An extended version of an article that appears in the forthcoming edition of The Lowdown

In April 2010, the RSC and Mudlark launched Such Tweet Sorrow, a contemporary ‘translation’ of Romeo & Juliet, using the social networking site Twitter. It ran for five weeks, creating updated versions of six characters from the original play and placing them on Twitter. Audiences were able to “follow” the individual characters as the story played out in real time. The project was a great success in terms of attracting new audiences, and in experimenting with a new form of drama. However, commentators also identified a number of shortcomings.

Too Much Information
Following the story over five weeks took some commitment. If you missed a day as a follower, you’d have to backtrack to catch up on the plot. It was non-stop and unsustainable if you wanted to maintain some semblance of an outside life.  It also went against how most people access Twitter – in fragments. Stories which unfold in real time have a limited shelf life. Followers have fickle attention spans and are easily distracted.

Much of the language used was descriptive – telling the audience what was happening. It was functional, but goes against the basic paradigm of “show, don’t tell.” It was an unimaginative use of the form of Twitter – which is, essentially, finding something interesting and entertaining to say in 140 characters. Some of the characters mistook youth for inarticulacy, using textspeak to get their points across. Not easy to follow, and in a play known for its poetry, not the best translation.

Twitter works best as a dialogue. So to have six characters conversing with each other in isolation, completely ignoring the wider world, failed to embrace one of the fundamental uses of the medium. There were a couple of token nods to what was going on in the real world – the General Election etc, but there was no acknowledgment of the growing number of followers. Someone even signed up as Benvolio to join in the fun, but all his attempts at interaction were ignored, and ultimately blocked.

It was, in many ways, a missed opportunity to transpose such a familiar story on to a brand new medium. Surely an original piece of drama would have been better suited to the experiment – to meld form and content?  Especially given that one of the central features of Romeo & Juliet is the need for secrecy. To have the events played out on a public forum for all to see rather undermines the point.

So as an intermittent but enthusiastic user of Twitter, I was interested to explore further possibilities, drawing on lessons learned from Such Tweet Sorrow. How could we create an original piece of drama that emerges organically from the medium? What kind of stories could be told via Twitter? How ‘real’ do the characters have to be? How can we structure the narrative?

With the support of North West Playwrights, I asked Alexander Kelly from the theatre company Third Angel to facilitate initial workshops with writer/ performers Jarrod Cooke, Eve Steele and Danielle Henry. Playwright and theatre/tech enthusiast Hannah Nicklin also joined us to offer her expertise. The plan was to use Twitter as a launchpad for an original piece of drama, which would then be ‘re-tooled’ into a live performance at DatFest, a digital arts festival in Stoke. We had a timescale of three weeks, from initial conception, through to the live launch and culminating with the final presentation at the end of February.

The first challenge was to introduce Twitter to the three writer/ performers, who had never used the social networking site before. In many ways, this was a great starting point as we were able to go back to basics and interrogate why people join Twitter, what they use it for, and who they follow. What are the rules of engagement? Rather than writing a script and trying to squeeze lines into 140 characters, we wanted to start from the reverse perspective and utilise the form to its best, innate advantage. To borrow a line from Daniel Bye, we wanted to create something “that could only unfold on Twitter”.

In order to do this, we had to establish why the characters would join Twitter in the first place, set up their objectives, and more practically, why they would end up in Stoke in three weeks’ time. We looked at the functionality of Twitter – when, how and why people use it in the way they do. Broadly, we came up with five main applications:

Information Sharing/ Gathering
Companies join Twitter to market their products. Theatres join Twitter to plug their shows. Writers join Twitter to network and make connections. At a basic level, it is a practical way to raise awareness. But if accounts are constantly marketing products, they won’t be very popular, or gain many followers. There has to be a balance between corporate and personal – people like to hear the voice behind the logo. So a successful company account will personalise the output by utilizing some of the other features of Twitter.

Some accounts are set up for pure entertainment value. They are either entirely fictional constructs, or can be spoofs of famous figures. e.g. @Bertrumthumbcat* is a cat plotting to take over the world, @queen_uk is contemplating giving up gin for Lent. They are clever, engaging, and their astute play on familiar characteristics provides a momentary distraction to daily life. Dan Reballato provided an interesting variation on the theme last year by pretending to re-tweet @raoulmoat in the days leading up to his death. What started out as an amusing spoof, turned into a commentary on the frenzied voyeurism of the live, rolling news broadcasts. More recently, I think everyone is hoping that @charliesheen is spoofing a celebrity going into mental breakdown, but the realisation that this is a real stream of (un?)consciousness makes for riveting, car crash drama.

Social networking sites are a useful way of sharing information and raising awareness. People were able to watch the unfolding events in #Egypt earlier this year by following the hashtag on Twitter.  The news was more immediate and more personal than following events on TV. In the UK, campaigns such as #UKuncut are able to generate interest and gain followers/ activists for their tax protests. This particular campaign was adopted by one of our characters. More on that later. Campaigns can also take on a more personal slant, which sometimes reveals the darker side of Twitter in the form of a witch-hunt. The relative anonymity of the site can encourage mob rule.

Shared Experience
TV ratings watchdogs have reported that there has been a rise in viewers watching live events. This trend has been attributed to the number of people who utilize social networking sites to provide live commentaries on programmes. People can consume shows such as BBC Question Time and XFactor on different levels – simultaneously watching the programme and tweeting observations and responses. The level of meta-conversation creates a second, online audience where participation and interactivity is the key to engagement. It’s only a matter of time before panellists on Question Time start answering questions from live tweets alongside those from the studio audiences.

