Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, by Ray Lawler, was first performed in Melbourne in 1955 and is universally acclaimed as one of the most significant plays in the history of Australian theatre. This was one of the first to show Australian life and characters with unabashed honesty and to be performed with Australian accents.
Amazingly for the time, after runs in Melbourne, Sydney and around the country it moved onto a successful London season, backed by Sir Laurence Olivier, and a less successful Broadway season.
Performing Arts Publisher Currency Press has just released an inspirational and educational app for The Doll. It will introduce the work to a new audience and delight those familiar with the play through its curated interactive content.
I’ve been reintroduced to the play, last experienced in long-ago school days. With a depth of content related to this iconic work I’ve spent a lot of time listening, looking and watching some of the content in the app. Despite this, I feel I may not yet have discovered all it can offer!
I talked to Digital Project Manager and Curator Toby Leon from Currency Press to find out about the project.
Digireado: Congratulations to you and Currency Press. How long has Currency Press been publishing The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll?
Leon: The play was originally published by Angus & Robertson, before being taken up by Fontana Press. Currency Press secured the publishing rights in 1978, the year after The Doll Trilogy was performed for the first time – and in repertoire – at the Melbourne Theatre Company.
Digireado: Currency Press received a Special Publishing Grant from The Literature Board of the Australia Council to develop the app. Why did you choose Summer of the Seventeenth Doll as your project?
Leon: There were many reasons, but here are a few important ones. First, the premiere of this play marks a significant cultural turning point for our country. Second, Belvoir had mounted a very successful tour of The Doll along the east coast in 2011/12, with a brilliant cast in each presentation and Neil Armfield at the helm as director; Ray had also revised the script. Third, the play is still being studied in schools, which is one of our main markets. And most importantly, it is a true classic – embraced by generation after generation, striking a chord that stretches beyond time and place.
Digireado: Are you expecting that the app will bring a new audience to The Doll? And who are you anticipating will use The Doll app?
Leon: We certainly hope that it will bring a new audience to the play, but it’s going to be engaging for those who are familiar and those who are coming to it for the first time. I really couldn’t say either group will enjoy it more, because it allows those readers familiar with the text to experience extra layers of meaning, while new readers can explore the whole world of the play right from the start, and in one environment.
A wider angle now: I do think readers already expect to engage with an interactive environment, but just aren’t provided with one often enough. There are many reasons for that and I won’t start a sermon. I’ll just clarify by saying that I used the word ‘expect’ because I understand why they do; that model of engagement is almost ubiquitous. Just look at Tumblr, Facebook and WordPress, with its seemingly endless array of widgets. But while these forms of interactive environments are immersive, they’re not necessarily curated. And they are not necessarily curated by people with in-depth knowledge of the subject, or the contacts to source the best content.
And so we thought, why shouldn’t we use all our contacts, experience and knowledge to create a ‘text’ that incorporates multimedia as a kind of third dimension to this great narrative?
People who appreciate that are the ‘new’ audience members we really hope to attract.
Digireado: Why did you choose The Nest as your development partner for this app?
Leon: Three reasons:
- The breadth of experience in their office – across industries and mediums – is astounding. And thoroughly reassuring when working on a project like this, which was sailing through some unchartered waters.
- They’re committed to the Arts – all forms, modes and genres.
- They understand the golden rule – form follows function.
Digireado: Do you consider this app groundbreaking for Australian publishing?
Leon: We used two apps as our primary guides. First: The Wasteland, which was developed in partnership between Faber & Faber and Touch Press. Second: On the Road, from Penguin. Both contained great swathes of content, but elegantly structured and with meaningful curation. The Wasteland incorporated a lot of the educational elements we felt were important for that market, including 35 expert video perspectives on the poem, and a guide to the poem’s many references and allusions with the help of comprehensive interactive notes. On the Road offered a luscious aesthetic and some really distinctive content pieces. These included Kerouac’s family photographs, footage of fellow Beats sharing their impressions of Kerouac, and an interactive map of the USA so users could follow the journey Kerouac took across the country.
