This week we are talking with Lisa England, the creator of Aurelia: Edge of Darkness.
Airship Ambassador: Hi Lisa, thanks for time out of your busy schedule for Aurelia to talk with us about this great project.
Lisa England: No, thank you! I really appreciate the chance to share this fun collaborative story.
AA: There are a few articles about Aurelia out there, even the Huffington Post reposted one of them for an added boost. There’s also the show’s official blog to follow. I came away from those with many terms to describe Aurelia, but how do you describe it, both the story and the storytelling platform, for other people?
LE: Thanks for making a distinction between the story and the show! The story, in my mind, is the overarching “thing.” The show is a subset of that story—one part of it.
I describe the story as “a steampunk fantasy that follows an inventor-king who must abandon his culture’s failing technology in search of a greater power—one that can save their whole world from collapse.” (I call it a steampunk fantasy to distinguish our story from a scientifically-driven “pure” steampunk tale that probably shares more in common with science fiction than fantasy.) The first installment of that story is Rise of the Tiger, my 48-episode web serial that’s available online. Future serials (or books) will continue that story to its conclusion.
The show is an “interactive web drama that follows the citizens of a self-sustaining, steam-powered city, as they battle an energy crisis that could wipe their civilization out forever.” That city is Aurelia, the home of the saga’s inventor-king hero, Jude. At the time of the show, Jude has been cast out of the city after failing to solve the energy crisis, and the citizens are on their own to save themselves. So the show falls between the end of Book 1 and the beginning of Book 2.
AA: You’ve called this ‘co-created storytelling,’ and it’s like a web series, but without a script, and actors who are both audience and participants, and live action role play (LARP) with a bit of delayed response. How did you even come across and get involved in this new type of storytelling, which was described in one article as a crowd-sourced fantasy story? How can one even crowd-source a single story?
LE: Well, every story is composed of main plots and subplots. I write the main plot for Aurelia and drive that plot forward through weekly calls to action. The actors’ stories serve as the subplots—although lately the subplots have taken preeminence in the story, and I’m excited about that, too!
I first had contact with this type of storytelling when a friend joined the long-running Beckinfield web show run by the tech start-up Theatrics. My friend’s enthusiasm made an impression on me, but it wasn’t until Theatrics opened up their public platform for beta testers that I really got involved. A friend in Los Angeles thought my web serial Rise of the Tiger (the origin of Aurelia) was a perfect match and suggested I sign up for updates.
To my surprise, a month later, the Theatrics team reached out and asked me if I were interested in running a show based on Rise as part of the beta test group. I said yes—and from there they began to coach me into how this type of story works. It took awhile to wrap my head around it all, though!
LE: In my day job, I’m a storyteller and strategist for a digital marketing agency. Through my work there, I realized that today’s audience member loves a chance to be involved. Brands all over the world successfully engage their audiences with fascinating and fun interactive experiences—and I began to think about my web serial as a brand, and what might happen if an audience could get involved in the story world and become a character. This bothered me for several months while I was finishing the serial. Of course the dedicated readers (most of whom prefer text-based stories, naturally) looked forward to the twice-weekly installments, but I knew I was only engaging them one way. I began searching for that two-way experience. Theatrics was literally an answer to prayer in that regard.
AA: How does the Theatrics platform actually work for creating and telling a story?
LE: Theatrics provides a “shell” that showrunners like me must fill. Each show runner creates a story that casts the actors as a group protagonist, so any kind of group environment (a sanitarium, a cruise ship, a research team, a town, etc.) is the perfect start for a story. Showrunners then fill the platform with info about the story world and calls to action (plot points that ask the actors to get involved). Then, they invite actors to sign up for a free account. That account allows each actor to post photos, blog-style written entries, and videos as often as they would like. Each week, actors react to the week’s call to action and/or update their individual character’s story using those three tools. Of course, video is the most popular.
Here are several particularly clever actor videos:
AA: Back to Aurelia, what was your motivation in creating the whole project?
LE: The original web serial had been a passion project of mine for five years, and it has gone through many different forms. Taking it into the digital space for AURELIA, my primary motivation was connection. I wanted to connect with serial readers and a brand new audience by offering them a role in the story development process. I guess you could say I was looking for relationship.
AA: With Rise of the Tiger, still available to online readers, as the creative origin, what was the process of Aurelia essentially spinning off and becoming a world and a story in its own right?
LE: Well, if truth be told, I was planning to spend my summer revising Rise of the Tiger and then releasing an interactive digital edition, which would be a lead-up to the launch of the next serial in the saga. But life had other plans!
Instead, I treated the spin-off process as part of my serial revisions; one thing I knew from my serial version of Rise was that I wanted to take readers even more in-depth into the unique world of Aurelia, the city. So all the things I had to go deeper into, for the show, will greatly help me when I finally get back to revising the serial. Things like actual culinary items, details of government, what parts of the city look like that weren’t featured prominently in the serial, how much money is worth, etc.
Theatrics required me to produce some in-depth documents that pitched a show concept, developed the world more deeply, and outlined a plan for creating artistic assets (backdrops, character designs, etc.) that would bring Aurelia to life. All that has helped me immensely with my creative process. Then I had to decide how to distribute that information on the show site, who was going to create all the artistic assets, etc.
AA: What steampunk elements have you, and now the other audience-actors, brought into the story to create this world and make it engaging to the steampunk community?
LE: Well, Aurelia is a weird mash-up of Steampunk and fantasy, set entirely inside a Babel-like city that’s trapped in a toxic wasteland. So . . . you won’t find an alternate British empire or locomotives or airships or anything like that. Steam powers the world, and there’s a lot of industrial-era technology or futuristic technology (like borgs and fully-functional mechanical animals) that, in the steampunk tradition, work on Victorian mechanics and steam. Fashion is also influenced by steampunk, as are weaponry. Actors of course have brought in their own ideas and in some case have invented new types of machines or creatures that their storylines require. Those who steampunk cosplay also have a great outlet for showing off their outfits and accessories through video. Other actors who LARP or cosplay in more fantasy settings have found the world flexible enough for their costuming, too. Which is exactly how I hoped it would be: fantastical enough for the medieval crowd but steamy enough for the steampunks. J I’m always trying to find ways to bring different genres together.
We’ll break here in talking with Lisa about the world of Aurelia: Edge of Darkness
Next time, Lisa talks about inspiration, maps, and getting involved.
Keep up with the stories until then!