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Take a listen to our discussion about innovative theatre-making – including site-specific, immersive and technology-driven work – with Dante or Die. Their production is User Not Found, and deals with the question of our online legacy – a very pertinent topic right now.

We also discuss:

27 minute listen or the full transcript can be found below.

All episodes of the Spotlight Podcast.

Christina Carè: Hello and welcome to The Spotlight podcast. My nameß is Christina Carè and today I’m talking to Terry O’Donovan and Daphna Attias, who are the performer and director respectively of User Not Found, a production by their company called Dante or Die, who specialise in immersive and site-specific theatre-making. So it’s a really interesting topic. They’re doing some really interesting things with technology and accessibility. So have a listen to our wonderful conversation.

Terry, Daphna, thank you so much for joining us at Spotlight today. I want to jump right in with your company Dante or Die. Can you tell me a little bit about the origin, where you guys started?

Terry O’Donovan: So we met each other when we were training at Central School of Speech and Drama. And during our training year, we spent about two or three weeks working on a site-specific or a site-inspired based unit. And that was the first time Daphna and I worked together and we worked on a skate park in Kennington in South London. And there was a graffiti there that said Dante or Die scrawled on the skate park. It’s still there actually.

Christina Carè: Really?

Terry O’Donovan: It is. And that’s kind of where the seeds for Dante or Die began. So we really enjoyed this experience. I was wearing a giant pink dress in the skate park and we were on rollerblades and we had the audience come up and around the skate park and we really enjoyed the ideas of moving an audience through a space. We enjoyed reframing what a space might mean, looking at the history of the space. And that’s kind of where our collaboration began and where we started making stuff.

Christina Carè: You mentioned those words just there, site-specific. What does that mean in terms of theatre and what was it about that particular concept? Was it just that you wanted to respond to different places that were non-traditional or what was it that drove that in particular?

Daphna Attias: I think there’s a few things. One is yes, of course, we are drawn to untraditional spaces and the stories that spaces can tell and framing places differently. So coming in, one of the things that we loved hearing from an audience member after coming to see our latest show Take On Me, which takes place in leisure centres is: wow, I never saw the leisure centre like that before. Just coming to see it after hours, thinking about what kind of stories it holds. And the other thing I think is intimacy and the ability to choreograph the audience are two things that really excite us.

Christina Carè: This show that you’re bringing to The Fringe feels a little bit different. It’s obviously got a technology aspect to it, which is a bit of a departure. It feels like a bit of a departure. What made you want to tell this story in particular?

Terry O’Donovan: Yeah, we are technophobes actually.

Christina Carè: Oh, really?

Terry O’Donovan: All of our other shows are really DIY.

Christina Carè: Because it’s got a little bit of a like Black Mirror-esque vibe about the storyline. Is that how you’d describe it?

Terry O’Donovan: Well, actually we kind of did the opposite. We read an article about this woman whose husband died very suddenly and she had to deal with this online presence. And it was something that she hadn’t thought about before and it really played to her. The way she wrote about it was really beautiful. It was humanising the digital that we all live in and I think that’s what drew us to it. So actually, when we were first sitting around a table with our teams, we were like… Black Mirror do this brilliantly. Black Mirror have done this kind of creepy, eerie, weird, scary part of technology. We were like, actually, we carry around these phones with us all the time. They sleep next to us, they’re in our pockets. If someone asks to go through your phone, it’s kind of a weird, it’s like, no, that’s kind of the insides of me. So actually we wanted to look at the human aspect of it. So it’s actually really not Black Mirror-esque in terms of-

Christina Carè: Kind of the opposite. And back to what you were saying about intimacy.

Daphna Attias: Exactly. And through our kind of research and conversations with people, we discovered that a lot of people find a lot of comfort at the joined platform to share their grief online. And so actually we were kind of trying to say the opposite of technology is evil. And I guess what doesn’t feel like any part… yes, we are technophobes and we invited this amazing creative technologies company called Marmelo to collaborate with us. But the collaboration with them was like a collaboration with any artist. They were with us from the beginning, we explored a lot of different ways of looking at how we will make this, tell this story together. So telling the story was always the first thing that-

Terry O’Donovan: And I guess the audience experience is in line with all the rest of our work and how we want to create intimate moments. And the way that I’m performing within the space means that the audience are very much part of the world. And obviously, it’s set in a cafe so we’re looking at, again, a very ordinary space in which we all exist all the time. We’re always in there on our laptops and our phones and we’re in there chatting to our friends. What are these spaces for and why are they important to society?

