Taika Box: Finnish dancers embracing your smart phone addiction

Before the beginning of the performance, when the lights go out , lots of tiny screens light up in the dark. ‘I must switch my phone off’ we remember. Contemporary dance company from North Finland called TaikaBox suggests to discard this rule and use our mobile phones to create a special bond between the audience and the performers. Participants of the Arts Printing House’ international residency program Print Art On Stage will perform in Vilnius with their dance and live technology show Please Switch On, where the audience will be able to take part in a creative process of the show. On 26th and 27th of May with a help of a special technology system every audience member will be able to make their personal stories into a dance, vote for music they want to hear and lights they prefer. Finns will perform together with Lithuanian dancers and part of their residency dedicate to workshops with school students. One of the creators of the Taika Box – choreographer and dancer Tanja Råman answered our questions about the fusion of theater and technology.

How did the idea to get the audience involved via mobile phones come to your mind?
A few years ago, working and touring in Wales, we became aware of how venues were having a hard time reaching out to new audiences and that audience numbers for contemporary dance were often fairly low. People seemed to feel that contemporary dance is difficult to understand or it is confusing or even irrelevant to them. We wanted to shake up unspoken rules that often exist in theatre venues, deconstruct the hierarchical relationship between artist and audience and get the audience involved in making work that is essentially about themselves. Our aim was to give everyone involved a unique experience, to try to demystify the creative process, and to introduce new people to contemporary dance in a relaxed and fun environment. At the time, a new initiative was launched in Wales that pairs up artists with digital technology providers to develop new tools for audience development across the arts. We applied to this fund, and were chosen to take part in the first round of the project, teaming up with a digital agency called Moon who were specialists in creating digital content for broadcast media. Together we created the Please Switch On (PSO) system that uses a familiar interface to introduce people to new concepts.

With PSO you deny the usual ‘performer to viewer’ concept and make it more mutual. What do you think it gives to the members of the audience?
As well as making good performances, our aim in each show is to make the audience feel as if they are part of the team. We need each other to make the show happen. There is a sense of shared responsibility, laughter, achievement and reward. We attempt to reach out to audience members so that – at the end of a performance – some of them could feel special; that a team of artists had made a show specifically about them, and that it had been performed for an audience of people like them. Not many people can claim that their story has been turned into art.

People are on their phones all day, every day. Theater was always a place to put your phone away for a while. Why do you think phones should be involved in theater too?
We’re not saying that every theatre experience should involve phones, but that this show challenges the traditional message that audiences should sit quietly in a dark space and ‘please switch off your mobile phones’, passively absorbing the art. TV and radio make great use of the second screen to provide deeper engagement with their audience, and we wanted to experiment with dragging theatre into the digital age alongside these other media.

There are other types of interactive performances, but people tend not to like them, because they have to get out of their comfort zone. Are phones kind of a medium between interactivity and that comfort zone?
Absolutely. We both have faith in this kind of work, but – in order for audience interaction to work - the balance has to be right. For an audience member who just wants to observe a show, there’s nothing worse than a performer forcing you to join in. We try to create environments that facilitate an active audience and allow them to express themselves, but without having to put them on the spot. Some of our shows gently encourage the audience members to interact with each other, or to let themselves move or dance, or – in the case of PSO – to contribute to the creation of the show, but these activities are in no way compulsory. During the PSO, the audience always has a choice how much they want to be involved. The interface that we have designed is very simple and works in a similar way to Twitter. We are aware that, while aiming to break the barrier between performer and audience, it is possible to put up lots of little glass barriers in the form of people’s screens, but in PSO, we are constantly talking to the audience and guiding them through the process, and time spent looking at screens is kept to a minimum. We think that we have found a good balance between digital and human interaction.

You‘ve done PSO in other countries. How did it go? What kind of stories people usually share for you to perform?
We have performed PSO in Wales, Finland and Switzerland; to mixed age ranges, and each time it is unique. We like to integrate different languages within our work, and always build a team that is a mixture of TaikaBox and local performers, which enables us to facilitate an active audience and allow them to express themselves, but without having to put them on the spot the local language - and local knowledge - to an extent. We usually begin the event with a prompt to share a certain type of story, such as an early memory or a scene from a family history. Sometimes this theme develops into something else as the audience become accustomed to how we use the story. The system is flexible enough to allow us to take the event in many different directions.

Do you think older people without so much experience in using mobile technologies can successfully participate in the show?
The interface is very simple, and it doesn’t take long to become accustomed with it; and also – it doesn’t replace human communication. The audience are guided throughout the event by Tanja explaining what is happening and how to interact. Another thing that we like about PSO is that it encourages audience members to interact with each other: helping out with the phones or teaming up to create and up-vote particular stories. The whole thing is a social experience, aimed at using art and technology to bring people closer together. You can also enjoy the show in a traditional way, watching it without using your own phone.

You describe the show as ‘democratic’. How democracy works here?
PSO has similarities to improvised stand-up comedy that takes its cues from audience suggestions. One of the benefits of using mobile technology is that everyone has an equal voice, not just the confident ones who can shout out first; this makes the system feel more democratic. We structure the event, and offer choices to the audience, so that the process is not completely out of our control, but the fact remains that if nobody contributes, we don’t have a show. The product here is not really in the work that is created, but in the process of creating it, and the shared authorship and shared experience really helps people to feel good about their evening out.

You say TaikaBox is always looking for new ways to communicate with the audience. What other ways did you find possible?
We recently made a piece for an audience of twenty, where the dancers and audience are all in the same space, wearing headphones. Working with a professional sound recordist and some high-end microphones, we are able to immerse the audience in a sonic environment created by the dancers and audience together. We’re also quite interested in real-time broadcasting our work. Being located in Northern Finland can make international performances quite expensive, so we embrace the technology of live-streaming and make some projects specifically for broadcast.

How do you feel about the connection between performer and the viewer in general? What kind of connection should it be?
When creating dance work, our aim is often that the audience doesn’t just see something, but also feels something. We tend to use a lot of technology in our work, and that has potential to make it a little cold and lacking in emotion, so we look for ways to emphasize and enhance the emotional expression of the movement, or to find ways of connecting a little deeper with the audience. When producing a piece of work we also talk about creating ecosystems, in which audiences, performers, technology and the performance environment are in a dynamic relationship with each other.

Could you describe your viewer? Who should come to this performance?
It's a bit of a cliché, but I really think that this show is for anyone. PSO provides an easy access and audience-friendly introduction to contemporary dance. Therefore, I would recommend anyone who loves dance to take their non-dance friend or someone who might be skeptical or worried about watching dance to see PSO.

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