Last week at Boundless, we launched Radio Elusia, our new episodic audio drama. Being able to release a fiction podcast weekly during the lockdown here in the UK has enabled us to keep doing what we do best, tell stories to our audiences. Usually these stories are told live, in theatres but for the time being, we’ve been able to connect with a much larger audience digitally and are really enjoying the chance to learn in the process.
I’m a huge fan of stories and am often happiest when watching, reading or telling them. It was no surprise that I found a home in making theatre which is why I am passionate about ensuring we can bounce back as soon as possible. In order to do that though the theatre industry is going to have to find new ways to welcome audiences in person (and is going to need the full support of the UK Government to continue delivering the massive benefits to the cultural life of the country and the economy). I also hope that we might experiment with the form our theatre takes and find new ways to reach new audiences.
As today is May the Fourth it felt appropriate to write a little on why I think this show is the best in the saga and how episodic structures and extended universes might just be the secret to the future of theatre.
I’m in my seventh week at home and whilst during the day the Boundless team and I are productive as ever I have been looking forward to a weekend that involves watching the latest episode of The Mandalorian on Disney+. As today is May the Fourth it felt appropriate to write a little on why I think this show is the best in the saga and how episodic structures and extended universes might just be the secret to the future of theatre.
For the past year or so, I’ve been working with an extraordinary group of artists across Europe on Extended Universe. Our new podcast Radio Elusia is one of four productions to come out of the project. We set out aiming to test if a transmedia experiment in storytelling across four languages, cultures and cities with a group of artists could inspire new young adult audiences to engage with theatre. Covid-19 has disrupted the larger project but at this early stage I’m easily convinced that having more stories and opportunities to go further with characters and a narrative universe you love is an experiment more theatre makers should try.
I have loved Star Wars since I was introduced to episodes IV, V and VI as a child, watching the cinematic remastered ‘special edition’ releases in 1997. Like so many, I have grown up in the world of Star Wars and at various stages of my life have excitedly rushed to see new stories in the saga. I was always going to be an easy mark for a Disney + subscription and yet told myself that I would sign up to watch The Mandalorian and then cancel. I don’t know why I didn’t expect to be as blown away by this latest addition but having just finished series one, am already counting down to season 2 due for release in the autumn.
I do love to binge stories and have found myself bleary eyed at 3am in the morning after watching hours of a favourite show. My work as a dramaturg often means that I’ll be pulling apart how stories work so on those occasions when I allow myself to get lost in a story, I know I’m truly hooked on something. During lockdown though with time being elastic and the definition between work and non-work blurred my habits have adapted. I am now far more likely to enjoy watching an episode a week and have really enjoyed the thrill of waiting for a new fix of The Mandalorian each weekend.
There have been a few experiments in episodic storytelling in theatre. Cycles of plays or epics that are connected across multiple parts, like Angels in America, or the Apple Family Plays. However, theatre still prioritises one hit of great drama seen once. I’ve often thought about how theatre could commission and produce the equivalent of the James Bond series, one character seen over time, even played by different actors. Or reality theatre that is as ground breaking as The Hills was and popular as Love Island is.
Of course theatre in the past was ephemeral, with little record of past productions beyond some photos and the fading memories of its audience. Now though with the rise of high quality recording, a production can be revisited for catch up purposes. If during lockdown so much filmed theatre has been made available for free then perhaps in future, you can go back and watch a favourite past ‘episode’ as easily as revisiting Roger Moore as Bond.
Let us ignore resources for the moment and instead think about the sheer creative experiment of hooking an audience in and getting them to return, or go further with the world you have built. Our work on Welcome to Elusia attempts this, with the podcast but also a web comic (launching later this week) and in the future live shows planned across Europe. We want to reward repeat attendance to different stories and are prioritising ways to get audiences engaging digitally as well as physically. We’re also doing this on very modest budgets in an effort to prove a concept then go further.
For me theatre too often positions itself in opposition to popular culture, leans too far in to its heritage at the expense of alienating audiences.
The Mandalorian has rekindled my fandom for Star Wars. Something about it as a western, or the fact that it just looks and sounds like a classic story reimagined for now playing in to familiar tropes whilst surprising its audience episode by episode. It is set in a previously unexplored time period and yet delivers on storm troopers and the good vs. evil comfort that the wider saga relies on repeatedly. It is also cool as hell. I’ve also enjoyed the humanity, whether that is those before mentioned storm troopers being given personalities or the emotional manipulation of the whole audience with the inclusion of cute baby Yoda.
There’s also the fact that the Mandalorian feels like the best video game you’ve ever played. There’s a definite and knowing quality to how it is filmed, story details like re stocking weapons or hopping between worlds to assemble resources and allies. It is this borrowing from other story forms that I am keen to see in theatre. For me theatre too often positions itself in opposition to popular culture, leans too far in to its heritage at the expense of alienating audiences. Hamilton shows us the power of fusion and creating something new from forms not easily aligned like hip hop and musical theatre. We do see adaptation of course, (Fun Home comes to mind) but where are the boldly original genre bending, formal experiments that might just open our work to large new audiences?
We’ve been blown away by the warm welcome from the podcast communities who have supported our launch of Radio Elusia. There is a genuine care for the form and a curiosity about the new. There seems to be no ego, just genuine fandom. We’re inspired by this as we look to the creative future of Boundless and are hoping to test new ways of telling stories over time that keep our audience of young adults engaged and inspired. Perhaps we’ll even find a way to keep them coming back to new chapters of stories that become familiar too.
So in the spirit of May The Fourth, go watch The Mandalorian and as soon as you’re able I hope that you’ll venture to your local theatre but in the meantime we’d love to introduce you to Radio Elusia and if you like what you hear, get in touch. Speaking with our audiences is why we tell stories, we’d love to start a conversation.
Rob is Artistic Director of Boundless and has directed Radio Elusia, a 5 episode fiction podcast. You can listen to Radio Elusia wherever you get your podcasts and follow @radioelusia #radioelusia for updates.