Insights and Outlook – Interview Franziska Ritter & Pablo Dornhege

After two intensive research years, the project leaders Franziska Ritter and Pablo Dornhege take a look behind the scenes, draw a summary and glimpse into the future. In doing so, they are asking themselves the same questions that they have posed to their partners in the current project.

In the research project „Im/material Theatre Spaces“ the digital.DTHG team has shown what potential can be unfolded through the use of immersive technologies at the borders of analogue and digital theatre worlds: Whether as a tool for creative processes, as a knowledge space or as a place and medium for new theatrical forms of play – the possibilities are enormously multifaceted. 

In the past two years you have developed 17 prototypes in 9 different sub-projects. That is quite ambitious! How did you go about it? 

The first task in autumn 2019 was to quickly find a team and setup a base, to find the right cooperation partners and define the contents in a series of kick-off workshops. And this was exactly the strength of our project: the topics were outlined quite openly in the funding application and at the same time were specific enough. Giving us enough leeway to develop relevant questions with our partners and to be able to tackle urgent challenges. In the course of the project, we repeatedly adapted the objectives to the current circumstances and readjusted our approach accordingly. This may sound unstable at first, but it has led us resiliently through the pandemic turmoil. And above all, it made us flexible enough to adapt the project to the rapidly advancing technological developments. In the process, we looked at how we could pool our resources and energies and create synergies between the sub-projects.

Can you give us an insight into your daily work and your approach?

Similar to the development of a theatre play, there has almost never been a steady „nine-to-five working day“. The general conditions were too dynamic for that. The good thing was that we were able to react to this with our very interdisciplinary team. We combined the different ways of working of the various disciplines; we developed new workflows and were able to adapt them again and again to the new circumstances. In this way, the strength of artistic improvisation was joined with technical and scientific precision. In other words, we have combined what we can learn from agile software development – „structured flexibility“ – with a pinch of theatrical magic, great curiosity and a perpetual love of experimentation. As a result, our project studio in Berlin was much less a classic office than a laboratory and incubator of ideas.

Research projects tend to miss the reality. From the beginning, your project aimed to generate usable and transferable results. How have you approached it?

In addition to the already mentioned kick-off workshops to define the specific sub-projects, we undertook a series of excursions with the digital.DTHG team into the various working environments. For example to stage workshops, theatre collections, training centres for event technicians – or right into the middle of the audience during premiere fever. Practical relevance is an important aspect of our project: like in the try-out sessions that we realised on site with the participants of the cooperating theatres, often very early on in the development process. Here and in the discussions with external consultants, an important learning and knowledge space was created for all participants: the constant dialogue between laboratory and practice. It was important to focus on the development processes and not only on the results. In other words, to open up a space in which mistakes are allowed and even desired. In order to quickly achieve verifiable results, we adopted working methods from coding practice: We conceived ideas together in the creative plenum and then dived into an intensive design and coding tunnel. We evaluated the results with our cooperation partners in order to transfer the findings to the next creative plenary – and here the design sprint comes full circle, as part of an iterative development process.

Can you name which digital tools you have used in your interdisciplinary collaboration?

Our way of working was characterised by flat hierarchies and dynamic-flexible working methods. This was supported right from the start of the project by the use of collaborative software. At this point, a big thank you goes to Hubert Eckart, who is a great advocate of such ways of working and helped us to set up these structures. To give some examples: right from the start we used the messenger service Slack for internal team communication, the whiteboard tool Miro was used for creative sessions and idea generation (also with cooperation partners), we managed task management with the software Notion, there was a Synology network hard drive in our own cloud for data and document storage and Zoom for the now indispensable video conferences.

In addition to these – by now widely used – applications, we also meet in virtual Mozilla Hubs rooms and use Sketchbox VR for virtual spatial meetings. This diversity of digital tools and working environments requires everyone to be ready and open to new things at all times. On this acquired basis, the team was able to establish a decentralised way of working right at the beginning of the Corona pandemic, which still ensures a high output regardless of time and place.

What were the biggest challenges for you and your team in the project? And how did you deal with them?

