I guess we’re going to have to deal with this filmed theatre thing

It’s an inevitability, I suppose. When we’re all talking about how to save theatre, how to adapt theatre to the persistent technological climate change that all the kids are gettin’ down with, about how to reach new audiences and turn them on to that old thing we love…it comes up. Invariably.

“We could film it and put it on the internet.”

The crew over at the promising new Verb Theatre blog recently posted about a new British site called “Digital Theatre” (a term already in use in progressive theatre practices, btw), which offers access to high-quality filmed versions of plays  (that have already closed) for about 15 buck a pop, promising: “…multiple camera angles and high-definition technology to bring you closer to the drama and emotion of each production.” There it is. So the question becomes: for theatre, is closer close enough?

I jumped into the comments section pretty readily, I always have a strong emotional reaction to this topic for some reason. It makes me feel a bit fuddy-duddy actually, and perhaps it is some puritanical, romantic notion that I can’t shake. But it would probably be the only regressive opinion I hold on new theatre. I feel – have always felt – that theatre only works when you and your audience share the same physical space, I believe that’s what makes it unique and a thing of wonder, and where theatre’s unique ability to pierce right into the centre of you comes from. And I believe in film as an artistic medium too, it has a beauty and a power and a language all its own that should be respected, what do we really gain from a hybrid of the two? Is it a new art form unto itself? And if it is, where does its power lie?

A caveat: I look at this question – as I always do – from an audience-building perspective. Does this help get the uninitiated into the stalls? Is this solely an insiders endeavor? The theatre nerd in me gets giddy at the prospect of seeing theatre that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to because of geography. I had the honour and delight of watching the performance and production of a great friend I’ve never met face-to-face (because of geography) when his company tried an experiment in live-streaming theatre. I was rapt and over the moon, but I still felt in the end that it was a beggar’s banquet, and that I didn’t get the full impact of the artists and the art form. That I was watching something other than the audience members who got to be in the room. Is that the marketing pitch for it right there? I honestly don’t know.

This is the crux of the thing here, from my rant on Verb:

The big challenge, the really big challenge faced by theatre as an art form right now is that while all the other disciplines are rapidly becoming cheaper and easier to work in, live performance remains untouched by technology. Writers blog and self-publish, musicians can cut CDs on a mac, digital painting is indiscernible from oils. But venue and performer fees remain the same, there’s no download (outside of the tech booth, but that’s a component, not the art) that’s going to help us memorize lines and discover intention and project. I think we should use this one great uniqueness in the wide and wonderful world of art to our advantage and press it as a selling point, instead of offering watered-down versions of our art to the rest of the world.

But is this way off base? Seriously, am I being a fuddy-duddy? Is this the way we’re going to co-opt the internet to move us forward? Or to put it another way:  just because we can, does that mean we should? Thoughts?


  1. Nah, you’re not a fuddy-duddy, Simon. I’m with you on this (though I will note that the term fuddy-duddy doesn’t help your cause).

    As a follow-up to my post on the Verb site, I thought I should mention that I eventually did decide to give the Digital Theatre program a try. Here is a brief journal of that experience:

    I decided that the first show I would download would be Kafka’s Monkey; the trailer posted on the site piqued my interested, and if nothing else, it would give me something fun to write about for Verb’s blog. Once I went through the payment process, it took a while to download. Probably close to an hour. No instant gratification here. Once downloaded, I dimmed the lights in my house (standby light cue 1…go) and hit play.

    My first impressions of the medium were high. The variety of camera angles made the experience a lot like watching a film. It was dynamic and fun! I really enjoyed the play! At the end of the production, as the credits rolled (no program in my lap, I’m afraid), I sat for a moment trying to gauge my reaction. I had enjoyed it…but something was missing.

    The thing that was missing (I think) was the magic. We often talk about the magic of theatre, with little thought as to what that actually is. But the magic of theatre IS theatre. Yes, it’s live, and yes I truly missed the audience camaraderie and the ability to reach out and touch a performer (in the show, she reaches out and touches us!), but there is more. Simply put, the show was not complete. It felt a lot like reading a playscript or listening to piece of a play on the radio: you’re only getting PART of it.

    So, in response to your question about what will get NEW audience members into the theatre, I guess I would say this: this is not the medium to achieve that goal. BUT, if you are a theatre-maker, theatre-producer, etc., then watching a Digital Theatre production is a lot like reading a script or looking at production stills. It’s educational. It keeps you up to date on what’s happening around the world. It gives you a taste of the visual and aural possibilities out there. It cannot, however, be a substitute for the real thing, and I would not recommend it to anyone outside the industry.

    Thanks for your post, Simon!


    So here’s the thing.
    You absolutely miss something in translation. Especially in our case with an intense production where part of the show is the inescapability. Especially with a cro-magnon one camera back of the room audio setup we used for Orestes.

    But you saw it!
    We can talk about it.
    You have an idea of what it is I do, and how I present it.

    Not getting all of it doesn’t make it not valuable.

