The shows where drama meets data

Published in The FT November 25, 2019

We all know that our data can be bought and sold. The trail of personal information, purchases and preferences we leave across the internet becomes the bedrock for targeted advertising. But could such data be put to more creative use?

London-based theatre company Any One Thing is doing just that, and has produced two intimate shows that innovatively use technology to personalise the experience.

Their productions are staged in a variety of “borrowed” spaces that match where the play is actually set: on the street, in an office, or a real home. The work is intimate and interactive, with the audience becoming part of the scripted narrative, acknowledged by the actors. And audience members’ own personal data can be woven into the fabric of the world the company creates: they buy data sets about participants, which include information you share publicly, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but also things such as online searches and purchases. During the play, participants may find themselves confronted with a picture of the street they live on, or asked about a recent holiday they took.

Any One Thing’s founders come from a different place to your usual theatre folk: Paul Farnell and Justin Fyles met when the former employed the latter as a software engineer for his company Litmus, which enables brands to test email marketing campaigns (clients include Netflix and HSBC). Farnell co-founded the business in Leeds in 2005, before moving it to Boston and then San Francisco; in 2017 he stepped down as CEO and lead designer.

He says he was ready for a new challenge, and as a lifelong theatre fan (he’s been visiting the Edinburgh Fringe since he was 15), Farnell hoped to combine his skills in product design and user experience with storytelling. He came up with the idea for Any One Thing with Fyles over dinner in a taco joint.

“We’re personalising the art. Audiences are not just absorbing it as a third party, they’re actually a part of the story. And the purpose of that technology is to build empathy,” explains the 36-year-old Farnell.

The company’s first show, Recollection — written by Richard Pucci and staged by artistic director Sophie Larsmon — was explicitly about data privacy. Six audience members raced round London Bridge trying to retrieve personal memories from a fictional company. Sneaking into an office, they’d find dossiers containing pictures of their friends or their university bar.

The current show, Tristan Bernays’ Souvenir, is a surprise party — and it’s hosted in one audience member’s flat. The play morphs into a disturbing look at grief, digital legacy, virtual reality and how technology affects our ability to let go. Think Black Mirror made flesh.

I found the experience a little uncanny: when the birthday girl arrived, she greeted each of us by name. “Holly! How was Kosovo?” actress Sonya Cullingford exclaimed; later the fact that someone had recently tried to steal my purse was dropped into a scripted argument.

These productions use tech not only to insert audiences into the world of the play, but also to encourage us to question our real-world relationship with technology. “We never really tell you what to think,” says Fyles, a 32-year-old American. “But they’re topics we should be talking about. Data privacy affects everybody.”

Farnell and Fyles are not exactly technological naysayers. “I buy lots of stuff from Instagram ads, because they’re so damn well targeted — it’s useful,” says Farnell. But even as someone who worked in digital marketing, he was surprised at how cheap and easy it was to buy information with nothing more than a name and an email address. The cost per audience member? A mere 40 cents.

We’re trying to bootstrap a theatre company The other personalised aspect of Souvenir is simple geography: going to a show in your neighbourhood feels intensely local as well as site-specific. Plus, being in a real flat means “there’s just no line between fantasy and reality” says Fyles. Their plays won’t always be in homes, but will be staged in the place they’re set: a car park, perhaps, or a hotel room.

This use of “borrowed spaces” is also a key part of the business model — and the reason that every show makes a profit. Any One Thing has developed a lottery ticketing system, meaning it only stages shows that will be a sellout. No demand, no show, no wasted money on hiring a half-empty venue.

The founders have plans to run one production next year at multiple spaces across London simultaneously, and hope in the future to expand to Paris, New York and Chicago. “Everybody gets this incredibly personal, intimate experience, but because each show is individually profitable you can scale that up,” says Farnell.

This business model is a far cry from your usual impoverished, grant-reliant British theatre company. Yet Farnell sees funding models for tech start-ups and theatre shows as surprisingly similar. A fringe production failing to tour after Edinburgh because it doesn’t get an Arts Council grant is not so different from a software company started with venture capital money that doesn’t last because it is on the treadmill of always seeking funding. “A lot of productions are essentially VC funded: the actual shows are not self-sustaining.”

By contrast, Litmus was “bootstrapped” — started on very little money without VC investment — and was profitable from the first year. “We’re trying to bootstrap a theatre company,” says Farnell.

Of course, the small-scale, site-specific approach limits the nature of the work: you’re not likely to stage a continent-crossing political epic in a Peckham flat. But Any One Thing’s founders believe their model could help other small-scale theatremakers. They’re keen to be transparent about their model, and plan to run workshops to help share it. In the future, they may even become a distributor for other people’s shows.

“There is stuff that we don’t know, on the theatrical side,” says Fyles. “But on the business side, we’re coming in saying: ‘We can do this.”’

Where next?