Story Seeker: Anju Singh
Person interviewed: Derek Chan, Co-Artistic Director of rice & beans theatre
Interview date: July 8, 2021
Vancouver-based rice & beans theatre, founded by theatre makers Pedro Chamale and Derek Chan, is a small company whose mandate is to produce theatre that tells intercultural and multilingual stories inspired by where the artists came from and where they are going. It is through this mandate that Co-Artistic Director Derek Chan felt a strong responsibility to share a story of his home, Hong Kong, which led him to develop a digital installation entitled “Yellow Objects” as a direct response to the pro-democracy and social justice movement in Hong Kong in 2019-2020. Derek wanted the work to allow the 15 artists, designers, and actors working anonymously involved to “keep saying the words and telling the stories that we’re not allowed to say back home anymore — things that will literally get us arrested, and have a space for us to be together”.
Originally a stage play, the text was transposed into a digital installation to enable the story to be told without live actors and to be available to an expanded audience. While the primary target audience for the work is people in Canada with a close relationship to Hong Kong, the installation also aimed to develop awareness among audiences who may not know about what has been happening in Hong Kong, especially as international media coverage on the issue has been limited and focused on the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year and a half.
The Innovation: Manifesting theatre through digital storytelling and “directing in a language of pixels”
Yellow Objects started out as an imaginary future of Hong Kong, but many of the events in the play started to become reality. The group workshopped the play and engaged in some early-stage virtual design workshops with projection designer Daneel Olivaw to see how the stage play could be actualized. During this process, the artists worked with digital tools that allowed them to sketch out the performance space, test lighting, place actor-figures in the space, and run projections. This process provided the artist with considerable flexibility to model and experiment with ideas, because the traditional workflow of “climbing up and down ladders” to make changes in the studio was not necessary. While working with these digital technologies, Derek thought that, if the pandemic was the new reality for the foreseeable future, he should perhaps start thinking about “a version of this project that can be done without live actors, while still keeping a semi-interactive storytelling experience”. Yellow Objects adapted to an installation format and achieved exactly that.
As a theatre maker, Derek had not yet created a digital installation of this scale, but he did have experience working with recordings of voices and live digital moving parts. He took the opportunity to explore and experiment with new elements, including creating a story that an audience could experience live in a space, but without live actors. Derek considered this an exciting manifestation of theatre. In the context of the pandemic, this format not only allowed him to put on a show while continuing to follow COVID-19 protocols, but also to develop a highly portable work that could be moved and shown in many different environments and locations.
Another aspect of the innovation explored in depth was sound design. Yellow Objects engaged a sound designer, Undescript Pedestrian, who was adept in multi-channel spatial sound design, something that Derek had always wanted to dive into more deeply for a show or an installation. The project investigated the use of 8 to 10 speakers to “conjure up characters in the space” as well as to direct and engage the audience as they experienced the piece.
Independent of the installation, three short interactive digital stories can be accessed via the rice & beans website. Derek’s passion for this interactive storytelling format stemmed from his interest in video game storytelling. For the project, he learned how to program in Ren’Py, a free python based visual novel engine, which he described as “directing in a different language – a language of pixels”. This new digital format also provided Derek with another platform to explore his keen interest in displaying text in live theatre.
The pandemic provided the impetus to implement his long-standing vision for installation work, digital interactive storytelling, and “theatre without live actors”. During the pandemic, Derek’s career-long obsession with whether one can “put on a show without live actors” was given the space, resources, support, and time it needed.
The Challenge: Adapting to audience members’ digital support needs
The main challenge for the project was adapting to audience needs for digital technology support and experience. rice & beans’ interactive story website includes tutorials and instructions to guide users’ access to the digital content. Despite this ready availability, older audiences and less digitally savvy users were still less willing and able to access the stories. The user experience of the website, as well as how people find and access the stories, are obstacles that remain to be addressed.
In addition to access issues, Derek felt that he ran out of time to deeply explore some artistic and technical opportunities, including the full sound potential of the piece. In any future iterations, he plans to allocate time and resources to embed specific sounds into the architecture of the piece and its environment, which would take full advantage of spatial sound opportunities.
The Financials: Reaching new audiences while maintaining revenues
The expansion of the company’s audience through the Yellow Objects project, beyond the typical live audience levels for a small theatre company, led to some financial stability for the company but did not lead to substantial revenue growth. Yellow objects reached an audience of 300 people (spread out into small groups) for the exhibition and exceeded 1000 views of the digital stories on the website – a significant increase in audience for the organization.
Derek indicated that the change from traditional theatre to an on-site installation and online digital interactive stories allowed Yellow Objects to reach an expanded audience, including many who might have been intimidated by traditional theatre settings. In a traditional format, someone new to theatre might be hesitant to commit two or more hours for a play that they might not understand or appreciate. The bite-sized digital stories were free and online, requiring only a time commitment of up to 30 minutes each. Derek viewed this as an accessible way for audiences to engage with theatre.
The installation allowed individuals to decide the pace of their own experience as well as to focus on the areas of greatest interest to them. Because of its innovative elements, the installation attracted visual artists and game designers.
However, some participants might have been more comfortable viewing the digital interactive stories than attending the installation, despite its adherence to COVID-19 protocols.
While Yellow Objects did not generate increased revenues, rice & beans theatre was able to move ahead with the digital project during the pandemic and pay the participating artists thanks to the company’s multi-year funding for programming from Canada Council for the Arts, BC Arts Council, and City of Vancouver as well as the resilience and emergency funding from the Canada Council for the Arts and the BC Arts Council. The company’s technological adaptations meant that they were able to fulfill their obligations to funders to produce work rather than shut down, as was the case for many other theatre companies.
While there is a common perception that technology-driven projects can be very costly, the total expenses for Yellow Objects were comparable to those of a traditional stage play with three-week rehearsals and other associated costs of a live performance, such as space rental. The largest expense for Yellow Objects was the capital expenditure to purchase digital equipment, which rice & beans intends to use again in the future. These expensive up-front purchases are somewhat offset by savings on space rentals.
The Takeaways: Storytelling in new forms can build audiences, and sharing learning is key to future success
For Derek, the main takeaway from Yellow Objects was that “compelling storytelling takes many different forms”. Furthermore, he encouraged Canadian theatre makers and other artists to consider expanding the definition of theatre. For Derek, a wider definition of theatre could help build future audiences, including different types of artists and other theatre goers who might contribute to the further development of storytelling and audience access to theatre experiences.
Derek also emphasized the importance of play and experiment, especially when adapting to a digital environment. Trying new things, failing, succeeding, adapting, and iterating are all important parts of theatre’s innovation process. Not everything that Derek explored was successfully adopted into Yellow Objects, but he does intend to incorporate everything that he has learned into his future work.
Derek also intends to fulfil an important value for him: sharing his learnings with future collaborators and emerging artists. He believes that this is key to the arts sector’s success in the future: “we can’t afford to keep resources and knowledge to ourselves”.