Why collaborative web drama will never scale the heights of true tragedy



Bebo is changing its strategy for web drama as it becomes clear that the format is flawed. An article in C21media includes an interview with Kate Burns of Bebo who describes the success of the format with programmes such as Kate Modern and Sofia’s Diary.

The commercial success of the format has its parallels with the original Soap Operas, broadcast on radio as commercials for soap powder. Bebo’s web drama embeds advertising in its content as did Procter and Gamble.

“We do not fund the programmes ourselves anymore. They are 100% ad-funded. We don’t take the risk”

So it may be profitable but is it drama? A third series of Sofia’s Diary is reportedly on the way but it is clear that despite this format’s success and that of KateModern, Bebo’s enthusiasm for scripted online drama is perhaps on the wane. “Narratives are challenging because they don’t encourage sharing too well unless you’ve followed the story from beginning to end, or unless you can have each episode stand on its own,” and this in itself creates challenges for writers and producers.”

Of course. The collaboration in drama is around the production of the work – writer, actors and the creative team who make the mise en scene – director, designers etc. The power of theatre and broadcast drama comes from the action of telling a story. And the creative vision comes from the team who tell and encact this story and engage us, the audience, in a collective experience as they do so.
So collaborative web drama is flawed as a format.
It can work where the audience influences the story by selecting discrete elements – like the endings
But to suggest that the whole drama and its all its elements can be the subject of mash up, crowd sourcing and the like will only be a dilution at best and mess up at worst.

The collaborative world of web 2 offers real opportunities for the arts as the rules of creative engagement rapidly change.  The rere are opportunities for all of us to participate in creating art, to collaborate on programming and to personalise our consumption.  Through crowdsourcing we can give birth to new creative experiences. We can carry our preferences in own clouds.

But the heights in drama are those created by a brilliant story, brilliantly told, enacted and put into a scene in a collaborative production process.  And for those of us in the audience, in the room with the actors to share in the collective experience as the drama unfolds.

So what does Web 2, the world of The Art of With, offer for all of us in theatre?  There are certainly opportunities to use digital technology in the way we put plays on stage.  Audiences can collaborate on reviewing, we can encourge tweeting during a play, blogging, participation in programming, voting on repertoire.  We can encourage micro-investment, mini angels supporting a production by a small on line donation.

But the creation and production of theatre itself may prove itself unadaptable for the web 2 world.  Lets hope that some of the evolutionary measures will be enough for it to thrive in the 21st century and not become a dinosaur.

  1. Matt said:

    Commented on this on 38minutes. Actually this fuller post makes more sense to me, but I still disagree with you regarding some of the assumptions regarding storytelling.

    Have you read Hamlet on the Holodeck, recommend it in regard to this?

  2. havent read it no but of course Shakespeare’s great tragedies draw on collaboration from others. The key expertise in producing a great drama is in editing.(the play, the production, the performance). That has to be in the hands of a single/few to cast the spell.

    • Mike B said:

      Hi Anne,

      The notion of an “Auteur” or a single voice is, I think, the problem in your way of understanding the space. there does need to be a singular vision but that is required only as a frame work not blow by blow direction, that then leaves space for players (both in a gaming a drama definition) to explore the story world.


      • Matt said:

        Mike – long time … – see my presentation ‘audience as auteur’ for more on this.

        I’ll go along with framework – I particularly like the notion of ‘touchpoints’.

  3. Matt said:

    Absolutely, but that doesn’t preclude editing from source to create mashups/versions from a community or group.

    I produced a ‘live film’ years ago, by the Light Surgeons, which went through different ‘edits’ every (VJ) performance – video was reactive to the audience/space (yes, this happens in theatre, but we are talking more about the moving image medium here aren’t we?).

    I also think group collaborations in ARGs/transmedia can create their own drama – ‘dramatic clustering’ if you will – this is outside the framework of the ‘puppetmaster’ or master storyteller, upends the traditional hierarchy, and we/they need to be reactive to that … another ‘with’ thing.

    The new technologies and platforms are creating something which is much more of a symbiosis-a concept I’m developing as The Networked Creator.

  4. The symbiosis you talk about here Matt, convergence in drama is very ‘with’. All the more challenging for theatre in a room.

  5. the discussion on 38 minutes is summarised here

    1. drama in the web2 world will major on the collabarative, where participants commune in,on or around an area, theme or ideal

    this has its base in mystery cycles (embedding Christianity) and community plays (celebrating and exploring local communities, heritage and local issues – Dundee Rep has been an exemplar) and now web drama (educating and engaging around genetics as in routegames)

    Development of the genre, certaintly in the short term, will be focussed on drama where the ideal, faith or theme is one around which a community self identfies.

    2. the platforms that support this are largely digital. There are also implications for theatres programming and producing the live experience

    Development on the digital platforms is alive and well (given where we are in the process of exploration). Theatres are challenged by the web2 world and collaborative drama is the exception in producing theatres. The Tragedy I referred to my title is charicatured as the ‘high’ drama, with its foundations in the Greek drama of gods not people, the drama of the single vision (produced through creative collaboration). This is a theatre of great art , exploring universal themes and vitally important. It describes today’s great contemporary theatre. But not the same as collaborative drama where audiences participate in creating and performing the story.

    3. the value of these collaborative dramas have to be defined, owned and supported

    The value of web drama, and the ‘deep-play’ participation has to be valued so it can be paid for. In the original soaps and Kate Modern, embedded advertising worked and it may be that this model will work into the future, with more sophisticated anaylsis of the value to advertisers of this format.

    There is also a public value to be put on ‘deep-play’ , like other PSB arguments and arguments around the social impact of the arts.

    My thinking about what 21st century theatres should be and do is influenced by all of this , on which I will blog separately.

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