So here’s an account of what happens when a man with an obsession and a great idea meets a team of TV creatives – no, they didn’t simply produce a TV show – they produced a theatre show that looks like a TV documentary in the format of a book! Confused? All will become clear if you simply check out the tour dates for Choose Your Own Documentary and book yourself a ticket – pronto before they all sell out!
Writer and performer, Nathan Penlington was obsessed with a series of books in his youth. He bought a collection of the popular 1980’s series ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books on eBay in adulthood and found amongst the pages in one book, part of the original owner’s personal diary, written as an angst-ridden teenager. Nathan set about searching for the owner of that diary – and the results of that quest is now making an original, interactive and highly entertaining theatre show.
So what is it all about? I asked the creative team of Nathan, Nick, Fernando and Sam and these are their answers…
In a nutshell what is Choose Your Own Documentary?
A story of one man’s obsessive quest to find the author of a lost diary. Part stand up, part documentary, the audience chooses how the story evolves, voting using keypads given to them at the start if the show. Whether they find the author or not is entirely up to the audience. It’s also a story of childhood sweethearts, lifelong friendships, tarot readers, graphologists, geeks and of two boys with vivid imaginations who have more in common than they realise.
Well Nathan discovered the diary and really connected with the angst-ridden words and sadness of it. He saw a lot of his own childhood mirrored in this young boy’s writings. Naturally he was totally gripped by this and wanted to know more. Who was this person? Where were they now? Were all the statements true?
As a writer and performer he saw the obvious potential in that journey of discovery – and came up with the idea of finding the author in a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ style but had no idea how to document it. He got in touch with Fernando through the National Film and Television School, and Sam and Nick who had both worked with Fernando in the television industry, came on board soon after.
It took almost two years to complete but has been a really fantastic collaborative experience. We come from very different fields and connect with an audience in completely different ways but have created something greater than the sum of our parts. The story could have easily have made for a compelling linear documentary or one-man show, but the immersive experience we’ve created could only have come by weaving these two forms of storytelling together.
How does doing the show fit into your TV jobs?
With difficulty. What started as a small side project has morphed into a much larger beast. Thankfully, the Arts Council grant means we can now pay for other creatives, musicians, designers and technicians to come on board and help us.
Do you see the show having a life in television or is it more of a novel way to do theatre?
One of the great things about CYOD is that it doesn’t fit into any specific genre. People have labelled it film, comedy, theatre, television, transmedia, spoken-word and much more! It speaks to people in different ways and that’s great. We’re exploring what’s next for CYOD but believe it could transfer to a number of different platforms in new and exciting ways.
How does Nathan feel about exposing his personal life and issues in front of a live audience?
We realised early on that if we expected someone to be open about his diary to a complete stranger than Nathan would have to be honest and open about his life. You can’t expect other people to talk about their innermost feelings if you aren’t ready to express your own. We spent a lot of time getting the tone of the show right, dealing with everything as sensitively as we could. As Nathan talks about in the show, we never wanted to hurt or upset anyone. Many a car journey was spent fretting about the issues raised in the project but I think we got the balance right in the end. Although Nathan found discussing his childhood slightly difficult to begin with the honesty of the show really resonates with audiences.
Where next for the show?
We’re on a UK tour starting at the end of February, Nathan’s account of finding the diary and the search for Terence Prendergast The Boy In The Book is published in May which is really exciting, and we’ve got Sheffield Doc/Fest, i-Docs and other film festivals too. It’s going to be a busy year.
Meet the Team Behind the Show:
Nathan Penlington is a writer, performer and obsessive. He has performed his work in venues as diverse as Tate Modern, Oxford Literary Festival, Reading Comedy Festival, Chicago’s Drinking & Writing Festival, and has been broadcast on BBC Radio 1, 3, 4 and 6music. The Boy In The Book, Nathan’s first work of non-fiction, will be published by Headline in May 2014.
Nick is a shooting, edit producer with over 15 years experience making films for television and online. He first started his career on the consumer show Watchdog, and has since worked as a Promo Producer for ITV, responsible for creating promos for such iconic brands as Come Dine With Me and Four Weddings; edited a promo for Save The Children with Director Beeban Kidron; filmed observational documentaries for the BBC, including one with Plan B and directed an online series on mental health with Comedian Ruby Wax. Recently, he has directed, filmed and edited his first full length documentary with Producer Remy Blumenfeld. The Man Who Shot Beautiful Women tells the gripping story of fashion photographer Erwin Blumenfeld. It was a critical success for BBC4 and is now being sold internationally.
Fernando Gutierrez de Jesus
Originally from Long Island, NY, Fernando now lives in London and works at the UK’s largest commercial broadcaster ITV where he is an experienced director, producer and editor of engaging content across multiple platforms. Having worked across everything from primetime documentaries series and big scale entertainment shows, to curated youtube channels, Fernando has been able to create engaging stories and experiences across a variety of genres. With a strong background in concept development for television he specialises in low cost, fast turnaround and surprising production. He’s engaged and excited by new people and new ideas and fascinated by technology and it’s use in new content creation. Going forward he wishes to remain at ever shifting junction between technology and storytelling in order to help create the entertainment of the future.
Sam is a Factual Development Producer who has worked across factual programming for a number of years, with commissions in the UK and internationally. He is passionate about documentary, storytelling and immersive media.