What If…Theatre Embraced Transmedia?

by James Carter

in What If

Learn more about the What If…? Project

What if theatres embraced transmedia, and thought of the stage as the central part of a much larger storytelling canvas?

A 16-year-old boy named Raúl sits in his bedroom, quickly swiping through an app store on his mobile tablet. He discovers a game. It looks cool, it’s free, he downloads it, and he plays the game. It doesn’t take Raúl long to realize like every game, this one has a story. He engages with the story as the young hero. The hero searches for his one true love, but he must sword fight with the reprehensible Capulets to reveal his true love’s name. Completing the third level of play uncovers an icon that informs Raúl he must tap the icon to continue. When he taps, the icon opens Raúl’s web browser to a video revealing a desperate young heroine. When he presses play, the beauty begins:

“O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.”

Below the video are blog entries of the lovely Juliet. She shares stories of her life with her Nurse, parents, and some dastardly fellow named Paris. The blog links to additional videos and websites pertaining to other characters. Mercutio manically tweets. The Prince has a city site: www.fairverona.gov, detailing recent unrest between two households, both alike in dignity.

At the top of each page sits a button that links to a production of Romeo and Juliet produced by The Public Theater in New York City. Tickets are free, but Raúl lives in south Texas. He can’t see the play. This was fun, but what’s the point?

Then Raúl notices something:


He does.

Suddenly, the link transports Raúl to the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and for the very first time, Raúl consumes one of the greatest love stories ever told.

Does this fiction sound absurd? Like a gimmick? Perhaps it’s both, but variations on this scenario already exist. Last year, the Royal Shakespeare Company partnered with Muldark, a cross-platform production company. Together, they created Such Tweet Sorrow, a five week, improvised Twitter adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Actors took roles of central characters in the tragedy, and they tweeted as the characters living in contemporary London.

This is transmedia storytelling: the sharing of a narrative over multiple media platforms such as social networking, film, comic books, and now theatre. Many companies have recently used transmedia as part of their productions. Well known was New Paradise Laboratories Fatebook, a hit at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival in 2009. In 2010, Waterwell’s #9 explored how we use technology creating a live video feed of the play in which Twitter users interacted with the production in real time. In February 2011, a live streamed play, Better Left Unsaid, streamed online with audience purchasing a ticket to go to the theater and see the play or paying less to view the online-streamed version. On Broadway, Next to Normal used Twitter to share an adapted version of the musical.

Many theatre purists have probably already stopped reading this. To them, theatre is entertainment that only occurs when patrons go to a theater and pay to see a play or other theatrical performance. If you’re still reading, you’re ready for the future of theatre. Transmedia storytelling can enhance a production and engage an audience through dramaturgy and teaching. It can aid in marketing outreach for the production, and it can extend the life of a play. Plus, it’s a fun way to entertain.

Recently, I’ve been working with a play that plans on touring colleges and high schools to educate on a specific historical figure. Instead of creating traditional workbooks that ask questions of students based on the play, we are exploring the use of online games. Students unlock story elements, learning becomes fun, and the play extends to the classroom.

Students aren’t the only ones who learn. Through transmedia, an audience might discover dramaturgical information about the play in a fun and engaging fashion. Whether the play is centuries old or a brand new piece about an obscure subject, dramaturgical notes can leap from the program into another narrative medium and offer context for the play.

In March 2011, my play Feeder: A Love Story produced by terraNOVA Collective, played at HERE in New York. Its story centers on a couple sharing in feederism, a lifestyle about which most audience members knew nothing prior to seeing the play. To prepare the audience, I created a blog, or “problog”, leading up to the play’s events. Patrons often told me they read every bit of the problog and attended the play because they engaged with the story. Those who could not experience the problog received a slip of paper after the play with a QR code and a list of links, including character “epiblogs” and an electronic pdf program.

By creating an online element of the story, the play and its message live on. Because of Feeder: A Love Story‘s blogs and Twitter feeds, I have several inquiries to read the play, and a university is using it as part its curriculum this fall – all because aspects of the story still exist online. One of the challenges of theatre is how to sustain a play’s life. Transmedia can keep that energy going well after the final curtain falls.

