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Features Published 13 February 2017

Why theatre needs to love film, not fear it

As cinema, TV broadcasts and online streaming offer more and more ways to watch performance, Alice Saville asks why the theatre world is so slow to embrace the potential of film.
Alice Saville
Beware of Pity at the Barbican

Beware of Pity at the Barbican

As an unpromising mix of snow, rain, and quasi-apocalyptic world events make going outside feel less tempting than ever, theatre has chucked a few treats our way. The Barbican is livestreaming the Complicite and Schaubuhne co-production of Beware of Pity (watch it here, until Feb 26). Or to outfire Norway’s 12-hour logburning broadcast, you can watch all 15 hours of Wagner’s ring cycle on BBC iPlayer.

When you throw in cinema screenings of big hit shows (the Royal Ballet’s Woolf Works, the Donmar’s St Joan) it feels like we’re living in a bit of an egalitarian, golden age of free culture. Lord Reith would be rubbing his hands with glee at this surge of subsidised mass education (if not necessarily the actual content). And a side effect of this joyous, pretty recent embrace of livestreaming technology is that (in theory) everyone gets to have an opinion. Not just Londoners who are quick-witted/deep-pocketed enough to sign up for fast-selling out tickets, not just first-string theatre critics, not just industry people.

So it feels a bit churlish to complain. But what I can’t help squirming at (in my otherwise very-comfortable-indeed Odeon seat) is how top-down it all feels. With a few exceptions, livestreaming is confined to the mega-hit shows – the ones that tens of thousands of people already get to see. There’s the Royal Opera House, the National Theatre, the Barbican: rarified temples of culture supplemented by the pretty tiny, pretty dull lineup of pay-per-view theatre streaming at digitaltheatre.com .

In the art world, grassroots artists leapt on digital media, turning DeviantArt and then Instagram into ways to magnify their communities from ant hills to digital citadels. In fashion, livestreaming of runway shows has blown a secretive industry wide open, and vloggers have been able to champion plus size fashion and self-expression. And this all started while the big players were still thumbing their noses at the internet. But in theatre, there’s been a real slowness to embrace digital media as a way to share work, as well as just market it. Livestreaming is a kind of grand gesture, made by venues that can afford it. Sometimes, it borders on cultural diplomacy: look at the BBC making Wagner’s Ring Cycle free to livestream, in its entirety, to worldwide audiences, as our right-wing valkyries ride to political power. These venues aren’t letting online distribution shake up the way they make work. They’re just handing it out, in a kind of digital cultural largesse – and like all charitable gestures, they don’t expect the recipients’ voices to be heard (hashtags excepted).

Edward Watson and Natalia Osipova in Woolf Works

Edward Watson and Natalia Osipova in Woolf Works

I saw Woolf Works at Leicester Square Odeon last week – it was an incredible opportunity to take a chance on contemporary ballet, and the dance itself left me reeling. But the way they framed it smacked of live telly broadcasts: awkward presenting from Darcy Bussell, simpering in front of a costume rail, clunky shots of lamps and unsuspecting audience members, an implausibly cosy reading of a Virginia Woolf passage by Dame Maggie Smith. It was a stark contrast to the un-cosiness of Wayne McGregor’s choreography – as spiky and unclassifiable as Woolf’s Works.

Internet livestreams (the mesmerising Beware of Pity included) follow cinema ones in using an approach that mimics filmed drama – switching between a few different set camera angles, often in a way that feels frustratingly random. Your eye loses the ability to roam around the stage, but there’s not the considered precision that’s behind every movie close-up or panning shot. In short, it’s a flawed compromise.

We need a way of filming live performance that’s as interactive, tense and immediate as actually being there – and that doesn’t mean aping the idiom of mainstream cinema and tv, but on a micro-budget. It means getting creative. It’s time for directors and theatremakers to work with filmmakers and think about how they want their work to be shot, and what the camera can do. To find imaginative ways of framing it that don’t feel like we’re broadcasting from outside the Big Brother House, and that sum up the power of the live experience a bit better than a few shots of bored-looking audience members. Livestreaming doesn’t automatically convey a sense of liveness, and performances would likely feel more real, more immediate, if they were specially recorded for film only, in a way that allowed for clever editing and camera-friendly lighting. Instead of being afraid of it, imagine if they stepped right up to the boundary between theatre and film: and gave the glossy world over the other side a good shake-up.

The theatre world’s got the potential to take on cinema, and provide the complex ideas, diverse casts, scrappy approaches and new ways of looking that audiences are hungry for – as the excitement around Forced Entertainment’s livestreams shows. And that’s where all the theatremakers that aren’t going to sign a contract with the Odeon or the BBC come in. There are plenty of reasons to be cautious: worries about expense, time, cannibalising audiences, or losing the in-the-room liveness that’s infinitely more powerful in a tiny room. But there are more reasons to rush in – imagine how incredible it would be for fringe companies to have global fanbases who rushed to see them when they came to town, or to see what’s happening in tiny rooms in Denmark or Uruguay, or to get people collaborating across continents.

Some of this is happening already – like Belarus Free Theatre’s livestreams, or transnational online collaboration Phone Home. But maybe what they’re missing is the ambition to play with what filming can do – to use it as an artform in its own right, not just a conduit.

The skills are definitely there. The best bits of theatre-on-film are already coming from outside the big guns. Like this trailer for Sounds Like Chaos at the BAC/Albany later this month:

It’s full of the rush of hyped excitement that comes from being in a room where teenagers are in charge – pretty joyful stuff compared to the perfume-ad-lite visual kitsch of the NT’s trailers

Which goes to show that you don’t need a huge budget to film stuff anymore – just creativity. What’s exciting about theatre and performance heading online is the potential for democratisation – and for performers to use Instagram/Facebook Live/Snapchat-honed film skills to create work that’s fluid, can sit just as well online and off.

Theatre’s relationship with filmed media has historically been defined by fear. Cinema killed off the music hall, and movie musicals did their best to cannibalise theatre for its biggest hits. But like Sondheim’s Carlotta Campion, it’s still here. And if it learns to approach film with excitement, instead of caution, it can only get stronger.

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Alice Saville

Alice is a writer, arts journalist and handicrafts enthusiast. As well as writing and commissioning for Exeunt, she's a regular contributor to Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine, and makes costumes for performance.

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