What happens when you bring together dozens of actors, writers, designers and developers to experiment with technical theatre? The Cambridge Theatre Hackathon set out to find out. The inaugural event, supported by funding from Cambridge Digital Humanities, took place 19-20 May, 2023.

The hybrid teams, with participants from around the world, created, rehearsed and performed a play in 24-hours. To begin, participants discussed their understanding of the theme for the event, ‘Memory Allocation’. While some took this to mean processes of remembering, others understood it as literal hard data storage. Through conversation, teams explored what else memory might mean — especially in the context of hybrid digital theatre — and how digital, personal, and community memories and memory processes intertwined. 

The event was organised by two English PhD candidates, Ben Anderson and Claire Carroll, who brought together their differing experiences; Ben has worked around Britain as a theatremaker, while Claire has worked at software and machine learning companies in America. 

“I was interested in exploring how theatrical narratives might slip between physical and digital performance spaces, but we didn’t want to set up guidelines for the teams,” Claire explained. “It was really exciting to watch their projects evolve in completely different ways from the same prompt.” 

From Ben’s experience, “the pandemic encouraged theatre companies to explore working digitally through necessity, but as we’ve returned to theatre spaces we wanted to ask what we’ve learned and where we could go further, by creating an environment, outside the usual rigid structures and costly production processes for a play that might make experimentation difficult”.

Each team took a completely different approach to the task, creating: a “choose your own adventure” play that empowered the audience choose their viewpoint and the scenes that they saw within a relationship; a digital séance hosted through the internet and experienced live with actors in the room; a performance piece about constructed memories and the digital archives that we create of ourselves; and a dance theatre piece that contrasted embodied anticolonial memory with the digital sphere.

With teams formed in the weeks preceding the hackathon, many groups developed new skills, such as filmmaking, to support their concepts. Forming teams with people who didn’t know each other also encouraged new collaborations and new opportunities based on the skillsets everyone brought. Each piece was recorded for the theatremakers and there were already plans being hatched to develop the ideas further in the pub afterwards.

The combination of theatre and digital technology offers a chance for us to ask how hybrid narratives create coherence and consider what digital theatre might be. Many participants found their definitions of digital theatre expanding and evolving over the course of their engagement. Instead of focusing on the literal use of technology in a performance, participants found it a “reflection of how digitalization influences our life”.

The exploration of digital identity expanded from the stage to the audience, with two of the teams incorporating audience participation into their performances. We found that digital fluency was a shared language between audiences and participants, and collective understanding of digital norms made the actions largely self explanatory; we know how to navigate folders, we understand how to sift through search results. We forget a lot, but there is (corruptible) muscle memory for basic modes of interaction.

The response to the event by participants was overwhelmingly positive. We are planning to explore the more academic side of these questions in a future article and hope that further iterations of a theatre hackathon will allow for more practical experimentation in the future.

Thank you to Ben Anderson  and Claire Carroll for contributing to the CDH blog and organising this fantastic event!
Photo credits: Maria Woodford Photography.

Cambridge Digital Humanities

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