“Can we do this thing?”: An interview with Natasha Rickman

Loosely based on H.G. Wells’s classic novel, Creation Theatre’s The Time Machine: A Virtual Reality is a piece of theatre that has 2020 written all over it. A zany and thought-provoking eleganzoom extravaganzoom, the show is simultaneously set in your own living room or kitchen, and in a vast, strange multiverse where “the present is endlessly shifting and the future is strange and uncertain,” and where time travellers “tinker with timelines causing people’s names, faces and indeed the colour of their socks to change without warning.” 

We were lucky enough to be joined by director Natasha Rickman for a deep dive into the process of creation and re-creation. Beyond the original site-specific production of The Time Machine, and this new version reimagined for the digital stage, Natasha’s directing credits also include Twelfth Night (Rose Bankside), Rhino (Kings Head), Hilda and Virginia (Jermyn Street), Honour (The Royal Court), and as associate director, A Little Night Music (Storyhouse), Shirley Valentine (Bury St Edmunds), Comedy of Errors (RSC), and Romeo and Juliet (The Globe). Natasha is also an artistic associate at Jermyn Street Theatre and co-founder of Women@RADA

You may also like to check out an earlier guest post by Time Machine playwright Jonathan Holloway, and Vector’s review of the original production of The Time Machine at the London Library. The Time Machine: A Virtual Reality is playing till 21 June. 

The Time Machine Natasha Rickman
Natasha Rickman

Hi Natasha, thanks so much for speaking with Vector. Are you hearing me OK? My internet’s been a bit funny recently.

Yeah, hopefully we’ll be lucky. My internet’s been actually great the whole time I’ve been making the show, and then just recently it’s like it knows the show is open and it’s just doing its own thing now …

So I guess that’s my first question! When you’re creating a remote theatrical experience like The Time Machine … how do you deal with people’s internets being a bit funny?

It’s definitely one of the challenges of the show. All of the performers are in their living rooms or bedrooms, performing in a variety of locations around the country with varying levels of wi-fi reliability. And yes, performers do sometimes get thrown out of the call. They’ll break up, or their microphone will go. We’ve literally had them be chucked out of a call for a couple of minutes before. 

So we’ve had to create a variety of back-up plans. For example, we’ve got some pre-recorded video which only gets shown if people are having sound issues. We’ve also got a thing called parallel reality. The part of the Time Traveller is played by multiple people. That means if one actor needs to jump and take over, they can shout “Parallel reality!” and do that. We actually had a version of that in the original show as well.

Perhaps the material lends itself somewhat to the uncertainties of the medium? The Time Machine is already about a kind of glitching, melting reality.

Yes, definitely. Jonathan has imagined this world where suddenly you can change where you are, or you can change who you are. Another thing we use is what we call elastic content. That’s content that only happens if it’s needed in the show. We have a piece of elastic content in case someone gets thrown out of a call. It’s a scene that could happen at any time. Basically, there’s a whole load of backup material that only makes it into the show if something goes wrong.

It must be challenging to create scene that can happen at any point.

For that one, rather than it being a written scene, it’s a sort of improvised moment. It’s still rehearsed content, so the audience aren’t losing anything. We imagine that there’s a rip in space-time, and the characters get caught in a wormhole. So there’s content that happens in the wormhole, and things they need to do to get out of the wormhole, which can happen at any point in the show.

A wormhole sounds ideal for that.

It makes sense in the logic of the universe, and it’s kind of like a little secret bonus scene. I’m really interested in playing with stuff like that. How can you give the audience slightly different experiences? Within my theatrical practice, I’m interested in giving audiences different experiences in different spaces, and kind of making it that bespoke journey.

Online content is often like that, right? We wonder to ourselves, ‘How much of what I’m seeing is being targeted or tailored in some way?’ Do you have any other examples of how the show might be different for different audience members?

Well, just for instance, if you watch the show on different nights you’ll get a different team of time travelers. There are two combinations of time travelers that you might see. So even with that, you’re already having an experience that 50% of people who see the show won’t have had.

Another example: when I saw the show last night, some audience disappeared into a breakout room. What was happening in there? I didn’t get chosen!

Yes, there are moments when the audience split and can go into these parallel realities. What happens in the parallel reality room is actually the same text and the same scenes, but they’re being played by different actors who play them in slightly different ways. In one version, part of the scene is played in gallery view, whereas in the other version it’s speaker view. There are little differences in the setup. But there will be slightly different design moments. There are all these little variations that I enjoy. But everyone’s getting the same scripted material. If someone were to watch the show twice, though, and end up in a breakout room, they’d be like, “I’ve seen this but it’s slightly different.” 

