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Learning Curves by Andrew Crofts

28th January 2021 by Morven Macbeth

I feel like there’s been a lot of learning going on this year, how to cope with the day-to-day changes we’ve all had to make, how to do things online you’d rather do in person, managing home schooling, understanding what on earth the government is asking us to do each week… the list seems endless.

Back in spring I made a list for myself of practical things I’d try and learn while the theatres were closed, mainly software stuff that would be useful when we’re back to making work the traditional way, and have had mixed results with my efforts. There are a lot of things that weren’t on the list I’ve picked up as well though, whether I wanted to or not; the mysterious inner workings of Zoom being one area that springs to mind.

Which brings me on to 0161 Gone, a project I’ve just finished with a group of second year students at Salford University that was part of last week’s T@PP Fest Online. This was a live performance we made for an audience to experience online using Zoom. Part thriller, part ghost story and, most importantly, part interactive-detective-story the audience were split into groups, each working with a different character in the story, following clues and trying to figure out what had happened to a missing person. The students created online personas for the characters that the audience explored during the show looking for clues; there were instagram accounts, blogs, emails to be hacked into, streams of texts on various messaging services screen-grabbed and stored online as evidence. It was an exercise in world-building as well as in performance.

We also used some ITD style tricks with the video, the same techniques we deployed in Airlock, but to very different effect; rather than create a graphic look we were more concerned with augmenting the Zoom call by making ghosts appear in mirrors or doorways behind the live actors, seamlessly transitioning to pre-recorded sections (where we couldn’t do what we needed to live), or a number of other tricks to help the show develop over an hour from Zoom call to horror film.

The students did a great job, both at making the show and also dealing with the constantly changing parameters as advice and levels of lockdown shifted on a seemingly weekly basis between starting the project in October and presenting it last week. While we’d always planned for the show to be completely online, there were sections we still needed to photograph or film in Salford and equipment we hoped to access from the university that all became impossible when the students were told to stay at home after Christmas. There were a lot of last minute changes while we worked out what would be possible under new conditions, but we got there in the end. I was also really proud that it was all home made, the music, sound design, video, stills etc were all produced by the students and mostly under lockdown with what they had to hand.

It was a pretty complex thing in the end; interactive scripts are hard things to write and harder still to get right. There were some pretty advanced technical things going on to make it work which had to be handled by the students, plus the complexities of making work for an online audience which we’re gradually all getting to grips with. It was a bit of a learning curve all round, I’ve never run a course like that over a long period of time before, so it was certainly a learning curve to me too. Luckily everyone stuck with me as I figured out what I was doing.

I hope that the skills and techniques the students developed during the project are not only transferable to ‘offline’ work in real-world, physical theatres and spaces, but also that they’ll get the chance to use them in those contexts soon.

Andrew Crofts

Jan 2021

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