“Imagine immersive theatre crossed with an escape room, but in your home – and that’s We Still Fax!” Paul Hernes Barnes of the ANTS explains. “We wanted to make a real, live theatre show that was offline and tactile. We Still Fax is our solution; it’s a whole new form of theatre!”
People taking part receive a special fax machine in the post – hence the name of the show – which they interact with as it ‘comes alive’ during the performance. It uses sound, light, touch, smell, smoke, and faxes throughout.
As the ANTS describe it: “You receive a mysterious machine in the post. You plug it in and something strange happens… You connect with an alternate dimension; one in which the internet doesn’t exist and someone needs your help! To take on this incredibly important mission, you will need to crack codes, send faxes, unlock secret hatches and, when the time comes, push the big, red button. They are counting on you; their world depends on it.”
Indistinguishable from magic
Unfortunately, we have to break the illusion of the show by revealing that this interdimensional device is in fact a modified fax machine that uses a Raspberry Pi, among other things.
“The core components of the show are the triad Fax Machine, Grandstream, and Raspberry Pi,” the ANTS tell us. “In short, the Grandstream is an ATA (analogue telephone adapter) which translates phone signal into ethernet signal and vice versa.”
Audience members use the machine to make phone calls and send faxes, which are interpreted by Raspberry Pi to activate effects.
“Apart from these three, we have an LED strip which is controlled through GPIOs,” the team continue. “From these we also control the Microfogger 2: a micro smoke machine. Finally, sound comes through speakers which are, again, connected to Raspberry Pi.”
When it comes to software, all the distribution and management of calls, sounds, lights and smoke is done in a Python script that’s constantly running in the background. “We use Asterisk, an open-source communication software, to interpret calls. Asterisk provides an in-built database, which we use to communicate between Asterisk and Python.”
Must go on
Performances have been going on, with varying success. “As you can imagine, the technical components of We Still Fax are complex and there have been a fair few issues to overcome!” the ANTS reveal. “While incredibly well-received, the initial research and development performances were patchy in terms of reliability – from the ‘perfect’ performance to one in which we had to abandon the machine for an internet version, there were a lot of learnings!”
These sharings were crucial trials that enabled them to understand how different users would play differently – and what that would mean for the programming. “Operating the tech remotely was a significant challenge and we have developed a ‘rescue’ button that will both reboot the machine and re-send us access to Raspberry Pi via email.”
They also uncovered a flaw in the overall box design: “During one show, a plug located inside the casing of the fax machine fell out! We have now refined the code, design, aesthetic, timing and theatrics, as well as planted Easter eggs throughout the player’s journey! The content, design and code are now in a good place to begin our first string of commercial performances – we can’t wait!”