The Fringe Ensemble is a theatre collective based in Bonn, Germany that works with emerging technologies to create innovative and immersive theatrical experiences. Founded by Frank Heuel in 1999 they had produced over 100 productions and projects since then, staged in Germany and internationally with local and international partners.
Recently, members of the Fringe Ensemble – Claudia Grönemeyer and Jennifer Merten, along with independent game designer Fehime Seven – sat down for an interview to discuss their latest projects, the challenges they faced in the pandemic, and what they see for the hybrid future of theatre.
According to Claudia Grönemeyer, the early days of the pandemic were difficult for the Fringe Ensemble. "Standing here in the bar and thinking, they are going to close everything...no way, I can't imagine this," she said. However, the Fringe Ensemble used these difficult times to push themselves to create new work.
One of the first few projects they undertook in the pandemic were live streams of different monologue and one-person performances streamed from different geographic locations. "We had an actor in Berlin, one in London, one in Leipzig... and they all turned on their camera and performed for an audience". Merten recalls another project wherein they had two actors on the streets who transmitted images and videos live, while an author wrote text in real time.
In another project, Fringe Ensemble invited every single they'd worked with who lived in Germany to prepare a stage setting at home – in the bathroom, kitchen, living room – and perform a text live. The team also experimented with one-camera and multiple-camera setups, the latter offering audiences at home a movie-like experience with close-up frames and angles.
The Fringe Ensemble works with emerging technologies to create innovative and immersive theatrical experiences. They also use different technologies depending on what the story demands. "We are using what is useful to tell the story," says Grönemeyer. "Every story needs a different way to experience it."
One of the Fringe Ensemble's latest projects is City Stories, an app-based exploration of Bonn. The project was created in collaboration with the Stadtmuseum Bonn, which wanted to create a new profile for the museum that would focus on the memories and experiences of the people who live in Bonn. The Fringe Ensemble collaborated with the museum to create an app that would allow people to share their stories and experiences of the city. The app features a map with red pins that indicate the location of stories. Users can click on a pin to hear or read a story about that location.
According to Jennifer Merten, the Fringe Ensemble's experience with City Stories has taught them the importance of building a community both online and in person. "We need to gather a community, like online and also here," she says. "The hybrid experience is one of our biggest learnings."
The Fringe Ensemble has also learned to use different technologies depending on what the story demands. "We are using what is useful to tell the story," says Grönemeyer. "Every story needs a different way to experience it." The Fringe Ensemble has also used Zoom and other camera-based technologies to connect with audiences and performers during the pandemic, which included live streams of productions from the Theater im Balsaal where they work out of.
Another project from the Fringe Ensemble is Map to Utopia, a project on the future viability of urban living spaces – in which Fringe Ensemble combines a wide variety of digital elements (app-driven tour/gaming elements/AR) and brings participants as well as performers into an exchange with each other in different digital spaces. The project was created in collaboration with the Mozilla Hubs platform, which allows people to create virtual spaces that can be accessed from anywhere in the world. Map to Utopia is a "gamified theatre project" that allows people to explore different levels and interact with other users. I had a chance to attend a performance of Map To Utopia in person in Bonn, wherein I interacted with other audience members in the room and online to complete a series of tasks as citizens living in a utopian world. Fehime Seven adds '"In Mozilla Hubs, we also had to keep an eye on how much load the server could take". This, along with other technological considerations, impacted how the show was designed for audiences to take part.
While they were creating a huge quantum of work during the pandemic, not everything was smooth and hassle-free. Challenges with adopting new technology, learning and upskilling their team embers to use it, and finally, bringing it to the public was not an easy journey. "One of the biggest challenges is figuring out how to translate the live experience to a digital platform," Grönemeyer said. "There are a lot of technical challenges involved in creating a seamless experience, and it's something we're always working on." Thinking about audiences in the midst of these platforms is also an area of concern. "Another challenge is creating something that's accessible to everyone," Merten added. "We want to create work that's inclusive and engaging for everyone, regardless of their experience with technology." There were also dedicated efforts taken in audience education. The team recounts how they created detailed PDF guides with technical instructions for audience members to go through before shows. On the day of the show, they did quick technical check-ins to make sure everyone was comfortable using the technology.
Looking ahead to the future of theatre, the Fringe Ensemble sees a world of possibilities. They are interested in exploring new technologies, such as virtual reality, and in finding new ways to engage audiences. They are also committed to building a community around their work and to collaborating with other artists and performers. "We will change based on the content," says Grönemeyer. "Every story needs a different way to experience it."
Fringe Ensemble is committed to encouraging discussions about the future of hybrid theatre. To this effect, they organized a hybrid conference titled ‘Hybrid Playground - Sharing Spaces’ at the Theater im Balsaal in October 2022. Herein, they invited academics, artists, producers, writers and technologists to share their hybrid projects as well as collectively think about the future of such endeavours. The day included presentations, tutorials and demonstrations on a wide variety of topics, such as hybrid space design, spatial technology, and digital dramaturgy, among others. (You can read more about the conference in a separate blog here.) They also invited a practical exploration of hybrid theatre methodologies through their Hybrid Theatre Jam held in Bonn and online, in October 2022.
A glimpse of the Fringe Ensemble's activities in 2020. Video Credits: Fringe Ensemble
Overall, the Fringe Ensemble's work with emerging technologies in theatre has taught them the importance of community building, the need to use different technologies depending on the story, and the challenges of translating live theatre to a digital platform. While these challenges can be daunting, the Ensemble remains committed to exploring new possibilities and pushing the boundaries of what theatre can be.