Interview: Joe Strickland from Chronic Insanity

Chronic Insanity have been at the forefront of digital theatre invention over the past year, and have recently staged their first festival online, called Puncture the Screen. I caught up with Joe Strickland, who co-founded the company, recently.

Let’s begin with where Chronic Insanity started. 

We started about two years ago, co-founded by Nat Henderson and myself. We were at the National Student Drama Festival, in postgraduate education. I was doing a PhD. We’d been doing student theatre for a while, Edinburgh a couple of times, and other bits here and there in Nottingham. We reached a point where we needed opportunities that were going to be less restrictive and allow us to explore the topics we wanted to explore. We wanted to try diverse types or styles of theatre which were difficult to convince student societies to do. They run on a financial knife edge, so for every experimental show they do, they need something else to get audiences in the door. 

So we decided to make our own opportunities and do 12 shows in 12 months. It was ambitious but was something we felt we could do. We’d done shows in two, three weeks before, in a proper theatre with light and sound designs. So, if we were going down a more lo-fi route, with found spaces, there was a whole host of stuff we didn’t have to do, technically giving us more time to plan a show. 

So, the 12 shows in 12 months started before lockdown hit. 

Yes, we started in September 2019 so were six shows down and then decided we were going to keep going on – my PhD is in mixed reality technologies, virtual reality, augmented reality so it was something I’d be thinking about. Using theatre techniques to tell stories in a digital format.  

Now there was an opportunity to put some of that theory into practice. We had a script that I’d written about eighteen months ago, which took place entirely online. We were struggling to figure out how to perform it in person on the stage. So that became a livestream, which we did in May. Once that went well, we came up with loads of other ideas for the summer season last year. 

And you have a background in psychology as well, has that influenced your work

I think in the same way that everyone’s background influences all they do; my undergraduate and masters are in psychology and technically my PhD is in computer science, so it all feeds into user and audience experience.  

When I’m directing something, I look at the big picture and see characters and performances as one column along with the design of the show (lighting, projection, sound) then look at the audience experience. Things like how the show is marketed to them and how that makes them feel, and how they get to the venue. How do we incorporate them into the show? 

I used to be into magic as a teenager and that kind of theory influences a lot of what we do – you can create an illusion of something impossible happening.  

The shows in the current season seem to be getting progressively darker – was this planned

I never thought of them being darker than before, I suppose some of the other shows are more hopeful. In the last season, Conduit and Myles Away dealt with some heavy subjects but now with the current season we are looking at conspiracies and people disappearing (Flavour Text) and all those people dying in the fire (There’s Something Among Us).  

I’m really into that 90s ‘in your face’ theatre: Philip Ridley, Sarah Kane. Shows which tackle heavy subjects. We could put out a fast or comedic thing, but that’s not really my forte. I’m not shocked very easily and so I feel I should be the person that directs the shows that might be more shocking.  

If I want to be entertained, I will watch a stand-up special on Netflix or some YouTube sketches. If I want to feel something I want it to have an impact. I’m comfortable with darker shows, so when we started doing digital shows, we did those as well. 

Let’s talk about your current season. Where did Means of Production come from? 

Means of Production was the show we did to kick off the year in January, we wanted something quite different to what we have done before. Almost all out past shows have been fringe show length, about an hour, and I wanted to play around with the shorter form of digital theatre, about twenty minutes. 

Some people will go back to just making in person theatre and ignore digital, but I think people will start identifying as a digital theatre goer, especially younger audiences. I think digital theatre will have to compete against other online content, so needs to be shorter. If you’ve made a trip out it makes sense to have a full-length show, but no one wants to watch a three-hour digital piece. They will think well, I can watch six episodes of something else. 

I think five, ten, fifteen minutes are the future. 

Nat Henderson and Joe Strickland of Chronic Insanity

So, do you think digital will continue? 

It will always be super diverse. I think there will be people doing all sorts of things. Look at YouTube and how they use algorithms and watch times, and Tik Tok short form videos, and the limits on things like Instagram or reels.  

Twitter means that if you want to make content that can be seen by loads of people without the hassle of them buying a ticket and getting a link, you can do that in one or two minutes. I think digital theatre will go down those routes. 

If you want to make a longer experience, you’re going to make something that’s like a video game, something people know will be a few hours of play time, that they can play and then come back, move through it at their own pace. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the future, digital data started splitting into a more playable, interactive, and potentially longer form. 

