How is technology shaping this year's Edinburgh Showcase?

| by Eleanor Turney

Surveillance culture, Big Data and video scenography. Andrew Westerside of Proto-type Theater and Simon Wainwright of imitating the dog explain to Eleanor Turney how technology influences the stories they tell and the tools they use

imitating the dog performs Nocturnes. Photograph: Sodium

"The work we do in the theatre is narrative-driven, often using the language of cinema and film, and it's very heavy on video projection," explains Simon Wainwright of imitating the dog.

Andrew Westerside, of Proto-type Theater, tells me that their Edinburgh Showcase show, A Machine They're Secretly Buildinguses projection in a way that is integral to the story: "there's a large screen on to which we project found footage, modified archive footage, classified security documents, live street film, animation. And it weaves in and out of the performance to create a kind of duel, where the screen and the performers are in dialogue with one another."

"Sometimes the screen sets the pulse for the performance, at other times it leads the material and provides visual clues that unlock the trajectory of the show. Our show goes from the First World War and the emergence of industrial-scale state espionage right the way through to 9/11 and what that meant for the world. In telling that history, we bounce around the globe and through the decades, and the screen is the vehicle through which we see the visuals of that timeline."

"Video is integral to the whole thing"

For Simon Wainwright, "video is integral to the whole thing". Imitating the dog's Showcase piece, Nocturnes, is simpler than some of its previous work. "We start a piece by deciding what the story is going to be, and we think about technological scenography at the same time. Sometimes it's about immersion, sometimes it's about wrapping the audience in the experience, sometimes it's just about designing a scenography that's relevant to the piece."

"We've had a decade of making huge shows that would only fit in big-scale venues and have a cast of 10 and a technological budget of x-thousand pounds," says Wainwright. "We've realised that even though we've increased in profile and success, there's less and less money. So this show is one screen and one projector and three performers and that's it, it fits in a suitcase and could go anywhere."

"As a response to the time that we're living in," Wainwright continues, "I think the show we're doing at the moment is the clearest. Even though we're a company that's not overtly political, the metaphors we use and the way that we work is incredibly political."

"The screen and the performers are in dialogue with one another"

Proto typeProto-type Theater in A Machine They're Secretly Building. Photograph: Adam York Gregory

Similarly, Westerside says that A Machine They're Secretly Building is "our first move towards something that's more directly engaged with contemporary politics. This piece is about surveillance, mass data storage, the implications of Big Data. In many ways, simply being in the room implicates you in that conversation. We are all engaged in that net of technology in some way. When we engage with technologies and software and social media networks we routinely give up our rights to privacy and our rights to freedom. And we're seeing that globally."

"There's lots of different stories to be told about the ways in which we engage with technology and data is radically changing the world, our lives and the way we think. So while the piece starts from an Anglo-American perspective, it's much broader than that. I think the work would resonate anywhere in mainland Europe, all of those places which have Big Data agendas. In some ways, anywhere you can own a mobile phone is a relevant place for this material. It's a story that resonates almost everywhere."

In terms of touring, how do two such tech-heavy shows travel? "Luckily we're quite self-contained!" Wainwright laughs. "Wherever we're going, we take everything we need. It's always a challenge, even with the simplest shows, If you're using technology in a place where they're not used to that kind of technological usage in the theatre. But that's what makes it more interesting."

"Arts have an incredible role to play in shaping how we think about the world"

Imitating the dog has found audiences for its work abroad, even where multimedia or tech-heavy work is unusual. "I think because our work often incorporates a language that people are very used to now, which is a language of film, people are very receptive to it. They understand the context. People have often said watching our shows is like seeing two-dimensional film. The narratives that we normally use are well-understood and well-trodden stories. They're about pretty essential themes like love, death or war that are pretty common to any kind of storytelling." 

This universality is important to Westerside, too, with or without the technology. "We're in the middle of a terribly political cultural landscape at the moment. The arts have an incredible role to play in shaping the way we think about the world and the way we think about each other. Simply to share cultural output in the way that the British Council does all over the world is the first step to having an impact on the way citizens and governments think about others."

"As soon as we're able to share the way we think, the way we feel, the way we love and the way we communicate across borders and cultures, we've reached the first step to generating empathy. Cultural demonisations are suddenly much harder if you are in a kind of spoken or cultural conversation with people. It's always been profoundly important, but the shifts in global politics in the past 24 months have given us greater cause to make sure that we're having these dialogues. That we're opening our borders culturally at times when they're being closed politically."

Andrew Westerside of Proto-type Theater and Simon Wainwright of imitating the dog were talking to Eleanor Turneya freelance journalist, editor and arts consultant, and Co-Director of Incoming Festival.

Nocturnes by imitating the dog is at The Sanctuary, ZOO Venues from 12–26 August

A Machine They're Secretly Building by Proto-type Theater is at Summerhall from 15–27 August


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