Of course, even in a very traditional production, each night will be slightly different. And even on a given night, each audience member will be experiencing something different. They’ll be watching the stage literally from their own angle and distance across space, and also from their own perspective in terms of their knowledge, attitudes, moods, preconceptions, lived experience, and so on. Am I right in thinking you’re playing with that idea, amplifying it and elaborating it?

Yes, so much of The Time Machine relies on this idea of multiple universes, or multiverse theory. The same thing can be happening in the same location, but it’s somehow happening in multiple different ways, across multiple different realities. That’s a huge idea to get your head around. For us, the best way to represent that theatrically was to create these multiple versions that take place simultaneously. They’re not quite taking place in the same place. But in other ways, they’re all taking place on the internet in this one Zoom call, so perhaps they are.

As the production is seen by more and more people, the different versions layer up and it starts to grow sort of more ‘solid.’ You get people talking about it, you get reviews and so on. Has it been interesting for you that everybody is kind of talking about the same thing … but they’re also kind of talking about different things?

I kind of love that. I think one of the themes of the show, again, is this idea of multiple perspectives. It’s really interesting, artistically, to deliberately create something that exists simultaneously in many different permutations. 

Usually the audience have all seen pretty much all of the text. But by virtue of the different actors, the different Zoom rooms, and the fact that they will have chosen their own endings, nobody has actually had quite the same experience — even though they’ve all seen the same show.

Oh yes, the different endings! Near the end, we’ve seen what may become of the world if certain trends are allowed to continue. The Time Traveler invites you to kind of commit to fighting for a better future. And then the pop-up window appears. So do some audience members actually click “No” at that point? 

Yeah, they do! I think it’s really interesting. We keep a note of the numbers just because we’re interested in it from a kind of social point of view. Not a social experiment, exactly, that wouldn’t be fair to say. But just for our own interest. In the show reports every night, the stage manager puts in how many people choose each ending. More people accept the Time Traveler’s invitation and challenge, which is what I anticipated. But some don’t.

It’s a lovely use of Zoom’s in-built functionality. The host is effectively inviting you to the break-out room of hope. 

And actually, for some who don’t accept the invitation, it’s about their technology. If you haven’t upgraded your Zoom, you can’t. But certainly, I’ve seen people actively make the choice to stay. But it’s fewer people. I think people want hope and people want to feel that we can change things. 

Like one of the Computer’s lines is, “I forgot, human beings need hope.” And I think that we do. I think that human nature is to want to go on positively and do something. But I love that there are maybe two or three people every night who see this kind of completely different ending. There’s a speech that the Time Traveler does in there, and content from the H.G. Wells book, that only they will see. I kind of love that by making that choice they’re having this secret ending in a way in that room.

Image 1 The Time Machine - A Virtual Reality
Leda Douglas as (one version of) The Time Traveler

OK, I think this is a good moment to step back and talk through the story leading up to this Zoom production. Earlier this year, you guys were early into the run of your really carefully conceived, site-specific, immersive promenade production of The Time Machine. The play was a freewheeling adaptation of H.G. Wells’s classic story, written by Jonathan Holloway in consultation with experts from the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and the Humanities. It was devised around the London Library, where Wells had been a member for many years. And this was a play that, just by the way, involved both pandemics and the word ‘zoom!’ in a curiously prominent role. And then coronavirus happened. Can you talk me through it all, from your perspective?

So Jonathan met with the Wellcome Centre experts in October of 2019. He was writing through November, and I read the very first draft of the script in December. I was working on a Christmas show at the time, which was obviously very different in tone. To be honest, the idea of a pandemic just seemed to be one of many big ideas that appeared Jonathan’s script. It just seemed to be of equal importance It’s a big plot point, but I really just went, “Oh, how interesting,” and did the sort of background research I would do with any script. 

Then we got into the rehearsal room in February with the cast and, again, we were doing auditions and talking to people and they were going, “This is interesting.” And we’re doing rehearsals, and we’re going, “Hang on, wait, what’s this thing about pandemics? What’s this link that you’ve put in to China? Oh, that’s interesting. I must go and Google that!” At that time, it felt much further away. By now everyone has read so much about it, has their own opinions on it, on the science of it. But at that point, it didn’t feel like you had a personal link.

