Wednesday, February 24, 2010

From Page to Stage to Screen

From theartsdesk.com

The thought of watching a filmed play is enough to make even the hardiest theatregoer flee screaming down the aisle. Recording the stage has a poor history, causing even the nimblest staging to seem thudding and deep performances transparent. But that was before Digital Theatre came along.

The Old Vic's Kafka's Monkey at   Digital TheatreSet up in late 2008 by theatre director Robert Delamere (Julius Caesar at the Manchester Royal Exchange, The Crucible at the Sheffield Crucible, among many others) and TV and radio producer Thomas Shaw, Digital Theatre films plays in front of their audience, edits them and offers them for download for £8.99, far less than a ticket would cost (let alone an entire evening out in town).

So far they have the Royal Court’s Over There, English Touring Theatre’s Far from the Madding Crowd, the Old Vic’s Container and Kafka’s Monkey (above: Kathryn Hunter in Kafka's Monkey), and the Almeida’s Parlour Song. It is an iTunes of the proscenium.

Delamere says the idea stemmed from surprise that no-one had tried to film plays in a sophisticated, unobtrusive, realistic way: “Surely given the advances in technology there might be a way of not having big, burly cameramen sitting in an auditorium taking up seats? And [we wanted to avoid] a static, completely neutral filming, which is what people have seen for years and which doesn’t accord with anyone’s idea of film language.

He has previously cited Newsnight Review as a culprit in this regard, with its lifeless clips. The National Theatre has, of course, in the past year filmed three of its shows and broadcast them to cinemas around the country, with varying degrees of success.

“Everyone said at the beginning, ‘Hurdle, hurdle, hurdle, hurdle, hurdle’,” recalls Delamere. “Can you aesthetically do it, can you do it practically, can you not disrupt the performances, what about the rights and legal scenarios? There’s a mountain to climb even to get to the point where you start filming.”

After negotiations with the relevant unions and licensing authorities, and £1 million of private investment, Digital Theatre launched its first play, Madding Crowd, at the end of last October, and is now in the final stages of producing its sixth.

With anywhere between five and 13 cameras fixed around and above the stage, controlled from an external production unit, and two performances of each show filmed, there are hours of material to sift through before a final edit can be made. This turns out to be a collaboration between Digital Theatre and the original creatives, Shaw says, “Since Rob’s been a director before, you’re able to have a sensitivity which goes a long way.”

But rather than just relying on their own taste, skill and intuition, they work closely with directors, lighting designers and sound designers so they can “follow the intention of the original production itself,” says Delamere. Not that that is without its problems, according to Delamere. “With people who are working strictly within that discipline of theatre, their understanding of film technique or language can sometimes not be as high.”

That captures one of the artistic paradoxes of Digital Theatre: is a filmed and edited play still a play, or some chimerical new genre? If you take a purist’s view, you should not need to understand the language of film: theatre does not work on zoom shots or rapid editing, should not direct the eye second-by-second.

Indeed, the idea of stitching together the best of two performances to make one film could be downright untheatrical. You expect, on any particular night of a play, unified yet unique performances, varying according to the actors’ moods and developing by experimentation, and so merging two separate ones for any one actor is philosophically difficult. Theatre is not Meryl Streep’s best laugh from 15 takes.

Delamere counters this with “the practical recognition” that sometimes actors make mistakes which they’d prefer not go down to posterity, and Shaw says, “In the edit, we do use one [performance] mainly.”

The Almeida's Parlour Song at  Digital TheatreBut this difficulty is far outweighed by the end product and what it allows. The film of Kafka’s Monkey moves in rhythm with the performance, gently panning up as Kathryn Hunter tenderly reaches up to the monkey projected at the back of the stage. The Container is claustrophobic and dark as the illegal immigrants panic and argue in their enclosed space. And Parlour Song (picture left) even makes you forget you are watching theatre, so natural are its shots.

Madding Crowd, different from the others in its larger cast and more expansive set, has perhaps too many cuts from one camera to another: just because there are more people to focus on does not mean you have to shift so quickly between them; theatre is rarely that frantic. Further Digital Theatre productions will lead to greater sophistication in this respect.

Given the global marketplace Digital Theatre finds itself in, it is no surprise when Delamere says, “We’re in 106 countries now, and we get these great emails from African schoolteachers going, ‘The idea that I could possibly get my children to watch a British theatre production is beyond imagining and now it’s a possibility.’” And closer to home, Digital Theatre is making these plays – by no means mainstream, frequently with brief runs – available to the rest of the country, which too often feels isolated from the giddy metropolitan world of the arts, and indeed to those who saw them the first time and would like to revisit them.

There are some plays that Delamere and Shaw concede will not work in this medium, although they gallantly don’t say which. What about the immersion-theatre of Punchdrunk, where the plot is almost incidental to the experience of their fully imagined world? Delamere ponders what it might be like: “You’d have to operate some sort of game theory, which would be to multi-record it. You could option what your experience was. You’d have 12 to 15 screens to decide where you were next. It would be amazing to set up a wall somewhere where you could do that.” It sounds like a perfect replication of the Punchdrunk mode, surrounding you with the show.

From intimate chamberpieces to full-blown epics and even 360º installation-events, it seems as if there are few theatrical productions Digital Theatre will not tackle. As their experience becomes greater and their name spreads further, their productions will become the exemplars of their genre and they may prove a durable exporter of a previously Britain-bound industry.


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