god, random access, or roulette?
In this issue of HypertextNow, Eastgate editor Diane Greco talks with Nick Fisher, author of The Wheel of Fortune, BBC Radio's first-ever interactive radio drama.
Nick Fisher is a popular, innovative UK writer whose work spans many fields. His stage plays have premiered at major repertory venues in the UK and Europe, and his radio plays were twice nominated for the prestigious Prix Europa Awards, including a Special Commendation for "Vox Humana" in 1997. His thriller serial, "Enfield Investigates," is BBC Radio Drama's longest running hit. Nick has recently moved into TV and film writing; his original movie screenplay "The Clock" is scheduled for production in 2002. He is also a published children's author and the lyricist of over a hundred stage songs. Nick is currently under commission to produce two pieces of interactive drama for BBC TV.
On September 19th and 20th, BBC Radio 3 and 4 will broadcast two versions of Nick Fisher's The Wheel of Fortune, so listeners can switch between them at key points, effectively creating their own plays. For listeners tuning in on the Web, the website will carry a third stream. There are potentially billions of ways of listening from start to finish.
Diane Greco: Would you say a little about the genesis of The Wheel of Fortune? How did it start? How did you get involved?
Nick Fisher: I was approached by BBC Radio Drama - who I've done a lot of work for over the past ten years or so - in conjunction with BBC Digital Radio. They knew I had an interest in new technologies and asked what I would do as a dramatist if I was offered two streams of digital broadcast to play with. I pondered this and then asked if I could have three. The answer was yes.
I could immediately see that while two streams might be interesting, three would be much more exciting -- the choices and opportunities expand exponentially. Even when I work in popular forms I've tried to explore the massive and often under-used possibilities of radio drama. Here was a unique opportunity to try something really new. No way was I going to turn it down.
DG: Isn't there a tension between under-utilized possibilities and novelty for its own sake? I imagine a more skeptical listener might wonder what is gained versus what is lost in this transition to a new medium. What dramatic possibilities do new technologies and formats - particularly the Web - have to offer?
NF: Novelty for its own sake is indeed not worth much. But there's a big difference between novelty and exploration. I strongly believe that we're living through the early stages of a revolution that will ultimately have massive effects on the way we live and work (and enjoy our leisure time), every bit as profound as the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution. In such an atmosphere I think artists must explore any and all new possibilities for expression. If it didn't sound so pompous I'd almost declare it to be our duty! This of course is already happening in the most exciting ways. Visual artists, animators, designers, and writers of prose fiction and poetry have already been enriching our lives with their work on the Web. I feel very proud - and privileged - to be a tiny part of this ongoing revolution through the production of The Wheel of Fortune.
Exactly where all this will ultimately lead, I really don't know. But that in itself makes the whole thing incredibly exciting.
I'll come to the issues of random access and narrative longings later. Suffice it to say that one of my major interests remains the creation of strong characters that an audience will want to spend time with, alongside the excitement of tension, plot....and above all, surprise. How these issues can fit with interactivity fascinates me.
DG: What about the story itself?
NF: The writing was, as ever, fun. But it did present a few logistical difficulties that I hadn't encountered before.
As it will be broadcast, there are three "plays" (I call them configurations) that are separate and distinct. The first is called "Transmission Control Penhaligon & The Thirty-Three Banana Problem," the second is "The Probable Professor and His Uncertain God," and the third is "Dawn Gambler - Long Night - Evening Odds." Each focuses on a different character - though those characters are going to meet and enter each other's worlds. Each has its own feel, which is governed by focus of subject matter, important secondary characters that do not appear elsewhere, and use of sound effects and music specific to each configuration. One of the three was even recorded on location rather than in studio in order to heighten differences.
The main characters are T, a young computer programmer, sick and tired of the shoot-em-ups she's asked to create; Leonard, a theoretical physicist who specialises in probability (and the Marx Brothers); and a cool, calm professional gambler, Steve. I was interested to bring into collision three people who generally occupy very separate worlds. They come to share a common goal, though their reasons for wishing to achieve that goal are utterly different. Each has a very personal agenda that emerges during the course of the action.
Now the problems came when I (and my director Marion Nancarrow) started to experiment with various different possible routes through the plays. One day I realised a character appears in two different places at exactly the same time - which may be OK for sub-atomic particles, but is less acceptable for human beings! Then Marion rang and explained how she'd found two characters being introduced after they'd already met two minutes earlier.
I hope these little local difficulties have been ironed out. But, as it's impossible for us to run through anything but a fraction of the choices available, some illogicalities could be discovered. I deliberately built certain "inconsistencies" (did T leave school with no qualifications or does she hold a PhD from Bristol University?) into the project from the start. These cannot - unless I've fouled up! - be discovered in one single listening experience. I wanted to play gently with the notion of "fixed," immutable characters here.
DG: How did you put these configurations together? Talking about plot on the BBC website you wrote, "For this I only had to divide my brain in three - and subsequently organise 90 billion connections between the segments." That's an unusual kind of writing! Can you say a bit more about this process - without, of course, giving away the plot?
NF:The most interesting technical issue for me is exactly how the "junctions" between the three broadcast configurations work. This is where I really did have to divide my brain up a bit! Obviously, when the listener moves from one stream to another, it could simply be a question of dropping into that other stream and finding out what was going on. But I felt the junctions provided an opportunity to do much more than that.
Sometimes, when the listener shifts to another stream it will be like having a rug pulled from under your feet. For a moment or two you'll be in free-fall before you establish just what's going on. But at many junctions the connections should be seamless, if unusual. To give an example may help explain what I mean.
