Category Archives: Theatre broadcast

Staying focused: streamed theatre and me

I’ve been thinking about attention this week. Not the kind that other people give to you, but the kind you create yourself. Focus. Concentration. Absorption. Immersion.

I’ve been thinking about it because sustained, unbroken attention is something that doesn’t always come naturally to me, especially when I find myself sitting in the darkness of a theatre after a long day’s work.

This is ironic – and embarrassing – for a Shakespeare scholar to admit. In years past, when I counted myself more a cultural historian and literary critic, I could just about get away with it; theatre was great, but it wasn’t my bread and butter, so it was almost okay if I secretly spaced out or even nodded off for a bit every now and then.

But now that I’m putting theatre at the heart of my next research project, I’m feeling a little more self-aware. And intrigued. To a certain extent I’ve started training myself to be more alert, to see going to theatre more as work (in a good way — usually). At the same time, a significant proportion of the theatre I’m watching is by online streaming, meaning that several of my ‘nights at the theatre’ are actually me, sitting on my bed with headphones, looking at a screen.

This, I’m finding, proves a particularly formidable challenge for someone prone to breaking focus. With no audience around me to enforce a sense of shared theatre etiquette, a number of new and previously impossible styles of theatre-watching start to emerge. Turning to Twitter occasionally to see what other audience members are saying. Multi-tasking to save time and energy on tired evenings – eating dinner while I watch, maybe even making it. Petting the cat when he climbs on my lap, curious what I’m up to. Saying a quick hello to my husband when he comes in from work. And, if the streaming is on-demand rather than live, pausing every now and then to take a break, or maybe even watching the production over a couple of days in chunks.

Although I’m a little embarrassed to fess up to these practices, I know I’m not alone. I’m not the only one on Twitter after all. Which is why it was all the more surprising, and challenging, and interesting, when online audiences were invited last week by Complicite’s Simon McBurney to turn off our phones.

The show we had tuned in to see was a live performance of The Encounter, streamed online courtesy of Complicite and The Space from the sold-out Barbican Theatre in London (and available on YouTube until the end of today here). This one-man show tells the story of a National Geographic photographer’s journey into the Brazilian rain forest, and his consciousness-bending experiences while there. It is told through the use of immersive, ‘binaural’ sound technology, with all members of the audience – in-person and online – wearing headphones throughout the entire performance.

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McBurney started casually, shuffling along the stage and then addressing the audience in his khaki shirt, baseball cap, and jeans. ‘Ladies and gents, um, we’re just still waiting for some people to come in, apparently the bars are more attractive than the theatre. If you could please, while we’re waiting, turn these off [holds up mobile phone]. Tonight is a livestream, so I suggest anybody at home, who’s watching this also turns these off.’ And I did. No live tweeting during the production, no stopping and starting (not really possible in this case), and once things got going I even turned out all the lights. I did still eat dinner while watching it, but I was lucky enough not to have to cook it.

I don’t know if this single focus made the experience better or worse or the same. Though I won’t go into the details here of the production itself, I should say that it was genuinely extraordinary, and I certainly didn’t feel limited or kept at a distance during my encounter with The Encounter. At the same time, I still experienced plenty of moments of mental interruption, not least as I got to thinking about my own sense of sustained attention and what helps and hinders it. But I did really benefit from the challenge of trying to pay attention to a streamed performance at home in a way that was similar to how I might do so in a theatre. I did my best to perform a social code, even when no one was checking up on me (aside from my fellow audience members on Twitter).

So all this was in my head when I made my way down to London for another theatre event at the Barbican last weekend: Forced Entertainment’s Table Top Shakespeare. This series of 36, one-hour productions saw six actors taking turns as they told the story of each of Shakespeare’s plays using a box of household objects. Beatrice as a bottle of sunscreen, Claudius as a container of flea powder, Hector as a jar of Tabasco sauce, Cleopatra as an old china dish. Look below to see Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane.

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I went down to London to see four of these experiments in storytelling live and in-person, after watching about the same number online last summer when they were broadcast live from the Berliner Festspielen. I remember seeing snippets of a few one day during the work week, then hearing more from a friend a few days later, and finally settling down outside on a sunny, late Saturday afternoon to watch A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While I watched, I took notes – not on paper, as I normally would in the theatre, but published online through Twitter, where I also looked out for the comments of others. A couple of examples:

Close to a year later, I’m left wondering what kind of theatrical experience that was. I know for a fact that I was doing lots of other things while watching, though I do think that I was also paying attention, and really focusing, while navigating my way around those other things. And speaking with others online during the performance did, in some ways, make certain moments and insights more memorable for me.

Being physically present, down in the depths of the Barbican Pit on Saturday was a materially more immersive experience, and I did feel like the co-presence of the somewhat surprisingly packed audience around me did focus my mind and senses in ways that I missed last summer. But I’m not going to lie – in hour 3 I moved to a cooler seat at the edge, and I let my mind wander and even drift off for a few drowsy minutes. This had everything to do with stamina rather than interest. And I don’t know what this all adds up to, other than a growing preoccupation with how I watch theatre – whether in an auditorium, a cinema, or at home, sitting on my bed.

