Ahead of her upcoming course exploring online, interactive theatre, we chatted to writer, director and all-round theatre-maker extraordinaire, Steph Kempson all about the fantastic shows she’s made, what goes into creating an online performance and (of course) her new course!
Q: Hey Steph! We’re really excited about your upcoming course on creating interactive, digital theatre with the Bristol Improv Theatre. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your fantastic career so far?
Aw shucks! During my last year of uni I volunteered with Kneehigh theatre down in cornwall. The show I saw there blew my mind, and I started focusing on working in theatre. After that I trained at Bristol Old Vic on their theatre course and embarked on a career as a director and dramaturg almost ten years ago. I’ve been lucky enough to work on new writing, musicals, improv, interactive, site specific work, drag and technology driven work. I love to devise work with my company and use improvisation heavily in the process, as well as involving improv within performances. I’ve trained extensively with Holly Stoppit in fooling, and traditional storytelling training which is built from a place of improvising around a tale.
Q: As an artist and theatre maker, how have you found the last 18 months? What effect do you think the pandemic has had on artists’ creativity?
I was unofficially shielding as I have a medical condition, so I knew it would take a vaccine to get me back out in the world. I definitely despaired at that and lost all my storytelling creativity. Instead I got really into sewing for a month or two – I made a lot of sack dresses. After that I didn’t have much work, so I approached lots of creatives I have worked with before and we made Sherlock In Homes, an interactive murder mystery. We used the traditional format of a murder mystery, but pushed at the expectation of what kind of story it was telling or who it was about. We also pushed at the creativity and interactivity that Zoom could allow. Somehow we made a smash hit and our three online shows had over 30,000 audience members over their 8 months run. It was a bit of a shock. It’s made me reassess my work and what audiences I am reaching, and what tools and skills I can bring into each project. Sometimes limitations can give us some of our biggest steps forward in creativity.
Q: What opportunities do you think online theatre can bring to artists and creatives? Do you think it’s here to stay now in-person shows are getting back on their feet?
I really hope it’s here to stay. As a person who has spent significant amounts of time housebound with illness, I want all these online events to stay. I can attend so much more, and at much less physical or financial cost. Many friends who can’t get out all the time really appreciate it. There’s also the amazingness of having people attend from all over the world. We had people attend from every continent except the Arctic and Antarctic. Often invited by UK family and friends who weren’t able to visit, they could spend an evening together watching our show and connecting. It was a space where they didn’t have to talk about lockdowns or health, and could escape together to solve a murder.
Q: What differences have you found in creating online theatre to in-person theatre? What are the pros and cons of each format?
I definitely found most of my games and making processes had to be mashed beyond recognition, and it can favour certain skills over others. You also have to learn the rules of film, and mash them with the rules of theatre for shows like ours. Performers have to be tech savvy. And it’s not as hard as you think to research enough to do some very slick tech. Online and digital theatre definitely asks theatremakers to throw themselves into becoming people who know about technology and other mediums. Especially film. I do think online theatre needs to interact, or find a way to connect an audience to the performer and each other. I think that is the thing which will continue to mark it out against other art forms, even when they borrow from these other art forms.
Q: What part of the process of creating an online theatre piece do you enjoy the most?
I love building the structure with writer Peter Baker (Murder She Didn’t Write, Closer Each Day) and the cast. The audience have a lot of control over what information comes out when, but we spend time really thinking about and empowering our performers to read the energy in a room and take the audience on a journey with them. Each character has a turning point in each of their scenes, and each character has a journey in the show. Its a process where each actor has to understand every other character in depth, so they can build their interactivity and improvisation into this richly complex world.
Q: Your company, Sharp Teeth, had a huge success with your online ‘Sherlock in Homes’ shows during lockdown. Can you tell us a favourite or memorable moment from when you were creating the show?
So many. Considering how many times I watched our first show (I ran the tech for the first 70), I never stopped chuckling at our performers. There was definitely a moment in our second mystery (set in Antarctica) where Peter Baker as the shy bookish Getjor told off an audience member for asking if someone could have copied the key. He said there wasn’t a Timpson’s nearby. Also Dougie Walker came up with a joke about our Captain Albert Ross talking about the break in the ice. Only some of the audience would get that it was actually a quote from Friends and I always very much enjoyed seeing who got it.
I also enjoyed the reveal at the end. Watching audience members celebrating getting it right, or being shocked by the reveal. Oh and I really enjoyed watching people who didn’t expect themselves to get into it suddenly getting incredibly into it by the end of the show. We got a lot of people saying “I didn’t expect to get involved, but I found myself intensely interrogating a suspect and I loved it.”
Q: What does the interactive element bring to an online show? And where does improv fit into this?
The interactivity and the quality of it is everything. For a performer it’s often about balancing the objective of your character and storytelling, with getting your audience to understand the rules and encouraging them to be confident. It’s a lot to balance and requires all sorts of tactics. Online LARPing and role play games are enormously popular and growing in popularity, but most audiences aren’t comfortable with audience interaction. Lots of people dread it. They like to know the rules, but if you get them interacting it can be an intoxicating, delicious and powerful experience. As an interactive performer you need to be an expert facilitator, quick-witted and have a good understanding of your character.
Q: Who is this course for and why should they come along?
This course might be for those who’ve studied pure improv and want to move into improvising around more structured arcs and interactive theatre, or it might be for those who have less improv experience but want to take steps into this. It’s also for those who want to be badass world changers, those who want to build our digital theatre world, and explore the way this art form can start to cross with film, games, and many other forms. I’ll cover lots of details on how you might make and run your own show. In a few years I hope to be running an online theatre venue, and I would love to see the seeds of work here translate into amazing shows I can collaborate on and book in the future.