Christina Carè: So just backing up for a second, how do you summarise the show to people? It’s called User Not Found, I should mention that. And how do you tell people about the plot? What should they expect?

Daphna Attias: What should they expect or the plot? Because it’s I guess different. I guess we always try to talk a bit about the experience and the plot. So it’s set in cafes, as we said. Every audience member receives a mobile phone and headphones and we get to sit in a cafe with a bunch of strangers. We don’t know who’s the performer yet, but at some point we understand that Terry is the character we’re following and everything that happens on his phone we can see on our phones, but also everything that happens in his head, in his heart, we could hear through our headphones and we could see very poetic things happen on the screens as well.

In terms of the story, I think we look at digital legacy. What happens with all of our digital content after we die, who owns it? Do we want to keep it, do we want to delete it? So we follow a very specific story of one man’s grief over an ex.

Christina Carè: It’s a very pertinent question, given all the sort of Facebook and all these other things that are happening and even GDPR. The idea of data and how we deal with it feels like a really contemporary issue.

To tie back into what you were saying before, it seems like when you’re talking about site-specific and rethinking a space, how do you even start with a story for that? Is it the case that you see a space or you think of cafes and think, what could we do here? Or is it that you just had this very compelling contemporary kind of story and then we’re like, where would you experience this? How does that process kinda back down?

Daphna Attias: It’s both, and we’ve had processes from that direction and from that direction. Specifically, with User Not Found, I think it came together, we read the article and I think pretty much in the first conversation we knew it has to be set in cafes. It has to be set at this contemporary workspace when everyone can be hidden behind a screen, but nobody knows what’s happening behind that screen.

Terry O’Donovan: Yeah. We were doing a lot of work in cafes at the time as lots of freelancers do and artists do. You’re having meetings, you’re writing funding applications, you’re writing dialogue, whatever you’re doing. And we were looking at people going, well what if that person suddenly gets a phone call that changes their life? Are we, who are in the cafe with them, are we aware of that? Would they reach out and ask us for help or not? So Chris has Chris Goode who’s written the script with us has written this beautiful line that says, “We all come to the cafe every day and we come here to be together, but alone together.”

And it’s got its really interesting play of why we do need cafe spaces because we do need to be around other people. We need humans and these devices that we’re carrying around, connect us with all these other humans all the time. And yet there’s also people just sitting right next to us that we could reach out and say hi. So it’s kind of playing with the kind of public private and the idea of humanity. And I think that’s also why it’s a theatre piece. It’s about us experiencing this together in one space together and that’s really important to the show.

Christina Carè: That’s what makes it theatre as opposed to just a story on your page. You mentioned you use the word cafe plural, cafes. Does that mean that you think this could be performed in any cafe?

Daphna Attias: So, it is going to be performed in many cafes. We’ve just done three previews to test things. We always work like that. We preview the show too and then edit the script or change the order of things. So that’s been invaluable because also because the audience is so much in it, you have to test how the audience interacts with it.

Christina Carè: Well, that’s really fascinating because I know that immersion theatre is kind of a thing at the moment and it iterates in lots different ways across the sort of theatre spectrum from very simple ideas through to really complex journeys. How do you actually prepare for a piece of immersive theatre and particularly as a performer? I’m just curious. There’s so many factors there. You don’t know what people are going to do. You don’t know what they’re going to say. You don’t know if they’re going to actually participate or be uncomfortable or how they’ll respond. I just wonder, how do you test that kind of stuff? Because obviously you can test the technology, but you can’t test the people necessarily. Or can you? What’s your experience with that?

Daphna Attias: That is why we do previews, it is in order to test people and yes, of course, you can never know what people might do because they’re live creatures, but you can test some general behaviour of people in this space. There are things that we expected might happen. When we started making the show we thought people should be able to go and buy a coffee during the show and then come and walk around freely. And we realised that’s not going to happen. No one’s going to do that. People go and buy coffee at the beginning of the show, but then they sit down and watch the show in their seat and that’s great. That is probably how the show should work.

Terry O’Donovan: And we do it really early on. So we started R&Ding this show well over a year ago and had people come and see a really early iteration where everything was very draft-based, but we need to understand that how the audience experience it because it’s so difficult to plan that otherwise. So at every single stage we bring people in, whether they’re people we know or we can sometimes invite students in. We’ve tested out work with groups of students. So we do it in lots of different ways to test out how we think audiences will work and also make the experience clear for them.

