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Using technology in theatre

Technology has been a part of theatre almost from the beginning: we might think of Ancient Greek drama as theatre at its purest, but the auditoria were carefully designed to focus the actors’ voices towards the audience. The later addition of masks were also a form of technology – it is believed that they acted as resonators for the actors, enhancing their voices and giving them a greater sense of presence. 

Technology became increasingly important in theatre, though, in the late 19th century – the possibilities of electric lighting and increasingly sophisticated stage machinery were even partially responsible for the emergence of the role of the director. With all those possibilities, someone needed to take charge of how they were deployed.  Nowadays, theatre without some sort of technology – whether it’s lighting, amplified sound, projections or music – is almost unimaginable. 

But how to use technology in theatre without it overwhelming the direct communication of actor to audience? How to avoid the problem encapsulated in the famous (and possibly apocryphal) dismissal of Camelot that “the audience came out humming the scenery”?  By making it essential to the telling of the story. In our 2014/15 show A Walk at the Edge of the World, we used projections in two concurrent ways: firstly, for the narrator to illustrate his description of the places he had visited, secondly to act as a visual sub-text. The first set of  images came from a 35mm slide projector which the narrator operated, the second set were projected behind him – at first supporting his narrative, then counterpointing it, then contradicting it. This was a theatrical way of employing the literary device of the unreliable narrator, and the story could only be fully understood by hearing the story and seeing the images at the same time. 



Our forthcoming Edinburgh Festival Fringe production of Erewhon counterpoints two technologies from different eras. The magic lantern represents the era of the original book, while the iPhone is a technology of today. When playwright and performer Arthur Meek began looking at Samuel Butler’s 1872 book Erewhon as a source for a new play, he quickly recognised the connection between the 19th century magic lantern and PowerPoint, the medium he used in his 2016 fringe hit On the Conditions and Possibilities of Hillary Clinton Taking Me as Her Young Lover.  The magic lantern was the technology that led to cinema: a machine capable of projecting images large enough for hundreds of people to watch at the same time. Live-streaming from an iPhone is as new and startling to many of us today as mechanical magic lantern slides were to Butler and his contemporaries – why not use both technologies?  

In Butler’s book, technology has been outlawed in Erewhon for hundreds of years because its inhabitants feared it was taking over their lives. The book’s narrator is regarded with suspicion because he has a pocket watch, which is taken from him and destroyed. In the development of the play, we looked at how the Erewhonians’ fear of technology’s power mirrored our own current concerns, and the ubiquitous iPhone seemed to be the quintessence of that fear – the desirable, addictive piece of technology many of us spend far too much time staring at every day.  Our Erewhon employs a fair amount of technology - including live music from electronic instruments, which would have been unimaginable to Butler in the 1870s – but we hope that its supports and amplifys the storytelling rather than replacing it.

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Beware geeks bearing gifts

Erewhon, New Zealand playwright Arthur Meek’s collaboration with Edinburgh’s own Magnetic North, will have its UK premiere at Summerhall from 1 August.  The new multi-media play brings together technologies separated by a century in a very contemporary investigation of our relationship with artificial intelligence and machines.  

Adapted from Victorian science fiction novel Erewhon by Samuel Butler, Erewhon premiered at Christchurch Arts Festival in 2017. This imaginative production shines new light on Samuel Butler’s satirical novel about Victorian society. Published in 1872, Butler's fictional account tells the story of a young colonial British explorer who discovers a remote community living in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. They’re the descendants of a technologically-advanced culture that had to destroy all their machinery after it became artificially intelligent and malicious. What first appears to be a utopia - where happiness is paramount, and machinery and inventions are forbidden - soon turns out to be a society filled with hypocrisies and blind-spots just as severe as any other.

Read the full Erewhon media release (PDF).

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New insights into creative approaches

Last month, five artists went on our creative retreat called Space/Time in Dumfries & Galloway. One of them, sculptor and visual artist Gillian Brent, reflects on her experience:

I am a sculptor and visual artist with a studio practice and a socially engaged, participatory practice. I am based in Sheffield with a studio at Yorkshire Artspace. I have exhibited around the UK and been commissioned for many public artworks, mostly with consultation and creative input from local communities and organisations in areas of social disadvantage.