How do these different practices affect my appreciation of what’s before me, and my absorption in it? Do we need to develop a shared protocol for at-home viewings if we want streamed theatre to achieve a certain kind of emotional and sensory effect? Should we turn our phones off, or are they doing something new and helpful for us that we should embrace rather than shun? There are over 1,000 comments on the YouTube page for The Encounter, and despite McBurney’s plea I’m sure that a good portion of them bear a time-stamp from the night of the livestream. Is this a sign of our ever distracted, ever fragmented times, or a mark of a new and maybe even enhanced way of watching theatre, or perhaps some combination of both?

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Guest Post – The Eye of the Camera in Filmed Theatre

It is with enormous pleasure that I welcome the first ever guest blog post on DigitalShakespeares. Over the past summer, Mary Odbert, one of our wonderfully talented MA students at the Shakespeare Institute, has been acting as a research assistant on this project, and she very graciously agreed to write up some of her final thoughts on the work she’s been doing. As you’ll see, much of this has involved watching and studying a selection of Shakespeare broadcasts, so, without any further ado, here’s Mary!

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The Eye of the Camera in Filmed Theatre

Shakespeare’s presence in the digital world has opened up innumerable new modes of thought in both creative practice and criticism. In the process, a fledgling art form has emerged somewhere between the stage and the cinema in the form of the live theatre broadcast. It has been my pleasure this summer to work with Dr. Sullivan on her exploration of this new medium. To me, the most fascinating aspect of the live theatre broadcast is the means by which the camera affects the broadcast spectator’s experience of the theatrical production.

The camera’s control over our perspective may be written off as an understood necessity in the context of film. Its angles, distances, and movements are accepted as part of the calculated art of filmmaking and the spectator experiences the film through the lens for better or worse. However, in the case of a theatrical broadcast film, this trust in the camera is somewhat ruptured by the film viewer’s awareness of the in-theatre audience. While, on the one hand, in-theatre audiences are restricted to a single perspective by their physical stasis, they are nonetheless in control of their more specific focus. Although unable to cut to close-ups on facial expressions or wide birds-eye-view shots for dramatic effect, the in-theatre audience controls where they look and when. The spectator’s bodily autonomy may be obviously self-evident to anyone who has ever turned their head to look at something, but it’s a luxury which registers as taken for granted when the camera operator makes a choice you wouldn’t have done.

The Globe On Screen and The RSC Live use a fascinating array of camera techniques from self-contained framing to a complete avowal of the theatrical space, all to varying effect, but all nonetheless representative of specific stylistic choices. As a space wherein the theatre itself is as much a part of the experience as the production on its stage, The Globe On Screen tends more toward wide shots which include the building and the in-theatre audience. This choice is also partly driven by necessity simply due to the practical layout of the building. Apart from a straight shot from the front and center of the yard, there is essentially no angle which doesn’t inevitably include audience members in the background.

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As a result, the films maintain a diegetic distance from the plays themselves, always reminding the viewer of the constructed nature of the drama. This result is by no means a reflection on any inability of the actors to engage the spectator into their world. In fact, this is often successfully the case for the standing spectators in the yard sharing the space of the characters. But by including the in-theatre spectators’ experience in the film, Globe On Screen adds a layer of non-diegetic reality between the diegetic scene on stage and the engagement of cinema spectators. Rather than watching the play itself, Globe On Screen viewers watch The Globe put on a play. In its own almost voyeuristic mode, The Globe On Screen film puts its viewers in a position of watching an audience watch a play.

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The RSC generally takes a more cinematically-minded approach in their broadcasts. With more lighting technology and elaborate sets, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre has more tools with which to explore their own style of mise-en-scene in the filming process. Their films feature camera work which does more to exclude the audience from the frame, therefore keeping the diegetic engagement less disrupted for the broadcast spectators. High angled shots swooping down into powerful close ups enhance the impact of emotional moments. While the camera still enacts a certain authority over the film viewer’s point of view, moments like this exemplify the ways in which the camera provides perspectives otherwise impossible to the in-theatre audience.

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In some ways, the divide in new opportunities for experimental effects between The Globe and its indoor counterpart is one which echoes back to the days of the Blackfriars Theatre in the early modern period. To a certain degree, it almost feels as though The Globe’s focus on original practices perhaps hinders its development in the filmic realm. Then again, to read The Globe’s approach more as a documentary of the theatrical experience rather than embracing the temptation to see it as a film adaptation of the play recasts the work as a success within its own multi-generic classification. Meanwhile, The RSC continues to experiment and discover as much with their live broadcast techniques as they do with their stage adaptations.

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After analyzing this series of films, most from The Globe and The RSC along with several from The National Theatre for good measure, it seems clear that the entire notion of the digital broadcast of the stage production still has a great deal of development to come. This is not to suggest the films thus far haven’t been excellent, because they absolutely are! But it seems that the theatres are now reaching major turning point wherein the film is evolving beyond its point-and-shoot origins to embrace the artistry available to the cinematic mode. Rather than capturing the action on stage at its bare minimum with a static camera at the back of the audience, the filmed stage production is roaring to life as its own unique art form. The best parts of the shared theatrical experience, teleporting spectators from around the world into London’s Wooden O or the pride of Stratford’s riverside, blended together with the best of the cinema’s compositional techniques to create an unmatchable Shakespearean experience.

