Caro Meets Dance & Physical Interview Theatre Interview

William Townsend: Anthropocene – The Human Era

By | Published on Friday 16 April 2021

I imagine it’s pretty clear by now that we are very interested by – and supportive of – the kind of work, delivered via online means, that has seen such growth during the lockdown period. And it’s especially exciting to see the new and innovative ways these works have been developed.

‘Anthropocene: The Human Era’ is an online show from producing company GymJam, hosted by Oxford Playhouse, and it’s got some intriguing themes, as well as being structured with a ‘choose your own’ element.

William Townsend and Gavin Maxwell (pictured above) are the creative force behind it. I spoke to William to find out more about the production, as well as GymJam’s pandemic experience and hopes for the future.

CM: Let’s start with what ‘Anthropocene’ is about – what’s the central premise of the production? Who is it about?
WT: So ‘Anthropocene’ follows the mind of our protagonist Megan, a young woman sat in her bathroom waiting for her pregnancy test result to come clear. As she waits for the timer to finish she dreams of the impacts her daily choices have on the future that her kid might face, and wonders what those futures might mean for her child. As her imagination escalates the scenes become more extreme, we zoom in and out from her small daily actions to the global consequences we face as you choose the alternate pathways throughout the story.

CM: What themes do you explore through it?
WT: We wrestled with the broad theme of the climate crisis, which can feel like an overwhelming one. There are so many threads that make up the picture of the climate emergency, and within each one there’s a wealth of human stories! Like the birth strikers who inspired the initial research and development phase back in 2019. Ultimately our ‘kernel’ was that our daily actions have consequences, and what future does that leave our children?

CM: What’s rather interesting, of course, is that it’s a “choose your own” thing. Can you explain how that works?
WT: Ah mate definitely! We have a penchant for interactive experiences, like ‘choose your own adventure’ stories, because it allows you as an audience member to invest and really engage with the material you are being presented with.

We use the platform of EKO, it works on any device connected to the internet via a web browser and it’s widely used. You get full control by enjoying the film like any other programme, you press play and sit back, as the story progresses you can click on the choices that appear on screen, or it can choose for you after five to ten seconds so you don’t have to.

You also have the option to go back to your previous choice at any time if you wanted to try another route right away or misclicked. We are offering our personalised ‘cheat sheet’ too, so you can see all the different routes if you want to.

CM: What was the inspiration for it? What made you want to tackle this subject and themes?
WT: What was really touching about this process was how each person had their own reasons for engaging with it because of how they felt about the climate emergency. The collective group voice of those reasons drove this project to be what it was more than any single person.

For me personally, the inspiration started when I was young, my dad taught us to never waste anything and always make things last, he showed me loads of programmes on climate change. I was really aware as I grew up how needlessly excessive our society was, and in 2019 I was doing a lot of research into the water crisis we are facing globally, then we began the research and development for the piece.

CM: What made you decide to implement the multiple choice format?
WT: Gavin definitely drove this element into the project, and I was totally into it. He discovered EKO, the platform we use to host it, and we played around with it before deciding this was the way forward. The team at Oxford Playhouse were excited by the potential of it too and provided us with support to get it off the ground.

The reason behind it is simple. The reality is that we all engage in actions that impact the severity of the climate crisis every day, so it was a no-brainer to mimic this reality in our show, it’s a perfect mirror. It is also a genre that is gaining a lot of traction in the public and with good reason, it makes it more personal.

CM: How different was it creating a work for a digital platform? What challenges did you meet with?
WT: Oh my goodness, it was a shock to the system for us as theatre-makers, haha! The biggest shift was the perspective you give the audience.

Normally we are making work that is seen from 360 degrees, all the time. But for the camera, you show the audience where to look at all times, and it drastically changes what physical images look right or tell an engaging story.

So we upended the entire show in five days and Michael Lynch as a performer / cameraman was incredible at becoming part of the choreography as the DOP. Omari Carter from the Motion Dance Collective mentored us for a day to help us with this process, we couldn’t have done it without his experience and insights.

CM: The burgeoning of work designed for online distribution has obviously been as a result of the pandemic and lockdown, but can you see the company creating online work like this even once things go back to ‘normal’?
WT: One hundred percent, yes. This process has been a revelation for us, seeing how transferable our genre and skills are for camera. We fully intend on creating more work for film.

What we like most about it is it makes our work accessible, because not everybody can afford the theatre and most of it ends up in London or the fringes. We can go global from Kent now!

Plus, accessible online work puts a small but vital stream of revenue into theatre’s and theatre company’s eternally empty pockets, who were often struggling before the pandemic even began to stay afloat.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about GymJam – how long has the company been around and what kind of performance does it normally do?
WT: Haha, so GymJam started in 2019 with the two of us just messing about in the office after hours, coming up with new workshop ideas and games whilst spilling tea everywhere with tennis balls, it feels like a far-cry from those days now, but we kept that playfulness!

When the pandemic hit, we wanted to become what we would expect from a company, to be collaborative and unorthodox in those collaborations, to be flexible for the company members and to listen, in order to amplify urgent community messages.

We want to be human first, and that means caring about people and also never taking ourselves too seriously. We tell our stories through movement, sound and cinematic visuals, so you could call us a physical theatre company.

CM: Lockdown has obviously affected the whole industry, of course: how has it been for you? How have you got through it?
WT: Oh man, it has been a rollercoaster, for everybody we know and us. When the pandemic started we became a bit of a rock for each other, we checked in every week or sometimes more, just for quick chats like ‘Can you focus on anything for more than 20 minutes? I’m a mess!’

In that sense GymJam became vital and it kept our creative minds alive. We had the pleasure of collaborating with The Monobox and Movespace, where we offered a mixture of free and cheap workshops online to keep people moving, laughing and connected with their communities.

We also launched ‘Digimove 1 and 2’, which were digital movement symposiums featuring high-ranking practitioner led talks, workshops and discussions, which were highly attended and even went global. I actually look back on those early lockdown days with a lot of fond memories now, of communities really being there for each other.

CM: What aims and ambitions does the company have for the future?
WT: I mean, other than getting out of the house in something other than my sweats, we are definitely looking forward to launching in-person workshops again. We are pretty ambitious with where GymJam could go and we want to help out creative graduates as much as possible, because they need an industry to be released into that serves more than the 1%!

We hope to put together workshop and production tours around the UK and into Europe, and further out. We are also putting together a digital tour of ‘Anthropocene’, so if you like what you see we would love to share the work, our door is always open for collaboration and discussions.

CM: What’s coming up next, after this?
WT: We are cooking up a sandbox style residency and some more in-person workshops for the immediate future, we will be able to release free spaces on each one for recent graduates too. On top of those, we are hoping to create a new project later this year and put together a digital and maybe even physical tour of ‘Anthropocene’. The best place to keep up with our latest opportunities is our social media on Insta.

‘Anthropocene: The Human Era’ is on from 22 Apr-10 May via Oxford Playhouse. For more information and to book, see the venue website here.

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