Interweaving Social: An Interview with The Royal Shakespeare Company's Sarah Ellis, Part 1

In the first part of her interview, Sarah Ellis, the Digital Producer of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), discusses the inspiration, preparation, and implementation of Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, a rendition of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream hosted largely online, in real-time over the course of 3 days. Together with Google’s Creative Lab, the RSC brought to life over 50 characters using numerous social media profiles, characterized content, and real-time conversations with audiences to discover an answer to the questions, “What would Shakespeare look like online? And, how would the audience engage with it?” 

Google Creative Lab and the Royal Shakespeare Company partnered to reimagine theatre in the digital age. 

KSW: Could you briefly describe the role of social media in the project? Did each character have their own Google+ and Twitter accounts? Could audiences interact with the Google+ profiles?

SE: Social media was a way we could amplify the story of the play. To mirror how people use this space and how news emerges in social media, the content was shared as fragments and glimpses of narrative over three days in real time.  We created 50 Google+ profiles within in one Google+ account, which is actually how many you can have at once. From that account we could manage and upload content for each character. We were really exploring the boundaries of the technology while using it. Each character online mirrored a character in the play. For example, there was a character in the play, Snug, and there was also a Mrs. Snug online. You didn’t need a Google+ account to take part in the experience, however to actually talk to that character directly you would need a Google+ account. A lot of people interacted with it though through other forms of social media. 


KSW: Which alternative social media platforms were most heavily used?

SE: Twitter and Facebook. Facebook less so. Twitter was quick and easy, users could share the content, amplifying it and putting it out there even further. Twitter was the most social for what we were sharing and how we were sharing it. During the performance, the RSC was responding live and everything was done manually. There were about four people, including myself, the RSC producer, a Google producer, and 2 others on call. Of course, there were more team members working when there was more activity in the play. The team size fluctuated when there was less content going out during quieter times. We also had volunteers over the weekend serving as additional support.


KSW: What was the source of project? For instance, was the organization determined to find a way to integrate social media or was there an opportunity in the programming?

SE: When the idea came about it was a genuine collaboration between the RSC and Google’s Creative Lab. We started a conversation about Shakespeare online using a previous project called My Shakespeare, a part of the World Shakespeare Festival in 2012. We got in touch with Tom Uglow, the Creative Director at Google’s Creative Lab, about working together and what we might explore. So we started with each side bringing a question to the table. For the RSC, we wanted to know, “How can we extend the RSC experience in this space, around the world online? What does that look like?” Google asked, “What would a play look like online?” Both of these questions worked well together. They both involved being social online.


KSW: Was Midsummer Night’s Dreaming a success for the RSC?

SE: Yes and the success points came in many different ways. We were on time and on budget and completing it and exploring so many questions within the project was a success. Learning so much about this area was also a success that we could take forward strategically. We spoke to an audience and reached an audience we may not always have had a connection with. Doing an experiment is incredibly import for an institution. We had a lot of conversations with audiences afterwards to hear their responses. About 1,000 pieces of content, out of the 3,000 pieces of content total, were created by the audience. To elicit that level of participation we had to be playful in the space and also help the audience feel comfortable in that space.


KSW: The online epilogue notes that preparation began at least six months in advance. What were your first steps in preparing? What processes or strategies helped you manage the preparation process?

SE: We had a lot of Google hangouts with key members of the team during run up to the show and during rehearsal week. The RSC commissioned the character of Puck to appear online a few weeks before in order to bring people in to the world of the play and see what we were doing. We hired a community manager to manage the characters online. She was online every day as Shakespeare, doing call outs and posts about fairies in order to engage and have conversations with the audience. We wanted Billy Shakespeare to be a character rather than the RSC as an organization. We wanted there to be a personal connection and Shakespeare was perfect. He existed before, during and after the performance. 

Technical production began 6 weeks before the 3-day performance and then the momentum of production shifted us into the next phase when we brought in new people and skills. Creating content for characters was kept under tight deadlines


Images courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Google+ pages. 

KSW: How much time was spent understanding the social media channel?

SE: We were learning about Google + throughout the 6 months leading up to the performance. Then we used characterization to establish which social media each character would use.

For instance, the character Mrs. Snug liked crafts and music. So she had a Pinterest page and we gave her a favorite band and then connected her on Spotify. We were creating worlds for characters to exist in, which was incredibly complicated. We found that setting boundaries online was necessary because this type of development can go on indefinitely, everywhere. We were looking to push boundaries and discover successful arenas so play in. We were successful in creating full, fleshed-out characters.


To learn more about the Royal Shakespeare Company please visit their website here.  Check back next week to learn more about acclimating both artists and audiences to the digital world of Midsummer Night's Dreaming in the second part of Ms. Ellis' interview.