Guest post by Mary Odbert, MA Shakespeare Studies (Shakespeare Institute).

Othello @The RSC, stage and screen

Some thoughts on the RSC’s Othello, which I was able to see on both stage and screen this summer. In each case I caught the production at an extreme end of its run, seeing it live on stage in its early weeks (still officially in previews, I think), and live in the cinema the night before it closed. It’s worth mentioning then that some of the observations below might have as much to do with how a production evolves over time as to how it changes across media. But caveats aside, I’d like to start with a few of the ideas that stuck out for me after seeing the production in June, and then turn to the further thoughts I had after seeing it at the end of August at the Stratford-upon-Avon Picturehouse.

This production deals with race in a more interesting, complex, and meaningful way that most. It’s not just that it features a black Iago — though that of course is important. Out of a cast of 18, I counted at least 6 actors of color, a major institutional achievement in its own right (same goes for the director Iqbal Khan, and for the 6 female actors). In this far more diverse company than is typically seen on big national stages, Othello becomes not a lone black man in a sea of whiteness, but one citizen among many in a racially and culturally heterogeneous, cosmopolitan world. This doesn’t mean that issues of race disappear — far from it. Instead, it challenges us to think about how racial dynamics work when they can’t be reduced to easy binaries (black/white). It’s no mistake, I think, that the production’s most racially charged scene doesn’t actually focus on Othello, but rather is the party in Cyprus, where what seems like harmonious celebration soon descends into aggression and social conflict.

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The women are really good. And I don’t mean this as faint praise, particularly when it comes to Desdemona. She is so easily an utterly naive, docile, submissive, and subservient wife — how can this be avoided in performance and her character made into someone modern audiences can feel more than perfunctory pity for? Joanna Vanderham’s Desdemona is lively, impetuous, child-like, and perhaps even childish. She is naive, but with a palpably fierce sense of loyalty and justice. She’s not okay with what’s going on with Othello, she just really doesn’t get it until the end. Emilia on the other hand tends to give actors more to get stuck into, and Ayesha Dharker brings out the complexity and subtlety in her part. One of the many strengths of her portrayal is the vulnerability she brings to the role; Emilia can easily become the cynical, worldly wise counterpart to Desdemona’s foolish waif, but here she is also complicated by her own insecurities and shaped by a moving tenderness.


Othello is not blameless before Iago gets to him, and military life is certainly not noble.
The most obvious way we understand this is through the extra-textual torture scene inserted after the party scene and before Desdemona starts her ill-fated attempts to get Cassio re-instated in his post. To be a part of military culture, this production suggests, is to be a part of brutal and even inhumane campaigns against other countries, cultures, and their people. And if we might be tempted to think that Othello is merely the distant manager of a rouge troop, we are soon corrected by his own swift and decisive turn to torture when Iago starts suggesting to him that Desdemona is not all that she seems.

Hugh Quarshie’s performance as Othello is muted and even under-powered. There is a still core at the centre of Quarshie’s Othello that makes him imposing, compelling, but also at times inscrutable. His is a quiet and contained Othello, obviously enraged by his situation (or so the torture of Iago would suggest) but also strangely affectless. No wonder Desdemona is confused. For me this got worse as the production went on, and made the second half particularly difficult to grasp. The final scene was among the flattest I’ve seen, with Othello’s ‘It is the cause, my soul’ speech unfolding a bit too much like a to-do list. Though other exchanges in the scene did suggest more passion and conviction, they never grew into something greater, and the end effect for me was a disappointing woodenness. Over the course of his career, Quarshie has been famously outspoken about how the typical understanding of Othello’s emotional journey is an inherently racist one. But re-reading that journey caused its own problems in terms of clarity and power of character, leaving me underwhelmed as I left the theatre.

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So, with all this in mind, what did I notice, rethink, or experience differently on a second viewing, this time from my seat in the cinema?

First, and most importantly, the camera finds nuance where the stage does not. Quarshie’s Othello was still oddly contained when viewed through the camera lens, but certain choices about his character’s emotional arc did become clearer. What I saw in his Othello this go round was an ample dose of Hamlet — his lurching from stillness to rage and back again looked more cerebral deliberation and manipulation than wooden inscrutability. When he slapped Desdemona, calling her ‘that cunning whore of Venice / That married Othello’, I was surprised to find myself thinking of Hamlet and Ophelia’s nunnery scene. Disgust and righteousness were the top notes, hurt and loss the undertones; misogyny and misanthropy were present in equal measure. In the final scene, no nervous chuckles could be heard, and the focus of the camera helped intensify and structure the dialogue that I had previously found flat and strained. To my surprise, the lines that popped out for me more than ever before were Othello’s comments on the handkerchief, and the difference between murder and sacrifice:

By heaven, I saw my handkerchief in’s hand.
O perjured woman! thou dost stone my heart,
And makest me call what I intend to do
A murder, which I thought a sacrifice:
I saw the handkerchief.

