Tag Archives: NT Live

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.

globe

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.

globe 2

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.

rsc

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).

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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!

Call for Papers – Digital Shakespeare

Next year I’ll be co-organizing a seminar on ‘Digital Shakespeare’ for the World Shakespeare Congress in Stratford-upon-Avon and London, 31 July – 6 August 2016, along with the fabulous Penelope Woods (University of Western Australia), Siobhan Keenan (De Montfort University), and Suzanne Westfall (Lafayette College).

The WSC happens once every five years and next year’s installment will truly be a special one, given that 2016 is also the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death. The conference theme is ‘Creating and Re-creating Shakespeare’, and our seminar will look at the ways in which digital culture and technology is reshaping both the experience and study of Shakespearean performance today. Registration for the conference, and for seminars, is now open, so if the description below tempts you, please do sign up for our session.

 

 

Digital Shakespeare: Audiences and Scholars

The digital age has offered new opportunities and challenges for creators and performers of Shakespeare and has recalibrated the position and autonomy of audiences in performance. The 21st -century technological explosion has also increased the availability of theatrical records and commentaries, encouraging us to contemplate how pedagogy is changing, and how online resources such as Somerset and MacLean’s pioneering Patrons and Performances database may be used by wider communities to reflect on the early Shakespearean stage. This seminar invites papers interested in the influence of digital media and technologies on the modern performance and reception of Shakespeare around the world and/or that reflect on the digital ‘turn’ in early modern theatre history and its implications for future research on Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Participants in the seminar might explore the nature and impact of live theatre broadcasting projects such as NT Live, Globe on Screen, or RSC Live; the creative use of digital technology on stage; social media and gaming technologies; the development and value of existing online databases and digital resources for early modern theatre history such as REED (Records of Early English Drama); and the challenges of using /developing online theatre history research resources now and in the future.

 

 

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.

The money question

Very interesting article below about the challenges of financing a theatre broadcasting project (courtesy of John Wyver and his blog at Illuminations Media).

Call me naive, but I would have assumed that commercial theatre (i.e. Broadway and the West End) would be better equipped to capitalize on new financial ventures such as live broadcasting. But this piece from the New York Times — ‘Off Off Off Broadway (at Your Multiplex)’ — suggests that this isn’t the case. On the contrary, established arts institutions like the Met Opera and the National Theatre have both the cultural heft and long-term structure to be able to develop an in-house broadcasting programme and to keep it supplied with a steady stream of productions:

    ‘The scattershot attempts to follow National Theater Live and the Met suggest that there is still plenty of head scratching about the financial and philosophical issues behind the idea of canning Broadway for mass consumption.
    Julie Borchard-Young, who along with her husband, Robert Borchard-Young, runs BY Experience, said the sheer institutional might of companies like the Met and the National made the process far easier to navigate than it would be for an individual Broadway producer. Ms. Borchard-Young, who knew the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, from his days at Sony Classical, was the one who initiated conversations about bringing opera to the movie-theater masses.
    “Broadway is not a single unified institution that can do all the legwork to prepare the marketplace,” she said. “Also, the serial nature is important. When you have a series of productions, everything from marketing to other costs are easier to handle.”’

The other point the article makes are the manifold challenges of negotiating artists’ contracts and associated financial rights — something I’ve heard reiterated in smaller-scale digital projects as well.

Unsurprisingly the question of money is a very, very important one, and one that perhaps we hear far too little of. How much does it cost to produce a live broadcast, and to what extent are those costs recouped through cinematic and DVD/download distribution?