Data visualization and theatre: a story of mutualism

CHAPTER 0. INTRODUCTION

In March 2016 I published a story on Medium, talking about my love for theatre and my intention to combine it to information design.

In March 2017 I had the beautiful opportunity to present my project at Visualized Milan.

Actually, it was more than just presenting it: I brought a small piece from my theatre play there, acting on the stage with my co-actresses and friends and visualizing everything in real–time.

It was an intense and unique experience for me.

I love acting and I’m (more or less) used to act on a stage for people who know that they’re going to see a theatre play, not so used to act in front of people who are attending a data visualization event!

I usually work on data visualization projects, I collaborate with companies, agencies and newspapers, as Corriere della Sera. I’m extremely interested in dealing with urgent and serious issues — my Master Degree Thesis was an analysis of organized crime in Northern Italy.

But I also love the artistic, cultural and even funny side of data visualization. I’m the co-author of a children book for National Geographic Kids and White Star Kids in which I experimented with illustrations combined to infographics.

Anyway, to be more specific, I’m an information designer who loves theatre. And this is the kind of combination I’m going to talk about: theatre + data visualization, the personal project I’m working on in the last months.

But first of all, I’d like to explain why I’m working on such a project and, in order to do that, I would like to talk really quickly about how my life has always been divided in two components: these two.

Long story short, if I’m writing this story now it’s because I made my decision. Or maybe because I’ve actually never made it!

In fact, although I’ve focused my studies on design and data visualization, I’ve never abandoned my passion for theatre. I kept on acting and I also started directing and writing plays.

A few years ago I wrote my first play, Io sono la pelle (I am the skin). Me and my friends and theatre-mates brought the show in different places and it was great.

So great, that my internal drama was going to start again. And in that moment, I understood that I didn’t want more internal struggle about it and that the “or” could simply turn into “and”. Not so difficult in hindsight!

So here we are. Some time ago I wrote my second play, Il punto è questo (This is the point). It’s a simple story, that talks about the relationships among three persons, two girls and a man. It’s not a love triangle! I know that there is nothing wrong in writing about a love triangle, but I don’t know why, for me is always very important to clarify that!

Anyway I like to write about things that can be easily understood by everyone, without too many complications. So why I’m trying to mix theatre with data visualization? It probably complicates everything a little bit.

The answer is simple and I’ll be very honest: I want to give myself the possibility to use the job I’m passionate about, in order to give more power to the “thing” I’m passionate about. I believe in the strong empowering potential of data visualization, and I want to test it in a context that is not it’s usual one.

I think that there are some common points between theatre and data visualization, or at least — in the way in which I do data visualization and theatre.

They convey: data visualization usually conveys stories and information, theatre conveys stories and emotions.

They visualize: data visualization does it obviously, but theatre too: bringing a play on a stage means visualizing it and giving shape to the words through the actors, the scenography, the gestures.

They are the result of choices: every element of a visualization is carefully chosen and so it is for theatre. Both the position of an element in a visualization and of an actor on a stage are the result of a choice. And the fact that the elements slash actor is in that particular position means something.

CHAPTER 1. HOW?

So the next question is: how?

I already had the theatre component, the play. And I wanted to take data visualization and to use it to empower the message, providing another version of the story, a purely visual one, designed by the data that were already in my play.

Being the author of it, its words are particularly important to me. In my visualizations every element has its own function and has been drawn because of it. I realized that the same thing happens with words in the pieces I write.

For this reason, the number of words used by every character is a significant data to me and it’s in fact my first data.

For the same reason, also the number of letters in the words says something about the story. The are moments in which my character is too lazy and moody to use long words for instance. So the second data I extracted was the number of letters.

The dialogues and the lines among the characters are my third data and the closeness or the distance among them is the fourth one.

In the play there are three characters. I’m terribile in naming them, really terrible. In my first play the names were Uno, due tre quattro. In this case I was a bit more creative because I’ve even chosen a letter for each one! But just one. So in Il punto è questo, the characters are L, P and A. I’m L and I honestly don’t know why!

I visualized L, P and A as the vertex of a triangle (again, I know, no, this is not a love triangle!) and I used this shape as a base tu insert my data on.

Il punto è questo is divided in 14 chapters. Each chapter has its own shape, created by the words and the dialogues among the characters.

The number of words pronounced by everyone is represented by a sized circle. The lines represent the number of sentences from a character to another.

Another important aspect of the play is time. In fact, during the story there are a flashback and a flash-forward. For this reason, I visualized every chapter on a scatterplot: the x axis is the actual chronologic sequence of the story, the y axis is the order in which the story is being told on the stage.

CHAPTER 2. OK, NOW WHAT?

And now the next question is: ok, now what?

