How Does Transmedia Affect Acting?

 

Yesterday I was interviewed by Vanessa Cornford. Vanessa is the Course Leader and a Lecturer of Acting & Contemporary Theatre Making at Northbrook College Sussex. She currently researches whether the trend towards transmedia requires a change in the way actors are trained. Given that relatively little has been said on how acting may be affected by transmedia, I’d like to share some of the points from my interview with you. No matter whether you’re a director, a producer, an actor or a writer – the following notes should be useful to everyone involved in a transmedia project when thinking about what’s in-store for the actors and, consequently, for the characters they portray.

 

Transmedia requires an increasing skill set from actors

Although I may not be familiar with different actor training techniques and all of the acting methods that exist, there’s one thing that I can tell: The trend to transmedia requires an increasing skill set from actors. Even without going through actor training, one can for example see that there are differences when it comes to acting on film and acting on stage, purely by watching actors act in the two media. In this regard, transmedia affects acting – and consequently, actor training – in two ways: It increases the amount of platforms that a character may be found on, which means that actors have to know their way around more platforms and that they have to be able to switch between different ways of acting in an instant. They have to stay in character at all times, no matter the medium. This means actors also must:

 

Know each platform and how they fit into the narration

When a character and the narrative continue across different media platforms, it is incredibly important that the writer(s), the director and the actor(s) all understand how each platform works, what the audience expects from content on a particular platform, how the audience uses the platform (i.e. for what gain, where, with others or alone, daily, rarely, etc.), and how each platform fits into the overall narration (e.g. providing back story, being the driving platform, engaging the audience directly, etc.). Each media platform has its own properties, strengths, weaknesses, and purposes, and knowing them is crucial in building a powerful narrative, as they’ll influence greatly how a character should/would behave and act on a given platform.

 

Really know your way around each platform

However, knowing of the purpose and use of a media platform in itself isn’t enough. Anyone involved in the creative process must also be aware of how a platform works technically. Knowing that Twitter is a short-message service made up of messages that are 140 characters long is great, but do you also know how to use hash-tags, trending topics, mentions, twitpics, twitlongers, etc.? Do you know how to shorten particular words to squeeze as much info in 140 characters as possible? Do you know what a #ff, bit.ly, or a tinyurl is? These are very basic functions on Twitter, and you only really get to know them when you start tweeting and have a need for them. The same goes for any other medium. Knowing of a platform and what it does isn’t enough. In order to really be able to work efficiently and effectively with any media platform, you have to have experienced it first hand – or garner the experience as quickly as possible when you’re supposed to use it. Traditionally, the platforms an actors was seen/heard on were few – theater, film, TV, radio/audio plays, etc. Now, actors are increasingly expected to perform on different media as well, social media in particular. Really knowing your way around each platform and how people use it greatly increases its narrative impact. Even if the script is already written and an actor’s performance is directed by someone else, knowing a platform in detail can help an actor nail their character and locate storytelling opportunities the writers and the director may not have thought of.

 

Understand and be able to cope with the immediacy of the Internet and online platforms

The Internet offers more and more platforms that can be used in storytelling – websites, YouTube/blip/vimeo & co., Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, tumblr ,and WordPress are some of the most frequent ones. What’s particularly special about these platforms is their immediacy. Whether you like it or not, audiences will try to engage with the character you portray on these platforms, and maybe even with you as an actor. This immediacy has it’s pro’s and con’s, of course, and it’s important to bear them in mind.

For one, the immediacy and direct audience engagement can lead to a more personalized experience for the individual fan. Actors, directors and writers get direct feedback on how a character is received, and can adapt the character’s portrayal, if they wish to do so. At the same time, however, this immediacy can also cause challenges. Being online makes the story, the character, and even the actor vulnerable to attacks online. Offline and online performances are reviewed in real-time. Shitstorms may be brewing if a story doesn’t satisfy the wishes or needs of its audience. And depending on the size of your fan following, replying to audience messages and posts may take up a huge chunk of time each day. All of these aren’t reasons to forego online platforms, of course, and shouldn’t put anyone – actors, directors or writers – off from using them, put it is important to prepare for them with suitable resources and, particularly in the case of actors, with growing a thick skin.