Since 2009 I have been working mainly as an artist within art gallery learning programmes in contemporary public art galleries in Nottingham, Sheffield and Yorkshire. I have been developing and facilitating workshops, resources and long term projects and research programmes that engage diverse audiences with exhibitions and collections, and encourage discussion and creative responses in a variety of media. 

Space/Time came at a perfect time for me. Between January to July 2018, I am taking an unpaid six-month sabbatical from working with the galleries where I work on a regular basis, to focus on re-connecting with my studio practice and consider new ways to disseminate my work. My studio practice had become sidelined and I was missing the process of following my own lines of enquiry and making work without the restraints of facilitating others. I was also feeling burnt out by the pressure of constantly responding creatively to other people’s briefs, timescales and agendas.

From the series The Dilemma of the Non-ephemeral Artefact (What are we going to do with all this stuff?).

The retreat gave me the opportunity through the discussions to think through some of my sometimes conflicting positions about being an artist as producer and artist as facilitator and animateur. It was very interesting to find that the other artists attending the Space/Time retreat, although working in other creative disciplines, had worries, issues and barriers that were very similar to ones I have. We were able to share experiences, get new insights into creative approaches and give practical support to each other. The sessions were very deftly facilitated by Alice and Nick to give everyone a chance to ponder on the questions that were concerning us, deconstruct specific situations and consider how to make positive changes.

I found it particularly inspiring to share my work with the group and to get genuine feedback about my ideas and recent sculpture. From this I am now taking forward new ideas of ways to disseminate them and am hoping to collaborate with one of the participants as part of this.

I also gained some useful practical advice about how to manage my various areas of work so that I don’t get into the same situation of burnout and lack of balance again.

Space/Time was a very positive experience; although it didn’t provide concrete answers to all the issues I am facing, it gave me the opportunity to reflect in a supported environment and to feel much stronger about working towards making changes.

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Time and space

From 23 February five artists will embark on a creative retreat we call Space/Time in Dumfries & Galloway.

Space Time is a paid five-day creative retreat for experienced artists. It aims to refresh participants and allow them to re-boot and flourish.

The artists taking part are:

Gillian Brent (sculpture)
Gillian is a sculptor and installation artist based in Sheffield. She has worked with welded steel for all of her career.

Claire Halleran (set design) 
Claire has been working as a freelance designer since 2002. She is based in Glasgow and works on projects at home and abroad.

Harry Harris (songwriter)
Harry is a songwriter based in Edinburgh. His latest release, The Andre The Giant EP, is a collaboration with producers Chemikal Recipe and designer Gavin Day.

Carol McKay (creative writing)
Carol writes fiction, life writing, and poetry, and also teaches creative writing for the Open University along with private classes. She is based in South Lanarkshire.

Ewan Robertson (sculpture)
Based at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, Ewan lectures in sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art.

Sign up to our Artist Development mailing list to be notified when more information is available on our next Space/Time residency.

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Successful Creative Scotland Application

Magnetic North has been successful in its application to Creative Scotland for Regular Funding for 2018-21.  This is the first time that the company has joined the RFO portfolio, after 18 years of operating on project funding.  The funding of £100,000 per annum will support Magnetic North’s artist development programme and will enable the company to offer more than 80 artists paid, facilitated, supported time to discuss, experiment, refresh their practice, share skills and create work through residencies, creative retreats, production support, mentoring, networking events, and bespoke attachments to the company.
 
Artistic Director Nicholas Bone said, “We are delighted that Magnetic North’s work has been recognised with this investment from Creative Scotland. We look forward to becoming part of Creative Scotland’s network of Regularly Funded Organisations and to collaborating with other organisations and artists within and outside the network over the next 3 years. The security and continuity of regular funding will enable Magnetic North to expand our work and to offer more project and creative development opportunities to more artists throughout Scotland.”
 
Magnetic North’s mission is to run a multi-art form programme of artist-centred development and production that creates significant paid opportunities for diverse individual artists at different career stages and produces a distinctive body of high quality work for audiences in Scotland, the UK and internationally. 
 
Based in Edinburgh and founded in 1999 by Artistic Director Nicholas Bone, Magnetic North has created 11 stage productions and a film, mounted 12 tours, commissioned 11 new plays, a screenplay and 2 music-theatre pieces, working in collaboration with playwrights, composers, choreographers and visual artists and with co-producing partners from around Scotland and further afield. Since 2006 the company has initiated and grown a programme of artist development and support, giving artists paid time to discuss, experiment, refresh their practice, share skills and create work.
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