It seems like digital storytelling is taking over the world – or at least my world. Last time I wrote for this blog, this past June, I had just come back from a day’s conference in Aberystwyth, discussing the promises and the challenges of California-style digital storytelling as it spreads around the globe.

Now I’m just back from Newcastle and a day at the Culture Shock! conference, discussing the outcomes of a large outreach project in the north east of England, using digital storytelling in the world of museums and archives. I got to hear from Peter Wright and Rachel Clarke of Newcastle University’s Culture Lab, who kindly hosted me for a couple of days, and to take part in a story circle workshop by Barrie Stephenson of digistories.

What about results? Well, the keynote at the June conference was by a digital storytelling evangelist in Singapore. She has created a fledgling company whose purpose is to bring together people from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. I’ve just heard that her project – young and small though it is – was endorsed a couple of weeks ago by none other than the prime minister of Singapore during his National Day Rally speech. Now she and her team are knee-deep in stories, trying (successfully, I hear) to keep up with their success.

The Culture Shock! project might be over, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a similar story from any of the participating organisations I heard from last week.

And maybe it will all rub off on my thesis…

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I’ve just returned from a trip to the east coast US.  The main purpose of the visit was to attend  Visible Evidence http://www.visibleevidence.org/, an annual perambulatory international conference on documentary and non-fiction media.  This year our host was New York University (NYU) and there was the usual rich variety of papers, workshops, screenings and presentations from theorists, practitioners and educators.

While I was in the city, I took the opportunity to see Punchdrunk’s production of Sleep No More (http://sleepnomorenyc.com/), a site-specific piece of theatre/ performance that’s running in the old, vast McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea.  The piece heavily references Shakespeare’s Macbeth with some strong allusions to Hitchcock (Jimmy Stewart’s search for Madeleine/ Carlotta in Vertigo, for example, takes him to the McKittrick hotel in San Francisco) and is an extraordinarily immersive, dynamic experience.  The portal to the performance is a 1930’s era bar, where the audience sips cocktails before donning white masks and being whisked away in an elevator, from which we were ejected onto different floors of the hotel.  We were instructed not to remove our masks, not to speak and advised that ‘fortune favours the brave’ before being let loose to roam the mysterious hotel in which a half-dozen performers enact a series of intertwining, choreographed and mostly silent narratives, seemingly oblivious to us interlopers.

Sleep No More is described as an ‘individual experience’ as you are free to interact with the space and the performances taking place however you choose.  I opted to stick close to one actor (once I figured out he was ‘Macbeth’), which involved much dashing up and down narrow staircases and through the spaces of the McKittrick, often in a big crowd of other ‘spectators’, as he traversed through a ballroom scene, a witches’ coven-turned-ritual accompanied by pounding techno and strobe lighting, some dramatic contretemps with a feisty female counterpart (Lady Macbeth?), a moment of crisis amongst fir trees (Birnam Wood?), ending in a dramatic ‘Last Supper’ style finale.  There are a multitude of potential experiences of Sleep No More, depending on which actor(s) you follow, whether you are one of the lucky few to experience one of the ‘one-on-ones’ interspersed throughout the show, or whether you choose to avoid the action and wander the many spaces of the hotel.

One common experience, however, is the sense of voyeurism and this is another way Sleep No More references the films of Hitchcock.  As you stand watching the performers you cannot ignore the anonymised masked faces of your fellow spectators, crowding round to get a glimpse of the action.  The audience and actors share the same space, yet we are at once visible and invisible in a way that challenges the conventional theatrical/ cinematic experience of viewing from a distance through the proscenium arch of the stage/ screen.

I hear rumours the producers are looking for a suitable location to bring the show to London, but if you happen to be in New York City I recommend a visit to the McKittrick hotel, just don’t forget a pair of comfortable shoes.  And your sense of adventure.

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After a manic spring dashing from one event to another, I thought I was going to settle down to a long, slow summer of reading theory at the lakeside and coming indoors (whether from the heat or from the rain) to add to the word count on my annotated bibliography. Instead, I’ve been dashing around again. In June it was ds6 in Aberystwyth, last week it was EVA London 2011, today I’m off to see The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic at the Manchester International Festival, and next month I’ll be a student volunteer at MobileHCI in Stockholm.

