Magic Tablecloth

Date: 30th March 2021

Hiding the technology and an experiment in co-creating remotely

In February 2021, supported by Kneehigh’s Coastal Community tech strand, Jasmine Cox (BBC R&D) and I set about creating a magic tea set and table cloth to connect people. We wanted to fill it with the spoken stories that remind people of distant neighbours and nearest strangers, far-flung places they dream of and places they feel they belong…

We asked people to help us collect stories for this project, following a series of prompts…:

Stories were sent into Kneehigh via social media or via special suitcase letterboxes created by Ellie Williams and placed in Gorran Haven in Cornwall. Jenny Beare collected the stories each day and hung them up to dry (as we had particularly stormy weather even for Cornwall!) She also managed to get a few locals to record some of them and recorded some herself, as did other members of the creative team. We were amazed at the wealth of contributions collected during what was very much a lockdown story-collecting experiment. 

A Sample of Stories

Dancing – contributed anonymously and recorded by Jenny Beare
Night-time Swim – contributed and recorded by Michael Bunny
Crack – contributed by Lucy Seaber and recorded by Keith Sparrow
Paying Guests – contributed by Sarah Vercoe and recorded by Jenny Beare

But what is this Magic Tablecloth?

The Magic Tablecloth is designed to be a useable tablecloth and tea set that also tells stories – the tablecloth is embroidered with conductive threads which are connected to a Bare Conductive touchboard that plays each track. (In the original prototype above we used conductive paint.) Each patch of conductive material within the tablecloth will play a different story as an audio track that comes out of a Bluetooth speaker embedded in the teapot. The idea is that when you sit down to tea you discover (accidentally perhaps) that there are stories embedded into the cloth. When you put down a cup of tea or take one off the cloth a story is activated. Someone else touches another conductive patch elsewhere, cutting into the first story with a second, and soon, finding your way around the tablecloth as you enjoy your tea and a piece of cake a sonic landscape or architecture of stories opens up. We envisage that the stories will prompt further storytelling and the original idea for this project was that it would come out at regular tea dances in the St Austell area and that people could record stories into the tablecloth and tea set for subsequent guests to enjoy a month later. Our aim was to create a tea dance that engaged young and old and produced a sense of community, sharing and belonging. 

Magic Tablecloth is very much conceived as an artefact that produces a performance of interaction, catalyses story sharing and creates something extraordinary out of the ordinary act of taking tea together. We want the stories to be discovered and the experience to be playful, with humanity, wonder and intimacy embedded in its use of hidden technologies. The Magic Tablecloth could be enjoyed in your home, with your own guests, or at a festival, or one day when such events resume safely again all the tables at a tea dance will be able to have Magic Tablecloth adorning them, with the music emerging from a conductive patch and the stories enjoyed between each dance set.

Lockdown Collaboration

The story of the making of the Magic Tablecloth feels totally tied up with the pandemic even though it was conceived long before we’d heard of Covid-19, let alone imagined that we’d spend weeks and weeks holed up with our households and stop physically interacting beyond our homes. Following an initial prototype made in a day and a half at the Kneehigh Tech Storytelling residency in June 2019, Jasmine Cox and I were commissioned by Kneehigh to create it within their Coastal Community tech strand in March 2020. This first stab at creating the interactive tablecloth and tea set was of course cancelled when we went into the first lockdown and like many art and performance projects has seen itself cancelled, postponed, and reimagined a number of times since.

Thus a second false start in September involved redesigning the set to be delivered as ‘theatre in a box’ to care homes – but this never happened either as the Covid numbers increased throughout the autumn and we went into the second lockdown. The desire to create a tea set that brought people together to talk and connect, to share stories of belonging and what it is to be human, only became stronger throughout the year’s events, all while we have been disconnected, isolated and online. 

During December we planned to work together to create a fully realised prototype – physically together at the Barns in early February 2021 – but by the new year this was of course impossible. So Anna-Maria Murphy, Lead Artist on Kneehigh’s Coastal Communities programme, determined that we should not cancel again, whatever the circumstances, and instead should figure out a way of developing the project remotely. 

As such, embracing adversity, a full creative team incorporating myself, Jasmine, Keith Sparrow as designer, Ben Sutcliffe as composer, and Jenny Beare as story-collector and recorder, worked together remotely across five days in the second week of February. We met every day on zoom at the start of the day and worked independently on experiments during the day before meeting again virtually for a late afternoon ‘show and tell’. It was a rich experience that yielded positive and negative aspects of having to work this way, and we are certainly very pleased we didn’t cancel again. We managed to explore a great number of experimental avenues in our research and development of this project because we were all forced to make whatever our area of expertise – to find something to do during the day, and to bring something to the table at the end of it. Equally, it was very difficult to progress to a finished prototype or build on each other’s ideas when they were not physically and tangibly there to handle. That said, we are very excited by the final design ideas and really want to get making a finished prototype for you all to try!

This video reveals our shared thinking space on Miro. It was used predominantly for the visual aspects of the project, though the aural aspects of the projects developed substantially too with the wonderful Ben Sutcliffe producing individual compositions to book mark each story. 

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