ISOLATION INTERVIEW: Emma Earle (Co-Artistic Director, Pins and Needles Productions)

Pins and Needles Productions is an award-winning, female-led theatre company based in Bristol. They are best known for bold and imaginative adaptations of children’s books including Raymond Briggs classics Father Christmas and The Bear, and the Olivier award nominated Oi Frog & Friends. During lockdown, they challenged themselves to create a new piece of digital theatre in 72 hours, based on the traditional Choose Your Own Adventure format. The result was SELECT A QUEST, an interactive online adventure for ages 6+. After (eventually!) completing the quest (which you can read all about in our review) we caught up with the director, Emma Earle, to find out more about what Pins and Needles have been doing during lockdown and what we can expect to see from them in the future.

“It was a total joy to make.”

Congratulations to you and everyone involved in making SELECT A QUEST. We had so much fun playing it. How much did you enjoy making it? And how was this affected by setting yourselves the challenge of doing it in 72 hours?

We’re so glad you enjoyed it! It was a total joy to make. Like so many industries, the theatre sector has been hit hard by the pandemic and the future is uncertain. We wanted to connect with our audience base and the community of artists we work with on something driven by positivity. ‘Select A Quest’ is designed to remind us all that creativity helps us thrive. We passionately believe in the importance of arts and culture to individuals and communities. Deciding to make this in 72hrs was about giving ourselves a much-needed psychological pick me up and freeing us from the long lead times of between 1-3 years we’re used to when making new shows. It felt important to get something out as quickly as possible, to try and capture a moment in time. 

Jessica Temple in Select A Quest

Everyone’s turning to digital content during lockdown. Lots of people are releasing archive footage or recordings of recent shows. Was it important to you to create something new? 

It felt really liberating electing to do something new in a time when so much is at a stand-still. We’d been debating releasing some of our recordings of shows but often these were made for archive purposes and not necessarily to be consumed as an alternative to experiencing the live show. If we’d have planned to release the shows online from the beginning, we’d have filmed them differently in order to make the most of the medium and enhance the experience for the audience. We’re certainly not ruling this out in future, but we felt strongly we wanted to make something new while in lockdown. Something interactive and with a sense of liveness. We were fortunate enough to secure a grant from the Arts Council’s Emergency Fund and it was this that funded ‘Select A Quest’.

Another thing that almost everyone seems to be doing right now is releasing digital content for free. We were amazed that we didn’t have to pay to play SELECT A QUEST (especially as we’ve been happily paying for play at home escape games).  Why do you think the theatre industry is so reluctant to charge for digital content, even when it’s brand new?  

As we’d received funding from the Arts Council to make the project happen, we felt we were able to offer it online for free. We wanted to reach the widest audience possible and didn’t want any barriers to put people off playing the game. We have now added a donation button on the website as a number of people have kindly contacted us saying how much they valued the experience and that they’d like to make a contribution to the company but playing the game will remain free. 

“We’re really excited by the format and would like to develop it further.”

Pins and Needles are best known for picture book adaptations. Why did you go for the choose your own adventure format?

I loved interactive books and video games as a kid and felt the element of choice could be a powerful and compelling feature in a piece of theatre. We piloted the idea ten years ago as part of an R&D programme run by the Bristol Old Vic called Ferment. It involved an audience entering a space and being given a choice at the end of the first scene which they could make individually or in small groups. Audience members could then travel through multiple spaces, encountering a myriad of different scenes and characters, making choices at every stage. There was only one way to win the game, and many ways to lose it. The audiences at the time lapped it up and we’d always hoped we could develop it further into an upscaled piece of interactive, immersive theatre, but the costs involved, and the ambition of the piece, have made it too hard to realise to date. When lockdown hit, we saw it as the perfect opportunity to return to the idea and deliver it in a slightly different way. The tone of the piece – its playfulness and theatricality – remain true to the spirit or the original R&D project, but now people can play it online, in any country in the world, at any time of day. We’re really excited by the format and would like to develop it further.

“27 different scenes, across six levels, with one winning route and a lot of elaborate, very silly deaths.”

We managed to choose every single wrong path before finally finding the whistle. Is the experience designed so that people are likely to pick the wrong path, or were we just really rubbish?! 

Ha ha! You’re certainly not the only ones who’ve managed to die repeatedly! When we structured the game, we wanted to create enough scenes for the experience to feel rich and varied, and to create plenty of opportunity to make choices. Not only this, but our incredibly talented writer Bea Roberts had to be able to write it all in only 24hrs! The result is 27 different scenes, across six levels, with one winning route and a lot of elaborate, very silly deaths. We didn’t expect the game to be as hard to solve as it’s turned out to be! We considered having multiple pathways that end in success but we felt this took away from the experience slightly and the feedback we’ve had so far from children playing the game is that they like the fact it’s hard to crack.

