Tag Archives: RSC 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.

rsc2

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.

pw2

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.