What he’s talking about here is emotion, and the way it colours his actions — something I only realize now from reading Frederika Bain’s chapter on affect and execution in the collection on emotion that Richard Meek and I brought out this year. In it Frederika shows how executions were supposed to be accompanied by minimal to no affect — these killings are just and deserved, and so they are governed by reason rather than passion. Murders, on the other hand, were marked by their lack of emotional restraint, with the unbridled feeling that accompanied them actually serving as a sign of their criminality. This is of course a historical approach to the issue, but it struck me as strangely appropriate in thinking about Quarshie’s performance. Containing emotion becomes a way of consolidating Othello’s political, social, and intellectual power; he is not a gull, or passion’s slave, but rather a deliberate and righteous judge. The problem that remained for me, however, is that I don’t believe that reason and passion are opposing forces, and I don’t think Shakespeare did either. While the camera helped me find nuance in Quarshie’s performance, I still felt that by denying Othello fuller emotional expression he also denied him his full power and complexity.

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Second, the camera can make assertions in places where the stage simply suggests. There are several examples I could talk about here, but let’s just go with two. In the staged version, the added torture scene doesn’t directly involve Othello, but he is certainly implicated: first and foremost by being the leader of these men, second by shuffling around the edges of the stage while the scene is going on, and third by initiating torture himself in a later scene. In the filmed version, his complicity and command are made much clearer — at the end of the sequence we get a framed shot of Othello looking through papers in a file (the tortured prisoner’s?), a choice that specifically directs the political force and affective discomfort of this interpolated scene towards this one man. Likewise, at the very end of the production, we close with a final shot of Iago, down on his knees, laughing diabolically as the lights go out. His laughter continues to reverberate in the darkness until the lights come up and the applause begins. I have no memory of this choice from the night I saw it on stage, which makes me wonder if it simply wasn’t part of the production at that early stage. But even if that is the case, its importance is deliberately underscored here, as is Othello’s participation in a kind of warfare that is far from dolce et decorum.

Finally, I really like those floating crane shots. Basically, every time they appear in the film, there’s a comment in my notebook saying something like ‘really nice shot!’, or ‘beautifully filmed!’. Even when this is the torture scene, or Othello manhandling Emilia, or indeed the Willow song. Give me a sustained wide shot, and I’m happy. Add some visual wonder to it, and I’m positively elated. Like the stadium shot in sports, these views let me see what’s going on and anticipate action before it actually occurs. But having read Barker’s book this summer, I’m also aware of the fact that not everyone feels this way. Am I over-prizing the long shot, and the kind of perspective it allows? How many different ways are there to see, and feel, a play?

Martin Barker and ‘the remarkable rise of livecasting’

The summer reading continues on, and next on the list is Martin Barker’s Live to Your Local Cinema: The Remarkable Rise of Livecasting (Palgrave Pivot, 2013). This is the first – and as far as I know still the only – book-length work on the growing phenomenon of live theatre broadcasting, and although it is a short one it still manages to cover considerable ground in its 93 pages. Barker is a media studies specialist, with particular expertise in the study of film audiences, and one of the biggest contributions of his book makes is to orient the many questions surrounding theatre broadcasting towards those audiences and their experiences in the cinema. He does so through the collection and analysis of nearly 650 audience questionnaires, completed by attendees at theatre broadcasts at the Picturehouse cinema chain in 2009. In the process he also surveys some of the most relevant research on liveness and mediation in the performing arts, and he raises a series of pertinent (though as yet unanswered) questions about where theatre broadcasting is headed and what this might mean for audience experience.

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For a reader like myself, one of the most interesting things about Barker’s perspective is its orientation towards film rather than theatre studies. Much of the conversation I’ve been a part of so far focuses almost entirely on how live broadcasting is changing theatre and theatre-going, but Barker’s work shows us how it is significantly affecting cinema culture as well. His first chapter offers a brief history of the rise of digital cinema in the early 2000s and then ‘alternative content’ – aka ‘event cinema’ – shortly thereafter, leading to assertions by the end of the decade that ‘Cinema is fast becoming a multi-arts venue’ (8). In Chapter 2 he continues with a look at the emerging aesthetics of theatre and opera broadcasting, one genre in the growing range of event cinema offerings, and he illustrates, with a faint whiff of disappointment, how approaches to filming and editing tend to be ‘cautious’ (21) and geared towards showing cinema audiences that ‘we are watching a stage’ (16). Although what he calls ‘cinematic flourishes’ or ‘bravura moments’ do appear in most broadcasts, they are used sparingly to punctuate what is on the whole a ‘transparent, unobtrusive, and invisible’ style (15-17). For me, some of Barker’s observations came as a useful surprise; I typically find myself longing for the (very) wide-shot and getting frustrated with what I consider constraining close ups, while he notes that the very idea of ‘close ups’ in theatre broadcasting should remain in quote marks since such shots ‘will almost always include torso and arms. Extreme close-ups are unknown here’ (18). Not all close ups are made equally, I’ve learned.

How close is close?

