On Sunday, as part of the Sydney Opera House’s UnWrapped series, a group of dancers “remixed” Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet by way of an Australian storytelling technology, Omelia. A product built to shuffle characters and events and generate narrative possibilities in real time, dancers using it brought a new version of the classic tragedy to life. The one-off production, R+J RMX, was filmed for the Opera House’s streaming platform.
The “remix” was interactive: audience members were sent to a website where they could restructure the play with the touch of a button, while on stage narrators and dancers ran through numerous renditions of the story.
The works of Shakespeare, surely more than those of any other writer, have been subject to interminable reworkings, as if we are at once infinitely fascinated and infinitely dissatisfied with the source material. So how does technology alter this process?
The show’s creators frequently explain Omelia by way of simile: it’s like a choreographer, assistant, dramaturg, collaborator.
Prior to performance night, Kate Armstrong-Smith, Omelia’s CEO and a producer of R+J RMX, attempts to explain by pulling a pen – the classic storytelling technology – from her pocket.
“None of this is possible without this tool,” she tells Guardian Australia, gesturing with the pen to the high-ceilinged rehearsal space in which dancers contort their bodies, grasping one another, evaluating their movements in long mirrors. A pen with serious accoutrements, Omelia is pitched as a tool not to generate the ideas, but to shape them; not to displace writers, but to facilitate them.
On the wall, colourful A4 sheets map out key story beats. Armstrong-Smith uses this analogue plan to explain the digital tech. If, she says, halfway through the show a character dies, Omelia will reorganise the remaining narrative to account for the death. Relationships and tensions will shift, inciting new actions and dramatic beats. As we speak, dancers are imagining how they might respond to various scenarios, but they won’t know what awaits them until the night itself unfolds.
Although the event is billed as using artificial intelligence, Joseph Couch, Omelia’s owner, says his technology is not, in fact, AI. It has no learning capabilities, and does not endeavour to mimic human thought. Nor is it in danger of turning against its creators. “It’s a smart system,” he says. Later, he calls it a “narrative ideation tool”. Essentially, it’s an operating system into which you input characters, relationships, and actions, and it presents you with a coherent dramatic narrative.
Couch and Armstrong-Smith have backgrounds in theatre and film. Couch has directed for Sydney Theatre Company; Armstrong-Smith has worked with arts festivals across Australia. Their vision for Omelia is that it will prioritise a storyteller’s values.
Couch, projecting the exhausted but shimmering energy of someone who has both their money and creative vision on the line, becomes fiercely passionate when describing Omelia’s philosophical underpinnings. He imagines it pushing writers to depart from the individualistic archetypes that have come to dominate popular forms of storytelling, and instead prompting them to see narrative as a social model. As society becomes increasingly complex, Couch believes, it demands similarly complex story-telling systems.
“Where is the corporation in the hero’s journey?” he asks, referring to the oft-referenced storytelling template popularised by Joseph Campbell, and what he sees as its lack of sophistication, its incapacity to describe our world. “Where is the internet?”
Omelia, Couch says, “allows writers to conceive of unique plot shapes that are both novel and resonant, deeply derived from society, and dramatically sound.”
Omelia is still in its early stages, but I’m shown a proof-of-concept visualisation of The Godfather that models the operating system’s logic. The tollbooth assassination scene plays in one window while, alongside it, dots signifying characters with linking lines representing their relationships to each other emerge, shift, vanish.
It’s both unsettling and compelling to see the creative process, which is usually shrouded in a certain amount of mystery, so formally charted like this.
Is such tech necessary? It’s perpetually tempting to consider traditional creative methods inadequate, letting the newer and shinier tools distract us from the goals they’re meant to allow us to achieve. Omelia, however, doesn’t render the artist or the creative process obsolete.
Stuart Buchanan, head of digital programming at the Opera House, has worked with the Omelia team over the past year to develop the show, and is excited by the potential.
“The hand of the artist is still essential to get an interesting and coherent outcome,” he says. “Whilst it might sound somewhat iconoclastic to be remixing Shakespeare, instead what it shows is something that provokes a lot of thought as to how we might leverage and embrace technology for different kinds of art and creative ends.”
R+J RMX’s choreographer Larissa McGowan and dancer Harrison Elliott are particularly fond of how Omelia streamlines the creative process.
“You could try many different ways to create movement for a scene or a moment,” McGowan says, “but it’s simplified because you can test them faster. You’re not having to come up with all the possibilities.”
As a performer, Elliott appreciates how the technology maps the narrative on all levels: “While we can change the whole narrative, in changing one section you also have all these other choices for how you would murder someone, forgive someone, and doing that physically is quite interesting because it’s really specific.”
Couch and Armstrong-Smith wonder whether it’s possible for R+J RMX to fail, or what failure would look like. They’re balancing desires to entertain an audience, and to demonstrate Omelia’s potential.
The irony is that the night’s most compelling questions return us to Shakespeare’s original iteration. How many changes would be required before we’d say that the story is no longer Shakespeare’s? If the play is to remain a tragedy, is there any conclusion that does not include the death of the protagonists, regardless of the path Omelia takes to get there?
Post-Covid, live performance is seeking new ways to engage audiences and the Opera House describes R+J RMX as “disruptive”. But the technological disruption is not as interesting as is the showcasing of a form that highlights and makes new our endless obsession with story – our need, as society changes, to find fresh ways to mirror, encapsulate and describe that society. Who knows if this impulse will lead us to new stories, or simply to new ways of retelling old ones?