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Storytelling with Code

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and and and of my name is Michael Rao and I'm here to talk to you about storytelling with code and I'm I'm here because it feels like these days storytelling has become the new hot buzzword
as as a way to sort of solve problems and usually it seems like a lot of marketing people sort of say things like 0 will could just sort of create a storytelling experience this thing would be better I and I get the sense that a lot of people don't actually know how to tell a good story and or what storytelling even really means so I'm going to talk about a project that I made a last year premiered last year so that relied on using codes to tell a story to create a digital experience and if you're looking for a very technical talk on the code behind it and this would be like the time to quietly exist because I'm mostly going to be talking about sort of softer general concept type stuff on as opposed to a really rigorous uh code review so am also I just wanted sit at the at the beginning thank you so much for inviting me this is my 1st time uh at any kind of conference like this before this is my 1st time going to like any kind of rails strong and I feel so welcome by everyone and so thank you all for coming here in the future
so my background and really my job my professional work is as a theater and opera director I got my MFA from Colombia been working professionally as a director for the past 10 years of work mainly in New York City and in Europe and and so my job is in telling stories and specifically in finding the most effective way to tell a story of cold mainly as a hobby as those sort of way to relax myself and I've always enjoyed of messing around with computers and sort of learning about how computers work but and only in the past couple years I started really trying to combine my skills as a theater and opera director with my skills as a coda and I should be totally honest of the writer from my school of the coder are like not that great but I still made this thing in rails of that worked and so I feel very proud of that and I'm sure that any of you it's incredibly talented programmers here as you're listening to me talk could write something that does the same thing and probably better I so while I don't have a tremendous amount of knowledge encoded what I do have a trend of modern knowledge and really experience in his in storytelling and specifically
interpreting stories but I make work for large groups of people to experience as a community and I direct plays an opposite oftentimes when I direct an opera it's in a foreign language in its music that's complicated to understand them and I see my job as the person who has to create images that show relationships and order the images that create meaning and so it often kind of looks like this uh
so also to get a story that's been written by shakespear or very on and find ways to to position the actors to take the set a certain color to have costumes that look a certain way that gives people a feeling that says something about a relationship that creates some kind of meaning and wild you know like the normal sort of the basic unit think about like when people talk about theater they have like the happy face and the sad face those are the 2 basic primary colors that I have this like a director on but really I work harder to revoke other different more complicated more interesting feelings just by creating an arrangement of bodies on stage so really you could say that a lot of my work in a lot of my experience revolves around feelings of and how did
evoke feelings through stories but I started wondering in the past couple years if I could start to challenge myself what are the other ways that I could tell a story of what are the other formats that are available to us to tell stories and I was at a
ball are hanging out with actor friends late 1 nite and 1 of these actors who was a very lovely person but has kind of the personality is going on and on and on about how the you know the central truth of the here is the actor in the actor's body and you could never have a performance without that when I was a couple drinks and I'll admit and I said I think you're wrong but and I and I've started to try to think of a project to prove them wrong and the project that I came up with this what I'm going to talk to you about today but and that the project that is is a piece of like but I call it a piece of theater other people called an installation other people call that like I was sort of like uh a show that you read up on it but I was very interested in office culture and how we communicate with each other with with ourselves as a group of community now which seems to be more and more mediated through digital technology and and what I started doing is talking to my friends about like in Canada show we just office work that I think this can be the show and everyone told me this is a terrible idea but except for 1 person who started collaborating with me but what we eventually came up with was this piece that I called temping and so yes was thinking about uh how o office culture works how we read way too much into e-mails oftentimes voicemails become weird tools of passive aggression and and I started to to like kind of make the gears term and I said a rule that there would be no actors in the peace that it would be a show that would be entirely up that you would never meet and a single living soul because I wanted to prove this 1 actor wrong but and that and that I would instead use sort of the the equipment that you'd normally find in an office to tell a story so I give myself these sort of like for tools and that I could communicate with the audience member and then I started building of of what I think would look at now is like an overly complicated back and that could send e-mails sent voicemail sends the printer like things