Long before theatre companies were forced online due to COVID-19, The Cultch’s digital storytelling project was already reimagining how the digital world could complement the world of the stage.
Part of the Canada Council’s digital strategy fund initiative, the project was initially created to explore new ways in which performing artists could connect with audiences using digital tools.
“It is not the same as a performance being filmed and put online but using the concepts of digital transmedia storytelling,” explains The Cultch digital storytelling team member Kris Boyd. “So perhaps, there is a live performance, but there is also some text online, an interactive online game, or additional video and audio components.”
Initially building digital experiences to complement shows during The Cultch’s regular season, the digital storytelling team worked on several projects, including the Transform Festival, and Ronnie Burkett’s Forget Me Not. For Theatre Replacement’s Mine, the team created a detailed reproduction of The Cultch theatre inside the Vancouver-inspired Minecraft city used as the set for the production.
“In collaborating with those artists, we created digital components that expanded the story world of the live shows. With live performances now on hold, we are using The Relay in a fully digital format,” says Boyd.
In The Relay, 13 artists from a range of disciplines will be paired every two weeks to create an ongoing digital experience across genres and platforms.
“[The Relay] is a unique opportunity for audiences to see how artists create and to build on a future where audiences will have an active role in how stories are developed.” – David Mesiha
“These are 13 local artists from diverse backgrounds who aren’t being seen on stage right now,” says Boyd. “We wanted to collaborate with them to connect with the community when the community can’t physically be in a theatre. We think this type of interactive and emerging experience is going to be really good for them.”
It is also going to be good for audiences as The Relay is intended to be much more than simply broadcasting a play online.
“We hope the content and the story as it develops and progresses with so many creative minds behind it will be rewarding, interesting and engaging,” says Mesiha. “But more importantly, we are hoping to provide audiences with a unique experience that is not trying to put a stage play through a Zoom screen or competing with Netflix.”
“We’re hoping we will have some people watching and chatting on YouTube, some on our website and some on Facebook Live and seeing the interconnection between those communities.” – Kris Boyd
Part of the experience will not only come from the pairing of artists from different backgrounds but also through the integration of live chat and commentary. This will allow audiences to talk with each other and potentially impact the story world being created.
“As we move forward, we are also looking at other possibilities by integrating embedded gameplay synchronized with the performance,” says Mesiha. “We are also exploring things like integrated multi-channel video systems, 360 video and other technologies.”
It is also very much about the process. Weekly vlogs facilitated by the storytelling teams’ third member, Milton Lim, will provide audiences insight into the creative process and decisions being made along the way.
“While a new episode will come out every two weeks, on alterative weeks, we will release an interview with the artists before their episode is presented,” explains Boyd. “These interviews will give audiences additional context as they watch and participate in the actual episodes so they can also see it from the artists’ perspective.”
The videos will also provide The Cultch’s digital storytelling team with an opportunity to act as dramaturgs, guiding the artists as they work on their part of the continuing story.
“The artists tell us what they are interested in exploring, how they are interested in doing it and discuss with them the possibilities as to what might be feasible,” says Mesiha.
While archival copies of each episode will be available, the team says The Relay is best viewed during the bi-weekly live-stream.
“The fullest experience that audiences will get is live,” says Mesiha. “This week, we are already playing with live chat, which necessitates the audience being there. And as we move forward, we are looking at a lot more of this type of experience. It is far more than just watching a video.”
“I wouldn’t discourage people from watching it after the event to get caught up, but as David says, the best experience will be when we go live at 7:30 pm on Thursdays,” adds Boyd.
As to how the story will ultimately take shape and unfold, there are no spoilers here. Audiences will have to wait until each episode airs.
“We hope the content and the story as it develops and progresses with so many creative minds behind it will be rewarding, interesting and engaging,” says Mesiha. “But we also want to expand the audience’s understanding and definition of what is possible in theatre and to shrink the divide between content creators and content consumers.”
New episodes will premiere every second Thursday at 7:30 pm (PDT) on July 9 and 23, August 6 and 20, and September 3.
A Facebook page has also been created to further enhance the audience experience. It will not only provide access to episodes but will provide an opportunity to learn about the artists, the creative process and engage directly with The Relay team and community.
Editor’s Note (30 June 2020): This article was edited to correctly identify Milton Lim as the third member of The Cultch’s Digital Storytelling team.