Big Telly Zoe Seaton interview
By Conor O’Neill
From little acorns grow mighty oaks. Big Telly Theatre Company interactive show Alice – A Virtual Theme Park kicked off on August 1st. CultureCrush NI caught up with cofounder and artistic director Zoe Seaton to find out more.
I believe you were an actor at one stage?
“Yes, well I started acting in youth theatre, then I realised pretty soon I wanted to be a director. It started at the Riverside Theatre, Coleraine which opened in 1978 when I was just a kid. My whole family were involved. I later went on to study directing.”
Do you think having an acting background helped you as a director?
“Well, I haven’t acted for a very long time, but I do think it’s important to understand the pressures of everyone and their roles. It’s very important to understand the role of an actor and their journey through an interactive piece where they’re having a lot of input.”
So, setting up Big Telly Theatre Company, how did that come about?
“I was at the University of Kent in Canterbury and made the decision to move back to here and start my own company; that came about of us doing a four year drama course and there was a group of us who decided we wanted to work together. Back then there was only Charabanc who was the only professional theatre running and touring here and we felt there was a real opportunity to support the arts in this area and work here.
“We were given the opportunity to work at Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart and work with a visionary director called Cara MacMahon.”
You’re based in Portstewart, is there much of a scene and many venues in that area?
“We don’t work in venues so much. We tour throughout Northern Ireland. We’re as likely to be playing in Enniskillen, Newry or Donaghadee as we are in Belfast or Derry/Londonderry. Our projects and tours happen all over the country and a lot of our work is site specific such as empty shops and lots of other different locations.”
Big Telly is an interesting name for a theatre company, can you tell me more about that?
“It came from a little deaf girl I met years ago and she used to say that going to the theatre was like a big telly and I just thought that was a lovely idea and great that theatre could be as easy to access as TV and now that a lot of our work is digital, it actually feels like a good name.”
On to collaboration, as a writer and director do you find it difficult to delegate and let others run free with your idea?
“We work with specific collaborators because of what they can bring to the table. With Charisma.ai they bring something very specific and Fox Dog Studios are a computer gaming company and they’re responsible for an element to Alice that we couldn’t possibly do without them. Paul McEneaney from Cahoots NI is involved with some magic effects within the show.
I believe there are elements of animation within the show.
“Yes, there are artificial intelligence, animation and multi-platform computer games; there’s also a lot of different tech involved. At one point the audience will be invited to the croquet game and to draw a hedgehog on their phone and they will send that in through Zoom World and will have a journey through the show with and can win prizes. We’re keen to see what digital theatre and what other skills within the creatives industries is we can learn from. That’s been really exciting.”
Why did you choose Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?
“The original idea to do Alice came from Creation Theatre, we decided to do a co-production; they’re from Oxford – where Lewis Carroll studied, lived and worked for most of his life – and there is a big Alice following there. They then approached us and asked if we’d like to co-produce it as a theme park and because we’d been making games with Ambition.ai it was right up our street.
“It has wonderful characters and is surreal and bonkers anyway; if Lewis Carroll was to be writing it now, it would absolutely have a computer game in it because it’s so eclectic already. The story of Alice isn’t that strong, the characters are amazing but the actual narrative is she falls down a rabbit hole, meets a bunch of strange people, has odd experiences and then comes out.
“The whole concept of the show is that it feels like a theme park. We’re trying to re-invent what the actual digital experience might be and we think it will feel like a theme park and a bit like a computer game and also like a theatre show. We had a discussion with Creation and we wanted the experience for families where the was elements of choice. When you go to a theme park you decide ‘right we’ll go on the big dipper and then on to the dodgems after.’, so there will be elements of choice within this experience.”
During the duration of the show’s run, will there be changes every day?
“The basic structure will remain the same but as all of the actors are really playful and some of it uses interaction with the audience and some audiences will do different things at different times, it will be different every time. That’s because of the different audiences and for that reason it will be different every day.”
Once this pandemic is over how do you see the shape of conventional theatre?
“We’re already making work which mixes the digital space and doing shows were the audience have burner phones and have missions and have to film bits, so I think we’ll continue to be in that world. We will continue to make shows for Zoom because we’ve now got a really big international following. We’ve also had so many emails saying, ‘I’m disabled and can’t leave the house and this gives me a whole new experience.’ or ‘I have autistic children and it can be a nightmare for them to be in formal environments like a theatre, so this is great for us’.
“I think it may be harder for traditional theatre but there is also an audience who’ll be happy to see it back. What we would want to do is give audiences as much choice as possible, It would be great if someone came to one of our digital experiences and then thought, ‘You know, I’m going to go to the Lyric as I’ve never been before’. There are opportunities for the arts right now, but there are many challenges.”
What’s your thoughts on Operation Elsewhere, The Machine Stops and The Tempest getting such positive critical acclaim?
“It’s amazing, we are all completely blown away, I’m delighted. With Operation Elsewhere whenever we first did it in the real world we brought it to Enniskillen, Donaghadee and Antrim; we were working with actors who had chosen to work outside Belfast and Derry/Londonderry. Many actors fear their work will be invisible and then to suddenly see they’re in The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Guardian and they’re on CNN, that was amazing. It was great to see actors from here to get such profile and be so celebrated.”
And finally, what’s after Alice?
“We’re doing a production of Macbeth at the Belfast International Arts Festival this October which is interactive and online.”
Alice – A Virtual Theme Park runs from August 1st to August 30th. Shows are at 4pm and 7pm and run for approximately 90 minutes.
Tickets are £20 per device.
To book yours call the box office on 01865 766266 or visit http://www.creationtheatre.co.uk