From Chapter 3 onwards Barker gets down to the nitty gritty of analysing audience data and thinking through which aspects of live broadcasts cinema audiences respond to most strongly. While some work has already been done on the demographics and perceptions of broadcast audiences, most notably by NESTA, Barker rightly points out that such research has been more focused on the economic viability of live broadcasting and has tended to overlook the question of audience ‘experiences per se’ (25). Barker’s own research attempts to remedy this lack: after attending briefly to demographics (above all, theatre broadcast audiences tend to be older than typical cinema audiences, he tells us), he goes on to consider what he calls ‘audience pleasures and meanings’, namely ‘the value of localness’ and the ‘powerful sense of participating in the occasion’ (30-2). This emphasis on locality, eventness, and immediacy prompts him to survey, in Chapter 4, the ways in which academics from theatre, television, music, film, comedy, and sports studies conceive of liveness  and live experience (to put it briefly: as with the close up, we are not united). While pretty much everyone puts a premium on ‘simultaneity’ (aside from music studies, to a certain extent), Barker suggests that the value of other factors such as ‘bodily co-presence’, ‘experienced risk’, ‘immediacy/spectatorial control’, and ‘sense of place’ vary across the disciplines. His quick summary doesn’t always convince or satisfy me (I don’t agree, for instance, that ‘a sense of place and locality … is largely ignored in theatre thinking’) (57-8), but still the survey is very helpful in challenging readers to look at these thorny issues across different artistic and entertainment forms, rather than always sticking to home territory. And his concluding remarks about what he calls ‘virtual performance studies’, i.e. varieties of digital art and performance, really struck me as important. Here he identifies how ‘liveness’ functions ‘not [as] a descriptive or normative concept, but [as] a tool and a goal. Its question appears to be not whether liveness is present, but how can we make people feel that it is?’ (58).

Such a proposition – that liveness may in fact be as much a kind of feeling as a particular geographical or temporal relationship – took me back to Philip Auslander’s categories of ‘liveness’ in his landmark book, and my own musings whether or not the power of liveness is down to its ability to make us feel ‘a-live’, and vividly part of something. One very effective way of doing this is through temporal and/or geographical co-presence with the event itself, but can the feeling be just as strong through temporal and/or geographical co-presence with other things, namely an audience or community? In his discussion of TV studies, Barker suggests that liveness can be created (or, more cynically, constructed) through the insertion of human reaction into editing sequences (47). Similarly, in his discussion of music studies, he notes how ‘The thing that makes the difference’ is ‘a sense of occasion, of audience collectivity, of ritual’ (53), and in comedy studies how ‘“liveness” can be as much about belonging to a locality and community as about physical presence per se’ (55). His final discussion of sports studies goes furthest of all; reflecting on the common practice of gathering in pubs to watch televised broadcasts of games, Barker observes how audiences may ‘generate a cultural context which they can then own and treat as “live”’ (57). Liveness, in this way, becomes much more about engagement, eventness, and feeling: ‘being there’ might be one powerful way of producing such experience, but what Barker’s survey begins to suggest is that there is more than one ‘there’.

Being there.

Chapter 5 continues in this vein, exploring how cinema audiences at theatre broadcasts characterize liveness themselves, and the conclusion is largely the same: ‘audiences communally produce new ways of “doing liveness”’ (71). Different kinds of audience members might want different things (Barker divides his respondents into what he calls ‘immersives’ and ‘experts’ (67)), but he suggests that for everyone part of the value and enjoyment of the broadcasts is the opportunity to celebrate not only the art on display but also the audience experiencing it together. They are ‘living’ such experiences, he suggests, and he further posits that ‘Thinking about the liveness of such events in this way would entail a wholesale re-theorisation of what we mean and intend by the concept’ (72).

Ultimately, that re-theorisation is not part of the scope of Barker’s study, which he characterizes at the outset as ‘a “come-on” to other researchers’ in the field rather than an exhaustive and definitive response (viii). In his final chapter he outlines a series of possible questions that those researchers might take up, but his invitation always remains an open and exploratory one. In this spirited and lively book he casts his net wide and brings together initial data, possibilities, and questions that should interest anyone working in this field, be they cultural theorists, sociologists, geographers, media specialists, or indeed performance scholars. As this review and response no doubt shows, for me his most exciting points are about the experiential and affective dimensions of liveness. But for others – who knows?

Shakespeare and the live broadcast — part 2 (in images + tweets)

What a week! Since my post last Wednesday (on Shakespeare and the live cast — part 1) I’ve been in virtual attendance at a one-day symposium on live theatre broadcasting in York, and then in physical attendance at the European Shakespeare Research Association conference in Worcester. In between I’ve caught a couple of installments of Forced Entertainment’s Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare, which is being live-broadcast from the Berliner Festspiele’s Foreign Affairs Festival, and also made it to a showing of Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at my local cinema. Keeping up with digital life is exciting but tiring. In lieu of a fleshed-out, narrative blog post, here are some pictures and tweets…

 

Forced Entertainment’s #completeworks
25 June – 4 July

 

Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
released 22 June

 

Live Theatre Broadcast Symposium
25 June

AND– you can get the full Storify here: https://storify.com/oj102/live-theatre-broadcast-symposium-25-june-2015

OR– watch the recording of the day here:

 

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!

