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Seeing the Forest

02.23.12 | 3 Comments


CATEGORIES advocacy, audiences, conversation starter, ideas, livestreams, new technology, newplaytv, rabble rousing, social profit, the future, theatrical ecosystem, transmedia, video

I love Into the Woods. I love the music, I love the book, it’s one of my favorite musicals. So I’m more than a little nervous at the thought of Disney and Rob Marshall teaming up to bring it to the big screen. Yes, it’s been in development before, the prospects no less scary, but this time might be the one. It might be good, might not. Will it be better than the stage version? It’ll be different. But it won’t affect my memory of the stage version.

Fortunately, PBS and American Playhouse recorded the original Broadway cast performing “Into the Woods.” It’s on Netflix for instant streaming as we speak.

Is it the same as seeing it live? It’s different. And that’s okay.

The reason I’ve been thinking about this is largely because of this post by Clayton Lord. It popped up in my Twitter-stream the other day, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. He warns against “innovat[ing] ourselves into second-rate television.” He goes on to ask, “What makes what we do, what we do?  What do we turn into if we let it fall by the wayside? What makes ‘theatre’ no longer ‘theatre?’” His fear (as I read it) is that we will lose the aura of what makes the experience special, the alchemy of a live audience in the room with the actions.

Minutes later, the wonderful @Brainpicker tweeted a link to this Smithsonian article about old propaganda posters by the American Federation of Musicians in the wake of talking pictures taking over from silents, arguing against “canned music in theatres.” It’s worth a look if only for the delightfully hyperbolic imagery, the “music robot” grinding notes in a meat grinder or rocking the infantilized viewing public to sleep.

The juxtaposition of tweets amused me, especially because Clayton cites Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which is concerned with how the modern technology will change such experiences as live theatre, music, etc.

In case my love for Into the Woods didn’t give it away, I’m all for recording live performances. Yes, the aura of the experience is a wonderful thing, and it is what sets our work apart from film, television and radio, but it’s still secondary to what we’re doing. We’re telling stories. Whether it’s around a campfire, in a retrofitted booth for one, a 99 seat black box or a 500 seat thrust, that’s the core. Silent or loud, still or kinetic, absurd or straightforward, the core is the same. Everything else is secondary.

No one is saying you have to record every production. But why not record one per season? Use that as an example of what you do. Unless you’re working with a resident company of actors and playwrights, every show you produce is an unknown quantity for the audience. All they have to go on is your reputation. So make it a little easier for them to see whether or not that reputation is justified. Why not reach out to potential new audiences where they live and breathe? If I can pull out an iPad and show off your work quickly and simply, maybe I’ve found you another patron.

Will the recording look good? Depends on who’s doing the recording. Look at Digital Theatre’s productions. They look great because they think about filming in multiple dimensions, it’s not just “point the camera at the stage.” Right now, they’re the gold standard. It’s funny, I get into this conversation all the time with people who don’t believe in recording live theatre. More than once, those conversations have drifted into shows we wished we could have seen. If the person is a Doctor Who fan, they’ll inevitably bring up the recent Much Ado About Nothing in London with David Tennant & Catherine Tate. I’ll point out that Digital Theatre has it for rental and for download. “Really?” Really. Since none of us flew to London, this is the only way we can see it. And sure enough, they check it out. Why? Because it’s there.

Last week, You’ve Cott Mail focused on several more ideas, options and reasons for streaming (or not). For example, The National Theatre Live series beams recordings of shows to movie theatres & other venues on a regular basis–in that case, you’re still seeing the productions in a room with an audience. Is it the same? No, but if you wanted to see Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller trading roles and jabs as Frankenstein and his monster, that might have been the only way you could’ve seen it. They’ve also done a great job in producing ancillary videos and podcasts, all available for free at iTunesU. They even create digital programmes for purchase.