to the printer at specific times to sort of create a story and and then we also really kind of looked at the built environment like could there be a desk could there be draws could there be a bookshelf to also uses storytelling possibilities on the show was developed over to sort of beta test runs 1st Dixon place in New York City the 2nd at the University of Maryland and in College Park and then it from premiered at Lincoln Center as part of the 53rd International Film Festival but it was not a film at all the curator who found out about the project was doing a thing on virtual reality and I was like the virtual reality there is this an actual reality of it but you know he he he wanted it and so he got so I sort describe what it really looked like when you walked into the room you walked into a windowless room in the basement with like ugly institutional carpeting with that low dropped trial ceiling and at the end of the room was 1 of those old sort of fabric covered cubicles and when you sat down in the chair it looked like this 1 and
that was the kind of total beginning experience that you had I opened up the door for you that thank you so much for coming to work today here's your desk and then I close the door but and uh this set up function perfectly as an office the desktop computer ran Windows 8 on your phone and work you could like get on the internet and goof around if you wanted to but but most of the show happened through e-mails and and through actual work and so here's the act of
the part 1 of 3 slides of how the back and work and I'm not going to talk about this at all other than to say you can see in the upper corner of the base of it was a real step and then it did a whole bunch of other fancy stuff and sent e-mails at certain times controlled Hugh lights a controlled speakers that were hidden throughout the room and and uh that's kind of it so that includes the technical portion of my talk I the the other thing so my friend who I honestly Love to death and is an absolute genius he built the phone I'm out of
an Arduino now know that also mimics the functions of a corporate phone so you could pick up of the receiver and it was like you were using a normal sort of like boring corporate phone directory but on the back and we could control and send like OK we need to send the this voice mail now need to let them do all of the steps so that's that's the set up for the peaks and and we did all of that stuff 1st and
then set it all up and kind of went of no I because we had all this technology and nothing to do with it but I knew 1 thing I knew at the very beginning that but what was interesting to me was was office culture and so I started trying to figure out OK well is there a way that I can make and as opposed to an audience sitting there and just watching these events happened could I make them do things so the 1st idea was
well let's just treat them like attack that way there could be a data little need to like role play in the office they can just be treated as themselves and if any of you have ever worked with attempts I'm sure you kind of know that people treat them as like a low disposable person n and that's how the characters that we started inventing would treat oral single audience member but the 2nd sort of major idea that we had was to use
e-mail as a vehicle for character I I commissioned that the another 1 of my friends are unlikely it's crawling as a playwright tools to create a cast of characters that all worked for this 1 company so we had about I think 10 different characters who would interact with you and even more in a larger company directories and what we really focused on there was to use text to use e-mails to tell you about who these people work and that that part of the mechanism of the shows that you get sees the temple gets the seat on the wrong e-mails or would get forwarded something and if you scroll down to the beginning really sort of see the relationships of the back and forth that would give the audience clues to who these people were and how they behave and like I particularly like this 1 for the whole uh I'm going to miss you too I really mean that I so but in terms of the
narrative experience that wasn't too much happening a lot because you just have looking at these e-mails and listening to some voicemails and then we kind of figured out variable for really gonna do this and we're really gonna make the show work I think the temp has to do the the actual work and so we started giving them real tasks and and that became really that the is less 3rd sort of major idea revelation because that became the core of the narrative and started to sort of derive the experience of the show because the work that you did and how well you did that work determined your story lines and and at the heart of this experience was microsoft excel in and
I this is the I think my friends when they wanted to make fun of me they're like you're making a show that happens in microsoft excel in over here you have no silica first-person spread cheetah and so uh this is how the show worked you sat down at that desk you're sitting down on the road as you get some e-mails from your boss about like sorry it I'm a I'm at an off-site today I wish I could meet you in person but believe Sarah Jane has documented work 3 easy to start doing that kind of work and because you're sitting at this desk and because it's clearly not your desk this pictures of like her nephew out and you you get the sense of like this is someone else in you really kind of if you dig around the as you really kind of get to know this woman is sitting at the steps of and then there's a cup we do a whole bunch of like e-mail jokes of like 0 the printer on forest broken and all the stuff in the break room to people can relax a little bit and then they get introduced to this very simple data entry microsoft excel task which you're working for an actuarial company in the suburbs of Chicago and all you have to