 

Know what you’re getting yourself into in terms of time

When signing up for a transmedia project, it is important that you really know what you’re getting yourself into. An acting job may start on one driving platform, but if this beginning is successful, you’ll move on to different platforms that’ll bring with them changing requirements in terms of time. Moreover, transmedia projects are usually long-term undertakings, so signing up for one could bind you to that project for several years, if not decades. Again, this has both advantages and disadvantages. While a long-term contract offers a certain economic stability, it’ll make you professionally inflexible to a certain extent. Make sure that when you sign a contract, that it defines exactly how much time you’re supposed to spend on the job on each platform, how much notice in advance you’ll receive whether a project will be continued or disbanded, and how many acting jobs you’re allowed to take up outside this particular engagement.

Needless to say, you should also think about whether you’d be willing to play a character for an extended period of time – creatively and/or personally. And remember – you’re not only entering a contractual obligation. You’re also entering a social contract with your audience, and they will not like it if you abandon a transmedia story because you don’t want to do it anymore. Not only does it disappoint them, but it can also hurt the brand image of the story and your own image as an actor significantly.

 

Creative opportunities – backstory, audience loyalty and making minor major

Transmedia offers some great creative opportunities, which of course can also turn into challenges (as usual). In transmedia, the backstory doesn’t have to remain imaginative. Due to the availability of different platforms, any story arc can be explored – prequels, sequels, parallels – by both the actor and the audience. The challenge here is to ensure that any additional information does not only fit into canon, but that it also fits the look and feel (or, as Jeff would say, “the brand essence”) of the story. If it doesn’t, having the additional information can backfire among the audience because it doesn’t live up to their expectations and the story’s heritage (e.g. Star Wars Episodes I-III, Prometheus, etc.). While an actor may not be able to influence the story content itself, s/he is able to influence how a character is portrayed, and that this portrayal is consistent with what the audience experiences in other parts of the story.

In addition, transmedia also offers actors a great opportunity to spend more time with the audience. Aside from the professional advantage of building one’s reputation and skills, this also makes a character invaluable to the audience and to the story. If an audience is willing to follow a character across different platforms and through (story) time due to a gripping performance, the character becomes one of the main points of entry for the audience, and often even offers them some form of emotional relief or gratification.

Finally, transmedia also offers room for minor characters to become major characters, or at least to cater to their fan followings. Starting out, there may not be time to go into detail on the fate, background or adventures of a supporting character in the content on the driving platform. However, there is time on additional media. So if a minor character develops a fan following or sparks particular audience interest (like Haldir in Lord of the Rings, for example), s/he is able to lead the audience on to a different platform where they can explore his/her story in greater detail. Ultimately, this minor character may be so successful, that s/he becomes a major character in the overall story.

 

Conclusion

Casting the right actors is key in any medium. Casting the right actors in transmedia is particularly important, as it is a story’s characters that provide the main point of entry into the narrative, and because it is the characters that will afterwards lead the audience from platform to platform due to the interest the audience has in them. Even if one isn’t particularly interested in a certain story arc or part of the story universe, one may be willing to experience it anyway if a major or one’s favorite character is involved.

For actors, transmedia requires the ability to act on essentially any medium, to know one’s way – or, rather, to quickly find one’s way – around any medium, and to understand how a particular platform fits into the overall narrative and into narration. Moreover, factors like the immediacy of the internet, the professional commitment required, and creative opportunities in transmedia must also be prepared for. All in all, however, I personally believe that the move towards transmedia ultimately provides actors with incredible opportunities to fulfill their personal and professional potential, and to provide great value both to the story, the director and the audience.