Thursday, 26 January 2017

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program: Michael O’Brien

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.)

Michael O’Brien is training in digital media creation and directing with Sarah Garton Stanley at SpiderWebShow

(January 16, 2017) Hello and Happy New Year! I hope all at Theatre Ontario had a great holiday season. I, in fact, had quite a busy season through the holidays. But that’s fine with me—it’s been such fun!

The month of November into December, I began as an assistant creator with the SpiderWebShow team. My first steps were tutorials with Digital Production Manager Camila Diaz-Varela (formerly a Theatre Ontario PTTP trainee!) who showed me around SpiderWebShow’s various online platforms. I was given passwords and added to the “administrators” lists: I had an insider’s view and was given permission to call myself a team member and “web creator.” I continued by going deep into the archives of CdnTimes (SpiderWebShow’s online “magazine”), reading hundreds of columns, and “tagging” them for easier access by our audience. I now had an authoritative grasp of SpiderWebShow’s purpose and vision. 

But the big event/leap of the season (for all of us!) was December 2, Kingston Ontario. There, I spent a marathon day meeting/working/creating with the entire team at Queen’s University, assisting with and observing, a “beta test” of CdnStudio: SpiderWebShow’s “virtual rehearsal hall.”

What does all that mean? Well, this past year, Artistic Director Sarah Garton Stanley and Associate Director Michael Wheeler have been working with Queen’s University theatre students. With the assistance of Resident Technologist Joel Adria, they’ve been doing amazing pioneering work with web performance technology, developing a means by which various “performers” in different locations (in front of green screens) can be put together on camera in a single “virtual space”! There, they can rehearse and perform live together!—opening vast new possibilities for performing artists.

The first part of that day, I was “crew”, following instructions, setting up CdnStudio. We set up one green screen and camera in the Isabel Bader Centre Studio where our audience would be; we set up a second green screen and camera in a small room down the hall, and a third in a classroom two flights up. I quickly learned much about the equipment involved. Then, through most of the day, we tested the setup and worked to get ready for the event. We tried a few “virtual rehearsals” (myself and others on camera.) I reminded myself that the Wright Brothers had plenty of crashes before that historic flight at Kitty Hawk. So yes, we had a few crashes; but by late afternoon, we were satisfied, hopeful and ready to fly!

That night, for an audience of about forty, we launched the “beta test” event: “meta friction.” This was, in effect, a cutting-edge live and new-media variety show unlike anything previously attempted, anywhere! As the central feature of the evening, students “virtually” performed together in self-written 5-min pieces: one performer live in the room, another down the hall, another upstairs. Appearing together in “virtual settings” on a big projection screen in the big studio, they performed: a sci-fi mini-drama, a romantic psychodrama, an old-school comedy and a new-school meta-comedy! It worked like magic (except when it didn’t, but that was magic too, because we could stop, fix things and start again!) All this was interspersed with segments from our CdnElder project: big-screen projected web interviews with esteemed senior theatre artists with insights and memories going back decades. We also had two live student emcees who kept the tone interactive and fun, and a dark empty side-room full of audio “thoughts.” So. It was a trippy mix of past, present and future, dark and light, lowbrow and highbrow. It was basically SpiderWebShow’s “Kitty Hawk”! By late that evening, we were wiped, but happy! We flew! And, late, late that night, we gathered and began thinking/dreaming—Where next in 2017?

Into December: Back home in Toronto, with the holiday season coming, I began our next agreed-on plan. I continued my deep exploration of CdnTimes web archives, and now began working to aggressively increase SpiderWebShow’s presence on social media. We created a daily plan of promoting past and present CdnTimes posts on Facebook and Twitter (I’m still figuring out Instagram!), working to broaden awareness of this company’s contribution to Canadian Culture/Performance/Progress/Thought. As a newcomer, my FB posts took on a loud, lively tone of “discovery.” This work will continue throughout my mentorship. As well as this, Sarah Garton Stanley and I researched and experimented with web advertising to reach beyond our immediate community/sphere. I look forward to exploring this further in 2017.

During the holiday season, SpiderWebShow went into three-weeks hiatus: but I kept working, part-time. I created/posted web interview/profiles of the company’s three newest members, including myself.

And, at the very end of the year (Dec 29), I sat down with mentor Sarah Garton Stanley and we reviewed my/our progress, with satisfaction. Then, Sarah proposed an additional initiative for me—which is what I hoped for! This is very exciting and will be a growing focus for me in the second half of my mentorship. 

Sarah proposed that I should create my own weekly “stage/column” as part of SpiderWebShow’s social media. There, I could expand my reporting on SpiderWebShow’s news/progress, but also cultivate my own first-person voice/vision in the new-media performance format of blogging. I’ve been very eager to explore new forms of expression lately, and a multimedia “performance space” appeals to me as a place to convey my thoughts/observations/feelings beyond the limits of physical space or the written word. This opportunity is a great gift, and I mean to make the most of it. So, the result—SPIDERWIRE—my own blog/column, every Wednesday on SpiderWebShow’s Facebook/Twitter. My themes will be much the same as SpiderWebShow’s: Progress, Performance, Media, Transformation, Change. My pilot post was January 11th. I expressed thoughts about my mixed feelings re: the power/potential of mere words. I did this by “performing” with a mix of words and images, reaching for a “new voice”. This first post achieved/posted, I feel emboldened to do/say much more! So, I’m now getting busy creating posts 2, 3, 4, and so on. I hope, with each post, to speak/leap more boldly into places (and of things) unknown!

Meanwhile: CdnTimes has launched its first 2017 Edition. The new theme: KEEPING THE FAITH. An urgent/timely theme, as anxiety/dread spreads in our community, the world shifts, and many certainties now seem uncertain. I know I’ll have much to say/add on my platform. Can I voice hope?

Also new in Jan 2017: a structural/company shift at SpiderWebShow. Sarah Garton Stanley’s role is now shifted to “creative consultant” and Michael Wheeler is now full time “Artistic Director.” I look forward very much to working more closely with Michael as well as Sarah in the coming weeks. I’ve enjoyed meeting and working with them both so much, in real time/space, in the late weeks of last year. 

So you’ll see a lot more of me online in coming weeks: “acting up” on social media, using my/our “stage” to enhance SpiderWebShow’s presence/significance in Canada and beyond. Also, SpiderWebShow will begin stepping up their CdnElder project: I can’t wait to see what they’re planning; I aim to offer all possible assistance/contribution. But at this moment, my focus is next post (#2) on SPIDERWIRE. What shall I say/show/perform next? How I can I add to the carnival/hurricane/wilderness of the internet with something fun, unique, positive, insightful and fascinating? I’d better get to it

Thank you, SpiderWebShow; thank you Sarah and the whole team. Thank you, Theatre Ontario for giving me this opportunity to explore and expand my potential as a voice/force/artist/citizen. I look forward very much to posting in this space again, in a few weeks—with more news, progress and surprises!

--Michael O’Brien

Related Reading:

The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is March 1, 2017.

Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program is funded by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.

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