience with this tech, their ideas weren’t limited by what they thought was possible. Even though Michelle and I had some experience from The Beautiful Ones, even I wasn’t exactly sure what was going to be possible for me to implement in time for the show with just me doing the programming. Ideas like ‘make it seem like someone’s phoning them at a specific time, and play audio when they answer’ seem easy to me because it’s mostly interface design, but seem almost impossible if you don’t know how it works. But things that sound simple like ‘send a notification to the closest 4 audience members to a specific location’ is actually much more complex to set up, because to calculate the closest four, you need live access to the location data of all audience phones. Still, not as bad as checking if their photo is of a bird. Anyway, that meant I had to set up a database the store the data from the phones in real time, and we had to make sure everyone had internet access. Luckily the audience was small enough to allow us to use the free version of Firebase for the database and it was much easier to set up than trying to set up my own.
Once we had a database everything became a lot easier to manage, and things felt a lot safer because we were able to make a lot of fundamental changes to the show without having to update the app, by getting data and even audio updates from the database instead. We were able to trigger and change times on the fly during the show in case anything went wrong. Basically, I realised that I should have built everything from the database up, and I pretty much had to rewrite everything I’d done up to this point. This was a great learning experience for me, and I started having more ideas than I could possibly implement – not just for this show, but for other apps as well. However, it was also a bit terrifying because I was learning how to do things for the first time and immediately putting them into an app that had to work perfectly the first time it was used with the full audience.
What The App Does
It would be pretty boring (or very niche) to go over every function in the app, but I want to highlight what I think are some of the cleverer bits.
The app works like a silent disco, with everyone hearing the audio in sync (down to milliseconds), but what you hear depends on your location. There are actors walking around who are also being tracked by GPS. You can see the actor’s location in your app as an animated coloured dot on your map, and if you’re within a certain distance you will hear the audio that relates to that actor. The volume gets louder the closer you get to the actor.
There is an interactive overlay of how the shoreline of Kowloon changed over time with reclamation projects. You can slide to different dates and the map will let you see exactly how the shoreline was at that time, and where you are in relation to it. There’s a subtle soundscape that tries to emulate the sound of the sea according to how close you are to whatever you set the shoreline year to.
The timing of events is taken care of by the app so that everything stays in sync. People receive phone calls, dots pop up on the map, new functions get revealed, and like I mentioned before, the closest people to certain locations at certain times get summoned there. Sometimes these all happen together, and sometimes they are determined according to arrival time, or according to location. There is even a system in case two or more people need to stay together for some reason (e.g. carer, child etc.) which can be set up at the start of the show.
All of the phone numbers on the road can be dialled within the app (it has a phone-like interface) in order to hear an audio track that corresponds to the location that number can be found – usually about the street that the number can be found on. We got most of the phone numbers manually by photographing all the places we could, but if someone dialled a number not in the database, then their GPS coordinate at the time they dialled it would be added to another database for checking. These were then added back into the main database after each show, so we gradually built up a full database of the locations of all the phone numbers on the streets – the audience did it for us without even knowing.
If an audience member has a problem, they can use the app to call us directly – we also get their GPS coordinates so we can go straight to their location and help them. Thankfully this was mostly not used, except for a few people requesting battery chargers, or on on occasion someone who was seeing the show for the second time without the app being reset properly. We were able to run directly to them without causing them any delay.
What We Could Improve
One of the biggest problems we encountered was the potential inaccuracy of the GPS. When I first built the GPS-based audio functions, I was using very finely calibrated distance to volume and even panning according to bearing, but in real world testing this proved to be disorientating due to the amount of buildings and footbridges interfering with the GPS signal. This would be a great thing to try in a flat and open space, but it’s not an ideal system in Hong Kong. I had to remove the panning and reduce the sensitivity of the volume a lot to account for the potential inaccuracy, so it was still able to function well enough for our purposes. I considered other ways of detecting user location, from masses of battery powered bluetooth beacons, to ushers in charge of updating individual audience members’ locations… but I think in the end I will go back to giving the user more agency in telling the app where they are and triggering what they want to hear manually, rather than trying to make everything automated.
Another difficulty when working with this level of technology is time. Even though we had more than twice as long as a normal rehearsal period to create the show, it was still crazy for me to try and do the programming and testing on my own, and meant that I couldn’t be involved in as much of the creative content as I would have liked. Because the technical aspects and the content of the show were so mutually dependent, it wasn’t really possible to create the app first and find the content for it, so both sides of things had to develop together. I think this kind of show would benefit from having the process spread out much more to allow time for app development in between meetings, but the current funding/rehearsal model for ‘theatre’ shows like this doesn’t really allow for a process that’s conducive to integrating new technology and content. Not that that will stop us trying. Look out for news of something along these lines coming up…
Best Overall Performance
Best Script (Created Collaboratively)
Best Director (Ivor Houlker, Michelle Li)
We would like to thank everyone who helped make this show possible, for their contributions, support and insights – we learned a lot along the way. This will encourage us to continue working hard, and we hope that the topic of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong will gain the attention it deserves.
