M is for Nottingham?  

Critical Review:

TrAce Incubation 2's project, M is for Nottingham?, promised to illuminate several different aspects of collaborative Web writing and drama.  Because this effort combined collaborative writing, mystery game, an introduction to the history and sights of Nottingham, and a live drama to take place during the Incubation 2 Conference in July, it addressed issues of both theory and practice.  Questions we hoped to answer included:  How can writers work together on the WWW?  How can interactive, collaborative drama be structured? What elements of collaborative Web stories can be carried over into live drama? What interfaces arise as a result of the blending of the real with the virtual? What autonomies are possible for interactive agents?

In a project like this, the learning comes from articulating our own assumptions and then seeing how these are validated (or not) in the process of the unfolding of the project.  We started with an idea that we would set up a Website, encourage folks to familiarize themselves with the history and landscape of Nottingham, and then participate in an online and real-time drama.  Writer/Readers could enter the site, read a little bit about the project, and then choose to visit one of ten landmarks/clues, choose to read more about some suggested characters, explore maps of Nottingham, interact with other players, or visit history URL's on the wider Web.  Our testing period was to insure that these steps were clear and that the participants could figure out how to navigate and discover the first level of clues.  Our feedback here told us that we needed to keep the framing environment as simply as possible so that folks were then encouraged to become writers and create an online mystery tale. 

The planning for M is for Nottingham? included a range of audiences and three distinct time frames for carrying through with the collaborative drama.  Because each of these entities implied different goals and outcomes, the results and speculations are best reviewed in the separate categories.   

Theme:

Audience:

      Casual visitors 

      Conference attendees

      Participating writers

Time Frames:

       Testing process

       Writing period

       Performance event


Theme:  The thematic prompt for the M is for Nottingham? story was the question "is the Book dead?"  Because the trAce Online Writing Centre and the Incubation 2 Conference are vitally involved with online writing, they are sometimes targeted as being responsible for the death, or at least the alleged moribund status, of the Book today.  More than television or video games, perhaps, the advent of electronic text has been seen as a threat to traditional print literature.  Risk is always courted when one begins with such a difficult and open-ended question - and trAce did not intend to produce a definitive answer.  Rather, the creators hoped to pose a question that could be illuminated through online writing combined with the resources of traditional literature and history.  The community of writers associated with trAce, quite clearly, and the writers who joined in during the development of the online "hypertext," however, sought to position themselves within the literary tradition and to demonstrate solidarity with textual sources and inspiration.  

Audience:  We arrived at the idea of multiple levels of participation through our design work - prompted by considerations of both content and audience. The goal for the M is for Nottingham? site was to create a place that would be interesting for a wide variety of visitors - from the casual surfer to the serious writer.  The response to M is for Nottingham? indicates that we did succeed in attracting a diverse audience.  M is for Nottingham? received wide media attention for a conference project [it was covered by the BBC, the Manchester Guardian, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Wired Magazine], and it attracted attention and support from local agencies such as Nottingham Trent University, the Nottingham City Council, the East Midlands Council for the Arts, SOLON, and the Galleries of Justice.  The writing project drew writers who were conference attendees as well as a wide selection of guests from across the UK and the US.

      Casual visitors 

Visitors to sites on the WWW have been trained, to a large extent, to proceed with speed.  They want and expect to be able to get the gist of something in a few seconds - minutes at most.  Thus, the M is for Nottingham? site needed to be constructed so that it was coherent to a visitor who came to quickly see "what was up."  In such a case, the reader would find out that a mystery was transpiring and perhaps learn about some interesting things to see and do in Nottingham.  For that reason, we introduced the "Menu" frame right after the opening title.  This allowed visitors to choose items of interest to them, bypassing explanations of how to navigate or participate. A successful visit for the short-term reader would include basic information about the trAce Incubation 2 Conference and an overview of some places to see in the historic Nottingham.   

      Conference attendees 

Conference attendees and other medium-span visitors could be expected to spend a longer time on their "visit" to the site.  They might, for example, choose to visit all of the "virtual" clue locations and solve the initial puzzle - the letters of the word NOTTINGHAM.  They might also wish to follow the links on these sites to online Web pages that covered the history of these places in more detail.  Finally, this visitor might experiment with creating a character and post to the Discussion List for a time.  Unfortunately, we did not keep track of page visits, and so we do not have a definitive number for the medium-span visitors, but many attendees at the conference reported that they had spend considerable time at the site, despite a final decision not to be writers.

      Participating Writers 

The commitment in time and imagination was heavy for the participating writers.  Not only did these writers need to invent a character to inhabit the virtual mystery space of Nottingham, they were obligated to read the quickly-growing volume of posts by the other characters to keep up with developments in the story.  Those who did actually create characters and send them in, however, tended to stay active.  Those writers who did not stay active often wrote to say that they had gone on vacation or were busy for a week or more and did not have time to re-orient themselves to the ongoing process - since new events and threads tended to appear every day or so.  Although this my be merely anecdotal evidence, the writers who participated for the duration were dedicated writers or published writers (that is, folks who wanted to "give it a try" were able to join the mystery, but they seem to lose interest more quickly).  As an analytical point, then, the preponderance of practiced writers suggests that this project required a high degree of focus and investment from the writing participants.