I think a lot of making this kind of work is about helping the audience to understand how you would like them to experience it. Whether that’s telling them at the start that you don’t have to worry about these phones. You can hold them, you can do anything with them, or whether it’s a briefing in the leisure centre before you’re going to take them to lots of different spaces. But there’s really clear ways of signposting how to make that work. And there’s a lot of detail in how you break that down and plan for it.

Christina Carè: Right. What are your strategies for, I suppose, rehearsing something like this, just as a performer and given that you’re on your own, it’s a solid performance as well. I think that’s really interesting that you not only have other cast members, your ‘cast members’ so to speak, are the audience. So what are your sort of strategies for preparing that, for rehearsing that? What are the kinds of things that you do technically as an actor?

Terry O’Donovan: I think again, it’s testing out with other people. When we did an early rehearsal and the whole creative team were in there, everyone had their own things to worry about. So everyone was writing notes and on their laptop as I’m doing my thing. And I’m like, “Hello, help me people.” And one of our colleagues said, “You have to use the audience. They are the people who are there who are going to get in touch with you.” So I need to kind of have everything as much as possible in my head that I know I’m saying and doing, and also try and be open to responding to the room because it will be different every time. We use the people in the room, they become characters in the show in a way. So that’s really helpful and it’s really fun and really playful. So that’s really great.

Christina Carè: Is it too simplistic to kind of compare it to improv or something like that, skills-wise?

Terry O’Donovan: No, I think improv is far more complicated than what I’m doing. I mean, I’ve done other work where I do improvise more with the audience or the audience respond more if we ask them to do more things. This is an interesting one because you’re on headphones so the audience have this strange kind of feeling of not having to interact with me because it’s kind of quite filmic. You’ve got my voice in your ears really, really close up. So if I whisper you hear it really, really clearly. And I’m in the room with you, but because you’ve got this screen, the phone and the headphones, you’re slightly detached from me in a strange way.

Christina Carè: Right. In the same way as you might be in a cafe on a phone anyway.

Terry O’Donovan: Exactly. And you play with that. And there’s a moment where that changes and I think is really interesting for the audience to experience that because I think they don’t feel… I think a lot of the time with solo performances, you’re there and you’re going okay, I’m with you because you kind of have to be as an audience member. And in this one, it’s, you’re there and you’re with me, but you’ve also got this opportunity to just to look at a phone and hear me. So it’s quite a weird one to perform in. At first, I thought maybe people aren’t interested, but that’s actually, they’re analysing it or they experience in a different way to a normal one-person show.

Daphna Attias: And we are offering them three layers of stimulus. Not that any theatre doesn’t, of course, it does, but there’s a screen with lots of visuals, there is a soundscape that is really, really detailed and there is Terry’s voice in the space. So sometimes we encourage people to look at their phones and listen and not look at Terry in parts of the show, and part of the show we want them to be completely with him. So a lot of the work was just about balancing between all the different elements, video and app and sound design and text and all of that, just balancing where we want the audiences focus to be.

Terry O’Donovan: I think the most challenging thing for me as a performer is not to get distracted by those things. So in the previews, we’ve had things like pretty much like a rave happening next door, being really, really loud in the headphones. So obviously that’s not the way I want the sound design. That’s not what we’ve created, and yet I have to struggle on through. If I see audience members with their eyes closed because they’re listening to me, I have to really, really focus on what I’m doing and remember that the journey that I’m on, as well as being present in the moment, you have to kind of dig down into the rehearsals.

Christina Carè: Given that, as you said, there’s many layers to this performance and this experience that the audience are having, how did you find that actual process of the integration of the screen? How does that fit with actual dialogue? Just from a directorial point of view, I’m curious. How can you direct all those elements?

Daphna Attias: It was quite slow. Not that any project that we do is similar to another, but a lot of the times it’s just about managing lots of performers and where they are in the space and that kind of logistical nightmare. Whereas here, I just had one really amazing performer who was always on it, but every member of the team had a completely different timeline. And for example, just rebooting all the phones or changing one thing could take four hours. It’s different timelines and understanding the different processes of everyone. So it wasn’t a traditional, let’s get into the space and rehearse this, in fact, we were very slowly working on this piece for quite a long time. I don’t know.

Terry O’Donovan: Big gaps in between rehearsals because they needed time to build-

Christina Carè: The actual technology.