    Seeing a bootleg of an on-line friends recent show allowed me to gauge their ability (versus what they say their ability is) and I get the confirmation that they really DO know what they’re talking about.

    But as to the crux:
    Unlike bringing a movie down off the Really Big screen with great sound, to a Pretty Big screen with Good sound (but no extra people) there’s *no way* to actually recreate our art at home via download.

    We’re not really giving in and giving away our product on line because being in the room is an inherent part of the product, not a bonus.

    All we’re doing is allowing those folks who0 are on the fence about it a chance to see what we’re doing in terms other than the Grant Language or Press Release Language that has made theatre the Brussels Sprouts of the performing arts world.

  3. Ah, there you see, I knew it. I’m turning into my father.

    Jamie, thanks for that report, that’s pretty much what I expected it to be. Being, candy for the choir. I’m serious when I say I love the idea as a theatre nerd. And thanks again for the post on it.

    Trav – the fencers are my main concern in a nutshell. We talk a lot about the internet being a silver bullet to theatre marketing – as in when our potential audience has a fleeting moment of piqued interest and does a little googly exploration we have to be ready for them to ensnare their imagination (or whatever). So doesn’t the misrepresentation of the experience of theatre on film on internet player run the risk of making the whole thing undercooked Brussels Sprouts?

    Does it get more palatable the higher the quality? Or do we just have to say that any efforts we make in this regard is for us alone in the manner you describe?

  4. I’m just going to throw in my agreement with Jamie. Yes, for theatre artists watching a filmed version of a play can be beneficial – a good substitute if you can’t make it out to a live production but want to get the idea for what the play could look like on stage.

    A fence-sitter, on the other hand, would get the exact wrong idea of what theatre is all about from a filmed production. Performances that are magical and engaging live become stale, melodramatic, or just lame. It just might increase our Brussel Sprout status.

    That said, the Metropolitan Opera has had amazing success with filming their productions and showing them in movie theatres internationally. I think their success is a combination of incredibly high budget (and as a result incredibly high production values) and the heightened nature of opera – people expect everything to be bigger, bolder, and a lot more melodramatic.

  5. When a writer writes for the theater, it’s with the understanding that the audience will be ‘x’ number of feet away… when writing for the cinema, it’s with the understanding that they are ‘x’ number of *inches* away.

    They are totally separate mediums for a reason… in my opinion, filming entire theatrical endeavors is not a viable entertainment medium, but possible a good way to learn and teach.

    Filming for the purposes of marketing, however, it another story.

  6. This whole Digital theatre idea is a pretty big leap, and so abrupt I understand how it gets us feeling like our backs are against the wall and all of us self-proclaimed theatre nerds can rally and generally dismiss it. But, what if the shift isn’t black and white, what if we start paying attention to the grey.

    Here’s a fun coincidence that I’ll use to make my point; directly below this post lambasting theatre that is filmed is a blog post about The Electric Company, a brilliant THEATRE company, calling for hundreds of FILM extras for their upcoming theatre/film event. In a few days I’m also going to see TEC’s film/theatre hybrid of No Exit here in Calgary, as well as eagerly waiting ATP’s playRites production of Highest Step in the World, another theatre/projection hybrid. So already some of the most exciting theatre is incorporating film, why is it such a stretch for theatre to be filmed? I agree, it doesn’t work for every play, and may even ruin some plays, but I think it stands to reason that the more we see film and projection being incorporated into live performance successfully we’ll see the reverse happen too.

  7. See where this would have been easier if you had Disqus enabled I I could have left a video comment? ;)

    I don’t think filmed theatre is at all useful for theatre-illeterate viewing. I don’t think filmed theatre is a replacement for (y’know) THEATRE, I actually lean toward not even leaving archived video of Cambiare shows up because it’s not an accurate portrayal of what we’re working for…

    But I think that streaming out of the theatre and you experiencing the 50% theatre WITH AN AUDIENCE. Is something better than nothing? For me, yes.

    280 people saw Orestes in the room. Another 45 or so saw it (or parts of it) streamed. For a company as new as ours? That’s huge. For a company trying to build credibility? Huge.

    Doesn’t change what we need to do in the room. But if it doesn’t change the experience for the people in the room or the performers why would you NOT do it? Simply because it’s not The Best Way To Experience It?

    That’s not good enough for me.

  8. Hey Col, thanks for weighing in. Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here, I’m not troubled in the least by the act of filming theatre per se, just by the presentation of it in that form. I actually love and am very excited about multi-media productions, the Electrics are a perfect example. I linked them in the lambasting (god, I love that word) article for that reason, actually.

    I’ve also been working a lot with the use of film and the Internet for play trailers. That’s a tricky one, how do you tease something in a medium suited best to live performance, while remaining true to the form? It’s an awesome creative challenge. I think there’s a site out there that aggragates them, but I can’t find it right now.

