Digital R&D in the Arts Scotland - Case Study 9 - National Theatre of Scotland
Each day in the run up to Nesta Scotland’s Spotlight on Digital R&D in the Arts event we are going to share a case study showcasing what the ten projects from both calls of the fund have achieved.
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The National Theatre of Scotland doesn’t have a dedicated theatre space. It works as a ‘theatre without walls’, and performances are held in traditional theatres, village halls, pubs, ferries and forests.
Access for people with visual or hearing impairments is limited. NTS worked with a creative partner and a technology partner to deliver captioning and audio description direct to mobile devices like smartphones and tablets to enable their performances to be accessible to all at every performance.
They have had an interesting and sometimes surprising journey, challenging accepted wisdom and overcoming technology failures. You can read more about the cultural and technical aspects in the case study below.
National Theatre of Scotland Digital Access Project
Case Study by Rhona Taylor
“What Nesta has allowed us is the space and time to think that this could actually work, so we’re excited now about taking it on to the next stage” Ellie Rothnie
The National Theatre of Scotland has developed a digital access project with its creative partner, Flip, and technology partner, We are Everyone. The project aimed to make all the company’s performances accessible to people with visual and hearing impairments by delivering captioning and audio description directly to audience members’ smartphones. The project forms part of a wider commitment by the NTS to research and development, and also to using digital technology to make its productions as accessible as possible.
The NTS was the first national theatre company in the world to operate without a dedicated theatre space. Instead, it works as a “theatre without walls”, and its productions are performed in spaces across Scotland, from traditional theatres to less conventional spaces including village halls, pubs, quarries, ferries and forests.
NTS already offered captioning and audio description services, but because of financial constraints, these were usually available at only one performance in a theatre run of up to three weeks. “We wanted to see whether technology would allow us to develop a platform that could deliver those services to smartphones – and that would allow people with visual impairments or who were hard of hearing to go to any performance they liked, at any location, and access the same service,” says Ellie Rothnie, development director at NTS. “We have a mandate as a national theatre company to lead the way in accessibility, making sure we’re using all the tools at our disposal to do that.”
NTS had already been working with Flip, an organisation supporting disability equality in the arts, on a three-year development process, looking at all aspects of the company’s disability equality and access. A good relationship between the two organisations was already well established, and Flip was able to provide access to the focus groups that were used throughout the R&D project. “There was no question of not involving Flip in the project,” Rothnie says. “They seemed to be a natural fit, and they’ve been really invaluable in terms of helping to connect us to these groups, making sure we understand how to make them feel comfortable.”
Before starting the Digital R&D project, NTS looked at other organisations internationally to see what similar digital projects were already under way, and might offer some insight. Marianne Maxwell, NTS audience development manager, found a commercial company in Canberra, Australia, that was developing automated captioning, although not to mobile devices, and engaged them as part of the research process.
A range of NTS staff members were involved in the initial discussions with the technology partner. “The idea was quite broad. We knew roughly how it would be delivered, through a device, but whether it would be web-based or an app or any of those things, those are things that came out of the discussions.”
NTS invited members of a deaf theatre club, and people who used audio description, to focus groups based around the NTS production of Black Watch. The focus groups watched the production, accessing audio descriptions or captions in the way they normally would, and then gave feedback about the idea of accessing the facility using a smartphone. “We tried to figure out if even the idea would be attractive. Initial reactions were very positive, although there were lots of reservations about how would it work. They wondered – would it be OK to take a mobile phone into a theatre, as that's a great taboo. But in principle it was something that these stakeholder groups wanted us to explore.”
We are Everyone worked on an initial interface to deliver the audio descriptions and captioning, and the NTS continued to work with the focus groups. They were then invited back to watch a performance of In Time O’ Strife in a community hall in Fife. They first watched the performance as they would normally, and were invited back five days later to test the new technology.
This formed an important part of the research, Rothnie says, as their feedback provided the project with proof of concept. “We wanted to test the technology in situ, to see how it worked, did people like it, how could we improve it – was it any good.”
“We needed to know whether audience members, and also the cast, would be comfortable with people using this technology in a theatre. Even if we were to absolutely crack the technology, we needed to know – are people going to feel comfortable taking out a mobile phone in the middle of the theatre? If someone feels intimidated or is being tutted at then that’s not going to be a good experience for them.”
The testing day was one of the project’s biggest challenges, as the technology failed to work, with only one person receiving the service to their smartphone. The day did, however, provide NTS with information about how the project might go forward, and the reaction from the focus groups was positive. “We found that as long as people understood why someone had their mobile phone out, no one had an issue about it,” Rothnie says. “We know the user groups are interested in seeing this working and developed further. We know we can do something about addressing it culturally, about bringing these devices into theatres. The key now is absolutely cracking how we deliver it.”
The initial device developed by We are Everyone required someone to be at the performance to trigger each line of caption or audio description. NTS knows this must be changed to an automated platform, in line with the initial objectives. “We need to find some way of using what Everyone has built – a manually-triggered captioning device – and turning it into something that runs off the triggers the company already has. If we can do that then we’re confident that we can bring something that really fulfils the ambition of the brief that we set up.