The Oxford rehearsal space that Creation Theatre use is in Bicester Village, so there’s loads of people who are shopping there and doing various bits and pieces. At that point, we started noticing on the way to rehearsals that lots of people were wearing masks to get on the train. That’s kind of something that I might not have noticed or thought about so much, but because we were doing the show I was like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” You know?

We started reading more about it as the show was opening. Then obviously as the show was playing, people were really talking about it. At that time, suddenly it was hitting the news, and we were watching its kind of journey across different countries. That was a very weird experience, to then be coming in and doing this show. We were noting where we’d been having these same conversations but in a different way, in a less emotional way, because it was something that felt further away from happening. It felt further away, even though Jonathan’s predictions place these things happening in 2021.

That must have been a weird experience.

Yes, it was a very weird experience. We used to call Jonathan ‘the oracle,’ sort of jokingly, because obviously he’d spoken to those ethicists at the Wellcome Centre, and so a lot of the science and ethics that the show explores is based on their research. But things like the word ‘Zoom!’ being the word that you use to time travel, as you say, and now we’re now doing the show on Zoom. Things like that are slightly unnerving. Or there’s this moment in the show where he talks about Jean Paul Gaultier’s dance music career. I’m like, “Jean Paul Gaultier didn’t write dance music, but I’m going to have to research this, because Jonathan’s brain is amazing and he’s going to know something I don’t.” And then I discover that Jean Paul Gaultier did release a dance record … and it’s actually kind of great?

Oh my God.

We put in the video to show the cast and Jonathan was like, “Oh, I just made that up.” I was like, “No, no. It’s real, Jonathan.” He was like, “Oh.” Slightly unnerving, a bit like The Truman Show or something.

I was in time to see the London Library production. I think it was probably just about the last thing that I did before I went into my personal lockdown. And that was unnerving, because as I traveled back to Bristol, everybody around me was talking about the pandemic. It really felt like an overly immersive experience, like I was still inside the play. Okay, so tell us what happened next?

I think after the show had closed and we were all in lockdown, Lucy called me up. Lucy runs Creation Theatre and is really a brilliant chief executive. She really creatively leads the company, and has a lot of great ideas for production. It was her idea to do an adaptation of The Time Machine, and to talk to the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, to use their forecasts for the future. She’s very innovative. 

So Lucy called me up and was like, “What if we did Time Machine over Zoom?” They were doing their Tempest at that time, which I had seen and really enjoyed. We knew the format could work. But The Tempest is of course a very different play. So now the question is will this genre of play work over Zoom?

So how did you develop it? What were the early conversations like?

This was early in lockdown. It was at the point where you couldn’t go to the shops more than once a week. Lucy and Crissy and Jonathan and I did a Zoom meet to explore, “Can we do this thing?” and my big question was really, “Would I, Tash, if I weren’t associated with this project, actually want to watch a show about a pandemic right now? I don’t know.” We kind of all went, “I don’t know.” Then as we thought about it we were actually, yes, people do. Contagion at that point was trending. It was one of the first things that I watched. I thought, actually, yeah. People do.

In both versions, the basic plot is that the Time Traveler has visited the future, and witnessed a kind of apocalypse. Maybe it’s really several apocalypses rolled into one. Global heating, rolling pandemics, out of control technology, devastating and destabilising economic inequality, armed conflicts. And the Time Traveler has come back to the past to try to warn everybody and change history. But in the original version, the Time Traveler fails, and it is implied that perhaps you just change history.  Whereas with the new version, there’s a bit of a happy ending.

Yeah, there is if you pick that option. With the original show, we didn’t know that the pandemic was coming quite so soon. We knew that people could go to the pub with the people they’d come with and go, “Oh, God. That’s bleak. What are we going to do about it?” Hopefully they could have some interesting discussions, while also having a pint with their friends. This version had to be different. I had a lot of friends who were living on their own, and who were missing that human contact, that human reassurance. People have been feeling anxious, and their mental health has been vulnerable. I was really aware of that.

We talked about the different rooms on Zoom, and at first I said, “Okay, what if there are alternative endings?” Then Jonathan reworked a version of the script, and he worked in the idea that the Time Traveler tells us what has happened in 2300, but it isn’t inevitable, history can still be changed. Then later, kind of a week into the rehearsal process, I said, “Okay, well, we’re doing this breakout room. So why don’t we use that to do a complete choose-your-own-ending?” Then Jonathan wrote the speech that happens if you choose the option to try and make a difference. He’s amazing. Just sent an email over in ten minutes. He was just like, “What about this?” I was like, “Yeah. That’s great.” Yeah, so it kind of came out in rehearsals.