Terry O’Donovan: They told us the other day, Luke said that they’ve done like 400 iterations of the app.

Christina Carè: Wow.

Terry O’Donovan: It’s incredible what they’ve done.

Christina Carè: Because it appears like an app on your phone that looks like-

Daphna Attias: It is an app on your phone, but the app pretends to be all of the different apps. So it pretends to be Twitter and it pretends to be Facebook or emails or messaging. So they’ve done a huge amount of work on this. So the process…

Terry O’Donovan: And yet strangely, it looks just like a phone so you’re not even considering…

Daphna Attias: It looks like a real phone. For example, with the sound, the way we worked on it was kind of like a radio play. We recorded Terry saying all his text and we worked on all of the sound design, which is very detailed, like a radio play. And then took Terry’s recorded voice and made it all into kind of a live file of sound working with Terry. So we kind of went backwards in designing the sound. So every element just had a completely different timeline.

Christina Carè: It sounds more like the whole production is a symphony rather than a play, if that makes sense?

Terry O’Donovan: Absolutely.  And interestingly we’ve done a really exciting lighting design as well. Someone called Zia Bergin-Holly, who has created a lighting design that can tour because we’re taking it to lots of different cafes. So we needed something that could sit in any cafe, be quite, just like, this is just a lamp that’s on the table, but actually it’s a wireless lamp that we control and it totally creates the emotional atmosphere of the space that we’re in. And what she’s done is really beautiful.

Christina Carè: That’s very clever.

Daphna Attias: She’s very clever.

Christina Carè: I want to talk about the fact that you are taking it to Edinburgh. What was your experience with the Fringe before this particular production?

Terry O’Donovan: It’s our first time.

Christina Carè: Oh, really?

Terry O’Donovan: It’s crazy. I’ve been up with another company that I’ve worked with called TOOT and we did a show five years ago and I did stuff when I was a student as well. But this is our first Dante Or Die production at the Fringe.

Christina Carè: Amazing. So what were the sort particular challenges or opportunities for you guys in terms of working with Traverse in particular? Was there a reason you went with Traverse?

Daphna Attias: Well, we’re very excited about working with Traverse. It’s quite an honour to be a part of their programme amongst brilliant artists. It’s a new play and it’s a new way to write a play collaboration with a company that does site-specific work and devising with a writer like Chris Goode. And I think we liked the way they saw it as new writing and a new way of writing a play, which is what excited us as being a part of their programme.

Terry O’Donovan: Yeah. It’s really exciting. And I think the opportunities that we have as a company to hopefully engage new audiences as a result of that.

Christina Carè: And in terms of, again, because it’s a solo performance, I’m curious if you have any thoughts or strategies about how to survive what is actually a pretty intense month? I mean, you’re performing every single day, because as well as with the immersive sort of quality of it, you have to be prepared for whatever’s going to come, the audience is very diverse. Have you thought about the strategies for kind of doing that every day for a whole month?

Terry O’Donovan: It’s a lot about focus. We were talking about it again on the way here. Every day we’ll have about 45 minutes to set up the cafe ready for the show and then do the show. So I’m going to have to start warming up an hour and a half before the show or something. And I’m finding ways through the previews are really, really useful, to find ways of focusing in on what the challenge is at the time. At the top of the show, there’s about 10 minutes where the audience are given the phones and the headphones over that and I’m sitting in amongst everyone and that’s my moment to go, okay, this is where I am, this is what I’m doing. And to kind of breathe because hopefully not many people are noticing me.

Daphna Attias: We’ve had people chatting to Terry at the top of the show and discuss strategies of, “What should I say if they ask me if I’m part of the show?”

Terry O’Donovan: But it’s a really fun moment.

Christina Carè: Maybe it’s kind of a blessing that you’re actually not performing like in a traditional Fringe space either because usually the sort of stuff that we hear is that obviously you have a really tight turnaround and then there’s another completely different production in that exact same venue so you have to get out really quick. And maybe you kind of have avoided that by being-

Daphna Attias: Not quite because it’s a working cafe so there’ll be customers in the cafe until half an hour before the show.

Christina Carè: Right, so there’s different challenges there.

Terry O’Donovan: We have to kick them out.

Christina Carè: Close down the cafe.

Terry O’Donovan: So it’ll be different challenges. And always working on-site there are more challenges than you expect because you don’t have control of your space. So the other day we had a fridge. We did a preview in the afternoon and it was fine. And then the second preview, there was a fridge just humming-

Christina Carè: Humming in the background.