Celebrating the digital — anniversaries

June for me means a series of mini-anniversaries. First, and smallest, is the six-month anniversary of this blog. I started it in December to set down some of my thoughts on digital broadcasts and I’m happy to say that my first post on the RSC’s Richard II has just come out as a print review in the journal Shakespeare Bulletin. An interesting inversion of the traditional print model, at least in academia where we tend to hold onto our work for a long time and to make sure the ‘original’ version is in a suitably authoritative and often very expensive publication. So I’m delighted to be able to share my work freely on sites like this one and www.ReviewingShakespeare.com while also having it included in excellent journals like Bulletin, which are collected around the world by Shakespeare libraries and research centers.

More significantly in terms of birthdays, this month also marks the five-year anniversary of the National Theatre Live. It was June 25th 2009 when the NT launched its first live broadcast to cinemas with its production of Phedre starring Helen Mirren (garnering no less than a five-star review from the Guardian‘s Michael Billington). Since then the broadcast programme has included around five NT productions a year, with additional offerings from the Donmar Theatre, the Manchester International Festival, and occasionally the West End. I think it’s fair to say that NTLive has fundamentally changed the theatrical landscape, with other initiatives such as the Globe on Screen, Digital Theatre, and RSC Live further adding to what we might call this new theatre ecology. It’s interesting to note how present Shakespeare has been in all of these broadcasting programmes, and also how dominant British theatre has been across the board. So what next?

Since 2009 I think we’ve also seen a major expansion of new forms of digital performance — while broadcasting (live or otherwise) remains at present the gold standard in terms of wider audience appeal, there have been new experiments in kinds of digital theatre making that might give us some insight into where the performing arts could be headed in the years to come. In a thought-provoking blog post at the end of 2013, Rachel Coldicutt questioned the idea that arts broadcasting should even be filed in that ever-growing dossier labelled new digital culture:

It is also surprising that cinema broadcast is repeatedly referred to as “new technology” when, according to Wikipedia, the first “live television” event was in 1929 and Regent Street cinema showed its first films in 1896 … the notion that a live stream of a performance is “born digital” is sophistry; like saying Strictly Come Dancing is “born digital” because analogue television no longer exists.

Coldicutt’s analysis exposes our confusion about how we define ‘the digital’ — Is it the content? Is it the platform? Is it both? And while I think she’s right to point out the fact that live broadcasts are an old and to some extent old-fashioned way of understanding the potential of technology to transform the arts, I still think they still deserve space within the discussion since they are one of the primary ways in which many arts patrons will begin to experience digital change (and in this sense I think I would say that digital vs analogue tv, radio, satellite relay is significant, if to a large extent functionally invisible — I couldn’t listen to Radio 6 otherwise). While this might just be a change of venue rather than of show, it is a change nonetheless and one that I think may mark a wider shift in creative processes, audience relationships, and artistic forms. If we think about the digital music revolution of the late 90s and early 00s, it’s significant that most people weren’t necessarily looking for radically new forms of music, but rather new ways of accessing it (though forms have of course changed too, thank you Autotune).

Remember these guys? Napster, 1999.

But new forms are important too, and if we are discussing them then we should also mark the one-year anniversary of the RSC’s Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, the most ambitious digital performance of Shakespeare I’ve yet to see. The project took place over midsummer weekend in 2013, mixing together an audience-generated collage of Midsummer materials on Google+, a more formalized digital stage in which new social media content commissioned by the RSC appeared alongside selected audience contributions, a series of site-specific and time-specific live performances of the play (including the performance of acts 2-4 at the RSC from 2.30-4am, culminating in the midsummer sunrise), and finally a Sunday wedding fete along the River Avon that included family games and an open performance of act 5.

Taken as a whole (and to be fair, few audience members probably did experience this multi-day, multi-platform performance as a whole), this festive production pushed all sorts of boundaries. It invited audiences to explore the play itself through bits of live performance uploaded to YouTube (see one of my clips below), to riff on its themes of love, nature, and madness through audience sharing on Google+, and to think about the extended world of the play through new, playful content created from the point of view of Bottom’s mum or the snails, fairies, and beagles in Athens and the surrounding forests.

It was at once resolutely in-time and immersive, as anyone who went to the small 2.30am performance will tell you, while also being committed to being open and out of time through the online audience platforms that you could dip in and out of over three days. I loved its scale and vision, even if ultimately it might have been too much for one person to navigate. Most pilots start small and then scale up — if anything this project went big and future versions might want to scale down. But it did start to show us the many different possibilities for where digital performance might choose to go, a topic to which I’ll return in the next few days.

The curse of Lear? — NTLive, 2011 and 2014

Macbeth is the Shakespearean play actors and directors are most superstitious about, but I wonder if Lear might be gaining on the ol’ Scottish play as far as live recordings go? The most famous instance of technical mishap in other otherwise fairly seamless NTLive series remains Michael Grandage’s 2011 production of King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse, starring Derek Jacobi. I didn’t see it, but in a much discussed snafu the picture transmission went dead at one point, leaving cinema audiences listening to the production but looking at a black screen. The stage manager eventually had to come on and stop the performance while the technical team fixed the satellite link, at which point the company took the scene again from the top. The incident caught people’s attention not so much for the technical failure in and of itself (surely things like this are bound to happen at some point), but rather for the way it raised questions about who the primary audience really is in a live theatre relay. We might imagine that the ‘real’ audience during a broadcast remains the couple of hundred people live and present in the theatre, but in fact doesn’t it have to be — and indeed shouldn’t it be — the several thousand people live and present in the cinema?

