Tag Archives: Shakespeare Bulletin

What I did this summer

Summer has officially been and gone, and almost as if on cue the leaves here in Stratford have started to redden and fall. A new cohort of students has arrived, and just three days into the term it feels as if they’ve always been here. The only difference is that I’m on study leave this term, observing all these changes from my window rather than being in the middle of things.

Life at the Shakespeare Institute

For this precious term of leave I of course have many research goals, and hopefully I’ll be writing more about some of them on this blog in the months to come. But for now I thought it might be helpful to look back at what I’ve been working on this summer, not least because taking stock often helps me focus my mind as to what comes next.

While my blogging over the summer has been woefully thin, my academic writing has, happily, been much more fulsome. (I did win a readers’ award for my blog in July though! Official badge below.) Earlier this year I finally wrote up a long article on cinema broadcasts of Shakespeare productions, and I’m very happy to say that the finished version will soon appear in Shakespeare Bulletin as ‘”The Forms of Things Unknown”: Shakespeare and the Rise of the Live-Broadcast’. In many ways this article is the direct result of the thinking that I’ve been doing on this blog for the past four years, so it’s especially gratifying to be able to announce its forthcoming publication here.

In addition to this I’ve also been working on a chapter for an essay collection on Shakespeare and live-broadcasting edited by Pascale Aebischer, Susanne Greenhalgh, and Laurie Osborne, which will come out with Arden next year. My chapter, ‘The Audience is Present: Aliveness, Social Media, and the Theatre Broadcast Experience’, analyses a large set of tweets from two 2016 broadcasts and uses them to make a case for the importance of experiential ‘aliveness’, which I suggest is related to, but ultimately distinct from, the more familiarly debated concept of ‘liveness’. Both pieces have been a pleasure to work on and I’m very excited to at last be publishing research on both the formal and experiential dimensions of theatre live-broadcasting.

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The NT Live team filming Lyndsey Turner and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican – back for encore screenings in a couple of weeks.

But what next? Well, I am certainly planning to write at least one, and hopefully two, chapters of my book on Shakespeare and digital performance over the next six months. The one I know that I’ll be tackling is chapter 2, on live recordings and broadcasts, which is a no-brainer considering how much work I’ve already been doing on the topic over the last year (and more). The other one is less certain: it could be chapter 3, on digital or ‘intermedial’ dramaturgies, or it could in fact be chapter 1, on theories of digital performance. I had originally intended to write that one last, since it needs to encompass all of the issues covered in the book’s more practical chapters, but having had a go at theorizing ‘a/liveness’ in the aforementioned edited collection essay, as well as on this blog, I’ve begun to realize that doing some of the abstract work before the applied work is more possible, and productive, than I originally thought.

As I attempt to work all this out, I’m still trying to experience as many digital projects and productions as possible. That means a large helping of theatre broadcasts screened here in Stratford, but also as many digital things as I can muster when I’m on the road. At the start of September my family and I finally had our summer vacation, which we spent exploring Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. During that time I was lucky enough to catch two very exciting and very different digital engagements with the arts. The first was the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and Google Cultural Institute’s ‘Bruegel: Unseen Masterpieces’ exhibit, which explores three Bruegel paintings through an immersive film installation. I had already experienced part of the project through Google’s online feature, and in particular its 360º-enabled video for Google cardboard (the video in the link above automatically displays in 360º when you watch it on a VR/Cardboard viewer). In person in Brussels I was delighted to be able to see the full version of the project, a digitally enhanced video projected onto three walls, which illuminated dozens of details in the painting and proved a richly beautiful aesthetic experience in its own right (and my companion agreed!). The project illustrated the value of remediation in a powerful way: this wasn’t just about creating digital copies that could be accessed more widely, but rather about using digital technology to open up existing works of art in a way that might deepen our appreciation of them.

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‘Bruegel: Unseen Masterpieces’ in Brussels and at home

When we got to the Netherlands, things got a bit more theatrical: in Amsterdam we were able to see Simon Stone’s adaptation of Medea for Toneelgroep Amsterdam, a company that we and pretty much everyone else in the theatre universe has grown to admire. As is often the case with the group’s productions, live video featured prominently. In this drastically updated version, the two young sons of Anna (Medea) and Lucas (Jason) are making a video of their (steadily deteriorating) family life. On the white box stage, the video feed from the boys’ camera frequently appeared, zooming in on the strain, surprise, and sometimes happiness that crossed their parents’ faces. More abstract, non-diegetic footage, usually filmed from a bird’s-eye view of the stage, also flashed onto the backdrop at times, giving audiences a heady, out-of-body take on the explosive tragedy that we all knew would unfold. As is often the case with live video on stage, the camera simultaneously objectified and personalized its subjects, pinning them helplessly within its frame while also illuminating otherwise hidden traces of their inner lives. Like with the Bruegel exhibit, ‘unseen’ details of Euripides’s ‘masterpiece’ came forcefully into view, both through Stone’s engrossing adaptation and the camera’s penetrating gaze. And I think that’s where I’ll leave things for now: tech as microscope, at once distancing us from ‘originals’ and yet drawing us more deeply in.


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.