Terry O’Donovan: And we’re like, “Where did that come from? That wasn’t there earlier.” So there’s always another challenge to face.

Christina Carè: Yeah. I wonder if you have any advice to other people who maybe are interested in making this kind of theatre. Obviously a lot of our members do make their own work. Do you have any advice for actually setting up a theatre company and that sort of thing? Is it purely just having the right people or what are the other considerations people should think about?

Daphna Attias: I think it should always start with the work they want to make. Of course, many, many years down the line for us, it’s a bigger beast, but I don’t think anyone should ever start with the logistics of starting a company. They should start with the work they want to make and be passionate about it.

Terry O’Donovan: Yeah, absolutely. And also to think about why they make it. Think, okay, I’ve got this journey, I want to say this. If it’s a story or if it’s this type of thing, what is that thing that you’re trying to do? I think that’s the key thing.

Christina Carè: I think that’s good advice. Another thing that I noticed from your site and your sort of little preview of the show, or your kind of behind the scenes so to speak, is that there’s an accessibility quality that was taken into consideration. Can you speak to me a bit about that and why that was important?

Daphna Attias: So we brought in Sophie Gunn who was a volunteer performer in our previous show. She’s the daughter of two deaf parents and she asked for them to come to see the show and if we could BSL it. So we did, it was walking around leisure centres and she helped us integrate that into that show. And it was such a success. It really opened our eyes to how we can look at things differently. So we welcomed Sophie into the company taking over access and she has done, together with Marmelo, such a brilliant job captioning the show.

So every performance, the main thing that we discovered through conversations with the deaf community is that it’s very hard to find shows that are accessible. And if they do exist, they might be on a Wednesday at 2pm and you can’t go there in the middle of your work or whatever. So we wanted to make every show accessible. So anybody who wants a captioned version of the show just asks our team and they get given a caption phone and they did a fantastic job.

Terry O’Donovan: Yeah, it’s been a real challenge because they’ve had to do the app and then integrate the captioning on top of it. And that is really technically, really, really difficult, but they’ve done a brilliant job. And Sophie, we helped her to get a bursary from the Michael Grandage Company to work with us on this. So I think for her development as a young artist who’s really passionate about accessibility it’s really great. And she’s now going to also perform because we’re taking Take On Me out again in the autumn, in the autumn and spring. It’s going to six different venues with six different local casts everywhere we go so it’s going to be pretty amazing.

And Sophie’s now fifth member of the professional cast and she’s going to be BSL performing for every single show as well. And we kind of tested both ways for this show. So we tested it with her interpreting and the kind of focus group that we did they said, no, it makes much more sense to caption this one. But for Take On Me because it’s a journeying show and it’s running around, it makes much more sense to have that as interpreted. So it’s really exciting to be making it more accessible.

Christina Carè: I think that’s fabulous and I think it’s really important. And it’s the kind of thing that more theatre-makers should think about and try to integrate.

Kind of coming to the end of my questions now, but I would love to know if there’s a couple of really key pieces of advice that you would give, particularly our very young members who are just embarking on their careers in the arts, who maybe have interests in not just performing, but making theatre, what they should think about, what they should prioritise, how they can make work happen. Any kind of final words of advice that you would give them?

Terry O’Donovan: I would say, get in the room with people that you like. Ask to meet people, meet other companies, go see stuff and say, “I like what you do, how do you do it? Can I come and be in the rehearsal room with you for a while?” Just try and get into the environment because that’s how you understand how it can work and how it can start being made. Be shameless, ask to be part of the things.

Daphna Attias: And I’d say structure your process and integrate some inspiration into it. So throughout our history, we invited a pharmacist or a scientist or doctors or technologists to be part of our projects and part of our process to kind of open our minds beyond what we know.

Christina Carè: Before we go, do you want to plug your show? Let us know where it is. Tell people where they can find out more about you.

Terry O’Donovan: Yeah, it’s going to be on every night except Mondays from the 3 to the 26 of August [2018] in the Jeelie Piece Cafe, which is part of the Traverse programme. So you can check out the Traverse website for tickets and you can check us out on danteordie.com and all the usual social media outlets.

Christina Carè: Amazing. Thank you so much. Both of you for joining us. In the notes you’ll find links to the Dante or Die website and to User Not Found. If you are interested in grabbing some tickets for any other questions, ask us on Twitter @spotlightuk, or send us an email at questions@spotlight.com.