March 12, 2013

React Future Documentary Sandbox Ideas Lab – A review

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React Future Documentary Sandbox Ideas Lab, Bristol 4th March 2013

Last week I made the trip down to Bristol for the Future Docs Sandbox event at Watershed. It was nice to be on the other side of the fence for a change as a participant, having organised several of these events myself when I worked at Watershed in 2010 producing Theatre Sandbox, and helping to facilitate for one of the Heritage Sandbox events.

It was a mentally stimulating day, gave me lots of food for thought, and started me on my journey to applying to be part of the Sandbox if that’s what I want my next step to be.

But I mostly came to this conclusion in retrospect. During the day it felt at times like quite a struggle, sometimes a bit lacking in focus and energy, and a little frustrating. All of this was interspersed with the pleasure of catching up with old colleagues and friends though, which rather took the edge off it. Having run similar sessions myself, it made me wonder if there was much more that React could do to improve the Ideas Labs, or whether the structure was good and it was really down to us the participants to make it a great day.

Is this event for me?

I felt on the periphery of the subject, as a theatre maker with no experience or training in Documentary. I fell within the ‘creative economy partner’ camp (the other being the ‘academic partner’), but as neither a documentary film maker or a technologist whizz kid what did I have to offer?

But then I wondered if other people felt like they weren’t quite the target audience either, not tech savvy enough, or too ‘old school’ in their documentary making perhaps. The exceptions being those people who talk long and loud about how they were doing all this stuff 10 years ago anyway, but then if they already know it all then perhaps they’re not the target audience either.

From my experience of Theatre Sandbox, there are a lot of people at the events who don’t ‘get it’, or are just there to hear about what’s going on but with no intention of being involved, but there are always a handful that have a real passion for the subject, a curiosity to learn more and who gain a lot from hearing other peoples ideas and perspectives. These are the people who write the best applications and who get selected in the end.

How can all participants be empowered to feel that they could be the right people to make a ‘Future Documentary’?


What’s the focus and where’s the energy?

Whilst there are things that organisers can do about this, I do also think that if you get a group who are low in energy, defensive or don’t engage for whatever reason then its going to be quite an uphill struggle to maintain focus and energy over a 5 hour session. Sometimes it only seems to take one or two vocal people to set the tone for a whole group, putting everyone on the defensive.

I did feel the lack of ‘Inspiring Examples’ during the day’s session. There was a session called this on the plan, but the way that bit happened (3 x one minute chats with someone you hadn’t met before) didn’t really provide me with any inspiration. I could have improved the situation for myself by doing more preparation before the event, using the well-put-together list of suggested viewing that the React team had provided. But on the day itself, there wasn’t much to help us get our creative juices flowing, and I think this may have contributed to a lack of focus for the day’s conversations. Again, I wonder if some of the other attendees hadn’t done much prep either, and perhaps working on the basis that most people hadn’t done any prep would be a better starting point for what to include during the day’s sessions.

I would also have welcomed more provocation or contribution of ideas from members of the React team during the conversation sessions (but maybe I was just unlucky that they weren’t in any of the groups I spent time in).

There were 3 sessions of around 30 minutes each for Open Space-style concurrent discussion groups. I felt that these were a little too short to really get into anything, and with people moving between groups it made it harder to get beyond initial thoughts. Energy and focus had begun to wane by the 3rd session, where only 2 or 3 (rather than an anticipated 8-10) sessions were proposed by the group. There was no feeding back to the larger group, and the lack of knowledge of what conversations had been going on in other spaces meant that I didn’t get a sense of what ideas the event had generated as a whole. I know that reporting back sessions can be truly dire, but I missed the feeling that the day was more than what I had directly participated in myself.

How can the facilitators inspire and provoke the participants, maintaining energy and focus throughout the day?

How can participants be encouraged to trust that the day will eventually deliver what they want from it if they participate fully in it?


As I said at the start, I only realised myself on the way home in the car how much the day had given me food for thought. I talked all the way home about ideas, ways into the ideas, problems, questions.

So, thanks to everyone at React and Watershed for a lovely day.


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2 Responses to “React Future Documentary Sandbox Ideas Lab – A review”

  1. Thank you Katie (as ever) for your thoughtful feedback and insightful questions. I think this is a fair appraisal of the day, interestingly the feeling in Exeter and Cardiff was very different. My feeling was that the Bristol lab felt a bit earnest, that it was lacking a bit of energy and joy and its helpful to hear your thoughts on why.

    Some of the problems you highlight underline the tensions inherent in running these events, things we grapple with, but haven’t solved.

    How do you share inspiring examples without setting up yourself as an ‘expert’ or guardian of the space/subject matter/sector? Interactive documentary is (as ever) a contested area and we wanted people to feel like they were collaboratively authoring the cannon rather than being told what is good/right, but I agree we perhaps didn’t achieve that.

    How do you share inspiring examples without reducing the space to being ‘only things like….’. We want to be surprised. We certainly want diversity in art form/approach/background… We obviously need to try harder to underline that.

    Finally, (for now until I come back with some potential re-designs for your input) I agree that we have a language problem that doesn’t help our cause. It is my belief that the term creative economy partner should never be uttered but occasionally we revert back to the language of funding applications. I suggest we commission some kind of automatic electric shocking device for when we use ‘bad’ language in future. I will get Dan Williams on the case.

  2. katie says:

    Thanks Clare.

    Yes, I did pick up that the Exeter Lab had been different, which is partly what prompted me to think about all this.

    I think your points about the concern that examples may limit the scope of potential ideas are really key, and remember them being a big issue when planning the Theatre Sandbox workshops too.

    I wonder if this is actually the case though, especially when the examples aren’t made by likely applicants to the scheme (which was the case with Theatre Sandbox).

    If you’re new to the area of Interactive Documentary then just seeing examples of what’s already there can be quite a mind opener, and possibly get you thinking about your own content ideas in new ways.

    I guess as long as its really banged home on the day that these are just what’s already out there, but you are looking for new ideas that don’t exist yet.
    But I do realise that it can be hard to get people to actually absorb this message.

    Every field has its jargon, but yes, as pervasive media people you’re probably in the unique position to be able to design such a responsive electric shock device for jargon transgressions!