During these months, I was looking for a metaphor to describe the relationship I was creating between data visualization and theatre, and the first thing that came to my mind was symbiosis.

More specifically, this project could hopefully being described as mutualism: association between organisms of two different species in which each benefits.

I think that both the components can benefit by being combined.

Anyway, despite the common points I mentioned — data visualization and theatre of course can be considered very different animals, coming from very different geographic areas. So in order to make them comfortable enough, I decided to put them in two different environments: the stage — as in the sample you’ve seen and a website with an interactive data visualization.

For both these projects, I’m collaborating with Paolo Corti.

CHAPTER 4. ILPUNTOEQUESTO.IT

The website is the environment in which data visualization is more comfortable: it knows what’s happening there!

I see this website as a window that people can use to explore the play in a way that is a bit different from the classic one. A way to take a peak into it, but without really knowing everything of it. There is the stage for that.

I wanted to start with a white page, that the user can progressively fill with forms. So the first thing you can see is a sort of constellation of numbers — the 14 chapters. The elements are already located on the scatterplot. Who looks at the website can choose how to build up the visualization, selecting the data to be represented and choosing the characters.

Clicking on every chapter, the number of letters appears. 1 dot represents 10 letters. In this case, I wanted to create a minimal, intimate and evocative space, in which who looks at the page can simply get lost among the flying dots. Moving the mouse over the dots, some quotes from the play appears and the voices of the actors who say these quotes can be heard.

I din’t want pictures or video from the play in the website, the only visual input is given by data visualization. I self imposed this constraint to me, because I wanted to give data visualization the possibility to be really strictly combined to theatre: so in its environment, data visualization is the only visible actor and it mixes with the voices of the characters.

CHAPTER 5. DATAVIZ ON STAGE

And finally, we arrived to the last part. I took data visualization and I placed it on a stage, with me and the other actresses.

The stage for me is that magical and terrifying place in which “everything can happen”. It’s a combination of “working a lot, studying, refining every detail” and “unexpected, improvisation, random, mistake”.

Also in data visualization projects there are mistakes and unexpected problems of course, but it’s not the same thing. In theatre these aspects are essential.

What I’m working on is this case it’s a real time data visualization, evolving according to what’s actually happening on a stage. Me and Paolo Corti are working on it, using sensors and microphones that can detect and map both the position on the stage and the words pronounced by each actor.

As I told, I strongly believe in the empowering potential of data visualization and in this case, I think it can empower emotions. It can be tricky and risky, also because this is not a visualized sentiment analysis. I’m using it to visualize the evolving relationships among the characters, and the words used to express themselves.

But I think that the fact that in that specific moment that specific character is alone, with no other “circles” around her, and only a lot of words said to herself to fill the white space, well I think that it can say a lot.

To me the shapes are like megaphones, that are silently — yet powerfully — shouting what’s happening in the story. Also in this case, I want data visualization to be strictly in contact with theater and with the play and for this reason, it has also to be ready to follow every little mistake or improvisation happening on the stage.

And finally there is another aspect that makes theater so unique, as dance and live music: and this is irreproducibility.

Two performances will never be identical to each other. It depends on factors as the size of the stage, the mood of the actors or the reactions of the audience.

Data visualization offers the possibility to visualize and record all the different performances. So ideally after a few shows, we will be able to look at a collection of unique moments that we won’t be able to create again and that — for this specific reason — are so precious.

And speaking of audience, visualizing the audience engagement and reactions could be another possible further development of this project.

CHAPTER 6. MUTUALISM

I’ve talked about mutualism before. I’m studying the behavior of those two different animals. I think that data visualization can offer to theatre a new language of representation, a new alphabet of forms to use in order to provides another layer of storytelling, that fills the space and the eyes.

The world in which the audience enters during the performance is a weird one, in which everything is visualized in real time, in a composition of gestures, voices and shapes. I really hope that this composition will be able to donate an intense experience at who’s looking at it.

My story talks about relationships and loneliness and I hope that stressing these relationships and this loneliness by visualizing them will add an emotional layer to the play.

At the same time, I think that theatre can donate to data visualization its warmth and uniqueness. I think that the “animal” data visualization can be enriched by the emotional components of theatre and by the unexpected consequences of live performing. I think that these geometric shapes can be extremely enriched by the emotions generated by what they are representing.

Anyway this project to me is constantly evolving. It’s an experiment I started in a moment in which I felt the urge to do something new with the tools I had in my hands, trying to be faithful to my oldest dreams.

And I’m really curious to see how it could evolve.

Thank you so much to Paolo Corti for this collaboration, to Pietro Guinea Montalvo who helped me with video of the moving visualizations, to Ettore Cassetta for translating the play and to Alice Gobbo and Alessia Rollone who were with me on stage!