“We know it can be done – they developed a platform that could deliver what we needed it to, so the rest is fine tuning. What Nesta has allowed us is the space and time to think that this could actually work, so we're excited now about taking it on to the next stage.”
One of the main issues the project addressed was the taboo of bringing a mobile phone into a theatre. “Our organisation was split over it,” Rothnie says. “There were people who just said, ‘Oh no, it's just absolutely wrong’, and as a result were interested in getting on board the journey, because they wanted to see if it could work. It goes against everything they expected.
“Everyone was interested in the journey and the exploration. Whether we can convince people that it’s an OK thing to do further down the line, that’s still got to be explored. We’re still at the very early stages but we hope in time if it works and if the audience response continues to be positive, this is something that could transform the experience of theatre.”
The project forms part of a wider move to use digital technology as a way of accessing and engaging with theatre audiences. This can be seen in projects such as National Theatre Live, in which the National Theatre in London broadcasts live performances in cinemas around the country. “People are seeing theatre less and less as something standalone that they go and consume. They want to see behind the scenes, they want to watch the trailer, they want to blog about it and put something up on social media.
“We’ve got to respond to that by not only creating the content that you see on stage, but also to give people the rest of what they would like as well, which is the digital content. It’s not all just about beaming theatre into different places, but it’s about the surrounding experience and how you enhance that by embracing what's happening in the digital world.”
The project forms part of the wider use of digital technology in the NTS, including social networking and social media calls for performances. NTS is also bringing back Five Minute Theatre, a 24-hour live screening project. “That would have been unthinkable a number of years back. The idea that a national theatre company could curate an entire day of theatre that would be available to audiences simultaneously all over the world is quite exciting.”
In 2013 NTS also worked with the company Quartic Llama to develop an app based around its show Let the Right One In, and would like to do something similar again. The app created a walking tour of Dundee that related to the performance. “You didn’t have to be at the performance but you were getting a flavour of it. The result was great, we got what we hoped and they enjoyed the process.
“Some of our shows are the most technically advanced – something like Black Watch, which is now five or more years old, is still incredibly technically advanced. There are some areas of our work in which we have embraced, almost led on, digital advancements, but probably others where we’re still coming up to speed.”
Some of the main challenges included the working relationship with the technology partner, and how the product would develop after the project finished. “Perhaps we were shortsighted in not realising that whatever our digital partner came up with, our technical team would have to deliver or be involved with. Think about who are all the stakeholders and at which point they need to be involved. It’s going to impact on your wider organisation – think about life afterwards. Who’'s going to deliver this – make sure you’ve got their buy-in and understanding at an early stage.”
The project was valuable for the NTS not just in terms of the technology it started to develop, but also its wider implications. “R&D is absolutely in our DNA. Every piece of theatre we do, every story we tell, goes through a research stage and a development stage. The whole concept of R&D is how we make work.
“This project is a gift. There’s absolutely no way we would've had the time, space and funding to take a holistic look at something we’ve always been committed to. Something that can give you the space to step back and achieve something that’s perhaps greater than the sum of its parts has been amazing.”
“This is the first digital project we’ve been directly involved in. What was exciting about the Nesta project was thinking about using new technology to make performance accessible in a way that’s very different from how it’s traditionally been done.
“The current system of captioning and audio description is quite rigid, and often the technology is far from state of the art – it’s clunky and it causes problems.
“When it comes to disability equality and access, there’s not that many people embracing new technology to solve problems, though it’s increasing. Digital technology certainly has the potential to make the arts more accessible – it’s increasingly part of our lives.
“A lot of people with access requirements might be older, and so using certain mobile technology might not suit them, but that will change as older people in the future will have grown up using those technologies.
“We’re not very far from technology creating quite a step change around access. Things like Google Glass will revolutionise captioning, text and theatre so there’s lots of exciting things coming, and it’s great that the NTS are trying to move with that process and think creatively around it.
“The relationships built with the participant groups during the project were very positive, there was a lot of trust built and we’re able to take that forward.
“There was also a big impact on NTS as an organisation. We tried to embrace the whole company and explain to everybody what was happening – I went to the cast one day when they were rehearsing. There was buy-in across the whole organisation.
“Flip’s working relationship with NTS has been solidified, and we’re building trust with members of the company, so with the Nesta project and also the wider work we’re doing, we’re able to encourage people to think differently and try different things in a supportive way.”
“On the whole it makes a massive difference because you feel like a part of the audience … you can laugh when other people laugh.”
“The thing that shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to accessibility and audio description is that it’s a holistic thing. It’s the whole process, it’s not just sitting there
with headphones on. It’s also about arriving at the venue ... ”
“I liked it and have no problem holding it as I use the Kindle a lot. You quickly pick up when there was a lot of speech coming up and you did not need to look up as it was the same person talking. I thought it was brilliant.”