Time Frames:

This project combined collaborative Web writing, mystery game, an introduction to the history and sights of Nottingham, and a live drama that took place during the Incubation 2 Conference in July, 2002.  M is for Nottingham? allowed writers to join together at a collaborative Website in May and June of 2002 to create a persona, interact with others, find clues to the mystery on the Web and in the virtual haunts of Nottingham, and write segments of the mystery story.  Then, during the actual conference, volunteers arrived in costume and played out the denouement of the M is for Nottingham? drama (a drama structured by the growth of the sleuthing activities of the Website); players and members of the audience were invited to participate in this evening entertainment.  

       Testing process

One of the hazards in conceiving and carrying through with innovative projects is the time factor.  When a model is available, developers can roughly estimate the time length of certain aspects of construction. We began M is for Nottingham? with question marks far in excess of the mystery itself.  First, the technical problems in a Website of this complexity are legion.  Our initial testing centered around debugging the coding and navigation of the site. Then, there is not much information, reliable or not, about how efficiently different readers can navigate a complex Website.   The second phase of testing attempted to determine if the visitor could identify key areas and move about comfortably at the site.  Further, we did not know what process would be best for writer-contribution to the online mystery story as it developed.  This phase of the testing continued on into the Writing period.

       Writing period

During the initial days of the writing period, Helen Whitehead responded to reader/writer responses by reconfiguring the Discussion List several times.  Our two goals were ease of use and a flexible environment for storytelling.  We finally settled on a threaded list so that the entire story could be written in hypertext-like segments - with writers responding to issues and events that seemed most pertinent to their characters or their own interests.  The threaded list that we settled on was more taxing to read than a linear post, but it was critical to the functionality of constructing a mystery story (mysteries tend to be driven by numerous possibilities, none of which can be ruled out until the denouement) - and a collaborative one needed to embrace even more opportunity for sub-plot.   

Two phenomena that we observed seem to be significant.  First, there was a period during the early weeks, as the group was assembling itself, when no one seemed to know how to proceed.  This does not represent a failure in the process, rather, it seems to correspond to a similar "thinking" period that solo writers often report.  When writers are brought together, perhaps, they need to go through approximately the same steps as writers would do in more conventional situations.  Second, because of the "levels" of the project, writers had somewhat different expectations for the development of the text.  The "theme," as discussed above, elicited some controversy and many speculations.  It was also clear, however, that there needed to be action and consequence in order to produce a "story" that could be enacted on the stage - some sort of shaped plot needed to be created.  The tension between these two aims, it might be suggested, can be seen as also reflective of the process a solo author might undergo in shaping a storyline - since fiction writing is often the tricky task of striking a balance between information and narrative pacing.  The use of threaded discussions did allow for both of these activities to proceed.  

       Performance event

Certainly the most experimental aspect of this project was the real-time, live drama performed on stage at the trAce Incubation 2 Conference.  In order to prepare the writers for the performance, it was necessary to reach a point at which the story had taken shape and began to find resolution for some of the plot and thematic elements.  Time, again, was a factor.  Clearly, another month of writing would have been ideal.  As it was, the story had just began to pick up momentum, and the characters had begun to establish interesting relationships, when it was necessary to call a halt and begin to write the "script" for the drama - which would center on the denouement.  The producer of the drama, M.D. Coverley, took what finally amounted to 350 pages of written text and edited it down to about 40 pages - using the actual words of the writers throughout.  Then, the eight writers had less than a week to shape this material into a workable script - and but a few days to memorize their lines.  Moreover, the "troupe" had only two hours of rehearsal time before the actual performance.

The performance went remarkably well - aided by a friendly and lighthearted audience.  This successful outcome was the result of some quite surprising developments.  Despite the lack of preparation and rehearsal, the writers were able to turn the "collaborative" efforts they had practiced on-line into equally effective techniques on-stage. Again, while this project was not designed as an empirical study, a couple of conclusions might be drawn.  First, the writers came into the real-time drama with significant "internalization" of the characters they had created and the space in which these characters would operate.  They brought excellent props and costumes, and, in a very small stage area, acted out the entire hour-long drama in real space with a fluidity that would suggest weeks of rehearsal.  Even more impressive, they were able to create new plot devices, effects, and symbolic elements in improvisational fashion as the drama evolved.  The ease with which the writers moved into character and "re-created" the text on stage leads to the second hypothesis.  One observer suggested that the on-line portion of the project was already "performative" in quality - and so the movement from the Web to the materiality of the stage was a change, perhaps, of modality but not of performative practice.  Further investigation into the physical materiality suggested by Web writing and Web practice would be welcome in the future.  For now, M is for Nottingham? moves forward to a new modality - that of the archive.  And here, again, the creators of the project must invent a structure to include those who continue to visit the site in the excitement of a still-evolving reading experience.  

 

 ["Already there are reports of The White Lady roaming the halls of Newstead Abbey in the wee hours of the morning, searching for clues, looking for the corpse. . . ."]

 

 

***

"the last letter of the 
Name has been written
"


Project Organisers: 

Marjorie Coverley Luesebrink (M.D. Coverley), Creator and Web Designer


Helen Whitehead, Nottingham Director


Roger Parish, Senior Librarian, Nottingham City Council - Research Advisor


Cathy Grindrod, Literature Development Officer, Nottingham City Council - Local Writer Liason.

M.D. Coverley 2002