Steampunk tale 'Aurelia' an Experiment in Audience Participation

Steampunk tale 'Aurelia' an Experiment in Audience Participation
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By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)

Lisa England leads a double life.

By day she works for a Milwaukee area marketing agency, by night she writes fantasy stories. At least that's how it began. The project England started this summer is something more complex, an experiment that has lured her into largely uncharted waters.

That experiment is Aurelia: Edge of Darkness, a crowd-sourced fantasy story that exists as a collaboration between England and a cadre of steampunk enthusiasts.

"One of the things that I noticed with marketing is that interactivity and the two way experience is really powerful for helping people feel invested in and excited about a brand," said England. "Pulling that over into my own personal writing on the side, I started to wonder in the back of my mind what would it be like if I could really get the audience involved in this story the same way that I would for a brand that I work with during the day."

As it so happened, there was a startup out there looking for creators just like England. Theatrics is an interactive online video platform that is positioning itself as a way to enable the two-way experience England speaks of.

"We figured if there was a way for her to make the leap to video or to other assets than the written word then there's almost no genre more perfect for interactive storytelling than steampunk," said Nick Demartnio, a media consultant working with Theatrics.

Formerly a Senior Vice President of the American Film Institute, Demartino parlayed his knowledge of digital media and storytelling into becoming a key voice on the transmedia scene in Los Angeles. His presence there led to the relationship with Theatrics.

Demartino says that steampunk "has more roleplaying aficionados than probably any genre", and it is to the role-playing community, specifically the live-action role playing community, that the Aurelia project is being marketed.

Aurelia chronicles the lives of the citizens of a steam-powered city facing an energy crisis. The town began as a setting in England's serial Rise Of The Tiger, but in this project the audience, referred to by Theatrics as Actors, work as a kind of autonomous theatrical chorus. Whereas in a Greek play the chorus responds to the action of the protagonists onstage, here the chorus responds to the "playwright" (England) and takes on the role of a group protagonist.

Each week England challenges the Aurelia community with a call to action, a dramatic question based in part on previous story elements. Then it is up to the audience to formulate a response and act out their character's reactions. Which they do, many of them fully costumed, on webcam.

It is one part role-playing game, one part cosplay vlog performance art. In role-playing game terms England serves as both gamemaster--the person running a specific session--and as the living rulebook. In the eyes of her audience, what is and isn't appropriate in Aurelia is up to her. It is a role she's not entirely comfortable with.

"They see me as the manual I guess at some level," said England. "I'm trying to wean them off of that."

Which isn't to say that England is having a bad time.

"I actually love it, it's extremely energizing and invigorating for me and I say that completely honestly," said England. "I know that sometimes as writers we tend to be possessive about our worlds, understandably, and we want to call the shots about what happens in them."

England says that the creative input she gets from the audience amazes her. Each weekend sees a flurry of activity as the actor-players use their free time to work on Aurelia.

"By Sunday night I'm on this creative high where I'm like 'I can't believe somebody thought of this,' and it just sends my brain off on a million rabbit trails."

Aurelia isn't the only experiment being undertaken here. Theatrics itself is in public beta mode.

So far only two projects have had a complete cycle: the proof-of-concept series Beckinfield and a project for USA Network's Psych. Another series, the Jane Austen adaptation Welcome to Sanditon, is currently running its course on the platform.

Beckinfield, according to Demartino, and the genesis of Theatrics itself, came about when writer-actor Bob Gebert saw that web video could be a great showcase for actors, but that for many actors a webcam and and internet connection isn't enough for them to practice their craft.

"Actors need a container within which to perform," said Demartino. "So [Gebert] created the story and then developed this idea that performers could do improv characters."

Beckinfield would go on to be nominated for a Streamy, and feature hundreds of characters and thousands of participant videos by the end of its run. Demartino says that Theatrics has learned that this scale of production can become daunting. By the end of the run even the weekly summary videos, which attempted to recap the story as it unfolded, numbered over a hundred episodes.

Beckinfield transformed into a project that was intensely engaging for its community, but difficult to crack for outsiders. To avoid this problem in the future, Theatrics is encouraging their current crop of showrunners to think in terms of limited series: twelve weeks of shows, about the length of a season of Mad Men.

For now Aurelia is working on a much smaller scale than either Beckinfield or Welcome to Sanditon, and while that may be a disappointment it can also be an opportunity for the company to work out some of the issues the platform. The expectations of LARPers are different from that of web series fans, and England has already adapted the system to provide more context for her participants.

Theatrics continues to seek out new creators with which to collaborate.

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