This is the usage that gets the most flak from critics. Tweeting about what you’ve had for tea, or other minute details of daily life, is, in isolation, rightly seen as boring, nonsensical and frankly useless. But what Twitter can provide is a slanted window into people’s lives. During the workshops, it was observed that Twitter is about the stories people encounter, not the stories they tell. Observations, insights and small moments all help to build a fragmented picture of a character.

So how does this relate to our proposed drama? We realised that the narrative had to embed itself within the functionality of the medium, utilising the unique tools on offer.  Alex Kelly termed it a “multi-genre, multi-platform performance writing project”.  In order to be authentic, it wasn’t just a case of placing characters on Twitter and asking them to play out a drama. It was about creating “digital footprints”, building a wider world for the characters, both on the internet and in real life.

So the characters also existed in blogs, videos, photographs and discussion forums, via sites such as Tumblr, Posterous and even Mumsnet. It was a case of planting clues across a wide spectrum of websites, picking up followers along the way. Audiences may not see the whole story, but the fragments of information that they encounter all contribute to the character’s narrative journey.

We looked at how people engage with Twitter and acknowledged that it is an essentially solitary medium. People tend to tweet when they are on their own, to fill in the time. On the train or bus, in between meetings, or in a corner at a party. Whispers across a crowded room. So it made sense that these characters would inhabit their own space and wouldn’t necessarily encroach into each other’s worlds.

Alex Kelly provides a good overview of the characters and their journeys in his Third Angel blog:

What was really interesting to me was that Eve, Danielle and Jarrod, all starting from very similar experience of social networking and responding to the same brief, were able to use social media differently and then present written pieces that were formally different to each other, and worked with/against their online lives differently, too.

Danielle’s character was the most fictional: @Honey_henry, a honey-trapper, cynical, world weary – a contemporary take on the private detective archetype. She advertises her services online, and tweets observations on human relationships, perhaps as a way of dealing with any compromise she feels about her job. Danielle’s live presentation, the most poetic and stylised of the three, recounted @Honey_henry’s feelings on the occasion that her status quo is challenged – the night she falls for one of her marks – and the consequences. So the present-tense of @Honey_henry’s live presentation took place on a number of occasions in the preceeding two weeks.

Jarrod’s character, @zombiejarrod, lived Jarrod’s own life, as if he were a member of the formerly living. Played comparatively straight, @zombiejarrod was also looking for a date to a wedding in Stoke. Jarrod’s presentation found his zombie-self standing outside the church, stood up by his date – an opportunity to retell his character’s story, putting in more detail and background than we got from following him on Twitter. The text was therefore positioned at a specific point in the timeline of the previous two weeks – in the 5 minutes leading up to the sending of a tweet hashtagged #worsttimestobestoodup, on the afternoon of the last Saturday.

Eve’s character, @_evka_ was the most real world of the three – a slightly reframed version of her own life. The actions in the real world (going on protests, for example) were all done by Eve and @_evka_ simultaneously. It was only in the final two days that @_evka_’s timeline became fictional, as she deliberately didn’t collect her kids from her ex-husband on the Saturday morning (preventing him from going on holiday) and went to stay in a hotel in Stoke. As some of @_evka_’s followers didn’t necessarily know that she was a character, Eve was keen to make it clear that she wasn’t abandoning her kids indefinitely, just having a weekend away to recharge her single-mum batteries. Eve’s text for @_evka_ was a series of video messages sent to her kids and their dad over the weekend, which stood alone, but could also be fitted into her online narrative if you’d been following that.

The three very different takes on Twitter as a medium each explored different ways of telling stories. It raised the question of authenticity – does it have to be real to be authentic? And do audiences have to know that they are following a fictional construct? As Alex suggests, the character of @_evka_ was the closest to reality – a ‘hyper-real’ exaggerated version of writer/ performer Eve Steele. Her followers were a mixture of people she knew (as Eve) in real life, of people following it as a theatre project, and others that joined up along the way.

@_evka_’s journey began with a growing political awareness – Twitter gave her a means to voice her political concerns, while at the same time documenting the chaos of her day to day life as a single mum.  So she joined in the UK Uncut protests by setting up a crèche in a branch of Barclays Bank. She launched a thread on Mumsnet opposing the objectification of women in Ann Summers. But this growing vocalisation was hiding the more personal journey she was undertaking. Fragments of despair emerged through tweeting the Ginsberg poem Howl from a Manchester bus. Arguments with her ex filtered through. She posted photos of her domestic drudgery, showing her growing discontent. The momentous decision to abandon her kids was illustrated by tweeting from the train to Stoke – with the gps on her phone mapping her location. A day of freedom enjoying the things she used to do before kids ended with the realisation that she missed them and her decision to return.

By the end, even the people she knew in real life were unsure where the reality ended and the fiction began:

@_evka_ Interesting series of tweets, doll. Lost my sense of real you v evka – guess that’s a sign of challenging work. Mx

The mix of audience also raised the issue of ethics – how far can you push the boundaries of reality without it resonating in real life? The person who threatened to blow Robin Hood airport sky high if they closed for snow and prevented him from flying to see his girlfriend, was convicted of “sending a menacing electronic communication”. What are the consequences of putting forward events as truth on social networks? Does the audience have to be aware that the story which is unfolding is a piece of dramatic fiction?

This project had too short a timescale to be able to investigate this question fully, but it has definitely formed the basis for further exploration and experimentation.  The idea of planting seeds months in advance and developing the lateral world of the characters through the wider internet would be a long-term project that could then provide a dramatic resolution for the live audience of followers picked up along the way.

I look forward to the Pilot Theatre project led by Daniel Bye and Dan Rebellato later this year. Watch this space…

*Realised later that @BertrumThumbcat is in fact a marketing tool for a brand of milk. Still works as entertainment, and as a good example of corporate Twitter usage

Twitterbug was supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.