At one point the physicist, Leonard, is pondering the two worlds that surround us - the visible and the invisible. And he asks, "What controls both?" At this point the listener can go three different ways, and get three different answers to Leonard's question:
One may also arrive at these three answers from two other starting points. In one, a character is left in mid-sentence: "This is the first time I've tried...." ("God...Random Access...Roulette") In the other, someone is pondering the uniqueness of things with a phrase that crops up several times in the course of the action and therefore makes more sense in context: "What makes each have its own, wholly individual series of ifs and buts and maybes?" ("God...Random Access...Roulette")
I think you've got the picture. Piecing all the junctions together was a challenge. It required a lot of work. But it was fun. And that's precisely what it should be for the listener. Very often sentences stop mid-phrase and are picked up by other characters in unexpected ways. Leaping about to find just where those sentences may lead should, I trust, be highly enjoyable.
There - plot still not given away!
DG: How will the interactivity work? What can radio listeners in the UK expect? What can people like me - tuning in through the website - expect to see and hear?
NF: During the broadcast, listeners will be invited to change from one stream to another approximately every minute. For UK radio listeners, a repeated musical and vocal motif will invite them to switch channels.
The ideal listening experience - technicalities permitting - should be through the BBC website, as there you will have three choices of starting point and then - at each junction - you can choose to shift to one of the other two streams, or of course you can choose to stay where you are. It'll be a question of click and go.
Or, if you fancy sitting back and resting that poor clicking finger - which may have already had a long, hard day at the mouse - I understand the technicians are putting together an alternative, where one click activates some deep computer magic to select a whole randomised version just for you. But, hey - who's that lazy really?
UK radio listeners will be able to flick between BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio 4 to access two "plays" one evening, and then do the same the following evening with one play repeated and the third introduced. Ideally I would have liked Radio 1 or 2 to have participated; then all three configurations could have gone out simultaneously. Sadly, the controllers of 1 and 2 didn't feel their predominantly music-based, non-drama networks should broadcast this. However, those who receive digital radio in the UK (a growing number) will be able to get all three at the same time, just like those accessing the website.
In terms of what you see and hear on the Web, well, this is essentially a listening experience with visual indications of when you can swap between streams. I haven't been very involved in what you will see on screen but I understand it will be kept simple so you focus on the drama. In no way will we be trying to fit TV-style visuals to the unfolding action - that's not the intention at all.
DG: The aleatory element - jumping from one segment to another, seemingly at random - in interactive narrative is often what readers like least about it, yet most web (and channel) surfers, for instance, have no problem at all with abrupt transitions in a single viewing/interactive experience. How do you maintain narrative continuity when interaction is part of the experience?
NF: This is so interesting, isn't it. I'm utterly fascinated by the creative tension that arises between interactivity and our narrative longings. I believe we do have a very deep seated need for stories in our lives; I personally love good plots and I enjoy writing thrillers. But the fresh opportunities opening up through the new technologies must be explored. I don't view these things as mutually exclusive. As I say, there can be a creative tension where interactivity and traditional narrative and character blend together.
The Wheel of Fortune is not random access. Although you can jump about and create your own listening experience, the whole thing will be flowing from start to finish...or starts to finishes...and those endings and starting points are very different indeed. Central to this flow is a strong plot. Having said that, what really interests me is not that plot, but the three characters' motivations. There's a lot to discover about T, Leonard and Steve. And if I've got things right I believe people will want to come back to The Wheel and spin the whole thing a few times - not just to get to the three different endings, but in order to delve deeper into those characters. I think repeat listenings will become richer and richer for the listener.
DG: I like your suggestion that the work repays repeated encounters. But it could be argued that repeated encounters with any rich piece of work are illuminating. In a multi-threaded work like The Wheel of Fortune, what is gained with repetition?
NF: I utterly agree that repeated readings of Joyce, repeated viewings of Shakespeare, repeated visits to Guernica or whatever deepen the experience they offer. But something slightly different will be going on with The Wheel of Fortune. On repeat visits you will be encountering entirely new material - at least some of the time; the chances of anyone hitting the same combination twice are pretty slim! Some elements you encounter again will actually have a totally different resonance and meaning because of things you have discovered on a previous visit; at the same time you will find that a character you thought you knew very well is not exactly the same person you met before - because of those deliberate "inconsistencies" I mentioned earlier.
DG: What's next for you in this medium? I mean this as a kind of blue-sky, open-horizon question: what's your vision? Where do you see interactive drama going on the Web?
NF: What's next? Me, I want to write a monologue with no sound effects at all - just one voice on one microphone with the only junction points in sight the start and the finish and the only interactivity switching on at the beginning and off at the end! Or maybe I want to lie down for a bit...
Back IRL, I'm working with BBC TV on two interactive projects. One will initially be made as an in-house demo - it will be a small indication of how a much larger project could work. I'm not really at liberty to go into much detail here as the project is in development; but my input has been writing a six-minute drama that also has six further minutes embedded in it. I've also produced an almost entirely random-access version of those same scenes....but my old narrative longings kicked in and held the ending as a surprise that can only be experienced when the viewer has accessed the majority of the material. Dramatists do love surprise - it's hard to relinquish control completely!
The other project is still in discussion. But it will involve a multiple viewpoint narrative...so it looks like I'm going to have to divide my brain up all over again.
Ultimately where do I see drama going on the Web? I don't think anyone knows. But I'm sure it's here to stay. What I do foresee is greater and greater interactivity being built into the whole experience of drama. It may well be that we'll soon be able to enter a play as a character - and change the course of the action through what we do. That'd be interesting, eh?
But somehow, however transformed and alchemised in the twin furnaces of original creation and ongoing interactivity, I believe narrative surprise will.......will keep everyone in suspense just a bit longer. Be sure to visit The Wheel of Fortune when the play is broadcast on 19 September!