Time Machine The Computer
Graeme Rose as The Computer

I guess I should say it’s a hopeful ending, rather than a happy ending exactly.

I think it’s just to give people that option. They may feel they’re in a place where they’re going, “Actually, you know, I don’t think that there’s an easy fix to this.” What the Time Traveler asks is, “Can you really not get on an airplane unless you absolutely have to? That means no more holidays abroad.” Personally, I don’t know. Am I actually going to do that after lockdown, if I have the choice to go on holiday again? Am I going to go, “No, I’m never doing air travel unless it’s vital?” I don’t know.

I suppose with climate change, there’s sometimes that tension between the smaller actions that individuals can do, and the much bigger system change that’s necessary. Sometimes these get presented to us as a stark either/or, like it’s either personal responsibility or it’s something for governments and corporations to sort out, and therefore not our problem.

But in reality, it’s not like that. You do what you can as an individual, but at the same time you advocate for the big changes. The hopeful future is more environmentally sustainable, and more just, more free, more entertaining and fun. It isn’t filled with these stressful choices that many of us have to face now. But that transition to that new society has to happen at multiple levels at once. I think theatre and art and culture have a part to play in that.

Yeah, I think so. We talked about this a lot in rehearsals. Like I say, with the airplane thing, and the vows we ask them to commit to at the end — I do get on airplanes, I’m not a vegetarian., there certainly things relating to the environment that I could do better.

But it’s not about us going, “We’ve got it right, and now you’ve come so we can tell you how to be better people.” That would be a horrible. I think that has no heart to it. I think in order for the message to have heart, it has to be about the people who make it going, “These are things we’re struggling with. Are you struggling with them too?”

Absolutely, we need to be honest about the systems of incentives that we live in. There isn’t this kind of pure, pristine life that you can have that’s entirely free of moral compromise. Someone who’s telling you it’s all or nothing … well, they’re not a trustworthy figure, are they? And of course, the show isn’t just bleak the whole time. Most of the time it’s funny, and silly, and weird, and playful, and all kinds of things.

I think there can occasionally be a sort of snobbery, which can work either way: “Oh, that show is just for entertainment,” or on the other hand, “Oh, that’s just something cerebral and intellectual.” I think people come to the theatre to be entertained and that’s really valid. People also come to the theatre to learn things, and that’s really valid. People also come for catharsis, or for other reasons. Some shows manage to do all these things. Other shows do only one of them, and that’s equally valid as well.

So it’s this question of multiplicity again. Obviously a show can’t speak to everybody, nor should it try to speak to everybody. There’s no single zeitgeist that’s going to incorporate everybody’s experience. But it sounds like you did assume a bit of a shift, with Covid, with people now looking a little bit more for comfort and connectivity.

Yeah.

For example, that moment where the Time Traveler is like, “Oh, you thought you bought a ticket to this show. But really I’ve snooped around your homes, and I’ve lured you here to be part of my team to save the future.” It’s a deliberately trollish, unsettling moment. It’s kind of like, “Wake up!” Which maybe is what I needed in January. But now in June, I feel like I’m already awake enough, thank you very much.

Yeah. Well, you know, I think that the way they’re playing that moment in the digital version is that we see inside people’s houses, and the Time Traveler comments on something in the house. But I think that the kind of golden rule has always been that the audience are our friends. Actually I think that you have to do this with site-specific theatre too, but I think that it continues to be the rule in the digital version. The audience are our friends, and we never want to make them feel vulnerable or criticise them, especially in those moments where they’re being spotlighted digitally. I think it’s really important that even though the Time Traveler is still telling some home truths, that it’s not ever about kind of going, “You, sir, are bad.”

That also bring us to audience interaction, which to be honest I kind of dread. I know a lot of people do. I thought that both versions of the play were very gentle. I didn’t feel like I was going to be called on to do anything that made me feel uncomfortable. That was my sense all the way through, and perhaps especially in the digital version.

Good. That’s good. I think I kind of dread audience interaction as well. I dread audience interaction, but I also think that particularly digitally it’s important to acknowledge that we’re doing something live.

Yes, absolutely.