Michelle has been to Tokyo for a workshop at the Goethe-Institut on urban spaces and site-specific work in them. She shared a presentation about our two main site-specific shows (The Beautiful Ones and Lost Shoreline) and made a lot of talented new friends. She also got to experience the Japanese tea ceremony and walk around the city to learn more about architecture from Yoshiharu Tsukamoto from Atelier Bow Wow and artists from raumlaborberlin. Special thanks to the Goethe-Institut Tokyo for their hospitality, and Goethe-Institut Hong Kong for their support in bringing Rooftop to Japan.
Photos from Tokyo
We are happy to announce that Not The Maids has been nominated for Performance of the Year in the 2017 IATC(HK) Critics’ Award. We would like to thank everyone who helped make this show possible, for their contributions, support and insights – we learned a lot along the way. This will encourage us to continue working hard, and we hope that the topic of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong will gain the attention it deserves.
We were recently asked to run a series of Christmas-themed corporate drama training workshops for the staff of a luxury retail brand. These included a full day of training concluding with participants performing a short theatre piece using an original script we prepared for the occasion, with participants acting, singing, and dancing together in the show.
After a morning of staff-led training, the participants enjoyed an afternoon of drama games, team building, trust and collaboration exercises. After this they worked with separate tutors leading them in acting, dance and singing classes.
The separate groups all got put together in the end to create the final performance. Since there wasn’t a lot of time to learn the script, we set up an autocue at the back to make it easier for them to keep looking out at the audience instead of having to look down at their scripts.
The performances were well received and the participants seemed to get a lot out of the experience.
A few photos from Michelle’s Playback Theatre workshop in North Point, carrying on the work in Cardboard Dreams to do with the elderly in Hong Kong. This first workshop focussed on telling stories, using the voice and sensation as a starting point. There is another class coming up this weekend too:
Dates: 4/11 (Saturday)、5/11 (Sunday)
Address: Lai Yiu Neighbourhood Elderly Centre
If you would like to join, please contact We Draman directly on 95856044 (Miss Chan) / info＠wedraman.com
“Theatre and drama seem so closely related […] that despite all radical transformations of theatre, the concept of drama has survived as the latent normative idea of theatre” (Lehmann, 2006)
A lot of the time we tend to call what we are doing ‘theatre’ without thinking much about it. At the same time, most of the people looking for what we are doing on google call what we are doing ‘drama,’ presumably without thinking much about it either. The distinction is not one that’s generally discussed much in the Hong Kong theatre field, so it’s worth doing a little bit of clarification here to make sure we’re all on the same page.
What is drama?
When talking about the ancient Greek theatre, the origin of the word ‘drama,’ it simply referred to action – (δρᾶμα, drama), which is derived from “I do” (δράω, drao). Not the text, not the story, just the stuff that was done. The word wasn’t used in English to describe anything theatre-related until after Shakespeare’s time, and its use to describe a genre of play is even more modern. Its rise in usage coincides with its application as a genre to radio and television programmes:
If you google ‘drama,’ you’re likely to find one of the top hits is Korean Dramas (or maybe I only get this due to their popularity on Hong Kong). Gradually the main popular use for the word has become almost synonymous with television soap operas, which are characterised by
“an emphasis on family life, personal relationships, sexual dramas, emotional and moral conflicts; some coverage of topical issues; set in familiar domestic interiors with only occasional excursions into new locations.” (Bowles, 2000)
In spite of this genre name being only one of the possible meanings, it leads to a lack of clarity around the term. If someone tells me they do ‘drama’ I am more likely to picture them doing something embarrassing on TVB than I am to think they make contemporary theatre.
From an academic perspective, a good argument about the use of the term ‘drama’ comes from Peter Szondi, for whom drama is associated with a specific literary-historical event, the drama as it arose in Elizabethan England and through the German classical period. For Szondi, this ‘absolute drama’ was characterised by:
- The dominance of dialogue
- The exclusion of anything external to the dramatic world (such as the audience)
- The unfolding of time as a linear sequence in the present
- The adherence to the three unities of time, place and action
Szondi saw twentieth century drama (Piscator, Brecht, Bruckner, Pirandello, O’Niell, Wilder and Miller) as an attempt to escape from this to some extent, while still adhering to the dramatic form, singling out Brecht in particular for breaking with the tradition by introducing epic theatre. However, in more modern academic work by Hans-Thies Lehmann, Brecht’s innovations are still considered part of the dramatic tradition. For Lehmann, Brecht’s innovations seemed to so impress Szondi and Barthes that they prevented them from realising the full possibilities of theatre beyond drama, of which Brecht’s epic theatre only represents only one small piece. For Lehmann, Szondi is still not able to imagine theatre without drama:
“without the representation of a closed-off fictional cosmos, the mimetic staging of a fable.”
Lehmann treats theatre as its performance, and not as its literature, which enables him to show how theatre and drama have become separated in today’s theatre. He identifies this theatre as postdramatic – we’ll come back to this after we look at the definition of theatre.
