9 July 2011
Alma Mater is a play that takes you into the mind of a six-year-old girl, except that although you are physically in her bedroom she is on the iPad in your hands, in the same bedroom.
It’s a disorientating trick that is both groundbreaking and characteristic of an Edinburgh Fringe season that is taking technology to its heart as never before.
You can don video goggles, then be strapped into a wheelchair and pitched into a crime caper with Il Pixel Rosso’s And the Birds Fell From the Sky. You can spend an hour in the packed courtyard of The Pleasance trying to fathom which of the people milling around you are the actors performing the play Invisible Show II on your headphones. You can be part of the transatlantic production You Wouldn’t Know Him, He Lives in Texas, playing simultaneously to live audiences in Edinburgh and Texas who who are able to communicate with each other via Skype. Or you can tap into a virtual map of Edinburgh experiences with the SoundCloud’s Sounds of Fringe map.
Or you can “attend” the first virtual Edinburgh Festival — (g)Host City — which offers downloadable poetry readings and stories which can be listened to on smartphones at specific city locations or wherever you happen to be.
New media also provides the theme or crucial plot device to a series of productions. Diana Quick, the Brideshead Revisted actress, is starring in Midnight Your Time, a one-woman play about a mother’s weekly webcam chats with her daughter in Palestine, and there at least six comedy shows built around Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube.
The performing arts have always experimented with new technology but digital devices are opening up enormous opportunities for creative people as they become cheaper and more connected.
It makes sense that Edinburgh should be at the forefront of this kind of innovation. Anthony Alderson, the director of The Pleasance, said: “I was talking to someone the other day about whether we have lost that old anarchic element of the Fringe, but I think that bit is happening in technology now.”
Eilidh MacAskill, artistic director of Fish and Game, the Glasgow company behind Alma Mater, said that they were keen to discover “how can you encourage an audience into an experience that’s almost like being in a film themselves, where they have autonomy to an extent but actually they are being manipulated. It’s the space between those things and the space between what’s there and what’s not that we are interested in.”
They have built a pair of wooden sheds inside one of the Fringe venues and the single audience member then follows the lead on their iPad screen into the shed, which opens to be a child’s bedroom with white floorboards, a stool and a bed. The action unfolds on the iPad but the audience member is encouraged to follow it through the room while the piece lasts.
Laura Cameron Lewis, the award-winning curator of (g)Host City, said that she had wanted to combine her regular, site-specific work with an interest in how “everything can now have a global reach through YouTube, Twitter and blogging”. The kind of virtual work she is commissioning is “very much exploratory at this stage because it’s so new but it’s very exciting. I think it will become more mainstream but I don’t think it will replace live theatre. Quite the contrary: anything that’s virtual makes anything that’s live seem more real.”