So can The Doll app – with a comparable amount of audio, imagery, plus depth and breadth of analysis – be called groundbreaking in an international context? I think it’s at the forefront of a movement. Is it groundbreaking in an Australian context? I think it absolutely is. There are other interactive Australian book apps out there, but nothing as full-bodied, varied, and holistic.
Digireado: It must have been a huge task bringing together so much ‘collateral’ about The Doll? How was this achieved?
Leon: We approached thinking about it in two ways:
The Production Pieces and Academic Articles
We knew that there was a wealth of content available already – photos, programmes, letters, design sketches, academic articles. The articles were perhaps the easiest. Picking them obviously wasn’t, but the process from thereon was – get in touch with the author, ask permission, sign contracts and you’re done. The production pieces were much harder. I was certainly excited about taking this content from outside the four walls of various archives and then bringing it within a single, curated environment; there are 218 production pieces altogether, drawn from archives along the east coast. But I had to source permission for each piece, of course, and it’s not as simple as asking the archive and then chucking it into the app. As an example, when you’re talking about a photo this means permission from the archive, the theatre company who had the production photo created, the photographer and all the actors in the photo. That was time consuming, and a methodical approach was crucial. Spreadsheets were vital.
Then the fun part: I had to piece the production pieces together and create a narrative with all the different forms of images. There’s nothing engaging about a series of letters, followed by a series of photos, followed by a series of design sketches. I loved designing that experience for the end-user. But of course The Nest had to know exactly what sequence I wanted that experience to be… without me needing to stand beside them. Again, all I can say is spreadsheets, spreadsheets, spreadsheets. Some might think that’s a nightmare, but I’m a sucker for that level of creative organisation; it’s the only kind of puzzle I enjoy putting together.
The Audio and Video
Currency also understood the calibre of theatre practitioners and academics that had an intimate relationship with the play; there was little doubt about the potency of their insights. I knew that by capturing their experience and understanding of this work we could create another layer to the narrative i.e. a story about the story. And it’s a permanent one, with a brand new 20 minute video and 147 audio grabs included. Emma Morris produced the audio, and the video too, but the audio was much more hands on for me. First: it’s embedded within different sections, so I had to pick grabs that offered a kind of tour through the narrative, behind the scenes insights, and character analyses. Second: those grabs were cut from approximately 9 hours of audio spread across 7 interviews, and there was so much good stuff there! The decisions I made were really about what to include rather than what to leave out. Tough choices, but I loved every minute. Side note: there I was again with another set of spreadsheets! Side note number two: The Nest called the spreadsheets a content matrix; sounds so much better, doesn’t it?
Digireado: Ah yes, I love a content matrix! How much new material went into The Doll app? What was important to Currency Press as Publishers and you personally as Curator?
Leon: The video interview with Ray Lawler – in conversation with Alison Croggon –was created especially for the app. All the audio was too. As was Jenny Nicholls’ & John McCallum’s introduction. The rest of the material was sourced from individuals, archives along the east coast, and the Currency Press vault.
In terms of what was important, let me start by saying that one of the joys of working in a small company is that you are given a great amount of autonomy, while always knowing you have direct access to guidance if you need it. But a lot of this was new for me, and for Currency. So let’s split it up –
- Meaningful pieces from main stage productions
- Content that captured the breadth of the play’s history
- Content that would capture the imagination of students/teachers, actors/directors and writers/readers
- All of the above, plus…
- A variety of imagery for each production. I was very conscious not to have photos of the exact same moments for each production.
- Audio that was a blend of conversation and Masterclass, but also really captured the spirit of the interviewee; it was amazing how the voice of each of the actors we interviewed (almost) sounded like their characters.
- It was important to me that the video with Ray be more than a straight interview. I wanted it to act as a sort of biography for him, in tandem with his personal experience of the piece as it journeyed from his mind, onto the page, then onto the stage and into the history books.
- Academic articles that did not just laud the play; I wanted to make sure there were articles that unpacked its status and looked at it from an unexpected angle.
- As much of a balance between male and female perspectives as possible, but that was largely dependent on the content we found, or captured. Some things are just out of your hands. But I think there’s a pretty good balance there.
