Precipice of a Rabbit Hole

I arrived at Forward/Story with some trepidation, considering myself an outlier to the transmedia community. I work in live theatre—specifically in the areas of what are called physical theatre and object theatre—as a choreographer and a performer with narrative theorist tendencies. My company, Manual Cinema, creates and tours shadow puppet performances that emulate cinematic techniques, creating live “movies” by hand. Our tools are as analog as you get: overhead projectors, paper, light, and the human body. Arriving at Forward/Story, I felt like I had snuck into the holodeck using a low-fi hack.

Yet I soon discovered that Forward/Story was not about catching myself up on the state of “transmedia,” even that term became more of a conversation than a container. Instead Forward/Story was a convergence across manifold lines of flight. The weekend was about common questions from divergent disciplines and unified theories made from practices that shatter the mere notion of disciplinarity. The secret Sag Harbor location was populated with musicians-turned-experience designers, writers- Socratic performance artists, live game designers-tech developers, futurists-LARPers-designers, strategists-activists-storytellers, multimedia novelists-doctors. And even these hyphens are too pared down to actually encapsulate what these makers do. I experienced a personal documentary on the Oculus Rift that was one of the most elegant pieces of emotional storytelling that I have ever experienced. I played a video game that used the player’s gmail data to capture the way that friends/lovers/collaborators drift in and out of touch. There was no standard data set to deviate from, but rather an unruly rhizome of people all asking about the inherent narrative possibilities of platforms old, new, and yet to be invented. And across all of these diverse practices, everyone was arriving at the same questions: How can we build agency into narrative experiences? How can we create a space for the audience at the center of the story?

Being at Forward/Story has forced me to question anew the narrative potential of liveness. Why does the audience need to be physically present at the time and space of an experience? Physical spectacle is one answer to this; watching a performer from New York’s STREB ensemble fly off three-stories-high scaffolding, for example, is a viscerally affecting experience that makes us more aware of our own bodies in time and space. Another answer is work like Miwa Matreyek’s, which features Matreyek’s live body in silhouette interacting with digital animation, seeming to both enfold and rupture our everyday experience of digital screens. Forward/Story has introduced a new set of answers to me that are more complicated than the question itself: immersion, agency, interactivity.

In an essay published almost a century ago, Bertolt Brecht said that any theatre that makes no contact with its audience is pure nonsense. In our age of interactivity and increasingly personal technology, audience contact seems to be the medium itself. Yet, immersive storytelling still feels elusive. Digital media often asks us to ignore most of our senses and to disregard our body travelling through time and space. Conversely, live work often refuses to engage with the pace and structures of the digital storytelling that so permeates our lives, and thus it estranges itself from the experiences and narrative vocabularies of the audience. The mash-up artists at Forward/Story all seem to be tackling this divide from angles as diverse as live urban games and inquiries into the inherent narratives of designed objects.

Since leaving Forward/Story, I have only just begun to comprehend the full breadth of work out there that is addressing these questions. In the weeks since the retreat, I have discovered that the world of ARGs, which essentially fulfill my childhood desire to open a secret door and discover an alternative world. As I went down the rabbit hole of ARGnet and Unfiction, I had the embarrassing but delightful realization that most of the creators that I was reading about were people who I’d been chatting and sharing a kale smoothie with mere days before at Forward/Story. Reading more about the work of this collective assembled by Lance and Christy has opened up my eyes to other possibilities that I didn’t even know that I didn’t know about: big games, subtle mobs, social maps. It has inspired me to recommit myself to breaking the seemingly intractable conventions of my own discipline, finding ways to bring the interactivity of digital media into live theatre and bringing theatricality to the digital age.

Sarah Fornace is a Chicago-based narrative designer, choreographer, puppeteer, and director. She specializes in staging immersive performance and exploring the possibilities of embodied storytelling. Sarah is a co-artistic director of Manual Cinema, a live animation company. Manual Cinema is currently working on shorts based on Story Corps audio. As a choreographer, Sarah has staged over 30 fight sequences, from blindfolded boxing to all-girl sword battles. As a performer, she has hung from silks, animated Moby Dick puppets made of driftwood, and danced ballet in a giant rabbit suit in front of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Sarah teaches at Columbia College Chicago.


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