UNeditions: the future of mobile theatre

by Jon Spooner

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Survive| Thrive} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

UNeditions is a new platform for publishing play scripts on mobile devices, using light and sound design from the live production to create a unique and immersive reading experience. The platform was created through a co-design process led by Unlimited Theatre in collaboration with technology partner Storythings, Professor Jon Rogers of the University of Dundee’s Product Research Studio and a “Community Lab” of volunteers from West Yorkshire. It is funded by Nesta’s Digital R&D Fund for the Arts.

Here, Unlimited’s creative director Jon Spooner describes the process they went through to create the platform…

Unlimited has often worked with new technologies (mostly just out of a geeky interest inspired by being bought a Dragon 32 when I was 10), but increasingly because those new, mostly digital technologies, also offer us other ways of telling our stories to a potentially much bigger audience than we ever could if we only made it for the theatre. We’ve always recognized that by choosing to make our work primarily for, with and in theatres we’re working in a pretty niche environment. Most people don’t go to the theatre. And most people who do don’t come to see the type of theatre that we’re making – it’s far enough away from the mainstream to mean that we’re often working in a niche of a niche. This isn’t A Bad Thing – small is definitely beautiful. But it’s worth recognizing that if we were making our work primarily for almost any other medium (TV, film, the internet, books) the types of stories we tell would (probably) find a much bigger niche.

So UNeditions is a sincere, rigorous exploration of how we – as theatre makers and as a wider arts community – can better transpose (as opposed to broadcast) the stories we’re telling, to other mediums. And I’m massively excited by the potential this app/platform has to allow existing audiences to both deepen their understanding of the work we make and also, importantly, open both Unlimited’s and our sector’s work up to a much wider range of people.

At Unlimited we co-write all our shows – Clare and Chris and I have spent the last 16 years working out how we create things together. So a collaborative approach to the process of (co)designing this new platform was at the heart of this project. I met Jon Rogers, our research partner on the project, at a NASA hack event in 2011. I was attempting to hack my way into space and he was pretty much the only person who didn’t think I was “a total nut” – he’s since taken up the role of the Unlimited Space Agency’s Head of Hack. Jon is also a passionate advocate for designing products with audiences in the (proven) belief that if you do so, the end product will be of much greater use and interest to the people actually using it. And I’ve known Matt Locke the director of Storythings (our technology partner) since 2000 when he commissioned us to make an SMS project taking the story of one of our earliest shows out of the theatre and into people’s phones.

These longstanding, work based friendships played a major part in the success of this project – particularly since we wanted to make something that simply hadn’t been done before. We all started from a point of trust and faith in each others expertise and ability that allowed us to just get on with working together. But most importantly in this co-design process was our “Community Lab” – a committed group of volunteers who worked with us as co-designers meaning we had a large team of people with hugely varied skills and experience all working with a shared passion towards a shared goal.

And this is where The Process was key. We were always clear that the outcome of this project was less important than the process. I mean, we did have clear hopes and ambitions for what we wanted our “product” to achieve (a new way of reading play scripts on tablets incorporating sound and light that other writers/artists could self publish their own work on for free) but we had also agreed that we weren’t going to make any assumptions about what that ‘product’ would be.

We’ve documented that process in a (printed) book that you can also read online here. As well as being a good story, it also (hopefully) includes some useful insights into how to run your own co-design process.

And you can try the prototype for free here, where we’ve published a version of our most recent show The Noise that also includes writers commentary, production photographs, cast and crew biographies and other “Bonus Features” that we and the Community Lab wanted to include in the app. We hope other artists, organizations and venues might be able to use this as a way of making digital programs for their events.

In the next few months we’ll be publishing and testing versions of shows by Third Angel and the Royal Shakespeare Company before opening the platform up to anyone who wants to use it. By that stage we’re hoping to have added a payment option with a range of business models (free, fixed price, pay what you choose) with any payments received going entirely to the artists. And by making the code for the platform freely available on GitHub, if there’s a function you want to add, you can!

At Unlimited we’re not only interested in developing creative processes for collaboration, but also the social and political processes that allow us to work together most productively. Over the last 16 years of working together Clare, Chris and I (who co-founded the company) have created many different stories, telling them in many different ways and in many different places.  What all of those stories share in common is that they are co-authored and co-written, often in conversation with our audiences. So a collaborative approach to the process of (co)designing this new platform made perfect sense to us. And I’m positive that the end result is better for it – more relevant and more useful to the people who will use it. More beautiful too.

This essay is a development of a shorter piece Spooner originally wrote for The Guardian.

Jon Spooner is a writer, theatre director, performer and the artistic director of Unlimited Theatre www.unlimited.org.uk. Say hello to him on twitter @untheatre.