Volume Two: SITE SPECIFIC, THE KEY TO DIGITAL THEATRE?
in conversation with Terry O'Donovan
For Volume 2, Madeleine and I chatted with the lovely Terry O’Donovan, Co-Artistic Director of critically acclaimed site specific company Dante or Die.
We first encountered Dante or Die’s work in 2019 when we walked into a cafe to experience User Not Found - a beautiful piece about grief and what happens to our digital legacy when we die. The piece was told simultaneously by both a live performer as well as through a set of wireless headphones and a smartphone we had been given as we arrived. In 2020 they adapted this show into User Not Found: A Video Podcast which is still available to view now.
We had a brilliant chat about how Dante or Die’s site specific approach has translated to making work in the digital realm and Terry shared his own tips for making digital work.
Madeleine: I’ve started every other chat by asking everyone about what the last 18 months have been like, and what the dramatic shift to moving their work online was like, but for Dante or Die that doesn't really feel applicable, because am I right in thinking that you were already planning on turning User Not Found into an online podcast before the pandemic? (Terry nods) Ahead of the game!
Terry: (laughs) Yeah, when we first did User Not Found we felt quite early on, this would make a really interesting audio visual piece but we didn't know how to go about it because we'd never done an audio visual piece. So we were talking to podcast producers and they were like, ‘Hmm, that doesn't really happen. You don't really have podcasts with video’, but eventually we won some people over. And yeah, we were like, let's call it a video podcast.
We were interested in how you might take something that has a limited number of audience members - that's often the issue with our work (we might have 50 or even 3 for Skin Hunger) and we wanted to find ways of sharing the experience with a wider audience. The form was definitely something we were interested in as well. We really enjoyed storytelling through the screen [in the live performance version of User Not Found]. What we really liked was thinking about a phone as an everyday space that we occupy all the time. So the phone was a site for us, in the way that the cafe was a site. We had these two sites that were working together to tell the story. And adapting it into just a phone felt like a really interesting experience for us as makers.
Madeleine: That lens of looking at digital as site specific, feels like a perfect description of how best to make digital/ online work. It can be so easy to think about what you've lost by not being in a physical space, but actually, you're still in a space. It still has a geography.
Terry: I think it's gonna be really interesting what work comes out in the next few years that plays with this, because it's so different to just a play that's filmed and then watched online, to making a piece for a specific platform. And to play with that is quite fun and liberating. And then thinking about what are the steps the audience members take to go into that [platform]? What do they do? What's their journey through this thing that we're making?
It's such a joy when you make promenade/ immersive /site specific work because you immediately start thinking about what the audience are experiencing. And that is part of the form. And that's part of the storytelling. And that's part of the entire experience for an audience. That’s one of the reasons I love doing that kind of work, because sometimes you go to see stuff and it feels like, “Did you think about us over here watching?”
Madeleine: Just listening to what you’re saying about the audience journey and I wonder if there is an added pressure with anything that is specifically designed to be engaged with on our phones, because we are bombarded with content that has no journey, I'm just thinking of flicking through Tik Tok - that swipe- there's no journey. There's no time, there's no space. It's just content, after content, after content. And I was really struck by User Not Found, the podcast version, about how quiet it was. It has quite a lot of …not empty space, that's not the right word but-
Madeleine: Breath! But I think that's why it works so well as a podcast. It feels artistic and like a piece of work that you've curated a journey for, rather than just a bombardment of content.
Terry: That’s lovely to hear, because I think we were anxious about that. And at first we were going to do it episodically. And as we were adapting it - we just felt like actually, the best way to experience this would be to listen and watch the entire thing in one go. And so we said, well, let's do it. Let's give it to the world like that. But we also had to accept that lots of people wouldn't experience it like that. So what we've kind of reconciled ourselves with was, an offer, saying we think this is best experienced as one journey.
Madeleine: Can you tell us about your new piece Odds On?