The ds6 conference was the annual festival of digital storytelling in the tradition of the Center for Digital Storytelling in California. Their model is to get people who aren’t performers or media professionals to create their own short film of their life story using their own personal photos. The ds6 participants believe passionately in the power of narrative in the digital age to bring people together across any number of divides: geographical, racial, social, generational.

EVA London 2011 was a somewhat more academic and cerebral event: three days of papers and demonstrations on electronic visualisation and the arts. Ruth Gibson’s motion capture visualisations of dancing stillness using the Skinner Releasing Technique (http://ewic.bcs.org/content/ConWebDoc/40639) and Donatella Barbiere’s film of her experience in the V&A’s performance archive (http://ewic.bcs.org/content/ConWebDoc/40636) would have captivated everyone in our PhD programme, I’m certain.

Tonight’s performance by and about the grande dame of live art, as Marina Abramovic has been called, will doubtless be written up all over the internet, and MobileHCI promises to blow my mind with new developments in the ways we use mobile devices, including applications in the arts.

If you triangulate (quadrangulate?) these events, you get an interdisciplinary mishmash that I’m trying to turn into a thesis. I couldn’t possibly have turned down these opportunities to get new perspectives, meet new people and gather more resources and references.

I still wouldn’t mind a couple weeks of reading theory in the sun, though.

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Over the last week Dance, Film and Theatre hosted the Research Week. The department organizes twice a year five intensive days of lectures, conferences and workshops where PhD students and professors present the status of their research.

As it was my first Research Week I was excited to attend the expositions of my colleagues and to learn from their processes. I benefited as well from the feedback received on my presentation. Moreover I would say the Research Week is important to connect us, the researchers, to identify us as part of the same community of academics. Since there is no necessity to attend modules and classes, PhD students are often reading and writing alone. Each one has her/his own research, her/his own bibliography and her/his own outline for study; we all have different lives that bring us different choices. Nonetheless researchers of similar fields will have similar problems and different ways of resolving them. It is always worthy to see how other researchers have found a solution for a problem that can be yours in the future.

The Research Week is the place where all of this can happen. This is the moment to connect with our colleagues and share our knowledge. It is an opportunity to create a network of future academics that can make a difference to our PhD experience.

Over the last week I have enjoyed meeting other researchers in my field, and overall sharing our experiences. After this, I think the Research Week has been a successful encounter for all of us.

I am looking forward to attend the next one in November!

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In the coming days I will be receiving the proofs for my book, Shakespeare, Theatre, and Time, about to be published in early summer.  I am not making an attempt here at shameless self-promotion (ok, maybe a little), but the fact that a major project like this is nearing its end has me reflecting on how we do our work in higher education.  In particular, as the University enters its four-week Easter break, I am thinking about the amount of time we allow ourselves – staff and students – for genuine, productive reflection on the tasks we undertake.  It is no new news that we live in a culture that often demands multi-tasking and rapid movement from one set task/outcome to the next.  But it is equally important – especially in higher education, where we engage in study and in detailed interrogations of complex ideas and practices – to stretch and deepen our time as well.  We strive where we can to include as a significant part of our process focused reflection: a kind of ‘slow’ time wherein we can absorb, and thereby further, the learning that is associated with individual tasks. 

When classes resume in May, our Theatre students will be remarkably busy with a great deal of exciting work; they are preparing for major productions (the first years for a staging of Hamlet, the second years for a devised production of one-on-one theatre called 21 Tables), and undertaking the technical support for these and other shows in DFT.  They are also preparing for final presentations in academic modules, and the second-years in particular are working on plans for next year, be that a placement year or the progression through to the third year of the degree.  Both before and during this busy period, I encourage them to find some slow time, and to use it productively, and the same can, and should, be said for staff.  It is, after all, vital that while we move from achievement to achievement, we take such time to allow our activities to sink in, and become a part of us.  A great deal of learning takes place in such reflective processes, and while I’m immensely proud of all the work being done in Theatre this year, I’ll be even prouder, and happier, to see that work filled out with the fullness of considered, thoughtful reflection.

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