You’re also used to creating work for a live audience.  How different is the process of creating something that’s not meant to be consumed live?

The process turned out to have lots of similarities. We came up with an idea, set a budget, pulled a team together, agreed a schedule, briefed everyone and co-ordinated the delivery of it all. Nearly everyone working on the project had worked with us before so there was an existing artistic short-hand. We used a writer, a composer, a cast of 9 actors (which is a luxury not normally afforded to us in producing live work), an illustrator, and our in-house marketing/producing team. 

The actors are well versed in recording monologues on camera as they’re used to making self-tapes for auditions so that side of it wasn’t alien. Recording a scene while in isolation did however mean they were tasked with creating their own costumes and sets instead of having a costume fitting with a designer and walking on to a set built by a construction team. The cast ended up really enjoying this element of the production because it felt playful – a bit like raiding the dressing up box as a child.  

Timothy O’Hara in Select A Quest

The main differences were the time constraints everyone was working under – turning content round this quickly meant we couldn’t second guess ourselves and had to respond on instinct – and learning how to use the tech platform for publishing the game. We partnered with Bristol based Stornaway who were just launching a tool for publishing interactive content. In an extraordinary bit of serendipity, we found Stornaway once we’d already begun making the project. They were looking for content to showcase their technology, and we needed a publishing platform that allowed the viewer to make choices. It was meant to be! 

While the idea of recording work on the surface feels static, the element of choice helps it feel live. The characters all speak to you – the viewer – making it feel immediate and urgent. The tone is deliberately theatrical as we wanted to try and capture a sense of the live performances we’re all missing right now. You can really see the actors having fun with the roles and the whole set up. We’ve used filmic processes like foley, projection mapping and animation in the past, bringing recorded media into live performance. This project was the reverse of that, bringing a sense of theatre and a connection between performer and audience into a recorded media space. We like the fact that boundaries are being broken down and that lazy assumptions about people being either theatre people or film & tv people are being challenged.

“Everyone is having to be unconventional and innovative at this time.”

Did you consider doing SELECT A QUEST as a live, interactive experience (e.g. via videoconferencing software like Zoom)?  Is that something you would consider for future shows? 

We’re really open to new ideas right now. Since we can’t deliver live performance in theatres, we need to look at how we can transfer our storytelling expertise into different sectors. Everyone is having to be unconventional and innovative at this time. It’s exciting to see the diversity of the ideas emerging and new audiences opening up.

How have you adapted to directing from a distance?  What are the greatest challenges? And is there anything you have learned from the experience that you plan to take with you back into the physical rehearsal room?

I’ve been surprised by the efficacy of directing via Zoom. Owing to the slight delay as you take turns to speak, people are having to think carefully about what they want to say and how to say it. I’ve noticed this streamlining of communication can often mean people listen and process more effectively. Obviously there’s no substitute for physically sharing a space with actors and creatives, but it’s been interesting adapting our practice. With the framing of recorded content generally being head and shoulders, you get that up-close relationship with an actor’s eyes that you miss in large auditoriums. While I can’t wait to be able to be in the rehearsal room again, I’m excited by the possibilities the current time may throw up.

“unless theatres are able to get back up and running soon and can start programming, we will not survive. ” 

What do you think the greatest challenges will be for makers of children’s theatre when we’re allowed back into theatres (whenever that may be)? 

One of the greatest challenges facing us is getting new commissions to produce work. When theatres are allowed to open, it will take a while for new work to come through. I think we’re going to see a lot of remounts happening as it’s less risky. 

With no sense of how theatres will be able to open again while social distancing is still in place or any time frame to work to, it’s very hard to have conversations about the future. For us and countless other organisations and freelancers across the country, it’s a very stressful time. We are trying to adapt our work and generate new sources of income in order to survive, but this takes time. When the country went into lockdown, we had two live tours pulled. We have since had two new show commissions cancelled, and a remount tour pulled. We’ve been running for over ten years and are really proud of the body of work we’ve produced and the amazing artists and audiences we’ve engaged with but the harsh reality is that unless theatres are able to get back up and running soon and can start programming, we will not survive.  

What’s next for Pins and Needles? 

We are in the early stages of developing two new projects, supported by an Arts Council grant awarded before the pandemic. Our hope is that we can secure co-commissions for these once the industry starts moving again. We are having to think about the projects in a very fluid way – they might be online, they might be in theatres, they might be somewhere in between. If we can build up a portfolio of creative offers, once people are able to start thinking about producing new work, we will be ready to go. Our hope is that the theatre industry will pull together and weather this storm.

Join the adventure to find the whistle at