Terry: It's about online gambling and how especially during the last year that became even more prevalent and problematic. The audience log into a website that we think will be called Honey Money, and they'll create their own little avatar and as they play it will unlock an episode of somebody else's story. And the screen will flip from the slot machine game that you're playing to the reverse. So you're basically inside somebody else's computer looking at them play it.
And then you get locked out again, and you need to play in order to get another episode. So what we're looking at trying to emulate is the experience of playing, and what that does in terms of the dopamine hit that you get when you win, and you get something, with the idea of wanting more from a story. So if you play again, you'll get another episode of this woman's life and what's happening to her.
Dylan: Are you particularly interested in digital work that can be accessed any time, that isn't live? Or is it just coincidence that has been the form for both pieces?
Terry: I think it's a bit of both. It was very clear for User Not Found that we wanted it to be really accessible. And that people could watch it whenever they wanted, and listen to it whenever they wanted. We are very keen for the digital work that we make to be more accessible to a variety of people. Both Daph and I have young kids and it's been slightly infuriating that all these live streams happen at 7:30 or 8 o'clock, which is exactly when you're putting your kids to bed.
It's just such a different space to watching a performance [in a theatre]. You go to a performance. You're there for that reason, when you're at home, there's all these other things that can happen and life is happening in a different way. But there's an offer there, like you said about Tik Tok, you might be on it for 2 minutes and then you'll go away. There's an offer to be flexible with your watching, in a different way to a live experience.
Dylan: What tips or advice would you have for anyone wanting to make work digitally or to explore digital elements in their work?
Terry: Think about the form. What is your story? Why does it exist in this realm? And what are the opportunities available to you? Can you have 1000 people around the world watching live? And how is that impacting you? What are the different elements that you can do with it, and who are the people that you can work with to make it happen? We've worked with a digital design company who are brilliant, and who just know stuff that we don't know.
[Also the timescale] when making work digitally is really different to making live work. You have to be really detailed in the [information] you give to your collaborators, like if you're working with anyone building a website, or building any graphics or anything like that. When building User Not Found, we had to write the phone script, and it was literally like, “Time of day, the battery level, brightness of the screen, hit one app, it opens the keyboard.” It was this really crazily detailed script because otherwise it comes back in and you're like, “Oh, it missed x, y and z ”. And they're like, “You didn't tell me”’. So I think being really, really detailed about what you see on the visual side of things, because in theatre we often don't do that.
When you give that information to whoever's designing it, they need a lot more time than a [set or lighting] designer does because it's so complex. And then [you need to] give yourself enough time to do edits and everything, because it will just take longer than you think it will.
Madeleine: How are you feeling about the future of the theatre industry moving forward?
Terry: For us, it feels like things opened up in a new way. I hope other theatre companies do as well.
In terms of the industry… in Skin Hunger, I performed a piece by Tim Crouch and the person I was playing was the theatre, the industry. And my character was basically asking for forgiveness and saying, I'll do it better next time. And I'll listen next time, and I’ll seek consent next time. Tim was looking at the idea of theatre saying sorry for never listening to its audience and for constantly being up it’s own bum. And at the end of the piece it’s saying I'll be different next time, and I'll ask for less, and I'll need less. And when Tim came to see it live, he was like, “yeah, my God it’s so right. You're an awful character and theatre is awful. And yet, we still want to do it” (laughs).
[Currently] I think there’s a split, there’s some really interesting stuff being made. And then there's some really safe stuff happening. But I guess they can all exist together. I don't feel wholly pessimistic about our industry. Audience's are still figuring out what they want. They’re not coming back out in the way that everybody wants them to quite yet. I think people need time. And actually, I'm the same. I've seen one live thing - I'm still finding it difficult to plan and to book something. I think that the muscle has weakened. (laughs) I think we're figuring out what is that thing in our lives that we want? Is that a good use of my evening and my £25/ £30/ £40/ £50? So there's some negotiations with our audiences to be had.