This is happening live, and other live audience members are experiencing it at the same time. Usually you get that for free because you’re sitting in an audience with five hundred other people, if you’re going to a traditional theatre format. Even in the London Library you could see the other nineteen people in your group standing around you. When you time traveled in the original version, you held onto the suitcase or each other. You might have been in physical contact with other people, or at least standing near them. So it was just about, how do we acknowledge that? If you log into Zoom and just watch the actors until the end of the show, then it’s quite similar to if we just recorded the show and you watched it. How do we create that sense of something that is happening right now, something that includes all of us?

And that’s where a kind of interaction has to come in. In the original production, the time machine takes the form of a battered old suitcase, and hold onto it when we time travel. In the digital version, you ask everyone to bring a household object to the Zoom call, and hold it up when we time travel.

It’s one of the things that gives it its ‘liveness.’ It’s about finding ways to really just acknowledge people’s presence, I think. Rather than going, “Now you must do this.” So the audience help us with the time traveling, but if somebody doesn’t help us with the time traveling we’re never going to spotlight them and go, “You’re not doing what you were asked.” You know?

Yes. I guess designing those interactions can be quite delicate. From an actor’s perspective, you also wouldn’t want a script that makes you rely on things the audience might not do.

I think it’s about celebrating when people want to imagine. If people want to really imaginatively jump in with us, usually they’ll be the people that we might spotlight for a moment. But the rule always is not to spotlight anyone that clearly is going, “Please, don’t!” or has turned their camera off. It’s more about celebrating that we’re all here, that we’re all doing this at the same time.

I got to be the cyborg! They said my name and everything. And I thought that was a nice balance, because the thing I was being asked to do was so minor. Even I couldn’t mess it up. It was like, either raise your hand to confirm you’re a cyborg or don’t raise your hand to confirm you’re human. Either one is fine. And somebody wanted to go full robo dance or something, there was obviously that affordance.

Yeah. We have had people do that. For actors and the stage manager who are there every single show, it’s the thing that they love about doing it the most. There’s such variety. Some people will really dress up for the disco scene in Studio 54. People will bring different objects to time travel with, and some of them will really get into the time traveling. We had a group of four the other day who really dressed up, and when we visited Studio 54 they all got up and danced. We had three men use a ventriloquist doll as their time travel object. 

Obviously we want audiences to participate however they feel comfortable and really appreciate them all. There’s always a kind of joy about the creativity of individual audiences that creates something different every single time. For the actors and the stage managers, they do the show, but in return people also bring stuff for them. It feels like a give and take, which is really nice.

I almost felt that the audience was weirdly more part of the performance in the digital version? 

Yeah. I think so. I mean, the audience have always been another character in the show, because they have a job that the Time Traveler is asking them to do. There’s this journey, and if the audience aren’t there then the Time Traveler can’t complete the journey. It’s unlike other shows where we sit in the audience and the journey just happens while we watch. So in that sense the audience have always been a character in the show. That’s important with site-specific work, because the audience need to know why they’re there and why they’re walking around. The audience need a motivation too.

In the new version, I guess we’ve consciously made the audience even more of a focus just because, otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to see each other. And audiences are coming in with such a lot of goodwill. They’re starting off with goodwill. Not that there isn’t always goodwill. But I think that with this show, because there’s less live theatre that they can go and see, it becomes more of an event to watch some live theatre. People really put a lot of effort into their prep for their time travel objects and their costume. 

It kind of makes me want to cry sometimes, just because that kind of human spirit of collectively entering an imaginative space and doing it with total openness is so moving. And people are at home as well. They’re in their living rooms, they feel comfortable and in their safe space, and they’re choosing to do that. I just think there’s something really amazing about it.

Also, the gaze is more kind of distributed, somehow? If it were kind of traditional theatre and you were being called upon to participate, there might be an element of stage fright there. Whereas in the Zoom call, you’re not sure where everyone’s attention is. You are supposed to be in full screen speaker view. But hypothetically, it’s possible people may be switching to gallery view, despite that initial instruction. 

Screenshot 2020-06-07 at 21.09.56
Screen grab. Confession: I did not always do exactly as instructed

Some parts of the play switch to gallery view anyway. So when you’re called on to interact, the audience may or may not be looking at you. When I was being asked about being a cyborg, I guess I must have been spotlighted for everyone else. But I actually didn’t think about that till afterwards. So in that moment, I sort of both did and didn’t feel like the centre of attention?

