Shakespeare and the live broadcast – part 1

At long last, the monograph is finally done, the edited collections are out, the marking is completed, the exam boards are past, the summer is here, and digital Shakespeare returns! (For me, at least) It’s been a long, good, but hard year, with almost all of my research time focused on finishing up work on Shakespeare and the cultural history of the emotions. Here is a link to The Renaissance of Emotion: Understanding Affect in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, which came out at the start of the month and is one of the fruits of this labor.

But now that this work has moved out of my inbox and into the publishers’, I find myself thinking about Shakespeare and digital performance once again, and more specifically of Shakespeare and the livecast. Perhaps this is because of the Live Theatre Broadcast Symposium that will be taking place at the University of York tomorrow, and that will feature plenaries from Illuminations’ John Wyver, Pilot Theatre’s Marcus Romer, the ROH’s Ross MacGibbon, plus talks from many other amazing scholars. I’m very sad to be missing it (I said summer was here, but I’m back up on Birmingham campus tomorrow for one final round of administrative meetings and boards), but I’m excited that the organizers are planning to live-stream this conference on live-streaming, which is both very generous and pleasingly fitting of course! Here’s hoping that the campus wi-fi holds up as I attempt to tune in throughout the day.

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In the meantime I’ve been getting back to thinking about live relays myself, and also doing more research into what has been published already. In many ways this is a very young field, with much of the writing on it taking the form of newspaper journalism, blogs (like this one), Twitter exchanges, and short-ish special features (see in particular the great series of live broadcast reviews in one of last year’s Shakespeare Bulletin issues). But in other ways this is an area with considerable history, as both Phillip Auslander’s and John Wyver’s work on the early history of television has shown. And publications have been coming out in the last year that focus specifically on the phenomenon that is live broadcasting from the theatre (be in the NT, the RSC, the Met) and to the cinema.

One of the first ones that I decided to look at was a special issue of the journal Adaptation focused on the way live broadcasting is reshaping performance and audience experience. It emerged out of a conference last year at De Montfort called From Theatre to Screen–And Back Again, and the special issue features articles from a wide range of scholars interested in the two-way traffic between the stage and the screen. The opening three papers by John Wyver, Bernadette Cochrane and Frances Bonner, and Janice Wardle focus specifically on live broadcasts, which are variously referred to as ‘doubled adaptations’, ‘live relays’, ‘outside broadcasts’, ‘event cinema’, and, within the cinema industry at least, ‘alternative content’. Like any academic discipline worth its salt, terminology proves an issue, and a vexed one at that, and while each set of authors ultimately settles on a different term, one factor linking all three is the sense that live broadcasts and recordings (my preferred terms) are always ‘new texts’.

After an introduction from Elinor Parsons, one of the conference organizers, Wyver opens the special issue with a critical survey of the history of broadcasting Shakespeare live to screen in Britain, first to television and eventually to cinema. He makes some important and very useful points about the relations between what he calls ‘theatrical’, ‘televisual’, and ‘cinematic’ modes, and then considers how each have been employed in the history of Shakespearean broadcast filming. We must resist the inclination to see such broadcasting as a transparent process, he argues, emphasizing that a broadcast’s ‘image sequences, which are considered and scripted and rehearsed responses to a host of factors’, do not just ‘appear on screen courtesy of some kind of outside broadcast fairy’. He also observes how those who have attended to this process gravitate at times towards a ‘discourse … centred on loss’ (of liveness, of co-presence, of reciprocal experience). Turning to the great André Bazin, he suggests that we need to come up with new ways to conceptualize the creative work that these ‘doubled adaptations’ do, with one possiblity being a greater consideration of the way space (theatre space, TV/film space) works across stage and screen. ‘Critical discussion of live cinema, much like the form itself, is just at the start of a journey’, he writes, and he invites others to join him in thinking critically about this ‘popular and powerful theatre form for the future’.