do is update these client list of who's alive and who's dead and so the very simple test we thought this would be a good way to sort of like start people in terms of understanding what this what the work is and if they don't know excel or anything this would be easy for them to do so but this thing started happening and I'm going to sort of narrator your experience if you were the audience member of every time you would change the active status in the yellow column from active to deceased the lights in the room with slowly change In this quite music would stop playing the and your printer would turn on and it would print out a picture of that person's face and a description of text from a moment from that person's life of really personal moment we try to find some really human moments of like a father were what his daughter like learned to walk around and see the kind of confronted with both the data like the sense that all it's just a whole bunch of numbers and things in the spreadsheet to then immediately looking right into
that person's thoughts and knowing 0 no the debt of and then there would be a sort of looking at that piece of paper and then the 2nd that you finish it you put down the lights in the room would return to normal everything was fine the music would go away and you can continue on your test but he they kept happening to you know and then the sort of like the next phase of the show was that then your boss females you and says OK we need you to start when life expectancy calculations and because of statistics is actually frighteningly easy to determine people's
life expectancy is so and so you would calculate out of how long these people in the database would have to live and then same thing would happen each time you do at 0 this person as 10 years left to live the lights changed the printer turns on you see their face and now this time with the knowledge of all no they only have act more years left to live and then you through like a really sort of sneaky cruel thing that we do we we trick you into calculating your own life expectancy so then you can have to live with that number and then the show ends with a it because you've spent about if you've done the show you you'll spend about 45 to 50 minutes working for this company the show and and really kind of getting to know the person who's desk you're sitting at because you can dug around the best you listen to her voice mails for you you've read a bunch of a e-mails that you probably shouldn't have red you find out at the very end of the show that she's been fired
and that your or being asked to take her place so the whole case was kind of a meditation on how much time we have left and what is the kind of work that we're doing and and uh and exploration of of both the weird ways people communicate in offices and also the the sense of your own increasing mortality that might show up when you're working in a cubicle so that's the show and the talk now a little bit about what I've
figured out in the how I got to this point because it was it took a long time for us to to really kind of work out the kinks of this system and to figure out how to make it an emotional event and it really was a surprisingly emotional event I thought like 0 people laugh at their source and they might have like 1 moment of like 0 god that too much time I have left and that was it but what really happened because oftentimes I was the person to like get people out of the cubicle when the show was over I would open up the door and they would be weeping in this office cubicle and I was felt really guilty in bad about that I didn't mean to hurt you with my art so here the things that I know that I can be sure about that make an effective story and that I kind of learned from doing this piece at the 1st was to have a
really clear narrative arc that because our story was based on user actions we sort of had to figure out here's the event chain that will lead you down the certain path and here's this event chain that will lead you down another path and to be clear about where those moments would occur and also the ordering of certain e-mails depending on the when they receive them and how quickly they receive and that would tell them a lot of the audience they would learn a lot about that character if you get 5 e-mails in a row from all really grumpy person you then like had a whole different relationship to that character if we sort of space them out were spread them throughout the show in a different way so on narrative arc story flow was the sort of like and really structuring that being clear about how to structure that I was really important because we want to give both people a sense of freedom and then also bring them back to these moments where they had to do the Excel tests character isation also
became a really tricky thing to try and figure out because there was no of visual information about who these people were you really kind of of only got a sense of who they were through text uh and that came in terms of like or won't you get a sense of you hear the voices of they let your voice mail and but most of the show happen through e-mail so vocal patterns you punctuation how you would sort of like put it up on the page ended up telling you so much more about who these people work what they cared about and we try to make them really distinct so that if you because when you get introduced the e-mail to 10 different people you really wanted to be able to let the audience keep these things separate in their heads so finding distinctive traits to denote character became really important and then also to make sure that each character had a specific point of view or specific world view that they had wants and desires that they either wanted from the time or wants and desires that they wanted from the world and and that you understood because of their own we're distinct and that's why they were acting in a certain way and then along with that idea that if we could create a sense