There are moments where the audience member is spotlighted, which means that everyone can see them, but it’s only ever for a few seconds at a time. It’s just like a flash, rather than, “Now you’re it.” Because 100% if I am watching a show, I wouldn’t want that for myself. So I understand that!

Then there are also moments where the characters address audience members by name who aren’t spotlighted. The other audience members won’t be able to see you, but they’ll know you’re there. So there are these two different ways the characters might talk directly to you.

I think those small details are really important. When we had this kind of white collar lockdown where half the country is suddenly holed up at home, it seemed like a lot of cultural and arts organisations started just trying to do whatever they’d been doing before, except online. Sometimes it was almost, “Okay, we can replace the live event.” But as you say, for example, going for a pint afterwards … you can’t create a proxy for that. So you have to think of it as a transformation, a new set of possibilities. Not just a substitute.

Yeah.

So after Lucy approached you, what was the next step? Did you talk to Zoe Seaton, who directed The Tempest?

I watched The Tempest, which was great, and I also watched another show called Operation Elsewhere. That was a Big Telly production, which is Zoe’s company, with the tickets also going through creation. That was great as well. I know Zoe, I love Zoe. She kind of said, “If you want to have a chat about anything, let me know.” She’s incredibly supportive and lovely and brilliant.

Also, a lot of the creative team who’d originally worked on Time Machine and have worked on this digital version had also worked on The Tempest, so they already had figured out some of the technical logistics of using Zoom to make theatre. Because obviously Zoom is not designed for that purpose, and so there are loads of … loopholes, basically … that you have to find, in order to get the technology to do what we want.

Can you give any examples?

Most theatre shows pretty much run on QLab, which is the way of putting all the sound and lighting cues in basically. Whereas Zoom is designed really so that maybe you can share your screen, and then maybe play a video of some corporate thing at your business meeting. That’s what it’s made for. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s not really made so that you can run an entire computer program through it, playing whatever it is, a hundred and sixty sound cues.

So Matt, the sound designer, found a way to make it work. He programmed the computer, then it got delivered to our stage manager. He can also make changes to it remotely from his computer, even though it’s in her house. And he’s found a way to link it up so that he can play that through Zoom.

Then on top of that, because of the way that Zoom mixes sound, he can’t do what he’d usually do, creating the mixes, placing his speakers, and getting the sound that he wants. Instead he’s had to create a soundtrack, particularly for the ambient sound and soundtrack that plays underneath the scenes, which is there in pretty much every scene. The soundtrack is mixed so that when Zoom auto-mixes it with somebody’s voice, it will be the right level. 

Right. 

With Tempest they’ve done a lot of screen-sharing as a way of sharing any bits of video that they were using. That was great, but when it does mean that you get the text saying that so-and-so is sharing their screen, and you sometimes get a bit of a band around it. One of the things that they were working on innovating, if you like, was having a second screen and finding ways to share video so that you don’t get that message, “Blah is sharing.” 

Instead you can play it on another screen and then spotlight that screen. Things like that that can make it a slicker, smoother experience. Because they’re artists themselves, they have now obviously become fascinated with it, and they’ll keep continually innovating as Creation do more shows on that platform. There will be things that we’ve done for the first time here that go into the next show, and then they’re already working on loads of new stuff to be going in as well.

That is really fascinating. How might it have been different if you had been starting off thinking, “Okay, we’re going to do a show on Zoom,” rather than, “We have all this material and now we’re taking it to this new platform”? It sounds like you’ve had a lot of really great tech collaborators.

We wouldn’t have the show that we have — and actually, this is true of all shows, so this isn’t really anything new — but it would be a very different show if we didn’t have a large professional creative team on it. So if I as a director and some actors decided that we were going to make a show, but we didn’t have a sound designer and those other roles, we just wouldn’t be able to technically do any of the things that we’re doing. In a regular production, the lights would be less good without a lighting designer but you could still have lights. The sound would be less good without a sound designer but you could still have sound. In this case, I don’t think we could be doing those things at all in the way that we are, without that team innovating and problem-solving. So I suppose the aesthetic of it would just be really different and less effective.

Zoom obviously tends to lend itself to a quite static visual aesthetic, a series of talking heads. You seem to have thought about a lot of ways of creating movement and dynamism. So for example, sometimes there are fairly quick cuts. We go from the Computer to the Time Traveler, or switch to a different version of the Time Traveller quite a lot. Then there’s the use of green screens and video backgrounds.