This past Thursday the NTLive series featured another King Lear, this time produced by the National itself and featuring director Sam Mendes and actor Simon Russell Beale back together again in a continuation of their longstanding Shakespearean partnership. I found a lot to like in this production — in particular Beale’s very naturalistic, even medicalized interpretation of Lear’s madness, and Kate Fleetwood’s stunning realization of Goneril’s barbed vulnerability — but I want to briefly reflect on this production’s own set of technical hiccups. They were in no way as significant as the 2011 incident mentioned above, but they still produced moments in which the broadcast drew attention to itself as a filmic mediation, chiefly due to a few instances of things going wrong.

The first happened during Kent’s altercation with Oswald (I think in 2.1 outside of Gloucester’s, rather than 1.4 at Goneril’s, but I’m still getting used to taking notes in very dark cinemas…). Somehow Kent’s body mic must have been moved or damaged in the stage fight, resulting in a heavy sound distortion and crackling that producers quickly switched off. The sound mix was as a result much quieter for a short period of time following this, though I wouldn’t say that it significantly impeded the ability of the cinema audience to engage with the production. I did wonder though if this hitch caught the production team off guard and led to the problems that followed, or if it was all just coincidence. When Lear and the Fool arrived at Gloucester’s castle to find Kent in the stocks, the Fool sat with Kent at the bottom of a demagogic statue of Lear for some of their bantery lines. The camera started to pan beyond the two of them (perhaps thinking that the Fool was going to move that way?), then hesitated, and then zoomed from mid-shot to wide-shot very suddenly, getting everyone centered and back in view. Later in the same scene, when Lear pleaded with Regan over her involvement in Kent’s punishment and his own treatment in his daughters’ households (‘No, Regan, thou shalt never have my curse…’), the camera again started to pan in one direction, halted, then scooted back quickly in the other. And finally, in the production’s harrowing, closing scene, some body mic trouble re-emerged as Lear pulled Cordelia’s lifeless body to him, muffling and thumping the sound of his final speech in the process.

I’d say these were all small moments of confusion, though, and if anything they served to remind audiences that these broadcasts are indeed live, and vulnerable to occasional difficulties. They really didn’t bother me — in fact, I found the confused camera pans strangely endearing — but I have noticed people talking about them in the aftermath of the broadcast, which has in turn meant more discussion of the broadcast itself as a technical and creative event (rather than as a transparent medium through which the theatre production is realized).

My personal opinion is that the overall broadcast was not that dissimilar from the other NTLive work I’ve seen — at the risk of banging on about the same point in these posts, I found that the camera work frequently divided the staging up more than I’d like, using mid-shots and close-ups to push us into a particular character’s finely detailed psychological world but at the expense of cutting other important exchanges and spacial relationships out. When Lear started to deliver his ‘I am ashamed / That thou hast power to shake my manhood thus…’ speech in Goneril’s home, it was not clear to me until nearly the end of the speech that his daughter was still on the stage. When Edgar told us that his ‘country gives [him] proof and precedent / Of Bedlam beggars’ wandering the countryside, we could vaguely spy a crowd of destitute men emerging in the background, no doubt composed from this production’s very ample cast, but any larger scenic effect was lost. And when the storm on the heath finally shook Lear’s world, the camera divided up the exchanges between the different characters in a way that made the composite use of the stage very hard to imagine — in my notes I jotted down that the ‘camera work breaks the stage apart, turns it into a set’.

Still, there were moments of brilliant composition that I wouldn’t trade. The close-up on Lear and Gloucester in the Dover scene, when Lear finally addressed his companion soberly and directly (‘I know thee well enough; thy name is Gloucester’), allowed us to witness the full range of Stephen Boxer/Gloucester’s devastating reaction. In a very different mode, the crane shot that swooped down to Gloucester as he stood on the ‘cliff’ was absolutely stunning — it offered a sense of the vertiginous beauty and terror that we might imagine while reading the scene, but that can be very difficult to create on the stage. Though I haven’t yet seen this Lear on stage at the National, I’d wager that the filmic very likely exceeded the staged in these moments — but I’ll refrain from speculating any more until I have the chance to test this hypothesis at the end of this month.

I suppose what I’m saying overall is that this Lear showed the kinds of strengths and weaknesses that for me have been present in other NTLive broadcasts, but also that its more explicit technical hitches brought attention to it as a broadcast in a way that I think is productive. Like the 2011 Lear showing (re-edited for Encore performances and also the NT archive), it offers us an interesting case of how these broadcasts work, not just in the filming itself but also in the reaction to it.

Digital Theatre, Henry IV, and the Globe Style

So far my reflections on filmed theatre in this blog have concerned themselves centrally with live cinema broadcasts – but looking around online, in iMDB, in iTunes, and the like it’s very clear that many other forms of theatre-as-film exist for the viewing these days. One major player is Digital Theatre, a London media company that since 2009 has offered high quality, high definition recordings of major theatre, ballet, and opera productions for purchase and download. Amidst Digital Theatre’s current offering are about a dozen Shakespeare productions, including work from the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Liverpool Everyman, the Almeida, and most significantly Shakespeare’s Globe.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays recently, not least because the RSC has just begun an 8-month run of its newest productions of them, so I thought it would be interesting to go back in time, as it were, and have a look at the Globe’s very well regarded productions of these plays from 2010. I never saw them live myself – 2010 was the year of finishing my PhD, finding a job, getting married – but several of my friends and colleagues did and they’ve become a frequent reference point for talking about the ways the Henry IV  plays draw the audience into their world, most centrally through the character of Falstaff (played here by the wonderfully mischievous Roger Allam). So, the question is, how did this work on film?