of you of the 10th understanding their world view that you understood their characters once in dreams and how they intersected or conflicted with another characters once in dreams or conflicted with your own like the audience's once and dreams that need for a really good story made for conflict it made for a sense of like 0 I can look at this person and their life choices and that can be a moral or how I behave of world way that I can be be like no I would never behave that way or yes that's how I want to be in this world and and that's what kind of made that story much bigger than if you understood the bosses point of view and also the person who got fired point of view it would become a much more complicated thing as opposed to like bosses are evil don't fire people and and then build those
last sort of like a chunk of things that we figured out was that we we started off in an early version of the show by explaining too much about who everyone in the office was by giving the audience too much information about and really what helped was if we started to hold back to let the audience Imagen more about who these people were so that they became down to like how would you just punctuated weird way as opposed to having someone casually dropped a hint in the e-mail about why they're acting in a certain way and and that giving that space leaving the audience room to interpret something made the audience engage with it more and it reminded me kind of how in ancient Greek theater every murder always happens offstage and then someone runs on stage and tells you what happened and they describe it in this really glory way of that often is more effective than watching someone like fake stab someone on stage so leaving that space became a sort of further more important design choice for us and then I lastly to
to leave room for the audience to explore in the way that they wanted to explore because we call it the story was pretty nonlinear if you chose to do the tasks in different order on the show could could handle that pretty well off you chose to focus on 1 aspect of the story some people get really into the whole cell death thing other other people get really into the sort of moral choices of do I side with the boss to I side with this person is just that I'm sitting at and you never met any of these people but we wanted to give people depending on whether or not they were what they were interested in a lot of leeway in the experience so give in that sense of agency and and I think it's connected to that sense of imagination of allowing people to pursue the story that they're interested in I made it much more effective than that we could also that we could serve a lot of different people that many people were interested in 1 part of it and then a lot of people were interested in another part of the so this is the quick
referral equal recap of the thing I in terms of things that I learned think about the narrative arc when you're designing a story I think about the character of both in terms of hard when the characters distinct and how do I make the motivations clear to the audience and then lastly leave room for Agency for choice and for imagination pool of so that's my talk but if you have any questions I'd be happy to answer some questions about it and now you around with considerable would follow anyone here who are there any questions right now we can OK yeah it's gonna be it's going to Harvard University in twenties 6 that no 2017 but it'll be installed there as part of the like uh American Repertory Theater season of a solo works so only in the way that I have like rats and interactive fiction the like this cool stuff and I played around with wine and and that kind of thing but and I think there is something I'm really fascinated in text and how when as opposed to uh like a soul word everything as explained for usually I find tax to be this like much more personal experience so I I like both reading books and like playing around with the interactive stuff but that's spot in this this is excellent question I did a ton of times and but other question and tell me if I'm wrong is how did you like achieve empathy for the audience and how did you know what they were doing and why and how it at like 2 states years of professional training as a director that that's really my job is to sort of be like is this good or not but that but I think it it was a combination of each time trying to to forget everything that I knew and walking with a totally open mind and if anything even the slightest little twitch of like 0 I feel uncomfortable in this where I don't like this to note that we also went through like as I said like a really extensive beta testing phase where after each time we would let someone do the show we would sit down with them to excel so tell me everything I and also I I forgot to mention this you like to watch you on a camera and in the cell uh in which uh I mean make special partially like a piece of theater of course like the world we're psychology experiment and so you could kind of tell when people were engaged in that you from looking at them through the camera or when they were like not all yet spinning around chair yet but will we would so ASA and I was the guy who built the phone and you know I would we would be that we would kind like had this conversation with the person and then decide whether or not we agreed with them and because it's part like we're just like well if you don't like this thing it's than I so mostly that kind of process but we were really attentive to making sure that no 1 got upset by here that no 1 felt really uncomfortable by it but because there is something kind of weird about mortality and like I was worried that if like some calculates the life expectancy and has a panic attack like I would feel terrible about that but so was more about sort of uh making sure that if the note was like I really felt uncomfortable during X that's