Yeah. We’re using the video backgrounds a lot in the show, which you need a particular set of specs to be able to run. This computer that I’m on now can’t run video background, for example. Some of the actors didn’t have that, so Creation then posted them computers that can run it. So that pretty much all of them that need to can run video background. All of our Time Travelers can.

They’re using green screen, which you need for the picture backgrounds and virtual backgrounds anyway. Some of them had green screen already. Everyone that didn’t got posted three green table cloths, which is a great solution because they’re £1.50 for a pack of three. It worked.

This is all green screen actually, behind me. I created a boring office. It’s actually really interesting.

It’s brilliant. There you are. That’s what I love about it as well. It’s great when you go somewhere really bizarre, but it doesn’t always have to be somewhere bizarre.  So yeah, we’re using video backgrounds as well as picture backgrounds.

When the Scientist walks up that corridor, that was pretty slick. The timing must have been just perfect.

What happened was that in that scene I was like, “I kind of want her to be walking down a corridor at this point?” and everyone was like, “Okay.” We just had this static background at that point. Everyone was like, “Uh huh.”

Then Stu, the video designer, found the footage of walking down the corridor. That was initially the wrong way, so he reversed it. Then he created two new backgrounds where she starts and where she finishes. He took a still of the corridor film and then he put two doors either side of that. So the Scientist uses a still background of where she starts off, which she then changes to a video of the still background turning into the corridor, with the last part of the video being the still background that she then stands in front of. So even to walk down a corridor they did a lot of innovating and design stuff to make that happen. I love stuff like that.

Wow, okay. So obviously there’s been digital theatre for a long time, but now feels like a bit of a watershed moment. And I wonder as theatre of this kind evolves, which experiments are going to turn into easily reproducible elements in your ordinary toolkit? “Oh, I’m going to walk down a corridor. No problem.” And then which experiments are going to be more like, “Okay, we’re glad we did that innovative work, but let’s never try to achieve that effect again, unless it’s really vital to this particular story”?

Yeah. I guess it’s a bit like that with theatre all the time. If there’s something that you discover that works, you remember the concept for future shows, but the details will always be different. If you can change locations, you want the locations to link up in a way that’s aesthetically pleasing, but you can do that in lots of different ways. What I would take from this show is, “When we’re changing locations, is this aesthetically pleasing?” I wouldn’t necessarily say, “We must walk down a corridor in every show!” So it would also be a personal challenge: we know how to do that now, but how else could you use what you’ve learned? How could you develop it?

I liked the occasional use of gallery view. You figured out how to kind of fold and mirror it? And sometimes the actor’s screen was superimposed. It seemed like there might be even more to explore with gallery view?

No, I think there’s loads. That was done through an external app called ManyCam that’s running into Zoom. But because of very long and boring reasons really, Zoom and that company are negotiating whether that company’s product will continue to work on Zoom’s platform. There was a time when we were hoping that everyone would be able to use it. But because of those negotiations and various updates, it basically means that Lucy runs it on her computer and we can spotlight that.

There is loads that you can do with it, and I think that Creation are looking to do more using it, but it’s just we’ve hit a particular point in the negotiation of how those two products intersect. Until they have fixed that, you can’t necessarily rely on a new Zoom update making it not work. Also, it’s working fine on Lucy’s computer, but it can make computers run very slow. So you kind of need to be on a very fast computer to be making that work for you live.

Really interesting, creating theatre that depends on third party software which is always liable to update and change its functionality. Especially when you’re kind of testing that software to its limits already! And also the point about different actors and audience members having equipment with different specs. So is Lucy doing a lot of the kind of coordination behind the scenes?

She wasn’t supposed to be operating ManyCam! But then because we discovered it and it was so great, and because you need a fast and powerful computer to do what we needed to do for this show. So she’s running that ManyCam because of the technical limitations that we have. Our stage manager’s computer isn’t fast enough to do that. Lucy’s on a very big kind of uber computer is what we call it, the uber computer.

OK, I see.

When you have a production meeting or whatever, Lucy is sitting there and she’s a cartoon or she’s a rabbit or something. She’s constantly playing around with the technology, because it’s something that really excites and interests her and that she’s really good at. She’ll be sitting there constantly playing with the thing as you’re talking to her, which can be hilarious. There were a couple of people on the tech team who were playing with it as well, so people were just constantly turning into different things in this Zoom call. But yes, Lucy is really innovative and artistic herself, so she’ll play around with these things.