All right, say you have a good director & camera crew. Maybe you do record all of your shows in a season. Why would you do that? Well, you could host a series of screenings at the beginning of a season, show off all of the previous season in a week or two. Team up with your local library, an art house cinema or even host them in your own space. Make the screening series a social event, make it as accessible as possible to as many as possible. Stress the fact that these are recordings and the shows are more electric–and more intimate–in person. Host screenings at local schools that can’t afford to bring groups to the theatre as arts education budgets get slashed. Do as NewPlayTV suggests for their broadcasts and host watch parties. Why not?

Another idea is to work with your local tourism board, highlight the work you do as another reason for people to come visit your city. You have the potential to reach far beyond your local audience, so why not embrace that? Maybe as Ken Davenport suggested earlier this week, you could use StageIt to host and monetize streams of previous productions. I think a lot depends on the quality of your recordings and your potential audiences, but that’s not a bad idea either.

What if you could go to an event like the Humana Festival of New American Plays and, as part of your weekend or package, you had a chance to check out a previous year’s show in between the current ones? Missed that show everyone was talking about? Here it is, showing twice this weekend. Could be in the building, could be down the street at a friendly neighborhood art museum hotel…just saying…

If we close our doors completely to the live audience in the room, that’s when we lose what makes our medium unique. That’s when we lose the electricity in the room, the call and response. Actors on a stage react and respond to audience moods and reactions much more quickly in the moment than if they were following audiences on Twitter, for instance. That’s how immediate the connection is when you’re in the room. But if we can share the experience, even at one remove, with more audiences who might then be enticed to try being in the room themselves, I think it’s worth the effort. The storytelling & the creativity are still there.

Instead of giving your audience glimpses of leaves and trees, let them see your forest. Let them wander through your history with more than the occasional still photo from this production or that. Pick and choose what you make available and when. NT Live’s Frankenstein is coming back to theatres for a limited run this summer, for instance.

One question that popped up in this week’s HowlRound chat was “why go to a live concert when you’ve bought the album?” The album was then compared to the script of a show, but I suggested that the script was the sheet music instead. After all, the sheet music is the blueprint, but the album is a recording. The script only gives you the words and an idea of the performance, but the recording sings, it plays, it comes alive. So the next question was, “How do we create ‘albums’ that excite audiences to go to the ‘concert?’

Maybe previous productions are those recordings. They give a better idea of what your company can do than short, specially-shot video pieces and trailers, for instance. (See this post about warming up your audience & managing expectations.) Goodness knows, I’d rather buy a recording than a script, but we don’t usually have that choice. I can share that recording with people who don’t like to read scripts or people who might have trouble imagining the leap from page to stage.

Going back to music for a second, even when we’ve bought recordings, we still go to the concerts for the experience, for the variations, for the unexpected that can only happen live and in the moment in the room. We go to appreciate the artists in person, to let them hear our reactions live. We want to share that call and response in person, in a group. But we still go out and buy the albums.

Just this morning, Howard Sherman tweeted a link to a story about a new online arts channel from the BBC that will feature performances from the Bristol Old Vic, Shakespeare’s Globe and Sadler’s Wells, among others. If you read through to the end of the article, you’ll notice that Pilot Theatre is one of the companies participating. Marcus Romer at Pilot has been pushing the limits of what’s possible with technology in the theatre. I’m not surprised to find him in the thick of this project.

Or look at the collaboration last summer between Austin’s The Hidden Room and Look Left, Look Right in the UK. Their You Wouldn’t Know Him… proved that you can integrate technology into the storytelling itself–the plot would not have been possible without the use of Skype for communication–and that two rooms of people could share a live theatrical experience half a world away from each other. That extended to those of us watching the whole thing live online, because we were using the same technology as the characters in order to connect.

This is happening. We can choose to sit back & be precious about our art, hiding in our black boxes and big buildings, or we can reach out to people who already have plenty of entertainment choices at their fingertips without leaving their computers. We can remind them that we’re out here by standing alongside those media where they live. As long as our focus is on the fact that this is not a replacement for the live experience but simply a taste of what to expect, we’ll be fine.