The next two articles in the issue take up Wyver’s call, each offering a reflective analysis of productions included withing the Met, NT, RSC, and ROH live-broadcasting programmes. Cochrane and Bonner begin with a critique of ‘the rhetoric of minimal difference’ that they think ‘persists’ in discussions of live broadcasts, emphasizing the distinctiveness of these new forms and particular kinds of audience experience they facilitate. They are at times very sceptical of the marketing and discussion surrounding the transmissions, suggesting that ‘the cachet attached to the idea of liveness is a major exploitable commodity on sale’ within these broadcasts, and they also query the extent to which the audience members’ ‘rights of reception’ — that is, the right to look where they please — are being denied. Very interestingly, they suggest that in live broadcasts ‘we are being told a story’, whereas in the live, co-present theatre we are ‘watching an enactment’. The implication seems to be that theatrical enactment is something that emerges, even gives birth to itself, in real-time — or at least that it seems to do so. I’m not sure that I agree with this distinction, but I definitely find it very interesting and suggestive; my own comments elsewhere about camera shots that contain and even predict the movements of the actor have something in common with these sentiments, I think, even if my broader take on the work and experience of live broadcasts differs somewhat from Cochrane and Bonner’s.

Wardle’s article follows, and offers a complementary if slightly different take. Like Wyver, she emphasizes ‘the role of place’ in what she chooses to call ‘outside broadcasts’, and her discussion focuses on the way place is experienced and ‘performed’ both by the production broadcast and the receiving audience. In her consideration of ‘theatre’s rootedness in time and place’, she cites Mark Thornton Burnett’s assertion that theatre’s temporal and spatial rootedness positions it in contrast to the priorities and demands of globalization, which ‘den[y …] time, space and place’. Such an argument touches on Peggy Phelan’s view that theatre cannot be reproduced for mass circulation — a point that live broadcasts either overturn or reiterate, depending on what you make of them. If they are indeed ‘different texts’ entirely, then perhaps Phelan’s argument about the essential ephemerality and ‘unmarked’ nature of theatre stands. But if they are seen as on a continuum with live, co-present theatre, then perhaps we see a different model taking shape. Though this is not Wardle’s focus, it’s one that emerged for me as a reader as I engaged with her sensitive and observant analysis of filming sequences in the NT Live’s 2014 King Lear and the RSC Live’s 2013 Richard II (both of which I had the opportunity to see on stage as well as screen, and both of which were also directed for screen by Robin Lough). Here Wardle maps the creation of stage space by the sequencing of shots chosen for these broadcasts, which range from dramatic placing shots to frequent mid-shots to occasional reaction shots. She also notes how the RSC broadcast incorporated ‘views and sounds of the audience in the theatre’ with considerable success, a move that she suggests ‘strengthened the cinema audience’s conviction that the event was a shared, live event’.

I’m inclined to agree. In my own experience, incorporating the audience, whether visually or aurally, helps orient the experience in the theatrical, even when I’m seated in the cinema, or indeed at home alone on my couch. While some might find the appeal to the theatrical, or to the live, rather disengenuous or even ‘exploitable’, I find it helpfully orienting and even absorbing. Maybe this is because I do go to the physical theatre quite a bit, and I’m projecting that experience onto the screen. But I also remember very distinctly my first world-altering, thoroughly magical ‘theatre’ experience, and it happened courtesy of my best friend’s television screen in Cary, North Carolina when I was about nine. Before me was a live recording of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, performed by its original Broadway cast, and I was hooked. I knew I wasn’t in New York, but I didn’t care — I was there, and it was here.

If that all sounds a bit sentimental, well, I suppose it is. Theatre, and all art really, is I think a matter of feeling (among other things). And I suppose what interests me most of all is how skillful live broadcasting guides and creates feeling for its audiences. All this needs more working through, of course, and I’m hoping that some of the talks at tomorrow’s conference, and some of the readings that are next up on my desk, will help me keep moving towards a language and an approach that breaks these experiences down into some kind of model of spectatorship. Part 2 of this post should appear within the week, complete with thoughts from the bits of the conference I am able to ‘attend’ arround my meetings, and also reflections on another recent and important publication on live broadcast’s — Martin Barker’s Live to Your Local Cinema: The Remarkable Rise of Livecasting (Palgrave Pivot, 2013). Stay tuned!

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