But it’s Judith the stage manager who controls the spotlighting?

Sometimes. It’s kind of a carefully choreographed combination of different things. Sometimes it’s manual. Sometimes Zoom just does it by itself. If you have a scene between two people in speaker view, Zoom will pull to whoever is talking. But that means that you need to make sure that there is sound coming from the right character at the right time. So that’s a kind of weird technique that the actors have had to master.

But there are also lots of moments of what I would call curated spotlighting, done by our stage manager Judith, and sometimes other members of the cast when it’s happening in multiple spaces. That is where you either want to highlight an audience member or you want to highlight a second screen that’s playing a piece of video. Or there’s sound that’s happening, and you want to be on an actor listening to that sound, not on the source of that sound.

Is Judith doing other things that she wouldn’t normally be doing as a stage manager?

She’s running QLab as she would be, but because of my crazy concept, she’s got two monitors and whenever there’s a breakout room her second monitor goes into the breakout room. So she’s essentially watching two different shows and operating two different shows at the same time. It’s sort of mind-blowing that she is doing that. She sent a photo yesterday because the two rooms were almost perfectly in sync, so she took the photo of her monitors where they’d almost perfectly lined up.

She’s usually running QLab in one room and then we’re using different sound sources in the other room that she’s keeping an eye on and cuing that. She’s also having to assign the correct actors to the correct breakout rooms at the right time because you can’t switch into that space without being invited. So she has to send them and exactly half the audience there at the right time, and then keep an eye on when one scene is finishing so that the parallel realities can converge. Sometimes she’ll play a sound based on when a scene is happening.

It has a kind of evil genius energy to it.

She’s essentially coordinating two shows sometimes at the same time, which is bizarre. All of the breakout room stuff is all her as well, so she’s having to assign people. Then she’s having to keep an eye on the audience members and spotlight them sometimes, as well as running QLab. She’s doing a lot. I mean, I don’t know how she’s doing it. She’s doing it really calmly and with total finesse, but it’s sort of insane, really, what she’s doing!

So I have two final questions. What tools do you use to document all the information that you need? This is this complex, multi-professional collaboration with all these different angles to it. What do you use? 

Honestly, what happens is I sort of work things out — in terms of the breakout rooms, for example, and who is in which room — and then I’d say it, and write it down really illegibly on a piece of paper, which I later attempt to read. So at first I basically just had it all in my head, in terms of that structure. Until Judith made a brilliant and color-coded flow chart, which meant that other people could know the things that were in my head too. Which was really helpful.

Also, the rest of the creative team were around a lot in the rehearsals, and they would go, ”Okay, we’re in a breakout room now. Oh, I see. We’ve got to make the sound work like this now.” You know? They were around a lot as well, which was great because it meant they they could kind of see it as it was being built. We could build it together, which I think is important.

And finally, as a director, what tips do you have for someone embarking on a project like this?

It depends on what stage you’re at and who you’re working with. One tip would be to spend some time in a Zoom call with yourself. Time can be quite limited during rehearsals. You can have a Zoom call with yourself, and play around with it, and figure stuff out. That’s quite a good thing to do. If actors have time outside of rehearsals, they may want to do that as well. Another thing is that the Zoom pro account has some useful features that the free account doesn’t. So I would say it’s worth having a premium account, or asking someone to lend you theirs to have a play with.

I suppose for actors it’s a weird combination of acting for screen and theatre. One thing to get used to is the fact that, if you’re going to pull the camera to you, you need to be making noise. That means that if you’re playing any lingering moments of beautiful silence that you’re playing, the audience won’t be seeing that. In fact, what they can see is your other actor who is having to do a lot of thinking and listening acting — not even listening, actually, if you’re not making any sound! You have to play the thoughts more quickly, I think. The thoughts have to come to characters more quickly in this, and if you want a moment of silence before a character speaks, then you actually have to build that in explicitly, because someone needs to be spotlighting you. So I guess having a play around with the actors on that, and how they’re drawing the camera to themselves is key. Otherwise, you end up with long silent bits, where no one is quite sure what’s happening and the wrong person is spotlighted.

Thank you so much, Natasha, for sharing all your thoughts and experience. And congratulations on pulling together such an ambitious and interesting piece of work.

Screenshot 2020-06-07 at 19.59.49

Leda Douglas Time Machine

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