News & Views

Midsummer Nights Dreaming / Q&A with Google

by Contagious Team

Contagious talks to Tom Uglow, director of Google's Creative Lab in Sydney, about the whys and hows of staging online theatre

It's been an interesting few months for Google... Recently named Advertiser of the Year by the Clio Awards, on the one hand it's becoming undeniably 'establishment', while on the other it's equally likely to floor everyone with a leftfield plan to girdle the earth with wifi-bearing balloons.

Despite an impressive track record of cultural innovation, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Google's contribution to the dramatic arts begins and ends with inspiring The Internship (described by The Onion as having 'everything an audience in 2005 could want in a comedy'), but the tech giant has loftier ambitions, collaborating with The Royal Shakespeare Company on Midsummer Night's Dreaming.

Partly an answer to the question 'What would theatre look like if it were invented now?' and partly an excuse (if one were needed) to create a more literary strand of cat memes, the project will culminate in a live performance of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, reflected and amplified by an online audience separated by geography from the event itself, but connected by glimpses of content captured and shared by eye-witnesses in real time.

We asked Tom Uglow, director of Google's Creative Lab in Sydney and the driving force behind the Midsummer project, just what's involved in transforming these dreams into reality...

Contagious: Google has a history of interesting creative collaborations with cultural organisations - why has it taken so long to get involved in a theatre project?

Tom Uglow: We don't have a list. The history of our cultural collaborations is indicative of something a little deeper than a marketing strategy. Each time we met the right people at the right time. The Prado was the prototype for the Google Art Project because Clara in Spain wanted to build an Earth app that zoomed right inside an art gallery; we worked with the LSO, Carnegie Hall and Tan Dun on the YouTube Symphony project because a 23 year old called Tim had a burning desire to audition an orchestra via YouTube. Ridley Scott was a friend of a friend and he really liked the idea for Life in a Day. So theatre is not late to the party, it is perfect timing - the natural moment to try something with the Royal Shakespeare Company. 

Most projects have a natural gestation period, hopefully the Dream's performance is the right time to try and create an artificial social world around a theatrical reality, within real life. Personally I think people are ready for that. Even with all the fairies. Often these projects start as discussions or small experiments, like this one, where we thought we would create one scene from Shakespeare using Google+, a bedroom production, and then that idea develops into an entire fully-fledged professional production over three days with a global audience. 

Contagious: DO you have particular creative or technological criteria that you apply to a partnership like the one with RSC - what are the key factors that make it worth doing from Google's point of view?

TU: There are criteria, but often they are applied retrospectively. The best criteria is "know the magic, know the user, connect the two". Generally criteria emerge through discussion with stakeholders and the project moves forward because people see benefits you didn't foresee. These experimental programs fill unexpected holes - the vision of a project might inspire or inform or educate in new and interesting ways. For #Dream40 we use Google+ as a platform for immersive narrative, it's not a huge leap to see how creating deep, fractured narrative experiences (social theatre) is relevant to our advertiser and agency friends. 

Perhaps we are indulged in finding the business need after we begin the experiment, but it is a philosophy that you will find scattered through Google's product history as well. Build something magical and let others find the value mechanism. Ideally our projects are driven by a passion to create, or to collaborate. If you start with a strict set of objectives or criteria the most likely outcome is that you will simply meet those criteria. Whereas we want magic. It doesn't always work, but when it does everyone notices; when it doesn't we talk about the importance of failure. 

Contagious: What are the biggest challenges when it comes to making these large-scale events happen? People hear 'Google' and assume infinite power and resources to make things happen; is it really like that?

TU: It's rarely like that. There are only 4 people working on this project at Google. Sometimes you get to the end of a project and find a cast of hundreds in various departments, but most often it starts with a small passionate group who believe in it, and keep up the momentum regardless. Sometimes it ends that way too. We rely a lot on our wonderful and often courageous collaborators - for example the RSC boldly committed to the physical aspects of the event and took on the creative mantle in producing the huge amounts of new material that we are generating. On our side we built the stage and the timeline and pulled the odd marketing lever, but generally this is the RSC's production.

