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Backstage: How Charcoalblue is helping theatres adapt to the digital world

St Ann’s Warehouse, New York. Photo: Dustin Nelson
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Any conversation with Ian Stickland is going to be challenging for someone who struggles to work the remote control on his TV. There are times when Stickland’s vision of an all-digital future makes you feel as if you’re stuck in a time warp, never to boldly go where others have gone before.

Stickland, the resident digital whizz of London-based international theatre consultancy Charcoalblue, will be one of the keynote speakers at Theatre 2016, asking among other things how theatre buildings should be responding to digital technology.

So, does he feel our theatres are doing enough to move with the digital times?

The short answer is no. “Theatre has to adapt to be relevant,” says Stickland. “The whole model of theatre changed in the Industrial Revolution, and the same thing needs to happen for the technological revolution we’re living through. I believe theatre needs to embrace technology in order to overcome young people’s disaffection. The collective experience we all celebrate has to be integrated somehow into the age of digital communication.”

Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Photo: Charcaolblue
Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Photo: Charcaolblue

What’s happening at the moment, according to Stickland, is that a lot of theatres are harnessing digital technology for their marketing and box office operations, while neglecting other aspects of theatre practice. “It stops when you open the doors to the auditorium,” he says.

“And what that means is that digital is seen primarily as a way of making money. My ideal would be a theatre in which digital is at the heart of its very practice from its inception, so that the work exists in an online medium as well as a real medium. I want digital to be owned by the creatives as well as by the people in marketing.”

This new digitalised theatre would deploy mobile phone apps to enable audiences to engage more intimately with what’s happening on stage, even view different perspectives of the stage, or adjust the sound volume to their liking. Stickland sees this as giving spectators more control over their experience.

To put it simply, it seems that the age old way of seeing theatre, sitting silently and politely in rows, would be superseded by an audience made up of people busily adjusting their mobiles and headsets – “curating their own experience and feeling their presence really does make a difference”, as the critic Lyn Gardner put it in an article on the future of theatre.

Stickland admits this is a scary prospect for older generations of theatregoers, but that in a sense, it is simply an extension of the sort of information exchange that already takes place between the players and the audience, such as the time-honoured standing ovation or a spontaneous round of applause for a piece of clever theatrical business.

“Imagine being able to curate the sort of excitement that happens on the last day of the football season with half the crowd watching the game and half the crowd following a score remotely and filtering the information down. I believe that we need new types of theatrical experiences that are technology-friendly with information exchange combining to a deeply theatrical moment.

“Let’s make shows in which mobile phones are part of the process. If a show can interact with smartphones then it is interacting with each individual phone owner. Theatre has to be relevant to society, otherwise it has no point. I’m not saying every show should allow mobiles to be left on. If a producer really wants people to turn their phones off because it would be detrimental to the purpose of the show, then the audience must respect that. I just think there should be more choice, so certain theatremakers could feel free to say ‘It’s okay to have your phones on during this show,’ without everyone throwing their hands up in horror.”

Spotlight: Andy Hayles, managing partner

Photo: STLD magazine
Photo: STLD magazine

Why did you set up Charcoalblue?

To work with the best performing arts companies in the UK. We might be looking at a company’s auditoriums and getting more seats in the space without moving any walls: It might be a brand new auditorium to support the strategic rejuvenation of an organisation, or a respectful refurb of a listed building. Our company mantra is the same as when we first opened our doors – no job is ever too small – and eventually we want to become the best team of auditorium and technical designers, acousticians and digital innovators in the world. What started with just four of us in 2004 from a small London studio has now grown to more than 50 people, with design studios in London, Bristol, New York and most recently, Melbourne.

Did its immediate success take you by surprise?

Yes, even winning and working on our first project with Siobhan Davis and architect Sarah Wigglesworth was an amazing, immediate and humbling surprise. We’re indebted to those first few clients, including the Royal Shakespeare Company and English National Opera, who had the confidence to appoint us to undertake mouth-watering commissions while we were still finding our feet.

Is theatre in danger of being left behind by the digital age?

Quite the opposite. Theatre stands to benefit massively from the potential of digital show integration. As we prepare to launch a new digital design consultancy service later this year, our research has highlighted how theatremakers are among the vanguard of those toiling to bring the best of the digital age to the widest of audiences. Is there anyone better at advising on virtual reality than those who design alternative realities for
live audiences?

What current projects are you most excited by?

We’re fortunate to be honoured by St Ann’s Warehouse – our first completed project in the United States – at their gala in June. We open a new highly adaptable theatre for Chicago Shakespeare next year – on a pier, atop a parking garageand under the skin of an existing outdoor stage.

In June, we open our first theatre in Canada – at the Luminato Festival – but it only has a life span of two weeks. And the performing arts centre at the World Trade Center in New York is a few years away from completion but it is going to be quite an amazing series of spaces.

What are your hopes for the future of Charcoalblue?

Our next target is an international accolade by 2019.


Find out what was discussed at the industry-wide Theatre 2016 conference last week

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