As it happens, I’m planning on livestreaming our next production in March just to see what happens. Audience development aside, we hope this might interest other theatres in the script–it’s a relatively new play–and even art museums who might potentially sponsor or host productions of the play–it’s about van Gogh, Gauguin and Emile Bernard. The stream may be one camera, but we will be recording with three cameras and editing it together, maybe for future streaming. We’ll see how it goes.

Do I think it’ll replace the experience of seeing the play live? No, not at all. It’ll be different, and that’s okay. It doesn’t turn my actor into an actron robot, churning words and emotions through a meat grinder to feed the sheep-like, homebound audience of the future. The words are still the words, the actions still the actions, the experience a taste of what the live performance is like.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I’ve never seen Into the Woods live. But every time I watch the recording, I get a warm feeling. Not because of the show, although it’s good. Not because of the cast, although they’re good. It’s because of the audience. I happen to know that the performance was late in the show’s run, playing to a matinee audience of high school students. I know that the fact of the recording–and the appearance of the original cast–was a surprise to them when they got to the theatre. I know that, as excited as they were in the first place, their energy and electricity jumped exponentially. You can feel it as you watch. You can hear it in their reactions, you can see it in the cast responding to those reactions.

I know all this because my wife, as a high school student, was in that audience.

And that’s what makes me smile every time I watch.

David J. Loehr

Artistic Director / Editor, 2amt ::Artist-in-Residence / Producer, Riverrun Theatre Company, Madison, Indiana::Member of the Playwrights' Center::Husband, father, cat owner, cat bed.

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  • M Shellie30

    I have been sincerely wondering why there aren’t more plays being broadcast at movie theatres, the way the met has been broadcasting its operas. I, a Chicago theatre person, try to see all the shows I can on tour, but the fact is they DON’T all tour, and there are many I will NEVER get to see. If they showed closed shows in limited engagements, I would go ALL THE TIME, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. If I could see a recording of the OC of August: Osage, for example, in a movie theatre, I would go. If I could see Wicked for one night only in a movie theatre, I would go. Are we missing a revenue source here? I think so… 

  • Vinetta

    While we are all keen to develop more audiences for theatre and us theatre lovers would love to see those shows in other towns, the cost of filming/live-streaming requires the ability to pay all the personnel involved – from union crews to designers to creative team to actors.  That’s why films cost so much.  And what’s in it for those folks if they don’t get the paycheck?  The theatre can certainly benefit from all that archival material but it’s on the backs of the artists who have no job security and often no residual rights. 

    • http://www.davidjloehr.com/ David J. Loehr

      A lot depends on what kind of scale you’re looking at.  Recording a play–even with multiple cameras/angles–is nowhere near the same scope or expense as making a film.  

      Revenue and pay depends on the kind of exposure/distribution and/or future life of the recording–if you’re planning to offer it for sale or rent, that’s going to mean a different scale of compensation than a one-time broadcast.

      This is also different from film in that this is a recording of an event for which the creative staff, designers, crew, et al have already been paid.  When shows are recorded for archival purposes, there’s no additional pay from it, but there’s rarely more than one camera or angle recording.  

      A one-time broadcast, if free, isn’t going to generate any additional income, but it might bring more attention to the actors, the artists, the company–that’s a benefit in itself.  But if the recording is meant to have a longer life, then residual rights can and should be negotiated, assuming the recording is offered for sale.  I prefer the longer term model.

      Note that Digital Theatre, On the Boards, NT Live, etc all generate revenue from their recordings, whether from online rentals, download sales or tickets for live simulcasts at other venues.  They pay the individual theatre companies and artists for their work from that revenue.  This isn’t about recording archival material, it’s about making money from additional viewers/viewings.

      Beyond residual rights, what’s in it for the artists?  More exposure, footage for a sample reel.  A place to point casting directors for samples of complete works.  A chance to develop additional work and additional paychecks.


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