Interweaving Social: An Interview With The Royal Shakespeare Company's Sarah Ellis, Part 3

In the final part of her interview Digital Producer Sarah Ellis of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) expands upon the technical aspects of ‘Midsummers Night’s Dreaming’ and the complexities surrounding artist rights in the social media realm. Together with Google, the RSC expanded the theatre experience into social media, prompting narration, content creation, and collaboration among audience members and the story’s characters. Using Pinterest, Google+, and Twitter, among other social media, thousands online collaborated to tell the story of ‘A Midsummers Night’s Dream’ like it’s never been told before. 

Google and the RSC innovate Shakespeare around glimpsed narratives and online audiences. 

KSW: What did the Dream40 site look like to an audience member?

SE: The website was a dashboard with four columns of content, which was aggregated through hashtag “dream40.” Different characters were assigned to different columns, but overall the dashboard created a really egalitarian space for content. The Midsummer Night’s Dream community was in Google + and they were uploading content as well.

Snap shot of the Dream 40 dashboard.

Snap shot of the Dream 40 dashboard.


KSW: Was there immediate understanding that there were two locations audiences could go to for dreaming information?

SE:  I think if we were going to do it again we might have just done it through Google+ and presented on there. The dashboard was an agnostic place for the social media because it was just collecting through a hashtag and we were quite keen to use Facebook and Pinterest and all that social media. It was a little confusing and we did have to send a URL out, but then on the other hand landing on the webpage for the performance did help our audiences. I’m not sure if we sent out the Google + page it would have worked in the same way. So actually the dashboard was the right thing to do at that time.  If you were to do it again where social media has gone maybe people would have been more comfortable with that but I think 2 years ago we needed that website. We needed that page for people to land on.


KSW: Were there any technical difficulties during the performance, that 3-day period, either digitally or in the physical space?

SE: Not many considering how many things we were doing for the first time. Within the Google+ account you can create up to 50 characters so we did (per email address) but obviously we were uploading a piece of content every minute and at one point the system thought we were spamming as we were producing so much content through this account.

But I should be clear, we didn’t have anything actually break for the performance. Nothing broke down in that sense. That was something that happened before, when we were coming up to the performance. 


KSW: How many people were in charge of the live uploading of content?

SE: It was a small team we had shifts of groups working off an Excel spreadsheet over the three days. I couldn’t actually touch Excel spreadsheets for a very long time after that project.

I think now you could probably automate a lot of that. But everything was done manually and scheduling over 3,000 pieces of content over 3 days. Well we first uploaded that content onto a system then uploaded it live, it was a two part process.

All the content had to come in and be stored so it was quite a complex and detailed process. We had to tick off what we commissioned, know what was created and filed on the Google drive and then give each content a unique a catalog number. Then at the time it’s supposed to be uploaded someone knows to upload ‘this’ number and ‘this’ time. It was two manual systems. It was a huge amount of work behind the scenes.


KSW: When was all of the RSC content written?

SE: The 2,000 pieces of commissioned content were written in the run up. The creatives had between April and June to create 2,000 pieces of content, which was a big ask, and then 1,000 pieces of content were created and shared over the performance weekend by the community.  That content was anything from 50 words responses to images to memes, everything. 

KSW: How are all of that content, those 3000 pieces of content, stored now?

SE:  It’s still out there. We created a timeline that brings together the play performed by the actors and tags the online content to the parts in the play it refers to.  So it’s a great place to look back and see what we did.  


KSW: So if the actor wanted to use the content in a reel they would have to grab it now or else it disappears?

SE: All the artists get to keep their content and they get to do whatever they like with it. It where it is sourced, will stay because it was created by them for them. The timeline that we're hosting, for instance, will go away after 5 years because that is what we agreed with everyone at the time. Because it was an experiment (and in everything we do), it was really important for us to be transparent and respectful to the actors and artists working on it. In that sense we will keep an archive of it and we have a lot of that content but for us theater is ephemeral anyway so once something has happened it's gone.


KSW: That seems so very poetic and charming. Some may approach it from a commercial perspective, seeking to hold on to that content for some future revenue-generating activities.

SE: We couldn’t do that in this case. And that’s not what this piece was about.


KSW: Does the RSC anticipate pursuing similar to digital work?

We're definitely interested in pursuing digital possibilities and ideas within the organization and creatively. I don't know if we're going to pursue something like this again because we've done it and we move forward. In 2013 the internet was all about social media and where that's going. I think that where we're going now is the Internet of Things so to be honest, from a digital angle, I'm more interested in that. I think there's still a place for creating an online story-world that's got some tributaries and curation there.  

There are not any current plans but people have found their own relationship with digital ways of working through this project and it sparked a lot of people’s creative thinking on how you can bring that into our core activities. That's what it was really about, actually. I don't think it was about presenting a solution it was about genuinely testing something and seeing where people went with it. It was a test for what would come next. Some of our future projects will be different but will have a connection with this but it might not be apparent so it may not be abundantly clear artistically.

Every time you do a piece that is an experiment you have to remind yourself that there is so much work that goes on behind it that no one will ever see.


KSW: What do you recommend to motivate managers to know that?

SE: Really, you have to know what success looks like. The learning from it all and what people take away from it is important. Did it ask the right questions?  Did it explore something that brought you insight and understanding that can it be taken back to your practice? Also, don't forget you bring people with you. That's really important.  You've got to bring them with you because lots of people need to understand it and own it for themselves.

For more from Sarah Ellis be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this interview. To learn more on the Royal Shakespeare Company visit their website