With a lot of marketing projects the synthesis you describe is not on tap, it actually occurs almost outside Google, relying on our public API's and strong relationships with our creative and digital agencies, partners and media agencies. It is all very wizard of Oz, behind the green curtain are just a couple of twenty-somethings working desperately hard.  

Contagious: Is it true that Charlie Sheen somehow inspired this reimagining of the theatre experience?

 It is. I loved what happened with Charlie Sheen. It felt like the most authentic and fresh and uncontrolled narrative I had ever seen.  That now sounds like ancient history; we've seen this dynamic vividly in the incredible rise in political engagement, from the streets of Cairo to the corridors of power in Washington - it is a question of whether we can capture that with fictional drama.

Contagious: How does watching an event like that unfold organically compare to trying to create a similar effect from a standing start?

 Um, it's quite a lot of work. And, at the time of writing, I don't think any of us know how effective, engaging, immersive or interesting the result will be. Given the quality and range of the 1000 moments of content, from 25 new characters that the RSC have commissioned I'm highly optimistic about the outcome. But it is a learning process. Trying to recreate something that intangible is a bit like trying to build a rainbow out of fuzzy felt. When we get it right we'll let you know.

More generally the social tools we are mastering allow us to shift between play and reality seamlessly - and as we have reached a saturation point of food photos and baby pics in the real reality, it feels natural that we start to investigate fictional social entertainment. Much more interesting.

Contagious: Who benefits most from a partnership like this one - Google or the RSC?

 I would hope the RSC benefit the most. Google benefit from a partner that is really pushing the Google+ platform to fascinating new places, and helping create projects that are about culture not commerce, (not to mention the brand association). I like to think the RSC benefit more directly in spreading understanding and awareness of Shakespeare to a far wider community (they already have close to 200k new followers on Google+)  - if the project allows them to inspire or connect with younger audiences around Shakespeare then it is a huge success. Sarah Ellis talks about the RSC's mission as reaching new audiences and exploring the entire canon using new forms and practices - here we are creating an entirely new stage to illuminate a beautiful old play.

Contagious: How do you categorise a project like this one - are Google and the RSC making art or is this marketing. And is that a distinction that you're keenly aware of, or something you're able to blithely disregard?

 As I mentioned earlier I think that we are very lucky in being able to approach the biggest institutions in the art world, like the RSC, or the LSO, the Guggenheim, or the Sydney Opera House and due to the integrity of our earlier projects we are able to talk seriously about proposed artistic collaborations. Those projects always begin with artists and their work and are normally about discovering new ways of augmenting traditional artistic practice using the new technology of the internet. So we are not making art, we are just working with artists. The artists make the art.

You can say we are creating stories about our products that can, or could be repackaged into marketing - although that rarely happens either. The best marketing is simply a celebration of everything you love about a brand. We set out to celebrate the creators  - preferably using our tools and platforms. 

Then we make a short video about it - because without the video it never existed ;) 

Contagious: The Midsummer Night's Dreaming community is already up and running - anything struck you so far about how people are responding to the idea?

 I think it is a little too early to call on the Community, we have some passionate contributors which is great and people seem to be having a really good time. I think Communities are fascinating - it's like having your own little interweb. You almost immediately make new friends. We have two great moderators in Puck and Billy Shakespeare and that makes a huge difference. It's like structured play at school, it works best when everyone gets homework.

Contagious: How will you judge the success of your adventure in global audience participation transmedia theatre? What's the internet equivalent of a curtain-call?

 We will judge this on the experience for the RSC, how they feel it went; we will look at the level of positive engagement we get; I think if the hashtag slips out of the theatre community into watercooler chat that would be my idea of a successful first night; and then there are the reviews - I will be surprised and delighted if the traditional theatrical critical communities give us positive notices as I think it is quite challenging. It is unconventional in almost all aspects. Ultimately our hope is that the production will stand proudly as in the timeline of theatrical innovation, an glorious first attempt to combine a physical performance with an elaborate online production.  It certainly won't be the last attempt so provided as we inspire those who come after that would make us happy.

* Cat meme pics by +Erin Sullivan