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Digital Needn’t Be Flashy — the Tech’s Already in Our Pockets

Theater consultant Ian Stickland brings technology into every area of the theater industry. He sees digital as revolutionizing the way we make and consume theater without compromising storytelling.

In certain secret corridors of Battersea Arts Centre, there are walls painted in deep shades of red. These are the ghosts of one of the most influential theater shows of all time: Punchdrunk’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” which, in 2007, consumed the whole building. The adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre story also set a gold standard for immersive theatre — for the way a production interacts with the physical space it inhabits.

Stickland was BAC’s technical manager, responsible for helping transform the nooks and crumbling crannies of the Grade II-listed building into a theatrical playground and back again. The experience has stuck with him. “It changed the way we looked at that building,” he says. The show rejected the idea of being confined to a stage, but it didn’t do away with the need for a building. Buildings are necessary. “You need a stage, a big door and a lot of power,” he says. The rest is up to the imagination.

Now he applies the same principle to his work with theater consultancy Charcoalblue, where he’s in charge of digital design practice and research and development, focusing on new ways of combining technology and theatricality.

“I think we’re starting to feel like a post-digital revolution society,” he says in the trendy cafe in Charcoalblue’s office building on the Strand in London. In his role, he has worked on projects for Google, the World Trade Centre and the Stirling Prizewinning Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, among many others. He is responsible for thinking of ways that technology can be embedded at every level of a site. But equally important for theater, and for Stickland, is how it brings people together.

“An interesting counterpoint to the digital revolution is the sense of preciousness about being in a space at the same time as other people. Look at the boom in festival culture, sports attendance and theater-ticket sales: We really value being in the same place.” Theater is what Stickland loves and he is adamant that he doesn’t want to erase its essence, but to enhance it.

When he joined Charcoalblue, he was designing sound systems and advising on how they can be installed in buildings. That was 10 years ago. How much has technology moved on? “Hugely. But it’s not just technology, it’s expectation. We spend our lives looking at high-quality screens. Sound was digital, but not properly. Video was often an afterthought — maybe there were show posters on a marketing screen front of house.”

Now, he says, digital technology is a part of every show. That’s not necessarily the big and flashy stuff like projection mapping, binaural sound and 4K screens, but it can in fact be as simple as searching a theater’s website for a show’s start time. “The motion-capture work used by the Royal Shakespeare Company in ‘The Tempest’ [in 2016] is impressive,” Stickland says, “but so is using a phone in a black box for a scratch night” (when performers test new material).

There is a point, though, when the digital experience becomes an analog one, such as collecting a ticket from the box office, and Stickland wants to push the boundary. “How do we use digital and free techniques to manage that experience, from when you first find out about the show to when you go home?”

Theatre is more likely to adapt existing technology to its own ends than create its own. Stickland mentions Drury Lane, which used water pressure to raise and lower the hydraulic stage lifts. “They didn’t invent water pressure as a power source, they just went: ‘What’s the technology? It’s water — let’s adapt to that and apply theatricality to it.’ One route is to write new code, invent new digital technology. But a more efficient way of doing it is weaving existing technology together and using it to work for theater.”

He continues: “Our job is the boring stuff: to make sure the internet connection is good enough, that there are enough data points. But there are also ways of breaking out of the four walls of the theater and expanding the experience.”

Architecture firm Haworth Tompkins, in the work it has done for the Young Vic, the Liverpool Everyman, the Bristol Old Vic and many other theater buildings, has created the idea that the public spaces — the foyer, the bars — are as much a part of the experience of a building as the auditorium and the show.

Stickland’s work with Charcoalblue has fully embraced this, and incorporated digital technology into it. When he was working at Baltimore Center Stage, run by Kwame Kwei-Armah before he took over the Young Vic, the foyer had digital quote walls that allowed elements of performance to bleed off the stage and out into the public space.

As a theater consultancy, Charcoalblue has to execute the brief from the client, while suggesting things the client might not have considered. This can be tricky as much of the technology is new, so there are few comparisons to draw. When Stickland is consulting with a theater he can’t say: “It will be like x or y venue”, because the back catalog doesn’t exist.

Another issue is that he has to predict the digital capabilities a theater building might want, even if those running it don’t know they want them. He needs to know what the current trends are, whether they will persist and whether they’re affordable.

The recently refurbished Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House includes a broadcast studio with vision mixer, capabilities for pick-ups and overdubs, and a place for file storage and transmission. Stickland says this requirement isn’t restricted to the major new arts buildings — even smaller arts venues will think hard about having a broadcast space because of the success of NT Live and other “event cinema” platforms.

Is theater slow to adapt? Yes, to an extent. On one hand, Stickland says, every brief Charcoalblue receives will emphasize the need for connectivity in all forms. On the other, big changes can be made only at the top level, and the post-digital generation hasn’t quite reached influential positions yet.

Another drawback of theater is the lack of funds. “Digital technology is seen as expensive, and some of it is. But the important thing is changing the way we think: It’s not about big flashy expensive tech necessarily, but using the incredible tech we have already in our pockets.”

Stickland’s approach is using existing tech and experimenting with it. “How about using facial-recognition tools, the same as those used in shops?” The problem is, shops have a huge incentive in that they want to make lots of money. Is there the same incentive for a cultural experience? He reframes the question: “As artists and theatermakers, are we okay that the use of this technology is being driven by people who just want to make money? Or do we want to use it to drive the narrative ourselves?”

At the moment we’re in the borrowing phase, but Stickland is seeing the skill set seep into theatermakers. A few years ago, Charcoalblue set up a research and development team, which came up with the idea of using virtual reality to check sight lines in auditoriums that haven’t been built yet. You can sit in any seat in the nonexistent space, you can lean forward, look around, and check the view of the stage.

“Sometimes the little changes are the biggest improvements,” Stickland says. “Look at the National Theatre’s caption glasses. We can use technology to help tackle climate change by having multi-site performances,” avoiding global travel.

That’s a positive view of the future: that we will want to come together, rather than becoming more isolated, which seems to be the trajectory so far in the digital revolution. Look at virtual reality: Users are isolated by wearing a headset. Look at social media: As much as it’s forged communities, many would say it’s also corrupted them and atomized us into isolated individuals.

Stickland challenges that. “Is that not because social media has been driven by commercial motives, not community motives? We invented search engines to find things, using exchange of data. I would argue that’s made the world more open. For an optimist, that’s an opportunity.”

Above all, Stickland never forgets that he is designing spaces for collective experiences. “Someone telling a story round a fire is the purest form of storytelling,” he says. “It would be a real shame if we lost that. I wouldn’t advocate that disappearing. The difference is the conscious choice about where we use technology. We increasingly feel naked without our phones. The sanctity of the theater space allows us to turn off from that. I’m not arguing we should digitize everything. I’m arguing that we should make a conscious choice when we de-digitize.”

Stickland’s predictions for digital technology’s future in theater:

1. “Use of data to inform the narrative. We will collect data from our audience when they’re in a space to aid the storytelling. With their consent.”

2. “Multi-site performance will become increasingly common, particularly when we start looking at the environmental backlash of global travel. Maybe a multi-city arts center.”

3. “More overlap between the different worlds of entertainment. Museums turn into theater spaces, sports stadiums turn into theater spaces, theater spaces turn into museums. We pool our assets centrally, so that the knowledge between museums, galleries, theaters, sports centers is shared.”

This article was written by Tim Bano from The Stage and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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