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Welcoming ‘Sanditon’…and a Whole New Level of Fan Participation
In case you missed it a couple of days ago, the first full episode of the new web series Welcome to Sanditon went live. Like its predecessor, the phenomenon known as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, the series features an updated take on Jane Austen, sharp writing, a likable cast, and overall combo of smarts and fun that’s hard to resist. Of course both series display the strengths of the medium–brief episodes, modest production values, a clever leveraging of ancillary tech, and, most significantly, robust audience engagement. For the latter, the folks at Pemberly Digital have teamed up with Theatrics.com, LLC, which is pioneering fan participation in exciting ways that may have direct application in schools and libraries. With this in mind, I thought I’d check in with Nick DeMartino, with whom I chatted about transmedia and libraries last year, and who now heads business development for the company.
DeMartino has led Theatrics’ shift from a storytelling destination, which had been the model for its homegrown series Beckinfield, to a platform designed to extend storyworlds for its customers, specifically television networks. He facilitated the first such deal that brought the Theatrics solution into an online companion series for Psych called The S#cial Sector, and was product lead on the launch of the beta test of the new online platform at www.theatrics.com .
Fans of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries could already interact with the characters. How will Sanditon go beyond this?
Fans who come to Welcome to Sanditon will continue to have all of the opportunities to connect to characters that they did with Lizzie Bennet–posting their own YouTube videos, posting on Twitter, Facebook and especially Tumblr, and commenting on all of the platforms. But with Sanditon, they are also being invited to create their own characters and perform in character as the story unfolds. To achieve this, the producers have partnered with Theatrics, whose collaborative storytelling platform is designed to optimize fan engagement.
Fans will create a “Persona” through which they interact with the show creators. In character, the fans can generate videos, stills and blog posts in response to Calls to Action posted by the show creation team. Audience members can rate, link, and share this content, and by so doing earn points and badges, because the Theatrics platform is fully “gamified.” Along the way, the work of some fans may be plucked from the Theatrics site by the producers and shared across the entire storyworld of Sanditon, creating additional incentives for fans to deliver “great performances.”
To what extent is the series being produced with this interaction and character- or persona-creation in mind? In other words, in what ways is Theatrics organic to experiencing the series rather than just a neat add-on?
The folks behind Lizzie Bennet and Sanditon are such brilliant storytellers for this new socially-engaged generation, and they’ve set up the story container for audience engagement in a very inventive way. First, they’ve adapted Sanditon in a range of ways to advance the audience’s opportunity for engagement. Like LBD, they have moved the location to California and of course made the setting a contemporary situation. Second, they have brought Darcy’s sister Gigi from LBD into the Sanditon story, and prepared for the launch of Sanditon by posting a teaser video that sets up the premise, namely, that she is moving to this new town which is trying to bring itself back with the help of Pemberley Digital, the company Gigi’s brother runs. Pemberley is launching a new piece of video software called Domino, which was a big element in the climax of LBD. In Sanditon, this fictional “app” will be used by residents of the town–this is the activity that occurs on the Theatrics.com site.
Thus fans will not only have the opportunity to interact with the story, but actually be a part of it. The platform will power the in-story beta test of the fictional Domino “life-revealing” application, allowing fans to create their own characters and interact directly with the storyline, offering a completely new interactive experience.
We’ll see how the LBD fans take to this new concept, but given the level of their engagement with story and characters, it seems very likely that they’ll jump on the chance to perform. Which means there may be lots more “location”-style video uploaded, in addition to the “vlog” style of LBD.
Does Sanditon being an unfinished novel enter into this at all? Will fan participation drive how the narrative itself ultimately plays out, or is that already close-ended?
As Margaret Dunlap, co-showrunner of Welcome to Sanditon has said, “People were constantly asking us about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries: ‘How did interaction with fans affect the story?’ And the truth is that when you’re working from an amazing and well-loved story like Pride and Prejudice, there’s only so far you can stray from the original before you aren’t telling a version of Austen’s novel anymore. Using Sanditon—where literally no one knows what Austen’s ending was going to be—as the basis for our next project seemed like the perfect way both for us to do something new, and to be able to invite the fans to help create the town alongside us.”
The show creators refer to Sanditon as a “bridge” series–they raised nearly $500,000 from fans on KickStarter to support a DVD boxed set of LBD, and to launch a new series in the fall, based upon an as-yet unannounced property. Sanditon will bridge the two full-scale productions this summer, and will by design include fewer fully produced video segments. The story will more fully unfold as the fans create characters and co-create the story.
Does it make sense to think about educators working with students to create their own low-budget series shot in everyday settings like LBD that are based on other works of canon lit in the public domain? Will Theatrics be a viable resource for media and edtech specialists in this respect?
While I was at AFI we created a curriculum under the banner of “Screen Education” through which teachers helped their students use the vocabulary and techniques of digital filmmaking to explore all sorts of subject matter. We saw filmmaking as a literacy issue, a means to an end, e.g., harnessing kids’ interest in filmmaking and storytelling as a way to explore subject matter. Teachers who were comfortable managing this sort of constructivist learning process achieved amazing results.
With the Theatrics platform, the entire classroom assignment can be structured within a contained and controllable story container. Teachers can give assignments on an ongoing basis through the Call to Action feature. Students can create videos in response, can comment and vote on each others’ work, and can share it across the open Internet (or not, it’s the teacher’s choice).
Please check back tomorrow, when we will get into more specific possibilities involving Theatrics and curriculum… Thanks!
About Peter Gutierrez
A former middle school teacher, Peter Gutierrez has spent the past 20 years developing curriculum as well as working in, and writing about, various branches of pop culture. You can sample way too many of his thoughts about media and media literacy via Twitter: @Peter_Gutierrez
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