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Backstage: Theatremakers turn to technical wizardry to stand out at Edinburgh

New Diorama Theatre's Secret Life of Humans. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge New Diorama Theatre's Secret Life of Humans. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge
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With long rehearsals and get-ins, immersive multimedia productions might not seem a natural fit for the lo-fi Edinburgh Fringe. Eleanor Turney meets producers and performers bucking the trend with cutting-edge technology

Theatremakers and companies are always getting excited about new technology, often to great effect. Recent examples include Complicite’s aural extravaganza The Encounter and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s high-tech staging of The Tempest using motion-capture technology.

But those shows were months – if not years – in the making, and staged in theatres equipped to support the demands of the technology. What happens if you take a technically innovative show out of the Barbican or the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and do it at the notoriously lo-fi Edinburgh Fringe?

Tim Carlson and Jeremy Waller are bringing multimedia, immersive show Foreign Radical to this year’s fringe. It uses audio and visual techniques to disorientate and heighten the audience experience as they move around the space.

“Audience members experience scenes from different perspectives, which colours their perceptions of the action,” says Carlson. “There’s a qualitative difference between seeing a young Persian man enduring harsh interrogation on video, rather than being in a room with him standing 3ft away.”

Waller continues: “Foreign Radical uses two pan-tilt zoom cameras, four security cameras and an eight-channel surround sound system with projection capability to create multiple simultaneous environments. There is a mix of live and archival video.”

Foreign Radical. Photo: Dylan Toombs
Foreign Radical. Photo: Dylan Toombs

New Diorama Theatre’s Secret Life of Humans, an adaptation of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, is also pushing the envelope.

Director David Byrne says: “This didn’t start out as an Edinburgh Fringe show. We knew that this was the show we wanted to make next, and we started the process without knowing we were going to take it to Edinburgh, with all the limitations that brings. We had to spend a lot of time thinking, what are we going to do? How does this work with a 15-minute get-in?”

These questions also echoed through the making of Ian Garrett and Kate Ladenheim’s piece Transmission. Ladenheim explains: “The show has three major parts: a live theatrical performance, a podcast series and an app, which will have about 30 more scenes that tell parts of the story.” And if that wasn’t ambitious enough, the show itself is packed with tricks.

“We’re using 360-degree video, binaural audio, and we have a really complex projection-mapping system for the show itself,” Ladenheim says.

About the ticketed, hour-long stage show, Garrett says: “There is an expectation that many people will only see that element of it. To get the full picture you do need to do everything – but if you only see the show you won’t be lost.”

He continues: “We’ve got a 15-minute get-in so we’re under no illusions about what the fringe expects of us. We’re in Assembly George Square, but we have other things happening adjacent to the venue before and after the show, so we can control the environment immediately around the show.”

Kate Ladenheim and Leila Ghazanavi working with a green screen for Transmission. Photo: Montgomery Martin
Kate Ladenheim and Leila Ghazanavi working with a green screen for Transmission. Photo: Montgomery Martin

The support of Assembly has been crucial to getting this show off the ground, and Byrne is equally pleased by how supportive his venue, Pleasance, has been: “The show is quite technical anyway; we’ve got lots of video, quite a large set, and the main thing is that the characters walk sideways on a wall, as if we’re looking at them from above. We had to work out how we could configure that in a way that was workable in a fringe setting.”

He reveals that his company had to shop around to find the right venue. “Pleasance Two is perfect for us,” he says. “It’s got girders in the roof. They’ve done a little bit of aerial work before, and they’re always really encouraging us to be as technically ambitious as we possibly can. They were one of the few venues we went to that didn’t just look at us like we were mad for even thinking about it.”

Venue decisions aside, what has been the biggest challenge? For Foreign Radical, it was the logistics of working in a hectic fringe environment with so many other shows.

“Our set needs to disappear and reassemble every day,” says Waller. “That means a lot of variables will constantly be in flux throughout the entire run, so it is definitely an interesting challenge. Our technical team is doing a remarkable job of adapting Foreign Radical to a repertory environment.

“As you move from one room to another, you are not sure if you were just there; every room is essentially the same, but each scene has its own reality: a new game, news story or drama.”

At moments, audiences might be watching surveillance footage of each other, hearing the sound of metal containers being unlocked and opened in another room, while listening to a dramatic monologue.

“Then you might be told to move to the room you thought the actor was just in but now it’s a secondary security space, and the host enters from an entrance you weren’t aware of before,” Waller says. “You get disorientated pretty fast.”

For Sapiens, there was a practical challenge, says Byrne: “In London, we can use our venue’s back wall as a load-bearing structure. In Edinburgh, we’re constructing a fake back wall for the theatre as part of our venue fit-out. It will then be permanently in place throughout the festival, and all the other companies in that venue will use it. It’s going to need various panels to make it adaptable for the other companies. If a company wants a middle entrance, there are ways the panels can be moved in a couple of minutes to create one.”

Another challenge has been lighting people in positions where actors would usually never be, “like halfway up a wall”, Byrne says. It is challenging in Edinburgh, which has set festival rigs.

“It’s a festival where there is a real sense that anything is possible for people who want to see interesting and exciting things, pushing stage craft and doing risky work,” he says.

“I didn’t want to do a watered-down version of the original show. We don’t want people to think we’ve done an all-singing, all-dancing London version and a separate Edinburgh version. So we want to do everything we will do in London for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This probably added close to £10,000 to our budget. But you have to do something really interesting to stand out in Edinburgh, to cut through the crowds.”

Garrett echoes this sentiment: “People are invested in new things happening during the festival, the way that the city changes. There’s a lot of stuff going on and it’s a hard place to produce work. But that’s also what makes this exciting for us, it’s an ambitious and different way of creating work.

“The last time I brought a show to the fringe, it was a 10th of the size. We’re not offering just a really compelling stage show competing against all the other really compelling stage shows.”

With the competition to pull in audiences reaching fever pitch over the next month, maybe the cost and work needed to run a production with cutting-edge technology will pay off.

Foreign Radical runs at King’s Hall, August 2-27
Secret Life of Humans is at Pleasance Two, August 2-28
Transmission is at Assembly George Square Studios, August 5-26