What is theatre?
Theatre is another word derived from Ancient Greek, which comes from θέατρον (théatron, “a place for viewing”), from θεάομαι (theáomai, “to see”, “to watch”, “to observe”). It could mean the seating area, but also the people who were sitting in it. In English it acquired the meaning “building where plays are shown” in the 1570s, while its more general use in the sense of “plays, writing, production, performance on stage, the art of theatre” dates from the 1660s. In American English, there has apparently been a more recent attempt to distinguish between these two meanings by designating ‘theater’ to mean the building, and ‘theatre’ to mean the art. However outside the small bubble where this is a thing, and especially in the UK where theatre is only ever theatre, this all seems a little bit silly and pompous – we can deal with polysemy.
Theatre nowadays can be used to describe any form of performance that takes place before an audience. It doesn’t even have to take place in a ‘theatre’ building – it describes a situation in which one or more people are watching one or more people. If we follow Peter Brook in The Empty Space:
“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” (Brook, 1968)
The openness of this definition is what makes theatre preferable to drama, to us and to many other modern companies and universities, when talking about our field of work. Theatre includes more modern types of performance which might not come under the more limited definition of ‘drama’ or carry its specific connotations (like the TVB example…). Theatre does not have to be drama, and many theatrical works influenced by postmodernism reject or at least do not focus on elements of drama in their performance. To understand this further we’ll have a look at what Hans-Thies Lehmann describes as post-dramatic and pre-dramatic.
When is theatre not drama?
“Classical drama offers just one possibility for the theatre. It does not appear this way only from the perspective of contemporary postdramatic theatre. Through considerations of ancient theatre confirmed and enriched along postdramatic lines, drama also appears as predramatic or as a-dramatic theatre […] As a form of theatre, drama simultaneously stands in conflict with the theatre, in which alone it exists.” (Menke, 2007)
In Postdramatic Theatre, and also in Tragedy and Dramatic Theatre Lehmann considers various forms of theatre that are not drama. In Postdramatic Theatre he includes examples such as Tadeusz Kantor, The Wooster Group, and Forced Entertainment as examples of the postdramatic, while in Tragedy and Dramatic Theatre he argues for discussion of the Ancient Greek tragedy as a pre-dramatic form; that it is better approached without the preconceptions of drama attached to it. While the dialogical-dramatic form gradually grew out of it, it was not central to the original form.
Should I tell the Drama Department?
Well, in Goldsmiths (University of London) at least, what was previously the Drama Department is now the Theatre and Performance Department. I think it’s a good choice, because it shows that the people in charge have a good idea of the lively discussion around what theatre and drama actually mean, are inclined towards the most contemporary interpretation. It’s likely that if a drama department is still content to call themselves that, then they might benefit from being introduced to Lehmann’s work.
However I would advise against going up to tell them that they’re wrong. After all, it may be the case that their focus really is only drama, and that this specific part of theatre is the only thing they are capable of teaching. Or perhaps they know and just don’t want to have to pay to change the signs.
I hope this goes some way towards explaining why we don’t call ourselves or our courses ‘drama’ even though it would probably do very well with search engines. It’s not that we don’t do anything that could be called ‘drama’ – we obviously do, and we include it in our teaching as well since it’s still a very significant part of theatre. However, we are trying to create new and original work, so we find that drama is too limiting a definition for what we are exploring these days. ‘Theatre’ gives us more freedom to do weird stuff.
Yesterday there was a new review for Not The Maids, ‘The Beauty of Documentary Theatre Art’ by Dr. Elaine Chan, published in The Hong Kong Economic Journal. You can read it in Chinese below.
Dates and Times
Dates: 24、31/10 (Tuesdays)
Address: Chinese Methodist Church North Point
Dates: 4/11 (Saturday)、5/11 (Sunday)
Address: Lai Yiu Neighbourhood Elderly Centre
If you would like to join, please contact We Draman directly on 95856044 (Miss Chan) / info＠wedraman.com
What is Playback Theatre?
Playback theatre is based on original material and stories drawn from the local community. It involves improvisation and interaction with the audience via the conductor. Audience members are sometimes asked to tell their stories, and see them acted out and improvised on the spot by the actors. The term originally comes from the first Playback Theatre company, which was founded in 1975 by Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas.
While playback theatre could be considered a form of documentary theatre, it is much more specific in the form that is used to approach the documentary material, sharing elements with Augusto Boal’s forum theatre. Rooftop Productions’ previous show Not The Maids employed documentary theatre techniques to create the script, but did not invite live interaction with the audience or improvisation, although the post show talk every day provided a kind of forum for audience members to share their personal stories in relation to the topic. Cardboard Dreams took a similar approach.
The special thing about all of these types of theatre is that they make use of stories told by regular people, about their direct experiences, transcribed from recorded interviews. This makes it challenging to present, and often brings up the question of the reliability of the narrator. It can also be challenging to select stories that are specific enough to be engaging and inspire empathy, while at the same time addressing the larger issue faced by people in their situation in general.