'Better Than Life' review or 'Is there a triple click option?'

Better Than Life, Coney
Friday 27th June, Online

I am eating pizza whilst watching theatre. I’m chatting to friends, checking my email, lusting after someone’s super hero blue cape and wondering if the fact that I can see ‘them’ means that they can see me. I’m also watching a bunch of people argue about the future of their village – I think. Oh, and I’m using my mouse to shine spotlights on the villagers’ faces, whilst cackling gleefully at my desk. ‘Better Than Life’ is an work in process – a genre-defying piece of online theatre from those most playful of theatre makers, Coney. It is scrappy as hell but it is new and vital, a fascinating glimpse of a crucial shift in the way we might watch theatre.

Coney staged a series of online shows last week which involved a small ‘real-life’ audience – also participants in the show –and a bunch of keen (and bewildered) online participants. Technophobes need not apply. It took me a frantic few minutes to even unlock the cameras (there are a number of different camera angles available from which to watch ‘Better Than  Life’) and I started the show panicked, pissed off and seconds away from dropping out altogether. A little hand-holding might be needed as this new genre takes off; it seems a shame to alienate the spectator before the show has even begun.

Once ‘inside’ the show, there are few signposts for the uninitiated viewer. It feels like everybody involved –the online viewers chatting away on the messenger board and the ‘real-life’ audience I can see on-camera - knows something I do not. I spend at least ten minutes frantically jumping between Camera Vid, Camera 1, Camera 2, Audience Cam and the Commentary, without lingering for more than 10 seconds anywhere. It is like discovering the internet before Google was invented. It is Fear of Missing Out in theatrical online form.

Gradually, a few clues emerge. A nice chap – Big Dave – on the message board informs me that ‘the chosen few in capes are being tested for their predictive abilities’. That’s useful – I thought they were just re-enacting playschool. There is a lot of online chatter about some guy called Gavin, who’s going to be making a special appearance at some point. The participants on camera seem wary and the spectators online seem amused, confused and on the point of fully-fledged rebellion.

Coney is a company obsessed with the formation of societies, the fragility of these structures and the way in which different societies might interact usefully with each other. ‘Better Than Life’, then, is right up their anthropological street. Sub-societies quickly emerge. There is the online and off-line world but many more sub-sectors quickly emerge on the messenger board. Hecklers ‘high five’ each other online. Earnest participants seek each other and discuss important social matters. Friends from the ‘real’ world find each other and experience the show together. Different groups instinctively camp out in different areas of the show so that the messenger board becomes a criss-crossing of clashing perspectives and only those quickest off the mark – or quickest on the keyboard – manage any sort of sustained or useful conversation.

The instinctive online bonding is certainly interesting – but it’s a real shame that the online and off-line world interact so rarely. A few attempts are made to draw these worlds together. We are encouraged to ask the offline participants questions and there’s a very clever technological touch (which I never quite got the hang of), which allows the online viewers to wiggle their cursors and affect the lighting in the show. If this had worked it could have been a very smart and useful way to make the participants aware of our presence. As it was, I felt they had precious little awareness of their online audience, chattering in the internet wings.

Even more crucially, though, the show simply isn’t that compelling. This isn’t helped by the fact that the participants seem as confused as we, the online viewers, feel. Everything is shaky and uncertain whereas a show as complex as this needs something solid and convincing at its core. A show like this could do with more actors, more layers of convincing fantasy. When Gavin finally appears at the end, he is clearly one of the few actors involved. He talks directly to the camera and, suddenly, there is a strong thread between the offline and online world. Finally, it feels like the online audience matters.

Huge amounts of work to be done here, then. In particular, the question persists – why is the online audience necessary and what might we add? Even more importantly – why would the online audience want to be watching? What might feel fun and mysterious in real-life just feels sloppy and unconvincing online. The internet is an unforgiving medium. Twitter and facebook hover on the edge of our eye-line. Create a sketchy world and our attention will wander. Create something convincing and compelling and we’ll be the most engaged, dynamic and empowered audience there is.  

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