by Maddie Buttitta

In recent years, The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has challenged the preconceptions of theatre-going and theatremaking by incorporating technology and social media into their Shakespeare productions. Partnering with Muldark, a cross-platform production company, the RSC created Such Tweet Sorrow, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet in which, for five weeks, actors “took roles of central characters in the tragedy, and they tweeted as the characters living in contemporary London“. RSC’s latest production of The Tempest integrated motion capture technology and live theatre for the spirit Ariel (Mark Quartley); through this endeavor it created the illusion of the cyber-thespian, the actor as vessel for both story and technology.

Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak via email with Senior Lecturer Dr. Erin Sullivan from Stratford’s Shakespeare Institute on the role of social media and digitality in early modern theatre.

Q: How did you arrive to studying the seemingly incompatible realms of Shakespeare and digital culture? What attracted you to it?

ES: I’ve always been interested in media change. More than anything I’m interested in how people use art to explore the big questions in life. So changes in technology and media are also going to mean changes in the kinds of art people are using and, most importantly, the kinds of questions they are asking. Shakespeare wrote for a wide audience, so it seems only natural to me that we continue to explore how his works exist in popular culture, which is so infused by digital technology today.

Mark Quartley as Ariel and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. The Tempest, 2016. (c) RSC. Photo by Topher McGrillis.

Q: What are some misconceptions regarding Shakespeare and digital culture that more people of which should be more aware?

ES: I think there’s often a tendency to assume that pop culture and digital culture adaptations automatically mean ‘dumbing down’. It’s really important to me to resist that and to approach each new adaptation with curiosity and an open mind. There are definitely problems with digital culture, but you can’t deny that it has the potential to radically extend Shakespeare’s reach. In my project I’m looking at lots of different ways of using digital technology to reimagine the performance of Shakespeare: this includes live broadcasts of theatre to cinemas and also online streamings, more thoroughly ‘intermedial’ productions that put digital technology (often sophisticated projections and live video feeds) on the stage, and social media and online adaptations that relocate Shakespeare’s stages to the digital world. ‘Digital’ can mean so many different things and in this project I want to explore and celebrate that diversity.

Q: Along with researching Shakespeare and digital culture, you have also examined the portrayals of sadness and melancholy within early modern drama. What were the challenges of analyzing the sources for early modern textual culture as opposed to the very modern digital culture for your current project?

ES: In studies of the distant past, especially when you’re studying social and cultural history, there’s often a scarcity of evidence, whereas with my work on digital culture, there’s almost too much! A lot of my work, whether historical or modern, tends to look at ‘ephemera’, which basically means things that are created for everyday use but that often aren’t saved very scrupulously or carefully. So for my work on sadness that meant doctors’ case notes, weekly death records in London, broadside ballads, letters, etc., whereas for my work on digital culture it means tweets, reader comments on online reviews, community tumblr pages, etc. Although these categories of evidence might seem really different, they both suffer from a lack of preservation: people create and consume them and then throw or delete them away. For my current project on digital culture I’m getting used to taking lots of screenshots, because what’s online today really might not be there tomorrow. I’m studying a moving target so I’m trying to keep a paper/photo trail of the materials I’ve already examined while also being open to whatever’s about to happen next!

Dr. Sullivan speaks at the Blackfriars Playhouse tomorrow at 4:45 PM to discuss the ​role of social media at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Erin Sullivan completed her PhD at University College London ​in 2015 ​and is now a Senior Lecturer at the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon- Avon. Featured publications include Beyond Melancholy: Sadness and Selfhood in Renaissance England, Shakespeare on the Global Stage: Performance and Festivity in the Olympic Year, and A Year of Shakespeare: Re-living the World Shakespeare Festival.

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