Let’s talk about the way you’ve set up your productions.  

There’s a great producer in Nottingham, if he finds bits of software he thinks I might be interested in, he sends it my way. The software we used for There’s Something Among Us, that’s called Tweepi, and there’s another piece called Twine (for storytelling in a non-linear form) which we used to build the interaction menu for 52 Souls and the whole of Myles Away. That kind of text-based choose your own adventure stuff, but it lets you put videos into it. These are all open source so free to use. 

For 24,23,22 and Means of Production we built websites and video for different devices to play in sync. The creative technologist who worked with us on those has a project where you can cast on different videos all happening at the same time, but we wanted to do that too late in the day for There’s Something Among Us. So, we decided there were benefits of choosing which character to watch, and you get multiple decisions so can swap to someone else. 

What about livestreaming? 

All our work has been pre-recorded or on demand to an extent, none of them have been live in the sense that they’re being performed while the audience is watching. I think that digital theatre doesn’t have to be live, especially when you have a story that plays out online. If you look at a message board, which was the whole reason we did Flavour Text, you see all the responses, the day/time they were posted, and the story with an element of time, narrative and progression is frozen as an artifact for anyone to look at any time.  

In Stay Safe, the WhatsApp play, you are still in that group unless you choose to leave; you can go back and look at it, but that was something live. That’s the only live thing we’ve done, and it’s still there. That show was like being the puppeteer, with me running some software. Some of it was pre-programmed, but an image or a sound file, we had to do that manually.  

I think since we all started doing digital work, there have been some cool productions over Zoom, especially if you ask people to suspend their disbelief by using breakout rooms or the chat. It just doesn’t particularly interest me. I prefer pre-recorded: it’s more accessible because it is there forever. You can watch whenever you want to, you can’t lose the link and then miss the show. The performers can redo performances if they want to.  

We try not to do too much filming; we do long takes. If you look closely at some of our work, there are glaring errors we decided to leave in because that was the performance on the day. 

Do you think theatre is changing? 

Eventually we might be running a building and doing a fully integrated hybrid digital and in-person programme, who knows? If you’re trying to go for a younger audience, or an audience from a background that hasn’t been introduced to the theatre, you need to tell stories which reach them in a unique way, so those people want to engage with it. You need to change everything. It’s not just about casting the right people or getting the right playwright. It’s the whole process.  

It’s the whole thing, “I can’t afford to go to the theatre”. Maybe I don’t want to watch three hours of Shakespeare in period dress, or be completely silent and not being able to join in. Maybe the buildings are intimidating, or I worry about dressing up to go there. Will I belong there? People who love the theatre might not think about this, but if you are made to feel not part of it, by accident or design, then you won’t engage. 

Younger people are more native to digital environments where stuff is accessible. Whole industries have shifted (TV, film, music). The idea that theatre won’t do that is a bit ridiculous. There is a certain arrogance in standing up and saying, “this is the way it should be”. That’s just the way it has been. And never in the whole of history has the way it has been the way it should be.  

What about your pricing model, with most shows being on a Pay What You Can basis? 

Originally, we said the reason we chose to do pay what you can is because we wanted our work to be able to be seen. And I think going to the theatre is always about managing the resources. And if you must take a gamble on a new thing, you’re less likely to do that.  

And then on top of that the work we do asks quite a lot of people, whether that’s in theme, whether that’s in its actual form. Is it interactive? Do I have to use multiple screens, it’s going to be a bit of a hassle to set up? And as a result, we didn’t want people to be like, I want to watch this, but it looks like it’s going to be difficult, so I’m going to pick an easier thing.  

Our compromise with that is a pay what you can model to make it more accessible to people who aren’t technologically literate. About half the tickets last summer, for example, were free tickets, and the other half were either ten, eight or five pounds. This year, so far, it’s been a lot slower.  

But from what I understand, that’s for everybody. People have been getting tickets, but they’ve always been free tickets. We’re hoping it picks up a bit more in the summer. And again, that’s a forecast I think a lot of people are expecting once it levels out. 

Let’s look at Puncture the Screen, which is your late summer festival. 

And it’s about like, trying to make art with audience data and behaviour data. And so, it’s interactive in a meaningful, communicative way. And we’re really excited with that, because we have some funding pots to offer commissions to people. And there are workshops and how to so if you want to make your own digital, there will kind of be commissioning other not just ours, but other digital makers to share ideas and resources.  

My thanks to Joe for their time and an extremely interesting chat.