Last week we looked at the LSE Pulse project and what had emerged since its completion. This week we do the same with Punchdrunk. I caught up with Peter Higgin, enrichment director at the immersive theatre company, whose project aimed to connect real-world and digital experiences in a performance space. He told me about the importance of having a digital specialist in a project like this, something they didn’t have the luxury of when it ran.
“Doing it again I think we’d place a digital specialist within the Punchdrunk team,” he admitted. “It would mean we could deliberately break the rules and conventions that we adhere to in the physical space when creating online experiences. We’d also be able to explore the option of creating a bespoke piece outside of Sleep No More.”
There were other lessons as well, particularly with organisation: “We would definitely restructure our scheduling and protect the time set aside for beta testing.”
But what the project did get right was the technical logistics of it all. As Peter told the Guardian back in May 2012, “The physical installation of the project saw us run over 8,000 feet of CAT-5 cable around the site, linking a 100MB internet connection to our control hub within the building with individual runs that broke out to 24 access points. This allowed us to create a network across the building to live stream sound and audio content to both live and online participants.”
The project used a mix of 10 RFID readers and 50 Bluetooth devices, as well as 10 physical portals, “which allowed participants to communicate” said Peter. “These included a poltergeist-like book that online participants could cue to flip a real book off a shelf when their participant was nearby and a typewriter that allowed online participants to type direct messages to their real-world companion.”
As part of the next series of posts for this blog, I’ll be asking some questions of the experts behind the Digital R&D Fund to see how their answers compare and what other, perhaps smaller arts organisations can learn from…
Previously we heard from Jo Johnson, digital marketing manager at the London Symphony Orchestra, and Claire Harvey, one of the digital bods behind the Dero project at Sage Gateshead. This week we ask the same question of Pete Higgin, enrichment director at Punchdrunk, and find out about what he thought was the success to his project.
Question 1: What do you think the key to success has been with this particular project?
“The key to success has been good communication between all teams involved. The challenge was always to co-ordinate a project in New York, which was being conceived and built in London, Boston and New York. Undoubtedly the support, resource and opportunity offered by the project team in New York was key to making the project successful too.”
We’ll be asking this question of the other projects in due course, and finding out their answers to some more. In the meantime, have a listen to the latest Arts digital R&D podcast, the third in the series. This one is all about using digital channels and technologies to distribute arts and cultural content and reach the widest possible audience, including new and international ones.
Pete Higgin is enrichment director at Punchdrunk, the British theatre company and masters in “immersive” presentation theatre. As part of the Arts Council, Nesta and AHRC Digital R&D for Arts and Culture Fund, Punchdrunk has been experimenting in connecting the online and physical performance spaces.
In particular, Pete and Punchdrunk have been working on connecting a live Sleep No More audience member to an online companion, but when I caught up with him he admitted the project has not been without its challenges, all of which he says have made the project think more carefully about planning and operating – something arts organisations can learn from as well.
“The Atlantic Ocean was a massive challenge in itself, as was working in three different teams in three different cities,” said Pete. “I’m not sure we actually fully overcame this but regular Skype meetings, a pretty constant stream of conversation and making the most of what little face-to-face time we had helped.”
He also added that it can be incredibly challenging integrating a new piece of work into an existing production: “The project attempted to connect two online and offline participants, but this had to happen in a show which demands the audience be silent and turn off all mobile devices, which makes it quite difficult to facilitate.”
But Pete actually saw this, in part, as an advantage because it forced the team into working around something specific and focused: “Interestingly these parameters helped shape the project and gave us debilitating but important boundaries – ultimately, we had to embrace these and find distinct moments for communication.”
Another challenge that Pete mentioned was time: “It was a massive challenge, and we could have done with much more and also a second iteration of the project.” But learning from these kinds of challenges is what will make the next rounds of experimenting and testing so successful.