Page last updated at 11:28 GMT, Monday, 17 August 2009 12:28 UK

Hi-tech takes to the stage

By Ewan Spence
Technology journalist, Edinburgh

Bedlam Theatre, Ewan Spence
Many shows at the Fringe used tech to explore human nature.

If legendary Scottish poet Robert Burns can be inspired to write "love is like a red, red rose" from the world around him, from where do modern writers draw their inspiration?

It would seem from this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival that the internet is as attractive as Burns' flower or Shakespeare's dark lady. For many modern artists the muse lurks online, in the web of social networks, instant messages and distant friends.

This should not come as a great surprise. There is more emotional activity happening online every day, from relationships and marriage proposals, to storytelling, describing the world and capturing moments with sounds, pictures, video and text.

Typing and talking

Far from turning us into a nation of reclusive typists, the internet is proving to be a rich catalyst of emotive experiences and settings for playwrights to explore the age old worries of life, love, tragedy and humanity.

One of those playwrights is Lee Freeman. His first professional musical is "Chat! The Internet Musical" playing at George Square Theatre. "Using online technology gave me a reason to write a more modern, contemporary piece, which is much more compelling to the audience"

With over 2000 shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, is the use of the internet a gimmick just to get bums on seats?

"When you first start writing you can't escape that it is a bit of a gimmick," said Mr Freeman. "But once people are in the theatre, watching the show, the chatroom environment allows the characters and the story to develop in front of them. The challenge is in making something that is so unreal into something that is real on stage."

Robert Burns, Getty
Burns had his rose but many modern writers use the web

While Chat! looks at characters creating alter-egos of themselves and hiding their online activities from each other, Chatroom, from Exeter University looks at the darker and more manipulative side of the internet.

A group of teenage characters gather online, ostensibly to chat, but as the story progresses one of the group brings up thoughts of committing suicide and the rest of the group are either trying to support him, or goading him into doing it.

The staging of the online action, with the actors looking out at the audience during the chat scenes means they never make eye contact with others on stage.

"It made me much more self conscious" said lead actor Nic McQuillan. "More aware of your personal space, your hands and how it is seen by the audience.

"And for the audience it changes how you perceive the characters," he said. "It makes you more aware when eye contact is made, when characters interact in the physical world."

Life and death

Both these shows reflect how much humanity is lost in cyberspace, but they also open up many more story telling opportunities. They play with the interpretations that people make, which in another life forms the basis of the English farce style, but with a much darker edge.

There is a focus on the power that isolated communication can have when other more human cues are no longer present - emotional responses are heightened and words have more strength but can easily have their meaning twisted by perceptions.

The Self-Murder, a play from Moscow's SSSR productions, uses the internet to bookend the story of Yulia, who wishes to find someone she does not know to join her in suicide.

Publicity still from The Self-Murder, SSSR Productions
In The Self-Murder, Yulia looks for a partner in death

Her story, and that of teenager August starts with a long exchange of public notices and private e-mails depicted by a simple voice-over both at the beginning and the end of the play.

Two unknown people meeting could be made with newspaper classified ads or another literary device, but audiences are familiar with the ideas of the technology, if not the nuts and bolts of IRC, Skype or Craigslist.

It's interesting that the chatrooms and online settings are never tied down to the technical details as to how the technology works - but this never distracts from what is happening in the story, it's just another artistic challenge to the cast and crew, in the same way as showing a car crash, an apartment or a film studio might be.

What does seem to be common to these and other pieces at the Fringe is the internet bringing out the worst in people, as if it was a malevolent force.

Given that stories thrive on conflict, using something familiar to spark the conflict is a common trait throughout the history of drama; MacBeth had his witches, Rod Serling had his TV set and Quatermass had his factories and nuclear rockets.

No matter the technology, or the period, stories are always about human nature and emotion - something that computers and the internet cannot replicate, but can facilitate.

Far from being a threat to live theatre, the use of modern technology in the arts is doing what it does best; showing the darker side of life while reflecting human nature in all its beauty and ugliness.

Creating a connection between the audience and the situation on stage is vital in any production. With so many living online, spending more time on the internet, and interacting with people through our screens, it is right and proper that the arts continues to walk in step with 21st century living.

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