After proving that online pantomime could work last year, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to repeat the trick — but eventually the lure of doing it again with the experience of how it went before proved too much. It does take a long time to organise, and I wanted to do something more complex with the viewing platform which required more tech skills than I had, so I was very grateful to the Birmingham Hippodrome for their support in making it happen.
The structure of the pantomime was very similar to Cinderella last year — there was a cast, who had ‘motivations’ (character bios) and a script to follow (or improvise around), and a private “director” account for prompts and the like during the performance. Most of the differences were to do with how the medium (Twitter) has evolved over 2009:
The main difference is it’s reach — here’s an Alexa (usual caveats apply, Alexa is a skewed sample to both the US and to ‘techies’) graph of PageViews for the Twitter website (remember also that a huge number of Twitter users very rarely have cause to visit the site):
With more users comes both the problems of noise and an altered demographic — it wasn’t possible to rely on as much shared knowledge of either how Twitter works or shared culture if we wanted to reach any more than the same people.
Many people found following Cinderella (last years #twitpanto) hard and were happy to use Matthew Somerville‘s Roomatic hack which highlighted cast members within the stream — but I felt that this would still be too hard to read this year. So, while it was still possible to follow the hashtag any way people liked, I planned a version that separated those ‘on stage’ more completely using two different windows. Here’s my mock up:
The changing nature of Twitter also presented issues for casting, I found difficulty balancing keeping the cast open to as many people as possible, while making sure that they were people who would ‘get’ how to do it difficult. Due to this, and also the possibility of a collision with the Hippodrome’s offline panto (which due to real-world rehearsal commitments didn’t happen) I wrote a scene that would contain characters from other pantomimes, so people could be in it without having much impact on the story.
With increased interest in being in the cast (people were clamouring from May) , I wanted a panto with a good number of characters, but it was also imperative that the plot was very well known. Twitter isn’t a great medium for establishing scene or location, nor one where curtains can be drawn between scenes — there’s also the conceptual problem that there can be no secrets from one character to the other (we ask for suspension of disbelief, unless it’s a good plot point). For that, and the obvious men in tights gags, I chose Robin Hood.
The script this year was written to be less in-jokey than last years (where I not only knew the audience better, but wasn’t attempting to get a wide audience), which was more of a struggle but — with a good chuck of help from Danny Smith — it turned out I think to be a good deal funnier. In fact it’s readable and enjoyable out of context, if I do say so myself.
What I was more sure of this year is that Twitpanto is a collaborative and open piece of art — played out online — and as such the live, free and interactive nature of it is the main thrust. There were over the Christmas period attempts to do “real time” twittering of both Home Alone and It’s A Wonderful Life — interesting, but too tightly scripted to be anything than transposing to a new medium.
The ‘set’ worked, after a few Twitter hiccups, brilliantly — and even more impressively Matthew modified it after the event to allow a replay — it’s the iPlayer for Twitter and very clever. You can watch Twitpanto ‘as live’ here.
It proved a little difficult for the cast to use, I’d advised them to use the Twitter website and keep refreshing, as it wasn’t quite fast enough for them to wait for their cues on anything using the Twitter API. There were also some early web issues for a few of the cast, which contributed to the rocky start.
I also had to stop myself from being overly directorial, I felt at times that some of the improvisation was making it difficult for people to find their cues — disappointingly for me also muddying some of the jokes. But all in all the cast were brilliant in staying in character and interacting with the whole messy experience. It was especially difficult for some with only one or two lines to stay quiet for the duration, in retrospect fewer, bigger, parts work better.
Nudging, which is really all you want to attempt on the social web, is a difficult theatrical directing style to achieve, here’s what Joanna Geary (whose involvement got us a bit of press from The Times) tweeted:
It was better attended than 2008 — the #twitpanto hashtag was one of Twitter’s top ten trending phrases during the “performance” — very unusual for a UK based topic to trend these days. There were over 1,500 tweets containing it between 3:30pm and 4:30pm (1,500 is the limit that Twitter’s search facility can recall on any one search).
Whether the model can work outside the structured chaos of the pantomime I’m not sure, but happy to try (maybe a Shakespeare comedy…), but it’s certainly the most innovative drama experience on the web.