For experimental theatre troupe The Wooster Group, maintaining an up-to-date and relevant online presence is crucial. Artistic director Elizabeth LeCompte talks to Honour Bayes about keeping the company’s internet persona alive and engaging a wider audience via its video ‘dailies’
On Christmas Day in 1990, Tim Berners-Lee turned an international community into a local one. The internet enabled national companies to have a global reach and theatre companies to communicate with international audiences. Today, the best theatre websites are there to entertain and communicate identity as well as sell tickets.
Punchdrunk’s site, a panoramic online landscape, perfectly encapsulates its immersive theatrical journeys. While other artistic ventures such as Retz have gone even further, staging ‘networked narratives’ that use the internet as an integral part of the company’s work.
One company whose online persona is particularly alive is experimental theatre troupe The Wooster Group. For the last 40 years, The Wooster Group has been creating innovative work at the forefront of a New York and ‘in the know’ international theatrical community. But only recently has it been able to share its practice regularly with a wider world audience. “It’s been an idea for a long time, but it was too expensive and too difficult and I would always give up,” admits artistic director Elizabeth LeCompte. “It took us a long time even to be able to afford a line coming into the garage.”
Eventually, LeCompte spearheaded funding for a project of video ‘dailies’ which, since their launch in October 2010, have been watched by more than 150,000 people worldwide. But while such sponsor support is vital, her biggest piece of advice for any company wanting to develop their online media presence is that it must be artistically led. “[The person behind it] has to be someone you get in because they want to know something more about you and show how the company works. [For us] it had to be someone who wanted to examine who ‘we’ are.”
For LeCompte, that person was Zbigniew Bzymek, an associate artist of the company and cinematographer who holds ultimate responsibility for the group’s online vlog. Forming the heart of The Wooster Group’s website, these films act as windows into every nook and cranny of the company’s day-to-day life, as well as a marketing tool when the need arises. A patchwork of content from fragments of rehearsal, a chat with an intern, abstract shots of lighting desks or audience reactions, each video gives the viewer an ever growing history of shared experiences with the troupe.
As with all digital media, it is vital that these are kept up to date. To maintain its 24-hour turnaround, the company spends an hour at the end of each day of rehearsal sitting together going over and discussing Bzymek’s footage in what has become something of a ritual. LeCompte is clear it is important to build this online work into the central fabric of everyday company life.
As well as giving a vivid flavour of the present world of The Wooster Group, the videos are also used to contextualise current work with older pieces. For a company with a large back catalogue, LeCompte believes this is a good way of keeping an archive alive and kicking. “We try to make it work so that if we go to the archive it has something to do with the work we are doing now or something that we’re trying to sell. For instance, we just finished a DVD of To You, The Birdie (Phaedra) that we’re selling, so we tried to work in one of the archive films from that.”
Anyone who has seen one of The Wooster Group’s David Lynch-style adverts will know this is not just about selling, but it is interesting that even for one of the least establishment theatre companies its vlog is capitalised successfully in this way. It is vital, however, to make a website more than just blatant advertising, no one wants to feel like they are watching QVC.
LeCompte believes the personal nature of the films also increases their audience base in the same way a celebrity name would. “So many people now are used to seeing celebrities in the theatre, even I go and see somebody I know from something else in a role.” Just as with a celebrity, “when people come to our theatre they know something about us that they can project on to the performers, a subtext or a meta text that I think is exciting”.
Perhaps most importantly, the vlog enables LeCompte to fully realise an underlining working practice of hers, that of a totally open process. “[Rehearsals are] always open to whoever wants to come as long as you have room and [the blog] makes it much easier because we have a tiny rehearsal space and can only really accommodate about five people usually.”
The Wooster Group’s online video blog embodies its real life ethos exactly. This is why this artistic digital project is so successful in communicating the company’s spirit to an ever expanding international audience. And this is only the beginning. For Troilus and Cressida, their World Shakespeare Festival collaboration with the RSC, LeCompte plans to live stream rehearsals with a narrator, telling viewers what is happening as it appears.
Will this be a performance in itself or just a source of information? “I’m hoping it will be both, to elucidate the process without it being academic. I’m hoping people will be able to see and experience it and at the same time it will be entertaining for them, because sometimes the process is very boring,” LeCompte laughs, “and I don’t feature showing anything really boring, ever.” Great advice, it seems, online or not.