About Davidvarela

David Varela is a writer and producer specialising in interactive storytelling. His projects have included 'Sherlock: the Network' (starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman), chart-topping app 'The Trace', and three of the world's biggest Alternate Reality Games: 'Perplex City,' 'Lewis Hamilton: Secret Life' and 'Xi'. He also writes for radio, theatre, film and other less conventional media.

The Seed: Facebook Fictions and Immersive Theatre

This piece first appeared on The Literary Platform on 20 August 2012.

 

Making a live, interactive story work across different platforms sounds daunting, but for the creator it can be just as thrilling as going up on stage yourself.

My name is David, and over the summer of 2012, I spent 10 weeks pretending to be a 27-year-old botanist called Helen Furnival. Helen was a fictional character in a project called The Seed, which incorporated four site-specific plays, a treasure hunt, and Helen’s online story, which unfolded in real time on Facebook. It was produced by Goat & Monkey Theatre as part of the Cultural Olympiad.

Helen’s Facebook profile clearly marked her as a Fictional Character – Facebook has a specific type of page for such entities – but that didn’t stop her striking up some very strong friendships and attracting a marriage proposal from somebody in Pakistan. The gallant gentleman refused to be put off by Helen’s insistence that she was fictional.

The transmedia writer Maureen McHugh has described this kind of work as “stories that come at you the same way life does” – and so many of our modern friendships are maintained through social media that it’s easy for us to suspend disbelief and engage with a fictional character on Facebook as though we were chatting with a friend. While Helen was portrayed in videos and photos by the actress Tam Dowsett, her words were mine. Almost every day, I would post long diary-style status updates and field comments and messages, replying to them all in character. It was a 10-week live performance.

Online improv

There is a unique joy in this kind of live interaction. Its closest equivalent is performing stand-up comedy, where the audience’s reaction is immediate and there is often an open dialogue with the performer (welcome or otherwise). And as in any part-improvised performance, there is huge pleasure in spontaneous creation.

Creating a realistic life for Helen meant that she was writing and replying to messages at all times of the day and night. Her insomnia mirrored mine, and when she was apparently in Shanghai, the timing of my posts had to suit her time zone. It was a 24-hour job.

Performing on a platform like Facebook has the additional thrill of analytics. There is something oddly addictive about racking up more and more ‘likes,’ seeing where your fans come from, and figuring out which posts have the most impact. By the end of the 10 weeks, Helen’s page had over 5,000 followers from all over the world.

Stretching the truth

This is all the more remarkable because The Seed was a very local and particular project. It was based on the true adventures of four Victorian plant hunters, who risked their lives searching for plants and seeds which they brought back to Britain for profit and the advancement of science. Robert Fortune, George Forrest, Frank Kingdon-Ward and Ernest Wilson all led incredible Indiana Jones lives, but many of their collections are gathered in the stately grounds of four gardens clustered together just outside London. That’s where the site-specific plays about each of their lives were performed. One of the gardens, Wakehurst Place, is also home to the Millennium Seed Bank.

While their biographies are incredible enough, I added a small layer of fiction suggesting that all of them had been looking for one seed in particular – and that Helen, a modern-day researcher at the MSB, had now stumbled on the trail over a century later. And that trail would lead to the resting place of the eponymous seed, which happened to be encased in a rather lovely piece of gold jewellery for whoever found it.

Face to face

This story was literally rooted in the soil of a small corner of England. This limited the likely audience for the plays, but there are some types of interaction that can only happen in person. The one-to-one experience of a really immersive theatre production is hard to match any other way.

The plays were not typical Shakespeare in the Park outdoor productions. These were promenade shows that surrounded the audience. At one point, we had them running across a smoke-filled battlefield at night, dodging snipers and artillery fire.

Taking theatre out of the auditorium helps to break down that barrier between the audience and the actors, which can be extremely powerful if unpredictable. When one audience-member encountered a villainous character in the woods, he was so taken aback that he pushed the actor to the ground and ran away. He was very apologetic afterwards, saying he’d got carried away by the atmosphere. That’s a pretty wonderful compliment.

The surprising audience

This very unpredictability is what makes interactive projects endlessly entertaining to write. During The Seed, the biggest surprise of all came from a French-Canadian audience member named Ginette Racine. After complaining about the quality of Facebook’s automatic translation, she took it upon herself to translate everything Helen wrote into French, within hours or sometimes minutes of it going live. She also translated the scripts of the four plays as they were released, free of charge and in her own time.