    Trav – I get it, and I love that you’re doing it – I love when anyone tries something new – it’s just such a big gamble marketing-wise. But ballsy, the confidence it shows in your product just might be the linchpin of the whole debate, and how it is such a pristine example of the social marketing school of thought: this is us, for free, take it or leave it.

  9. Two things:
    I don’t see it as a huge risk marketing-wise… if a production isn’t ready to be broadcast you just… don’t. It’s more an artifact than the product itself to use the language Keenan/Ashworth have been using.

    And it’s a long term thing, not really for this show.

    And I wish to amend your final statement:
    “how it is such a pristine example of the social marketing school of thought: this is us, for free, join in the discussion!”

    We’ve gotten plenty of no comments and ‘how-did-you-learn-all-those-lines’ from the on-line community. And I get that. It wasn’t our most polished work. But it also give a different stake in our work to everyone who took part, and the notes I got from folks were AMAZING.

    This is what it’s like to be working a few doors down in a theatre complex.

    Now that I’ve totally derailed the discussion…. BACK TO THEATRE-FLIX!

  10. Hmm… I’m a bit torn on this one.

    I don’t like the idea of filming a show, other than for archival purposes, unless you can film them in a way like Digital Theatre.

    The reason is a steady wide shot just does not do a theatrical event justice. And it’s in no way going to please anyone who isn’t already a theater die hard.

    I do agree that you’re still going to lose something in the translation even if the quality is better.

    But I think that’s the point.

    You’re going to lose something which is why you need to go there. And that’s probably more of what we need to focus on. You must be in the theater to experience theater.

    At the end of the day that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it?

    On the other hand there’s something interesting about being able to see a production you wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise. And I think the people watching these videos would be theater people already. People that understand they’re missing something.

    I’m not sure if it’s for a casual audience member.

    It’s a way to add a memento to the occasion for the fan.

    I like the idea of seeing a show live and then being able to buy a copy of a show I really enjoyed to watch again. And perhaps share with someone who wouldn’t normally go to the theater.

    Which I’m sure would be prefaced with, “This is nothing like being there.”

    I remember seeing the Pixies at Coachella one year. You were able to purchase a sound board recording of the performance.

    Again not exactly the same as the live thing. Or theater.

    But interesting in the fact that the people who would buy them are the die hard fans. And it provides and additional revenue stream for the artists.

    So I don’t know. I think there’s potential in it.

  11. I think it essentially comes down to this: it’s not going to bring LESS people in.
    We’re never going to REGRET making theatre more accessible and available.
    We’re never going to wish we HADN’T provided companies with a chance to make some extra revenue after a production has closed, or to, at the very least, allow others to view and comment on it.
    And, as theatre artists, we’ll always benefit from the chance to see productions of a work we couldn’t see for ourselves.
    So, really, speaking pragmatically, why not?
    There’s always the sizeable chance that whatever is considered “missing” from the digital version of the event would actually convince people to, next time, make an effort to see it for real.
    Creatures that can’t adapt to their environment are the ones that go extinct. I don’t think it’s any different for an art-form.

  12. That’s actually the crux of my argument here Jesse, I do think that filmed theatre is going to bring less people in. Specifically less potential audience members. Most of the general public don’t go to see plays. Ever. They have a pre-determined image in their heads that theatre is an inferior form of entertainment than what they pay money for now. So trying to convince them otherwise and grow our audience is hard enough without proving to them that they’re right by putting out inferior reproductions of our work in a medium that is not the one we’re selling.

    This is a marketing argument. Us, the converted, benefiting from seeing productions of a work we couldn’t see for ourselves is an artistic argument, one that I’ve stated that I agree with. But I already love theatre.

    We need to be communicating with our actual, live audiences more, and letting them comment directly, not distancing ourselves from them even more. We need to be spending our precious time and resources on making our actual product as good as it should be to keep people coming back time after time.

    The internet is not our environment, the theatre is. And theatre is not going to become extinct, it’s been around literally forever. Adapting web technologies to our art form means using it as a communication tool to help spread the word, not using it as a kind of beggar’s banquet for the actual experience.

    So that’s where I disagree with you, I most certainly would regret putting a radically inferior quality reproduction of my work out into the world. I think it does more harm than good. From a marketing perspective.

    1. I understand all your opinions here, but I have to say I think you’re missing quite a big point: not everyone can actually AFFORD to see these shows. As well as the fact that 90% of them stay in London and a lot of people can’t get down to London.

      I think Digital Theatre, though it has started with a bit of a fizzle, could be a valuable resource for people who can’t afford to make that trip down to see the show. But I mainly think they should be filming new work. New scripts. I don’t really see much point in selling a filmed Shakespeare, unless it’s an incredibly popular production, as Big Will’s work is produced constantly up and down the country. But perhaps a new show, something like Jerusalem, which is scooping up every five star review and award under the sun, would be a good show to put up on there. Of course, anyone watching it will know that they’re not getting the thrill of sitting in the audience, or the magic of seeing the great performances in front of your eyes; but for a drama student up north with no money who just hears again and again how incredible it is, being able to see a filmed show might really be appreciated.

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