Very well, I’d say. As with NTLive and RSC live, multiple cameras are used throughout (I counted six cameramen in the final credits, and that seems about right in terms of variety of angles offered in the films), but the work these cameras did seemed noticeably different to me. First and foremost, the shots are fairly fixed, occasionally tracking with an actor but avoiding the sweeps and pans that characterize (or at least punctuate) the broadcasts I’ve seen of late.

Although I don’t know for sure, I suspect this is partly due to technical set-up. Images of the audience are a frequent, and VERY WELCOME fixture in these films, with fringes of the groundlings almost constantly in view when we’re not in close-up (in fact many shots are framed in a way that looks like they are coming from a groundling spectator). Longer shots from what looks like the top gallery and (less frequently) the back of the pit show not only the full stage but also a very large proportion of the house and the audience that fills it, and it struck me that I never spotted a camera within these shots (although I must admit I wasn’t looking too hard). If audience space was blocked off to accommodate technical equipment, this must have been in the seated sections of the theatre and kept to a minimum, meaning I would suppose that the equipment was rather different than that used in the NT and RSC gigs. I certainly didn’t see any evidence of a camera crane in the house itself or in the kinds of shots offered in the films, and in this case I felt that the final product was the better for it.

That’s not to say that cranes and the shots they produce don’t have a place in theatre broadcasting, but rather that great things can be done without them – and perhaps especially in a theatrical space like the Globe. The Henry IV films certainly use mid-shots and close-ups, but only after setting the scene with wider shots of not just the stage but also the whole house. And in distinction I think to the RSC Richard II, which similarly attended to this kind of theatrical framing at the start and end of scenes, the Globe films returned frequently to wider pictures within the scenes themselves. As I’ve already mentioned, these shots were relatively stationary, occasionally panning a little bit with a particular character, with wider shots being used instead for group scenes so that the characters in them walked through the picture, rather than the picture moving with them.

More filmic techniques were limited to gradual zooms on a particular character while he gave a speech – I started to notice this especially towards the end of Part 2, for instance during Falstaff’s ode to sack after his scene with Prince John, which went from a full-length shot of Allam onstage to a head and shoulders shot that allowed us closer access to Allam’s surprisingly tender delivery of the line, ‘If I had a thousand sons…’ We saw this technique soon again when the King received the ‘happy news’ of the supressed rebellion, quickly overshadowed by the pains of his rapidly failing health, as well as during the mournful lines Hal speaks by his father’s deathbed. Very occasionally we also encountered more overtly self-conscious camera and editorial work, including the use of a divided, triptych-like screen at the start of each film, which offered sidelong views of the house to the left and right and scenes of the show to come in the centre. And at the end of Hal’s ‘I know you all’ speech in 1.2 of Part 1, the camera view receded to a wide-angled, upward shot of the Globe’s wooden ‘O’, offering a striking visual evocation of the experience of being in this atmospheric, open air space on a London summer night.

photo

But for the most part these moments that drew attention to the film as film were very few, and while I liked the more filmic touches I also appreciated the quiet, understated manner in which the productions were shot. They certainly backed off in the way I found myself wishing for in the Donmar Coriolanus, and the constant inclusion of the audience helped establish for me not only a feeling of the ‘theatrical’ as I watched these productions four years later from my iPad at home, but also added considerably to my experience of the individual performances, which were frequently audience-oriented — and nowhere more so than in the case of Allam’s Falstaff. These were without a doubt his shows. While Jamie Parker did an excellent job of bringing to life a winsome, loveable, if unconfident and eager-to-please Hal, Allam commanded not only the stage but also the whole theatre with his vivacious, incorrigible chancer of a Falstaff.

Like many of the Globe productions I’ve seen, these Henry IVs frequently, sometimes strenuously played Shakespeare’s lines for laughs, even within potentially serious or more poignant scenes such as Hotspur’s first encounter with Henry IV in Part 1 or Shallow’s reflections in the orchard in Part 2. But the ribaldry started to disappear towards the end of Part 2, with Allam’s Falstaff letting slip the odd glance of regret as the fun of Eastcheap, and of youth, began to fade from view. Things had changed, not only because Harry was spending more time in the court and less in the tavern, but much more importantly because time changes us all, whether we like it or not.

That said, to be able to look back in time in my own way to these productions at the Globe was certainly a treat. I’ll be thinking of them when I go to see the RSC’s Henrys this summer in the theatre and the cinema. The plays themselves offer an interesting take on what it means to be caught in two worlds, to be in time and out of time — something that increasingly interests me in terms of the digital. And while both sets of productions have been firmly period in terms of setting and costume, I think they have something important to say to us now about how identity is shaped by the ways in which we mediate between self and society everyday.