Ginette is a playwright and drama teacher, and she is now drawing up plans to write and stage her own adaptation of The Seed for a Quebecois audience. I’m delighted to let her – and anyone else who wants to take it on in any other country or language. The Seed was a one-time-only, site-specific show designed for a particular audience. It was only supposed to live on in memory. But now it seems that it will stay alive far longer than we ever intended.

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Prometheus and the Midichlorian Problem: When Storytellers Should STFU

I don’t normally blog. By the time I’ve thought through what I want to say, someone else has usually said it more eloquently, so I tend to retweet or link or lazily point in their direction.

But having recently watched Prometheus (twice), I realised there was a warning for all of us in the transmedia storytelling business. And people nagged me on twitter to write about it. So here it is.

BE AWARE THAT THIS POST IS SPOILERIFIC ALL OVER. IF YOU HAVE ANY WISH TO EXPLORE THE STORYWORLDS OF PROMETHEUS/ALIEN, STAR WARS, OR HIGHLANDER IN PARTICULAR, YOU MIGHT WANT TO STOP READING NOW.

Still with me? Okay.

Prometheus is crisscrossed with flaws. There’s some sketchy characterisation, the performances are uneven, and many lines of dialogue clang like someone on the cargo deck just dropped a box of hammers. Let’s not get into that. I want to talk about the story: specifically, the mythology of the alien creatures and their origins.

In Alien, Ridley Scott took us to a crime scene on a distant planet. There was a mysterious, derelict spacecraft, the corpse of a giant elephant-headed astronaut (known to fans as the ‘Space Jockey’) and a chamber full of gloopy xenomorphic eggs.

What exactly had happened here? We didn’t know – and that was an incredibly powerful and unnerving feeling. Something bad had happened in this place, and we were left to wonder what that was. It was left to our imagination – and I don’t know about you, but my imagination produces some pretty scary shit. I didn’t need a filmmaker to draw me a picture. I could imagine the horror.

I think this is the same thing that makes radio or novels so powerful: there is room for the imagination. You fill in the gaps.

Enter Sir Ridley with Prometheus three decades later. He says he was surprised that people weren’t more curious about where the Space Jockey had come from, and that he’d wanted to tell the Space Jockey’s story.

I think that was an error.

What Prometheus does is try to fill in the gaps for you. The darkness of the Alien crime scene has a painfully bright arc light shone on it. The elephant-headed creature is a big humanoid guy in a funny helmet. The aliens are genetically engineered weapons. And now that scene just isn’t scary.

Getting rid of the mystery – explaining the unknown – is a tempting and very dangerous trap. George Lucas fell into it when he ‘explained’ the Force by introducing the idea of midichlorians. No longer were Jedi Knights noble and magical warriors – they were biological freaks. The same problem cropped up in Highlander, when the lonely immortals wandering the Earth in the first movie were ‘explained’ in Highlander II as aliens from the planet Zeist. It’s a kind of magic? No, no it really isn’t.

And just to be clear, having characters who make inexplicably stupid decisions and a plot that makes no sense does not create mystery. It creates confusion and frustration, and in space, no one can hear you scream WTF?

This is the reason that fans are so outraged by some sequels: they actively weaken the power of the earlier film.

I suspect I may be preaching to the choir on this one.

So if you’re reading this and you’re in charge of a major Hollywood movie franchise, you know what not to do now.

But these principles also apply to transmedia storytellers – particularly to transmedia storytellers – because we love finding gaps in stories and filling them in. We love telling backstory. We love weaving our explanatory tales around an existing narrative. But in doing so, we run the risk of fucking up the big picture.

For the record, I enjoyed the teaser films that were produced in the run-up to Prometheus’s release. Hats off to Johnny Hardstaff and the RSA guys who put those together. They set up the story well and generated excitement in exactly the way they should have.

However, I have a horrible feeling (i.e. unsubstantiated speculation) that those very teasers may have weakened the film itself. Guy Pearce was miscast as Weyland – a character at least twice the actor’s age in the movie – solely so that he could play the younger version of Weyland in the TED video that RSA produced as part of the teaser campaign. Scott could easily have cast an older actor (how awesome would it have been to have Peter O’Toole in that role, for example?) but didn’t. If that was because of the teaser campaign, then it’s an instance of the campaign weakening the movie.

That aside, what I’m getting at is this: when we play with an existing narrative, we’re playing with fire. The extended narrative can weaken a story as well as expand it. Sometimes we have to recognise what stories not to tell, when to hold back and when to leave room for the imagination. That’s where the magic is.