Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Pepper’s Ghost to Mixed Reality: How Sarah Ellis Anticipates Futures at the Royal Shakespeare Company


Welcome to EPISODE ONE in a series of conversations with some of the makers and speakers of EPIC2021—a global, virtual conference and community promoting ethnography for impact in business, organizations and communities.

In this episode, Luc Aractingi talks with Sarah Ellis, Director of Digital Development at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Keynote Speaker at EPIC2021. Find out why artists are the consummate innovators and Shakespeare is on the cutting edge of mixed reality and emerging technologies!


LUC: Hello and welcome to EPIC interviews, a series where we get to know the makers and hosts of the conference EPIC 2021. Today we are interviewing Sarah Ellis, who is the Director of Digital Development at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Hello, thank you for coming.

SARAH: Hello, nice to be here.

LUC: I was wondering if you could tell us more about your role.

SARAH: I work for the Royal Shakespeare Company and my job is the first job of its kind where I’m the Director of Digital Development. What that means is that I’m looking at the future of theatre and live performance and looking at setting up collaborations, partnerships with artists and theater practitioners, and technology companies, and skills that we might need in the future to make our work.

LUC: How has technology changed performance as at the RSC?

SARAH: Technology has always changed theater; theater’s always innovated. So, in Shakespeare’s day whether that was a candlelight, whether that was the use of Pepper’s ghost in Victorian times, whether that’s electricity and now with the internet and lots of powerful technologies that we’re seeing through real-time motion capture and mixed reality. Again, these new technologies and tools that are coming into the theater-making toolkit are disrupting and supporting what artists would like to do.

LUC: Could you define what is mixed reality?

SARAH: I think mixed reality is the acceptance of a virtual and a physical world coexisting, and the sense of, temporality and togetherness and connection, both physically and virtually.

LUC: Could you give us some examples of how mixed realities or new technologies have helped your work?

SARAH: I think they’re helping by providing forms of connection. So if you’re based in Stratford upon Avon, which is our home in the UK, particularly in the pandemic and what we’ve been through, we’ve been able to connect with our audiences all around the world, through tools such as Zoom, video streaming and our latest production, research and development around using real time technologies, game engine technologies to do that. That’s a beautiful and brilliant thing. So, yeah, I think technologies at the moment are providing us with sources of connection.

LUC: Do you think you’ve been able to connect more with your public during this pandemic?

SARAH: We’ve connected differently, obviously with our theaters being shut, we’ve not been able to welcome our audiences in person. That’s very challenging. But what artists do is innovate and artists very quickly innovated their way through this. That’s not a replacement for what we haven’t been able to do, but I think that just demonstrates what theater practitioners and artists are amazing at, which is imagining using what they have and sharing stories.

LUC: The reopening of theaters in the UK, how have you been able to re-engage your public differently than the last two years.

SARAH: We’re opening our theaters in the west end in London and in Stratford upon Avon, this autumn, and health and safety is the priority and welcoming our audiences back and making them feel welcome. Also many of the team at the RSC are really delighted to be connecting with our audiences again and delighted to host them. So, yeah, we’d come back in this new phase, and it will take us some time and it’s about what we found at this profoundly difficult time that’s really important. And we’ve built and established already before the pandemic, a strong global community. We look at all of our community and how they want to connect with us and finding those ways.

LUC: That’s very cool. I hear you’re working a lot with mixed realities. Could you tell us more about it?

SARAH: Yeah, we worked, we’ve worked with mixed reality. We work with a company called Magic Leap to create a performance of The Seven Ages of Man, the first volumetrically captured performance of Shakespeare. We’ve also worked with mixed reality in lots of the ways. What I mean by that is using what I would call the behind the scenes technologies, that is used in mixed reality to achieve that. With the Tempest where we staged in 2016, collaboration with Intel, which was a digital avatar performed in real time alongside live actors. We’re, yeah, we’re playing in the realms of mixed reality, but what we’re doing at the heart of that all the time is looking at what the promise of theaters is.

I’m delighted to be doing a keynote that this year’s conference. I think what, I want to share is how over the past few years we’ve worked in partnership with academics and researchers in the room alongside creative practitioners and technology companies, and how important those research practitioners have been informing our work and collaborating with us. Often, we keep, those industries at a distance and they have a distance where they’re analyzing and looking in at a process. What I’ll be sharing is how we, when we look at innovation and we’re investing in ideas, it’s really important to have those industries in the room together, working those things out because those, when those industries talk together, that’s where we can really move some thinking and creative practice forward.

LUC: Do you have any advice you would give to an ethnographer or anyone working in the field on using mixed realities and as part of their work?

SARAH: Yeah. The advice I’d give anyone working or looking to explore mixed reality is play. Play with the technology, but don’t make those cultural assumptions around what you see is what the technology can do. Challenge that technology. Imagine it in different ways, avoid thinking about it being something that makes things faster, more effective. And go: What does mixed reality in this generation, in this moment now mean for us? What does it represent and what does the future look like with mixed reality? And how do we maybe think about things such as inclusion and creativity and challenging perceptions through those technologies that can allow us to think about the world we live in, and who is in that world with us?

Luc Aractingi holds an MA in social anthropology and art history from University of St Andrew’s, and a BA in economics from Grand Lycée Franco-Libanais Beyrouth. He’s worked on a range of insights projects and speaks Arabic, English, French and Italian.

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Sarah Ellis, Royal Shakespeare Company

Sarah Ellis is an award-winning producer currently working as Director of Digital Development for the Royal Shakespeare Company. She is a fellow of the University of Worcester for her work in arts and technology, and has been awarded The Hospital Club & Creatives Industries award for cross industry collaboration for her work on the RSC’s The Tempest (with Intel and The Imaginarium Studios.) In 2013 Sarah was listed in the 100 most influential people working in Gaming and Technology by The Hospital Club and Guardian Culture. She is an Industry Champion for the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre, which helps inform academic research on the creative industries, and has been appointed Chair of digital agency, The Space, established by Arts Council England and the BBC.