Digital Storytelling at The National

Helen Bagnall, Cross Platform Digital Writer

The National Theatre has a successful digital strategy. The Digital Live series broadcasts performances into cinemas as live, and it’s working extremely well.  However, the theatre has many roles and the outreach program had not explored many other possibilities for content creation in a digital space.  It’s understandable, much like book publishing, the theatre is a confusing fit with the digital world. 

The RSC enjoyed success with Such Tweet Sorrow, the story of Romeo and Juliet told over several weeks on Twitter.  However, although the experience clearly informed the organisation’s on-going digital strategy, purely twitter projects were not going to be a regular occurrence.  No matter what the difficulties, ignoring possibilities in the online world is not a long-term option for anyone in the content creation business.  So, with this in mind I approached The National with a digital story-telling course to designed to facilitate new works from writers.  The educational side of the National were keen to experiment with this concept, and positioned the course for their Entry Pass writers, those aged 18 – 25.

Each writer was tasked with researching a story around another course member based on findings on line.  They would then introduce someone they had never met, but had spent significant time with on the web.  The idea was go beyond what was comfortable and familiar.  Researching a stranger online to find out their story is a decidedly private affair, and to make it public was uncomfortable.  However, it also served to air some of the key emotions, which come with writing for the digital world.  We no longer have a true private and personal space and this has huge implications for writers trying to define the time in which they live.

Case studies of successful digital projects were the foundation of the structured part of the course, as were projected talking heads of industry experts who beamed down their advice and experience from the screen. We deconstructed hit series such as KateModern, Sofia’s Diary and the aforementioned Such Tweet Sorrow but it soon began to be clear that much like William Goldman’s 1950s Hollywood – no one knows anything for sure.   Understanding this lack of precedent gave the writers the chance to truly start from scratch, and the confidence to take risks.

The plan was to form groups working with an actor, director, writer, and editor to write a digital drama project.  As the stories developed it became clear that theatre, unlike TV or feature-film is no stranger to risk taking, and the students background in theatre served them well; they were used to multi-tasking and no cash.  There were also key similarities between the actual and the digital stage, which encouraged a kind of fearless experimentation.  Different points of view from different locations can be shown on stage, the same is true on-line, with different browsers, whereas the screen struggles with such cleverness.  Similarly, time tends to be strictly linear in much televisual entertainment but has no such restrictions on stage or on-line.

One group worked with different POVs, told on different platforms simultaneously on the viewer’s screen.  It was an ambitious project to unfold a car crash rescue in real time through the digital stories of those stuck in the two-hour traffic jam.  The final reveal was it was you stuck in the car being sawn out.

Another group concentrated on one character’s story, a tragic actor obsessed by getting the role of Hytner’s Hamlet at The National to impress his father. The webisodes followed a classic arc. However, for this model, the webisodes do not provide anywhere near enough content. Digital drama requires a huge amount of intelligent well-written content and the group worked solidly knowing the more quality content they could write on the maximum number of platforms the more successful their project would be. This multi tasking and collaborative writing came easily to the groups, as did their ability to work across more than one discipline, both essential tools for the medium.

Another team had a truly transmedia project which had at its very heart a music festival that would take place.  Another team took established characters from existing plays that had been performed at the theatre.  With character development already done, they were able to get straight in to the heart of their story and managed to build a narrative around breaking news on a sex trafficking case, melding real life events to their fictional world.

All of these projects were also developed with a plan in place for, marketing and building audience. In fact most projects actually appropriated skills from the worlds of advertising and marketing industries to create exciting content.

The course was a tantalizing glimpse of a whole new medium for writing and ways of working in that space that is yet to be explored. It is clear that the theatre could have a critical role to play in the development of drama in this space should they want to take it, and in doing so could find a whole new audience for their work.

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