While many theatre companies are making the switch to digital in lockdown, few are doing so with the same relish as Oxford-based Creation Theatre, with the next project an ambitious AI version of Alice in Wonderland. Creation chief executive Lucy Askew and the show’s director Zoe Seaton tell Kate Wyver why Zoom is working for them
Since lockdown, Creation Theatre has been making interactive shows on Zoom, turning the conference-call platform into an elaborate, multi-screened stage.
“It doesn’t feel like a compromised version of what we would be doing live,” the company’s chief executive Lucy Askew insists. “With each show, we’re finding new ways to work… It feels like we’re just at the tip of the iceberg of what we can do.”
Oxford-based Creation Theatre exists without a building, so they’ve always worked with unusual spaces, but using Zoom has been an experience full of firsts. The company took a punt on its debut lockdown performance, directed by Zoe Seaton, artistic director of Northern Ireland-based company Big Telly.
Seaton’s vision was a game-format version of The Tempest, adapted from a production she staged last year. The direction utilised Zoom’s technical features, such as split-screen views and virtual backgrounds, and the audience helped to create the storm.
The show was met with such popular demand that it had to be extended multiple times. “There are things we can do on Zoom that we couldn’t do in the real world,” Seaton says. “It feels like a new thing. Otherwise we wouldn’t be sticking at it.” She is pleasingly blunt. “We’re not interested in making crap films.”
Hosting its shows on Zoom allows an interactivity with the audience that has always been at the heart of Creation’s work. When you watch, your camera is on and your mic is under the control of the company.
The Tempest was followed by an adaptation of HG Wells’ The Time Machine, which the company had been performing at the London Library when lockdown occurred. In the show, audiences had to cling to timeless objects as they were lobbed back and forth several hundred years.
Next up is a fairground-inspired, artificial intelligence version of Alice in Wonderland, also directed by Seaton, which will begin with the audience falling down the rabbit hole alongside Alice. Seaton is quick to insist that fear of audience interaction shouldn’t put anyone off. “Primarily I want the audience to have a really good time,” she says. “I want them to feel that they have an invitation to play, but they aren’t a party pooper if they choose not to.”
Working online has given the company a new understanding and approach to accessibility. “There are a lot of audience members [for whom] physically going to a theatre is a barrier,” Askew says, explaining how the company is thinking about the use of digital performances beyond lockdown. “We’re in conversations about getting better access in schools, prisons and old people’s homes. There are a lot of opportunities, as this type of work might be more accessible for many.”
Isolation also means the company can use performers who would never normally be able to relocate to Oxford for three weeks of rehearsals and six weeks of shows, and Askew points out that it’s much more flexible and accessible for performers with caring responsibilities.
Seaton agrees that there have been massive wins in terms of accessibility during lockdown. As well as working with Creation, she has been developing Operation Elsewhere, an immersive digital theatre game, with her company Big Telly. “We’ve had audiences with disabilities writing to us saying: ‘Thank you for making it possible for me to experience theatre.’ People with autistic children have said this has been the best format for their family to engage with the arts.”
Zoom theatre has opened up new educational opportunities, too. Before any of the shows, Creation’s first step was to convert all of its drama clubs for kids into Zoom interactive experiences. “The most significant thing we’ve discovered is it’s not worth trying to do a drama class as you normally would,” Askew says of Creation’s classes for five to 16-year-olds. “It’s much more a Zoom theatre class. We do a lot of playing with the joy of going on and off the screen, playing with scale and holding different textures and puppets to the camera.”
Financially, is it working? “Yes,” Askew says. “We’ve paid Equity rates right from the start. There is an audience who will buy tickets for online work.” The company has been charging £20 per device, which works out slightly cheaper than a seat in one of its Oxford-based shows, and is much more affordable if you’ve got a whole family gathered around a screen.
Alice in Wonderland is a three-way co-production with Creation, Big Telly and digital storytelling company Charisma.ai. Like The Tempest, its base structure is that of a game. “The game format is useful to start with for Zoom theatre,” Seaton says, “because it’s about sending an audience on a linear journey, acknowledging their presence and giving them missions.”
Working with artificial intelligence means that, at times, audience members will be talking to real performers and, at others, to AI characters. “We want them to be surprised by what’s real and what’s not,” Seaton says, her work fuelled by a love of anarchy. “That’s what Alice is about: reality versus illusion. The dreamworld. It feels like there’s real freedom to play with that story.”
Isolation has altered every step of the process of making the show, from the rehearsal room to the way the audience engages. In rehearsal, Seaton has noticed that actors are braver in smaller Zoom rooms than larger ones. She keeps rehearsals to 90 minutes and only calls relevant cast members so as to avoid exhaustion. “It reminds me of when I directed a production of The Little Mermaid in swimming pools years ago,” she says. “You absolutely don’t put people in the water unless they are going to be immediately used because they get cold.”
While the tighter structure makes good use of time, she notes that it also means you miss out on certain things. “The casualness of conversations about the work that you’d have on the way to the pub, that doesn’t happen so much.” Working like this also emphasises the importance of care within a team, and checking in on each other in this emotionally fraught time. “Be aware that you’re only seeing them for 90 minutes,” Seaton says. “You don’t know what’s going on before and after.”
‘If audience members are two metres apart and the front of house is wearing PPE, you’ll be more aware of what’s lost than what’s still there’ Director Zoe Seaton (above)
Creation is planning on continuing with digital work for the rest of the year, no matter how the rules of lockdown change. “If the audience members are two metres apart from each other and the front of house is wearing PPE for a family show, we think you’ll be more aware of what you’ve lost than what’s still there.”
Askew doesn’t want the company to take a step backwards in terms of accessibility. “I’d much rather make work that can be accessible for anyone,” she says. “We have that relationship with our audience; if someone phoned me up and said: ‘I want to see it but we don’t have a computer,’ I’d drive them a computer. But if it’s a physical space, people who are shielding can’t access it, and I couldn’t forgive myself if we did a show where we just accepted that.” As families continue to be limited by their options for entertainment over the summer, she hopes that Alice in Wonderland will, for many, act as a special treat.
Through all of this experimentation, company members have gained manifold new digital theatre skills, but they’re not the only ones. When Creation started hosting shows on Zoom, many of its regular audience members – amassed from the company’s 23 years based in Oxford – embraced the move. “Some of them are much older, and you’d think they would be a bit scared of the technology,” Askew says, “but they trust us to try it out.” Their newfound tech skills are also proving useful offstage. “They call up to say that since they’ve learned the skill through accessing the show, they can now do Zoom calls with their grandkids.”
Alice, A Virtual Theme Park, runs from August 1 to 30 via Zoom. Details: creationtheatre.co.uk