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Reliable Witness at the Birmingham Book Festival

With a relationship drama unfolding over social media and in the real world, immersive literary project Reliable Witness has been received well by its audience who, unlike the stars of the show, were thoroughly engaged…

For writers, keeping up with the latest consumer technology and digital platforms can offer all sorts of advantages, be it raising profile, promoting events or driving sales. It can also be useful in the actual creative process. Reliable Witness literary project taps into 21st-century developments to create a new piece of literature, tell a story in an exciting and innovative way and really reach out to audiences.

Described as a “digital transmedia sensation”, and commissioned by the forward-thinking Birmingham Book Festival, Reliable Witness was a completely interactive experience, combining online networking, real-time flash-mobbing and social media crowd sourcing.

The project got underway in September, when audience members at an event during the UK’s biggest free arts festival, Artsfest, were privy to what they thought was an excruciating public marriage proposal backfiring. They were unaware it was a set-up until flyers were distributed explaining Reliable Witness and inviting them to get involved and decide what happens next: a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure for the iPhone generation.

Between Artsfest and Birmingham Book Festival, the fallout from the failed engagement between Darren and Amy took shape on Facebook and Twitter, with their friends and family chipping in with “likes” and comments and following and unfollowing, and with participants being given the opportunity to upload photos or videos of the doomed down-on-one-knee moment. During Birmingham Book Festival in October, a purpose-built installation in the city centre’s Pavilions shopping centre immersed participants further, involving them directly in the action by offering different options to move the story forward and decide the outcome.

Jonathan Davidson, Chief Executive for Writing West Midlands, the team behind the annual Birmingham Book Festival, says the piece was commissioned as an experiment to see how technology can be introduced to literature. “We wanted to explore the potential of running something using digital technologies that our audiences could make an active contribution to.”

Sara Beadle, Programmes Director at Writing West Midlands, explains:

“This project stretched the boundaries of both digital arts experiences and the way in which literature is presented, enjoyed and understood; a primary objective of the Festival. Integrating digital media with literature is challenging beyond the relatively well-known platforms of eBooks, social media and the internet. The Festival seeks opportunities to lead the field in doing this, creating new and distinct experiences that exploit and make sense of the wealth of technology available to curate a highly unique audience experience.”

Technology and literature have of course been combined before, with various projects disseminating a narrative via internet platforms and networked devices, but Reliable Witness stood out for telling the story in the real world, not just virtually. The installation, fitted out to represent Darren and Amy’s flat, engaged individual audience members in the storytelling experience by making them undertake tasks and react to prompts, such as a telephone ringing in the room or online messages pinging on to a computer screen. Their role was therefore changed from that of a spectator and they instead became an actual character in the unravelling plot, making snap decisions between a number of alternatives.

Being given the power to change the outcome was a big plus for audience members, many of whom admitted to being completely absorbed by the action, to the point, in some cases, of actually feeling tense or scared. A “superb use of interactive social media to convey a suspense-filled short experience”, said one participant, while another described it as “extremely gripping: the best part is the feeling of it actually happening”.

During the ten days the installation was open, 330 visitors took part. Lauren Davies is from the project management company Red Lantern, coordinators of the ambitious undertaking.

“I’m extremely pleased with the feedback we have had from visitors – the experience really captured people’s imaginations and appealed to them in quite a visceral way, causing some people to laugh and smile and others to scream and quiver at every twist and turn of the story. Most of all, from the point of view of the production team behind this brilliantly engaging and interactive piece of work, it is a credit to Mez Packer and Rochi Rampal, the writers, and Adhere Creative, the digital developers, who were able to draw the audience in entirely through the gripping plotlines and attention to detail with the way people used the technology and navigated around the space, making it impossible not to feel a part of the story and the things that were happening.”

The writing itself was a huge undertaking, with so many options and threads to tie up into a convincing ending. Mez, author of The Game Is Altered and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2010 shortlisted novel Among Thieves, says:

“Writing Reliable Witness was entirely different from my usual creative process. There were several rewrites and moments when the story strands felt they would never add up – but that’s where the collaborative element was helpful, with everyone in the group thinking about outcomes.”

Rochi agrees: “It’s been a real challenge – but definitely a satisfying one. The process of writing a story that is in some ways limited by the presence of digital technology, but also ultimately freed up by its possibilities has been fascinating.”

The sleepless nights appear to have paid off and Reliable Witness does seem to have produced a coherent and consistent level of storytelling that stands alone as a piece – or, rather, various pieces – of literature. Every participant went away having had a totally unique experience and giving members of the public the chance to feel as if they have contributed to the creation of a brand-new artwork seems to have been very popular and really fired their imaginations.

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