Getting Digital with: Against the Grain Theatre

An audience member captures a scene on their cell phone during Against the Grain Theatre's production of Figaro's Wedding.
Figaro’s Wedding at The Burroughes Building, Toronto. Photo by Darryl Block

The story of Don Giovanni is now timeless.

A man seduces hundreds of women across Europe. He pursues conquest after conquest, wracking up lovers and jilting former flames. He travels around and hides behind masks to avoid being caught.

The Mozart opera is centuries old. But with the help from Against the Grain Theatre, Don Juan gets a modern touch.

“He becomes this guy who just has a big Tinder profile and big Facebook following and he sleeps with women via the Internet,” explains Amanda Hadi, Editorial and Digital Media Manager.

Instead of writing conquests on a scroll, he lists them on his iPad. The venue also gets a refresh. Instead of an auditorium, audiences are in a bar. You can even use your phone and tweet at #UncleJohn.

Against the Grain Theatre's production of #UncleJohn
#UncleJohn at The Great Hall, Toronto. Photo by Darryl Block

AtG is pushing creativity to new venues – literally – bringing opera to smaller, alternative spaces and long-loved characters onto the Internet. It sprouted as an alternative to big opera companies in 2010, and under the artistic direction of founder Joel Ivany, has been building a following with translated, reinterpreted librettos since.

“I don’t see a lot of performance companies really acknowledging the desire to use social media/smartphone photography inside their venues,” says Hadi. “You go to the ballet, you go to the opera, you go to the theatre even and you’re told to put your phones on silent, or told to not take photos.”

Like most of the AtG team, Hadi is an avid arts fan and Canadian Opera Company alumni herself. She volunteers her professional talents outside of her day job where she also engages online audiences in innovative ways.

“You inhabit a role when you come to an ATG performance,” Hadi says. “You are at the bar, and the cast members might come over and sing with you. We want to translate that to social media because that’s an integral part of everyday life right now – documenting with your phone and talking about it to your online community.”

For example, AtG transformed Mozart’s Cosi fan tutti into a 21st century dating show. Playing into the reality of social media influences on dating, audiences congregated in a CBC studio and could tweet to vote for characters using #teamDora or #teamFelicity. In doing so, they could actually influence the outcome of the performance. At one point, the opera was trending in Toronto on Twitter.

Against the Grain Theatre's performance of A Little Too Cozy.
A Little Too Cozy at CBC’s Studio 42, Toronto. Photo by Darryl Block

“Part of that reinterpretation was acknowledging social media and having fun with it. I don’t think it detracts from the singing and I think people still got a really wonderful immersive experience, they just now have a really amazing online record of it,” says Hadi.

From a promotional perspective, AtG doesn’t have a big marketing budget, so social media becomes a vehicle to communicate with the existing fan base and share press and campaign announcements. An expert creative team makes those campaign assets, and designs them specifically for that channel. For Figaro’s Wedding, for example, the team shot first-person character videos discussing their online engagement to the character.

Beyond translating and adapting well known shows, AtG also makes the experience fresh not through modernization, but through smaller venues with scaled-back accompaniment. They created a new experience recently by bringing free opera into small spaces  they call it “opera pub with informal but powerful singing. Young people are now lining out the door at Church and Front street the first Thursday of every month to hear it.

“The experience is radical in that you’re hearing it in a coffee shop with someone playing music that close to you,” says Hadi. “Or you’re hearing it in an environment where you’re comfortable.”

With every opera, the storylines are familiar but the context is fresh. As AtG demonstrates, there’s no need for fans to put their phones, or themselves, on silent. 

Getting Digital With is Devon Burke’s monthly look at how bricks-and-mortar businesses and entrepreneurs are using online channels to build their brand. Do you have a business that’s just starting out? Reach out to Devon Burke to share your story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Devon Burke

Digital Strategist. Find Devon on Twitter, @devonaburke.

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