Particularly challenging – but at the same time refreshing – was that all team members worked 50% part-time on this research project. Everyone had other projects on their plate, were involved in university teaching or artistic projects. This was sometimes difficult to coordinate, but in return it created fireworks of new impulses every Monday morning. We completed three quarters of the entire project duration under pandemic conditions. This was no easy task, because it was precisely at the beginning of the pandemic that our first collaborations were to start and on-site workshops were to take place. For understandable reasons could some cooperation partners not participate as planned, so we worked all the more intensively with others.

There were also challenges on a technical level: As expected, the continous and rapidly advancing development of the AR and VR technologies has had an impact on the course of the project – the technical possibilities of hardware and software solutions are constantly changing. For example, the publication of the WebXR convention in summer 2020 enabled hardware-independent and thus more inclusive access to AR and VR content. We therefore took the liberty of constantly comparing and adjusting the targets of the sub-projects with the current situation and the technical feasibility.

Speaking of the current situation – what theatre reality did you encounter? What role does digitality play? Where does the theatre landscape stand?

That is not so easy to answer, because there is no comprehensive study of the status quo in terms of digitality in the German theatre landscape. We are therefore often dealing with perceived truths. However, the pandemic has made it more than clear how acute the topic of digitality and digital transformation is in the cultural sector and how much work still lies ahead of us. And this does not only mean the theatres themselves, but the theatre industry, the independent scene, and also the educational institutions.

In our daily work, we were sometimes shocked by the technical and personnel state of many theatres and venues: insufficient internet access, lack of computer workstations, little existing knowledge in the use of digital tools and working methods. In addition, strong hierarchies and strictly separated areas of competence result in very costly work processes and time-consuming coordination. And this can also lead to a rejection of new digital tools. „Never change a running system“ is not a good guiding principle for innovation.

But at the same time we also encountered great curiosity and thirst for knowledge. Many committed theatre people recognised the potential and enthusiastically passed on the impulses and new knowledge about immersive technologies to their colleagues. On the one hand, (digital) transformation is of course a „matter for the boss“, but revolution „from below“ is also possible and above all necessary for sustainable change – at least in our experience. So we appeal to the responsibility of each individual to drive modernisation and digitalisation forward and to demand sustainability. In our collaborations, we have experienced how fruitful it can be when theatre managers give their staff the freedom to explore possibilities and to try things out. Following the german proverb „Detours increase local knowledge“.

This is exactly why our research project „Im/material Theatre Spaces“ is extremely valuable. Above all, to close the gap between those who are just starting to put out their feelers and the digital pioneers who romp around in the virtual theatre space every day or have even already built up their own digital section at the theatre.

Why is it so important for theatre people to get involved in the digital world? And what advice would you give to those who want to go down this path?

Theatres have always been laboratories: for experiments, for the creation of the immaterial; they are places where the impossible becomes possible. Theatre-makers from all fields should definitely contribute with their specific creative, dramaturgical and technical skills and dare to conduct their own or joint artistic experiments. All that is needed for the first attempts is a little courage. And the right help for questions and the right accomplices for projects: with the founding of the digital.DTHG competence area, the knowledge generated in the project and the newly established connections, we have made a contribution that will hopefully continue to have an effect.

At the DTHG there is a dedicated cluster focusing on further education offers, in other associations there are working groups, on our website there is a WIKI. Together with Nachtkritik and the Academy for Theatre and Digitality, we have launched the platform as a space for knowledge exchange and discourse. There, interested parties will find diverse suggestions and support for their own experiments.

What would be needed for the (digital) theatre of the future? What do you think needs to change?

Theatre has set out on its journey and has clearly experienced a „booster“ through the pandemic – it is now important that we continue to retain this curiosity and trial and error mode and do not fall back into old ruts. The playful and creative momentum is one of the intrinsic qualities of theatre. Of course, this requires an understanding at the political level for the early creation of the necessary conditions and openness and patience at the theatres.

This also applies to the users and the audience; in this new territory, things don‘t always work the first time. For the development of digital possibility spaces, access to technology must be made easier for everyone, but especially for the independent scene. This can be solved through open rapid prototyping workshops or the shared use of VR equipment such as laptops, software by local theatres and regional technology hubs.

To advance the technological development of the theatre landscape, the associations, the theatres, the industry and the universities should cooperate more and develop joint strategies instead of closed isolated solutions. Here we can learn from the communities and networks in game design and XR development: the actors help each other and share their knowledge in a surprisingly open way. In the same way, theatre makers should share their digital experiments, their failures, insights and successes.