Yes, theatre is best live and in person. Yes, this is what makes the performing arts unique. However, one of the reasons I pursued a profession in theatre is because, as a kid, I watched Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd on Great Performances. These days, some companies immediately actualize this tradition. Following the lead of The Metropolitan Opera, The National Theatre began broadcasting live performances of plays. Live streaming of productions is an important aspect of the transmedia landscape, and it can help grow audiences.

More important of all, transmedia is fun. Some may carp about the tweeting of Shakespeare, but the first time Romeo and Juliet used guns instead of swords surely drew criticism, too. Transmedia isn’t absurd or gimmicky. It’s a fresh tool for creativity. It excites new audiences to enjoy great, classic theatre, and engages them in new plays. In the end, isn’t that the primary goal?

JAMES CARTER (http://www.onemuse.com) is a dramatist and associate artistic director for terraNOVA Collective. Playwright: FEEDER: A Love Story (HERE, NYC), Reaching Outpost (Kaneland High School, Elburn, IL), Baby Steps (The Lion, Theatre Row), and Family Wayward. Producer/Curator – Artists’ Night, dancelikeforever (CSNY), Baby Steps, Buck Fever (Blue Heron), terraNOVA’s soloNOVA Arts Festival (2004-2011), Subterranean (D-Lounge). Season Producer for The Ensemble Studio Theatre’s 2007/2008 season, including: Lucy (William Carden, dir.), On The Way To Timbuktu (written & performed by Petronia Paley, Talvin Wilks, dir.), Thicker Than Water 2008 (Youngblood), Marathon 2008 (playwrights – Auburn, LaBute, Mac, Rivera) and Close Ties (Pamela Berlin, dir).

  • http://www.cindymariejenkins.com Cindy Marie Jenkins

    I am a big advocate of transmedia and multi-platform storytelling and am in the middle of investigating it within new projects.

    Educators are also great examples: look at this classroom of Vikings on Twitter! http://twitter.com/MrWojo/vikings

  • http://www.tcgcircle.org/ August Schulenburg

    Thanks for sharing this, Cindy! I look forward to learning more about your work, and agree that classroom is a great place for transmedia. Given the recent NEA reports that show how online participation can be translated effectively into the live arts, I’m hopeful that this theatre and transmedia conversation will grow. Thanks also for sharing that transmedia myths post on Twitter – I’ll share here, too: http://www.fastcompany.com/1745746/seven-myths-about-transmedia-storytelling-debunked

  • http://tstoryteller.com Robert

    Great post and great work!
    I think there are lots of areas to explore regarding transmedia and theatre and my company is looking to work with artistic directors to explore this area further in regards to narrative, participation, integrated marketing and technology.

    There’s actually an interesting discussion at the Interactive Digital Theatre group on LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Digital-Interactive-Theatre-3824326?mostPopular=&gid=3824326)
    Please come check it out.


  • http://www.onemuse.com James Carter

    Cindy – I truly believe the way into the hearts and minds of the youth is transmedia. My 3-year-old nephew already plays games on an iPad, and interactivity is essential to outreach and education. If we embrace these technologies and reach youth, we introduce them in a very fun and familiar fashion. Best with all your work. It’s important.

    Robert – Thanks for sharing the link. It’s exciting to see people dialoguing about transmedia in theatre, specifically. So much of the transmedia energy focuses on gaming, film and television. I’m seeing a strong shift toward live theatrical performances and events. Let’s hope this trend continues, for in-person socializing creates a dynamic we cannot replicate online. That’s why MeetUp and other real world connecting sites are imperative. If you’re interested in meeting, I’m speaking at this event next Tuesday night, if you’re in the NYC area: http://www.meetup.com/Transmedia-New-York-City/events/17282430/

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  • http://www.ubiquitycorp.com/ Chris Carmichael Ubiquity Corp

    In transmedia storytelling, narrative is central to the story, which is told across multiple platforms, and may include sound, images, text, movie and gaming elements.

    Chris Carmichael Ubiquity Corp