This article will have a look at the role of the actor in a transmedia experience. We examine how the actor becomes collaborator with the writer and audience in the development of a character and what this might mean for everyone.
Transmedia storytelling is changing the way we create stories. From the beginning of time stories were brought to life through characters who become flesh and bone thanks to actors. For centuries, new acting techniques have been developed but their validity has not been proved within a transmedia scenario. That is, one in which the storyworld expands, gets deeper, branches and spreads across different formats and platforms. How does all this affect the work of the actor?
Elaborating a complex transmedia storyworld takes a lot of work to develop plots, locations, conflicts, mythologies, languages, internal rules… We get to know these elements through the characters of this universe. For live performances, it is important to define the role of the actor in the creation of this storyworld from the beginning.
In a traditional theatre play, it is the writer who creates the character, and later on, the actor who takes possession of it. However, someone else wrote the lines she is saying. In a transmedia creation, boundaries are not that neat. The actor of this kind of experience starts from an existing text, but the importance of audience interaction and its degree of engagement can change the story on-the-go. The actor plays a more active role then, since from now on, she is going to be co-writer and co-creator of the character. In this fashion, this construction should be planned from a more collaborative perspective, in which the character gets nurtured an enriched not only by the writer but also by the actor’s contribution and maybe the audience.
Traditional Creative Workflow
Transmedia Creative Workflow
Character participation bible
To enable and make possible this co-creative process, we need a more dynamic character bible that establishes a set of guidelines for the actor. She must follow these rules and the character’s lines when the storytelling allows her to, but must envision a more flexible point of view for non-predicted scenarios. The actor must get to know her character in depth and be capable of embodying it anytime, not to leave its destiny to random improvisation, but to set an active listening and fast response within the character’s parameters.
In the same way the actor lends her body and face to the character, the decision about who will represent its virtual persona in social media has to be made from the beginning. Either the actor or the writer being responsible for that, it is obvious that we have an extraordinary necessity for a neatly maintained and updated character bible, in order to avoid inconsistencies and incoherencies.
This document, the product of the collaboration of writers and actors, will describe the best of both worlds regarding character construction. Writers will establish tone, background, and language, that is to say, how we perceive the character from the outside; while actors will establish objectives, deeper inner conflicts and behavior construction, that is to say, how the character is inhabited from the inside. Both dimensions are valuable for character development and consistency across social media and live performances.
The character arc is ideally defined from the outset and should be complemented with a timeline that foresees any interaction between character and audience in any platform. It is vital to synchronize turning points and milestones within the character’s development among the different media it is using to communicate, so that its evolution through time and narrative is coherent.
Working within different narrative structures
Regardless of narrative structure, stories are always consumed in a linear way since the audience cannot experience them any other way (until there is time travel!).
Let us examine some narrative structures frequently used in transmedia storytelling:
1. Branching narratives.
These stories offer different versions or branches of the story according to decisions made by their characters. Those decisions can be or not influenced by audience interaction. In these narratives, the actor explores different alternative events according to different possibilities. These stories are very enriching for the character but the actor has to be all the time fully aware of the branch she is inhabiting and she has to explore different character’s arcs according to the chosen alternative, which is why improvisation alone (without knowledge of the character timeline) is not recommended for these narratives.
2. Interactive linear narratives
These are stories that do not branch but offer opportunities for interaction with the audience – either to test their opinion or to engage them with game mechanics. However, audience decisions do not alter the narrative timeline. In these structures, actors may include some references to the audience interaction within the established narrative but never abandon the sole narrative timeline. This allows for improvisation that creates the illusion of a branching narrative.
3. Open storyworlds
These stories are those in which the audience journey is determined by the audience. In these narratives, content is layered across different platforms and how the audience navigates from one to another is related directly to their decisions and their engagement. Content is interconnected in a sort of neural network, so there is no traditional setup-conflict-resolution scheme. These pieces are individual stills, singular frozen scenes across different platforms of the same moment in time.
In these stories, actors must be open to a character whose development is not determined by a pre-scripted narrative flow, but by the unique audience journey through the storyworld. Since entrypoints to the storyworld can be anywhere, the actor has to work in each scene / audience interaction as a self-contained unit, independent from other scenes/ interactions – leaving the audience to “connect the dots”. In this type of acting, the actor explores the ‘here and now’ of the character, and not how this is inserted within a broader arc of construction.
