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Interview: Big Telly Theatre's Zoe Seaton: "We want to draw you into our world but also let us step into yours a little"

Hot on the heels of Creation and Big Telly Theatres virtual, interactive production of The Tempest, Big Telly is bringing its game-theatre experience online with a new production: Operation Elsewhere.

Zoe Seaton
Big Telly Theatre Company's Zoe Seaton

Big Telly's artistic director Zoe Seaton talks about creativity, inventiveness and performance during the lockdown.

Operation Elsewhere is described as being 'a new and extraordinary online theatrical experience’ - how does it work?

Like The Tempest, the audience joins a zoom call… Technically, it is complicated, although each actor is running their own tech – most of them are using more than one device, a number of locations and a myriad of props/lighting/effects.

The real magic, however, is happening in Lurgan, where our brilliant stage manager, Sinead Owens is vision mixing the whole show, sharing screens, muting and spotlighting audience and actors – finding an actor amongst 60 thumbnail images and spotlighting them on cue is an art.

The biggest challenge is something we can’t control – i.e. the unpredictability of the internet. If your bandwidth becomes unstable, Zoom can kick you out the room mid-scene, which one actor described as ‘like being an astronaut cut off from the space station….’.

Luckily, we have unbelievably resourceful actors who can improvise and cover and recover…

And the audience is involved in the story. They can see each other and react and join together.

The piece marries ancient Irish myths with theatre produced using digital and virtual technology - what makes old and new forms work so well together?

Many of our productions borrow from old stories, myths and legends. We want to keep our work grounded culturally and share that in unusual ways.

So we’ve always played with traditional stories and ways to subvert them for an audience without losing their authenticity and integrity. So, I think for us, it’s natural to pair the ancient with the future and explore that.

The ancient stories, like Tir na N’Og, which Operation Elsewhere is based on have so much resonance with our lives now. They are timeless - they illustrate the human condition, frailties, beliefs, loyalties, that doesn’t change.

But the way we, at any given time or era, translate them is fascinating. The idea that we can cross over into another place, another world, meet otherworldly characters - virtual technology can deliver that experience as a ‘reality’ - transport people.

Having actors performing in isolation obviously has its limitations but what can you do with virtual, online theatre that you can’t do with a traditionally staged performance?

Digital is certainly creative. I love live theatre because of its liveness and because of its limitations.

I’m not interested in naturalism, or anything with a fourth wall. I’m more interested in the struggle to show a whole town than a play set in a kitchen where a real kettle boils; what comes out of that struggle is creativity, imagination, theatre.

Because both The Tempest and Operation Elsewhere were previously run as pieces of game-theatre with around 10 different locations, the casts of both shows were already incredibly resourceful, running their own sites, managing their own technical requirements and skilled in improvisation and audience management.

This was essential then but is even more so now because games worked as a series of modular performances, we can translate it to digital.

Big Telly Main show image 1
Big Telly Theatre's Operation Elsewhere

Since lockdown kicked in, we’ve seen past stage productions being streamed and some live readings, how important was bringing an interactive element to your online show?

The show being interactive is key. The audience knows we’re in isolation, but there’s craic in pretending we’re not.

Both The Tempest and Operation Elsewhere have extraordinary casts who are charismatic and playful and gifted at audience interaction.

But sneaking into a cellar in real-life game-theatre to meet your ‘handler’ is different from watching from the safety of your sofa.

I suppose what we want to do is to draw you into our world but also let us step into yours a little… Although we are extremely careful with audience interaction.

We want people to feel like there is an invitation to play, to come to a party, but that you are just as welcome and valued and in no way a party pooper if you want to watch from the side.

I think that in a way this process demands a lot from actors but it also creates amazing opportunities for creativity – people come to rehearsal with bits of video they’ve made, special effects involving Lucozade and straws and cut-outs, and who knew that baking trays looked so like lift doors?

Our games usually involve people being in small groups, which has an intimacy and conspiracy which lends a different vibe.

Here we’re trying to recreate that using breakout rooms at one point, which characters will bounce in and out of - the magic of Sinead Owens, our stage manager.

As a company, we really love to explore how the audience can have agency in a show - how they can make decisions.

We really nailed that in our production of The Worst Cafe in the World, where audiences ‘ordered’ small pieces of theatre to their tables. We want to explore that in the digital world to make it truly interactive.

What role will technology have in theatre in the future and do you think online theatre will endure once theatres re-open?

I absolutely see a future where this is an alternative way to tell stories and experience theatre. It has huge potential for the heritage, education and tourism sectors as well.

It is also brilliant to be able to ‘go’ to rural areas as well as access an international audience. It has all kinds of potential for increasing access for audience and performers and for reaching out internationally.

In that respect, it's limitless. And the ways that shows are staged in theatres can change, the way that audiences experience shows is up grabs.

We will always love theatres but maybe this situation makes us look at how theatres, the actual spaces are used.

Technology and platforms such as Zoom must open up a whole wealth of opportunities for online performance, what would you like to do that you haven’t been able to do yet? 

Before this, we were already working with the digital tech sector albeit to devise live interactive games in towns and further develop our games experiences.

Creatively, we’re already feeling the limitations of platforms like Zoom - our ideas and ambitions will probably always be farther ahead of what the current digital platforms can deliver, that in itself is interesting - where the creative drive will push the technology.

How do you think the lockdown will shape theatre for the longer term?

It’s hard to know how people will behave after lockdown, and how comfortable they will be gathering, venues and promoters will have to think about that duty of care to audiences so there’s a lot to be considered.

In its current form, traditional theatre will get hit hard, economically and by a change of culture but I think innovations happening now will influence what shape theatre takes.

We can’t say how - like all creatives at this point in time, we’re feeling our way, learning new methods and that in itself is exciting. It’s a difficult time, but theatre is still finding the gaps where positivity and connection are. It always will.

Operation Elsewhere is on from 2-4 May and there are two performances a day. See Big Telly Theatre's website for more details and to get tickets.

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