I've just played Puck in the Royal Shakespeare Company's latest production of A Midsummer Night's Dream . The thing is, I really have.
For their 40th production of Shakespeare's play, the RSC collaborated with Google Creative Labs on a hybrid live/digital theatre project. Midsummer Night's Dreaming surrounded a one-off live, real-time performance of the play with a massive hinterland of digital material, amplifying the action and world of the play.
Over the Midsummer weekend (21-23 June), Shakespeare's play was performed in real time. That is, Act 1 was presented on Friday evening. The events of Acts 2, 3 and most of 4 were given in the middle of the night, 2.30 on Sunday morning. The rest of Act 4 (the mechanicals reunited) took place in the afternoon on Sunday and Act 5 at close to midnight, ready for the Trinity Church's iron tongue of midnight to toll twelve and end the play.
This provided a certain focus and rallying point for all of the online activity which accompanied, interpreted and commented on the performance. The platform for the online material was Google + though there was also activity on Twitter; all of the material populated a dedicated website: http://dreaming.dream40.org/#
The online material was organised into a very large series of Google accounts, representing offstage characters, things, ideas, realms. There were fairies, Bottom's Mum, Mrs Snug, the Duke's Oak, an Athenian newspaper, Lysander's sister Ophelia (who gets her from a nunnery, overseen by the Abbess Volumnia), and much much more.
The only character to have an active presence in the online world and the live performed world was Puck and I played Puck. Most of the online action kicked suddenly into life on Friday 21st. Puck, however, had been posting from the beginning of the month. Somehow we managed to get Puck promoted to Google+ account holders and pretty soon had thousands of followers, which provided a good platform to start orienting people towards the project and to start establishing an online character. Mark Hadfield - a lovely melancholically comic actor - played Puck in the live version, but I played Puck for the RSC in the online realm. It made some sense for Puck to act as this impish guide between the live and the digital, just as Shakespeare's Puck travels prodigiously between the human and fairy kingdoms.
Puck had two functions, I think. One was to promote the project by establishing a strong social media presence for the character; as Puck, I posted images of Puck from painting and past productions; engaged with the news a bit; boasted about my ability to put a girdle around the earth in 40 minutes; answered questionnaires from theatre websites; presented some interesting or odd materials relevant to the show; and, most of all, interacted with people who wanted to talk to Puck.
As I've found with some other experiences of using social media is a quasi-dramatic way, I found that Puck quite quickly established a strong character, rather different from the one I anticipated. He was quite bad-tempered, I noticed, forever accusing people of misrepresenting him, particular Billy Shakespeare, an account run by the lovely Rachel Thompson; we had a very entertaining feud through the three weeks of the project ended only by Puck rescuing him from the aftermath of a debauched stag night with Hercules. He was also extremely libidinous, lusting after fairies and humans, flirting with his respondents, growling at the many fairies brought to his attention, including Lily Cole. I will admit, this surprised me, not having seen Puck as a particularly lascivious character.
One thing that has interested me about the project is that when I've mentioned to a few people what I'm doing, I usually say 'I'm playing Puck in the RSC's new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream'. I say it for slightly comic effect, since everyone who knows me knows I'm not an actor. But yet it is literally, strictly true: I played Puck. I uttered the lines, I improvised, I responded to the audience; Puck was live. The words were the actor; the complex reconfigurations of space, identity and communication that the digital world afford us meant that I could be an actor in the act of writing.
The second function of Puck was slightly more problematic. Puck was also meant to be your guide through the project. There's a logic to that; he is a merry wanderer and can see everything, passing between worlds and so on. I'm not sure I managed to do that very effectively, if I'm honest, and there are reasons for that. The format of Google+ is very distinctive; the people you follow populate a page on screen more like a newspaper than a timeline (as in Twitter). It isn't very linear and indeed, people can repost things into your timeline so easily that sequence breaks down; well, sequence isn't the point. Also, unlike Twitter, it's immediately and clearly content-rich; a tweet-length image gets lost; far better to post videos or images or links, which show up connected to the post. It means that, in a good way, Google+ bombards you with a richness of stuff.
This is where it becomes difficult to guide someone through it. First, because it's not clear that there really was a clear path through the material; it was very hard to present material in any kind of order, so it couldn't easily be connected to the live performance, so time wasn't a principle of organisation; but to start simply curating my own subgroup of the material and selecting what I happended to find interesting seemed peculiar too; why would Puck, our guide through the material, ignore anything?
In addition, I eventually came to think that being a guide was antithetical to the joy of the project. At one point someone wondered if my role over the weekend was to 'edit the chaos'. But the project was the chaos, not the editing. Some online projects have been a bit half-hearted because ultimately there isn't enough to it; it's a bit thin. So for example, the RSC's previous foray into social-media theatre, Such Tweet Sorrow, from 2010, was fairly criticised by more online-savvy members of the theatre community. It was an attempt to create an online version of Romeo and Juliet but there wasn't enough to it; the people in control of the feeds seemed freaked out by interactivity and unsure how to respond to criticism; there seemed very little space for creativity. Ultimately, it was just a series of tweets that described some imagined event; it wasn't performative. What I loved about Midsummer Night's Dreaming was that there was so much of it, you never got to the end; there were constant characters, rich additional resources, strange interactions, loads of subplots, and by the time people were commenting on each other, it created a deep forest of story that you entered and could play in, be transformed by. Some people found the project confusing. I don't what the RSC or Google think, but I think that's okay. Some people find Shakespeare confusing. It required a bit of familiarity with Google+ and a willingness to engage with the technology just as you need to be ready to engage with the language when you see the play. I didn't edit the chaos; through Puck's interactions, his comments, his reposting and general ascerbity, I hope I intensified the chaos.
Watching the live version was pretty wonderful. We trooped into an upstairs rehearsal room on Sunday at 2.30am to watch the lovers fall apart among the trees. And, at ten to four in the morning, Puck warned Oberon to leave the forest:
My fairy lord, this must be done with haste,
For night's swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora's harbinger
and the sun began to come up, perfectly on cue, with blackbirds chirruping busily in the background. We spilled onto a high terrace afterwards, watching the sun rise with a glass of wine and it did feel kind of, you know, magical. On the Sunday night, under a supermoon, I arrived a little late to the final showing and sat puckishly on a low wall to the side of the Dell where the final act was performed, watching both the actors, illuminated by lamps, and the audience, lit by the moon and the reflected lamplight from the actors' faces. It felt very much like the project lined up the liminality of theatre, the digital world, and the midsummer to effect a huge temporary transformation rippling across the world.