Narrative Timeline for Actors in an Open Storyworld
Alternative Audience Journeys through an Open Storyworld
Interaction changes everything
In the same way that format affects acting (screen acting vs. stage acting), the most relevant factor influencing acting in a transmedia project is the degree of audience interaction and how it affects the story. Actors interacting with their audience is nothing new, many times the forth wall has being destroyed in theatre history in order to defy conventions and to hold a conversation with the audience. However, the actors – as stewards of the live experience – must be aware of many factors before breaking that invisible wall to ensure the interaction is consistent and meaningful:
- What project goals are we trying to accomplish with this audience interaction?
- What interaction do we want from the audience? Are we rewarding this response?
- What interaction do we not want from the audience? Are we going to dissuade that response?
- Do we want the audience to do something specific?
- If the interaction is not what we expected, how are we going to steer it back on track?
- How are we going to finish that interaction?
- How do we set up clear limits for moments of interaction and for moments of non-interaction for the audience?
In addition to this, if the actor is going to create an authentic interaction on behalf of the character then she must ask:
- What does the audience represent for the character?
- Why does she break the forth wall in order to interact with them?
- What does the character specifically want from the audience?
- What kind of bond is established with the audience?
- In what environment is she interacting with the audience?
- How and why does the interaction end?
- How does that interaction affect the future development of the character?
Actor’s relationships and acting techniques
If the traditional actor has to be a good active listener then the transmedia actor has to be an outstanding active listener. Any actor, before responding, is actively listening and in the case of transmedia there are many stimuli to integrate into the performance.
Actor Relationships in a Transmedia Experience
Let’s look at the different actor relationships:
- The actor’s relationship with other actors
Transmedia actors know their characters in depth, they have explored them and they get to embody them without problems – freely interacting across time and platforms. In the same way, they interact with other actors, clearly establishing the boundaries of their encounters, either previously written or improvised within some guidelines agreed in the characters’ bibles. Actors should know the alternative paths of other characters in order, when improvising, not to lead their colleagues to inconsistent or incoherent interactions. The encounter among live action characters can take place on different platforms (actors in a video interacting with actors on stage, or among them in social media), so deep exploration and research of the nature of their relationship is a must for this new breed of actor. Traditional techniques based on active listening are really important for the development of this facet of the transmedia actor.
- The actor’s relationship with the audience
Actor interaction with the audience is an inherent part of transmedia storytelling. Consequently, rehearsing should grant actors opportunities to interact with the audience as this will be integral to character construction. Actors should be nurtured by several encounters in rehearsals with spectators whose reactions are not foreseeable: passives, hyper-actives, spoilers… Acting techniques coming from street performance and improvisation theatre are highly beneficial for the transmedia actor in these cases.
- The actor’s relationship with the environment
Actors relate to everything that surrounds them on stage and this is a convention, shared by all actors, that makes the audience believe that an artificial setting is transformed into a forest or a bedroom. When we add the audience as part of the interaction equation, not only has the actor to make them believe in the convention, but also to share it with them and try to justify it together. In these transmedia projects, acting also tends to blur the conventional limits of theatre – taking place on the street, in the countryside or wherever. Even in a digital environment (e.g. internet and social media) the actor has to listen as she would in a physical environment and use her imagination. Actors should be trained in acting techniques that explore the conventions of a stage environment and its limits, such as Viewpoints and other exploratory lines of actors’ movement across physical space.
- The actor’s relationship with technology
Transmedia actors should be trained to use and associate with technology on stage and in physical environments. Software, websites, apps and devices are used in this sort of project to expand the limits of the experience and the actor has to learn how to organically justify and integrate its use. Additionally, an actor may be given commands via an earpiece about how she should interact with a particular spectator, or receive messages in a tablet about the most voted answer in a virtual survey and modify the course of the story accordingly. For this reason, the sooner the actor can gain experience of working with the technology that is integrated within a story, the sooner she will form an organic relationship with it. For this kind of work it is advisable for actors to know the techniques coming from performance and experimental theatre.
The actor, as a co-creator of a transmedia experience, has to be an integral and skilled performer, deeply prepared for active listening within a distributed, technological, multi-platform and pervasive environment. The transmedia actor should be nurtured by different training techniques to be prepared for the different types of relationships she will expose her character to. She will also have to be open to a multi-disciplinary training, as within this type of storytelling everything can contribute to character’s construction. More than ever, an early deep exploration of the character will enable a solid construction that will unfold coherently across the story, to guarantee that the audience experience is faithful to the goals of our project, consistent with the storytelling and, above all, unforgettable.