Digireado: You have enabled annotations to be added against notes in the play. How will this be used? For students studying the play? For performers in a production?
Leon: Certainly this feature will be of great help to students and teachers; imagine coming to write an essay after finishing the play and you’ve already earmarked your quotes for inclusion, with your own cross references, extrapolations etc. But I think actors and directors would find this feature very helpful as well. All your notes about character, staging etc. can live in one place, right next to the text.
Digireado: I like the way you are able to share the notes made via email. Are the notes only visible to the individual user of the app (or shared via email) or is this something that as a publisher you are able to see?
Leon: We are not able to see these notes. They’re private… if you want them to be.
Digireado: There is such a richness and depth of content contained in The Doll app. How do you hope that people will discover this? Apps are not a linear experience and can be explored in so many different ways?
Leon: I never had a particular idea of how people would discover all the content. I certainly didn’t want to constrain things. My only constraints, if you want to call them that, were that the content be structured simply and presented elegantly. As I mentioned previously, that’s one of the main reasons I chose The Nest. They understand that form follows function. And we both understood that with the volume of content we were implanting in and around the text, there was no way users could discover it all in one sitting. With a product like The Doll app – or the other apps I mentioned earlier–multiple viewings are required. And when it comes to books I really only remember those that I want to come back to, so what I love about digital products like The Doll app is that you can come back to experience two stories – the original, and the curated story about the story. I hope The Doll app evokes that response from people – a desire to come back again and again. As you have implied, there’s a lot in there!
Digireado: Important question – what does Ray Lawler think about the app? Has he been involved in any way?
Leon: We interviewed Ray, and his insights were fascinating, of course. But that was the extent of his involvement. Most important for me is that Ray was surprised and delighted that we were putting the app together. Not shocked, of course; he toured with the play for the first three years after it opened–playing Barney – and then he watched people interpret and re-interpret his work for the next 50 odd years. So he’s seen this play from absolutely every angle you could imagine. But he is incredibly humble. And perhaps that’s because one thing never gets old for him; when I met him you could see he still gets tingles knowing that he has created something which has endured.
Digireado: Congratulations to you Toby and Currency Press on such a interactive and rich production. An app like this is a very complex production to bring together and very important for us as an industry to bring to market. You can purchase the app in the iTunes app store for $19.99.
My favourite feature? I particularly enjoyed reading the play and having additional curated audio from Ray Lawler and others beside the text. The photos inserted relating to certain scenes of various productions were fascinating. Distracting? That is sometimes my concern about ‘interactive’ content, but I felt it enhanced and added to my experience of reading the play. I would read the text, and then listen to the audio. Every photo I studied after being immersed in my own visualisation of the scene. Seeing the different actors and sets through the years was fascinating and gave extra meaning to the reading of the text. With the ability to also make notes I could see this section being a huge use to those studying and involved in the play.
Note: I will be speaking to Stuart Buchanan from The Nest at The Sydney Writers’ Festival on Friday 24 May 2013 as part of a panel on Reading in the E-Future. Other panellists will include Eli Horowitz, co-creator of Silent History, Quintin Schevernels, CEO of Layar, the world’s leading mobile augmented reality (AR) provider and Dr Neil James,Executive Director of the Plain English Foundation. You can book your tickets here.
Currency Press is Australia’s oldest, independently owned performing arts publisher. It was incorporated in 1971, founded by Katharine Brisbane, then national theatre critic for The Australian, and her husband Philip Parsons, a lecturer in Drama at UNSW who worked passionately to bridge the gap between the university and the profession.
Currency began as a play publishing service – a way of honouring and historicising Australian theatre. Their scope has broadened beyond that and will continue to do so, while maintaining their commitment to unique and significant Australian stories, as well as the nation’s theatrical heritage – past, present and future.
Their list includes plays, screenplays, professional handbooks, biographies, cultural histories, critical studies, reference works and a variety of multimedia resources.
You may also be interested in reading:
- The delights of digital only – Cranium Universe by Reg Mombassa: Find out about the experience of Harper Collins Australia in developing this content rich book app.
- Read about one of the apps by Touch Press – the Leonardo Da Vinci Anatomy App.