what we will look at at the they are still my friends they so here's the terrible thing if you has ever think about this never do a show that's only for 1 person at a time so but it just does not scale and and you will be exhausted by the end of it so that after never sort but but I told them about it maybe there's still my friend uh I would say about like 40 per cent is automated and then 60 % is us watching on the camera and just be my click on to send e-mail there's a couple parts like that moment where they put down the piece of paper we really wanted that to be exact and to be really right so that it feels like uh the magic to people and so we wanted to do so we needed to keep an operator but we're trying now to refactor the system to make it even more automated so that hopefully someday we could like you know what you have will so we learned that having other people nearby or having people do this show together doesn't work like that and apply critiquing each other's e-mailed skills or like and I'm like arguing about how to do the Excel task right and they never really got into that quiet sort of reflective space that I think is kind of necessary for really feeling the show but if there's a way to we get a bunch of officers all sealed off from each other Hölderlin we call the temple had I said I think that this was an idea and I know that it was something that we worried about because like this is not a show that like grammar can come and see and really enjoy of and so because it shows like for such a unique experience and so like personal and because we needed to like you know your name and to know a couple things about you we in that sort of like signing up for the show process we could kind of be like this I you may so person of than and gently kind of like set them on their way in the there's a moving over they each show it sort of depends on how good of a temp you were like there were some people who like bank through the show in like 25 minutes flat and then some people who would really take the time and it also sort of depended on the operator like 1 I operate the show I think temping should be a boring experience and so I like deliberately slow things down between e-mails when user runs the show is like stressing you out and so it's sort of like you get piled on in ways that it feels it can it can really very but we try to keep it so that it goes no longer than 15 minutes because we need about 10 minutes to reset room I do that so I will I and I had never done in escape the room I and uh would people when I was describing it to them they were like 0 so it's like an escape the room was like people thing but it's like boring you could just leave and like there's no you win if you like you walk out the door uh what what what a what was interesting to me and what I was sort of fascinated by and that sort of like a major impulse for the piece was this idea of like intimacy and and the way that digital technology often times and I hope this doesn't somewhere to the domain and like a sex way but oftentimes our experience of intimacy through the internet or through technology is more intense than it can then it would sometimes is when were in person and I wanted to like figure out a way to capture that are to talk about that with people so that they understand that and I think that's that's really what I tried to go forth like what's the biggest impact was the biggest emotional impact of because the feeling that I can convey through a computer through just reading an e-mail from someone about yes totally there were some people who would sit down in the chair and like were you could see that they were like not into that experience of and there was like 1 or 2 people who would like rummage around in the room and found the hidden camera and then superscript of either and I like they would like do their work and like turn around and in get I we we technically do as part of your like when you walk into the the experience as part signing up for the show that if the film employee packet we have to sign a privacy disclosure waiver that says like this company will be monitoring you all time now all work that you do will be this property of the company like 1 of those like really absurd and things so we kind of like wanted to play around with that idea as well and yet a couple lawyer friends that really weirded out by so I think this is all the time I have I wanna take you also much of or thank you don't know me and you know the the you you you you you you know
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Metadaten

Formale Metadaten

Titel Storytelling with Code
Serientitel RailsConf 2016
Teil 86
Anzahl der Teile 89
Autor Rau, Michael
Lizenz CC-Namensnennung - Weitergabe unter gleichen Bedingungen 3.0 Unported:
Sie dürfen das Werk bzw. den Inhalt zu jedem legalen und nicht-kommerziellen Zweck nutzen, verändern und in unveränderter oder veränderter Form vervielfältigen, verbreiten und öffentlich zugänglich machen, sofern Sie den Namen des Autors/Rechteinhabers in der von ihm festgelegten Weise nennen und das Werk bzw. diesen Inhalt auch in veränderter Form nur unter den Bedingungen dieser Lizenz weitergeben.
DOI 10.5446/31561
Herausgeber Confreaks, LLC
Erscheinungsjahr 2016
Sprache Englisch

Inhaltliche Metadaten

Fachgebiet Informatik
Abstract How can you tell a story using only email, a laser printer, voicemail? Last year I created an immersive experience for one audience member in a standard office cubicle. The piece used a rails app and some other custom software and no live actors to tell a story about office culture. This talk focuses on the techniques of digital storytelling, my process of developing the story as I wrote the code, and the strategies I used to create an emotional connection with a user. If you are interested in the intersection between stories, software, game design and narrative design, this talk is for you!

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