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.
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.