A Shared Experience

Continuing on from my last post about the experience of watching a piece of live theatre, with Twitter as my fellow audience members, I was delighted to read this, written by Catherine Love for WhatsOnStage.com

Sharing the live experience

As debate about the live streaming of theatre productions continues, Catherine Love asks whether recorded performances can still unite an audience

As I logged into Twitter on Saturday evening, the tweets cluttering my timeline were, unusually, united in startling agreement. Nearly everyone I follow seemed to be watching the same thing……an online live stream of Forced Entertainment’s six-hour durational show 12AM: Awake & Looking Down.

twitter-iconEveryone who tweeted was watching it in a different place, from their bed or sofa or desk, but these scattered individuals were also watching the show together, as part of a separate but collective audience meeting in an online space.

This observation feels significant in light of renewed debate around the increasing practice of streaming theatre productions, be it huge operations like NT Live screening in cinemas across the country or modest webcasts of experimental performance. A number of theatre makers have expressed concern about these recordings replacing live performance, while Lyn Gardner  recently mounted a persuasive defence for the expansion of audience reach that these screenings allow.

Both sides of the argument make valid enough points. Those who take issue with the recording of performances protest that it somehow pollutes or detracts from the uniqueness of the live event, releasing viewers from the attention that is required of them in the theatre and encouraging audiences to retreat further and further into their screens, while live performance withers away. Icon for Streaming(2)The digital advocates, on the other hand, argue that screening theatre events can take them to a bigger audience in just one night than they might otherwise reach during a whole run, not to mention offering an opportunity for those without easy access to a theatre to engage with an art form that might otherwise be unavailable to them.

As Gardner points out, it doesn’t have to be a case of either/or; enjoying a performance online or in the cinema does not preclude the possibility of also taking a trip to the theatre. The two experiences offer different benefits. What I’d rather focus on, however, is the accusation – often levelled at streamed theatre – that it removes the collective, live experience of being part of an audience. It is implied that this is one of the key reasons for attending theatre rather than watching TV or sitting in front of a computer screen. In the modern world, the theatre is one of the few places where we can still have a live, unmediated experience, surrounded by other human beings. And this is, to an extent, true.

Forced Entertainment's 12AM: Awake & Looking Down. © Hugo Glendinning

Forced Entertainment’s 12AM: Awake & Looking Down.
© Hugo Glendinning

But what I witnessed on Saturday night looked an awful lot like an audience all having an experience together, even if that experience wasn’t in the same room. The same thing happened to an even greater extent throughout the 24 hours of Forced Entertainment’s Quizoola!, live streamed from the Barbican last year, and a similar online buzz has attended other webcasts by theatres such as the National Theatre of Wales and Hampstead Theatre.

On these various occasions, I have experienced a rare feeling of real community online, as a wide range of people all gather round one enthusiasm and exchange thoughts and responses. Sure, it’s not quite the same as having those reactions while sitting in the same space and breathing the same air, but the feelings and thoughts that the online experience provokes belong to the same family as those encountered in a theatre. And once audiences are hooked on the shared experience, who’s to say that they won’t seek it out again and again, both on and offline?

I couldn’t agree more. On the other hand, I was also interested to read this this by Ryan Gilby, for The Guardian, where he reflects on a different kind of live broadcast theatre event.

Coriolanus at National Theatre Live: cut the chat and get on with the show

The Donmar’s production starring Tom Hiddleston was a thriller in the cinema but it didn’t need all the DVD extras with it

Stage productions broadcast live in cinemas have been a fixture in the UK since 2009, when the National Theatre’s Phèdre was seen by more than 50,000 people. Numbers now tend to be far higher (the audience for The Audience was around 180,000) and reach beyond the UK. Last night was the first time I had attended a play in a cinema. The difference from theatre was apparent immediately: I was wearing a shabby jumper rather than a shirt. (I always try to wear a shirt to the theatre. I can’t help it. It’s an occasion.)

The next shock was finding that I had come to see Coriolanus starring Emma Freud. Cinema audiences have long suffered all manner of irritating pre-film ads, but the appearance of Ms Freud on screen, whipping us into a frenzy about what we were about to see, was at best superfluous (we didn’t need persuading: we’d already bought our tickets) and at worst obstructive. None of us were under the illusion that we were actually at the Donmar Warehouse where the play was staged, or that the actors would be with us in the flesh. Nor did we want to be made to feel we were watching an early-evening relay from the Big Brother house.

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus at the Donmar. Photograph: Johan Persson

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus at the Donmar. Photograph: Johan Persson

Next came a short film in which the lead actors, Tom Hiddleston (Coriolanus) and Mark Gatiss (Menenius), contextualised the play. The director, Josie Rourke, popped up to comment on the Donmar’s history, while the designer, Lucy Osborne, showed some examples of Roman graffiti on her iPad. I rarely bother with the featurettes that are routinely found among DVD extras and here was a reminder why. Such items can get in the way of our interpretation rather than enhancing it. The effect here evoked neither theatre nor cinema but bad arts television.

It was even worse at the end of the interval when the two-minute bell urged us back to our seats and we were shown an interview with Rourke during which Freud reminded her that Hiddleston had been named “the sexiest actor on the planet” by MTV. Hardly the words you want ringing in your ears as Act Two begins. My advice for the NT is to cut the chat and get on with the show. Suspension of disbelief in a play is not hard to achieve but it deserves to be given a fighting chance.

Thankfully the dynamism of the production was irresistible. Rourke’s staging made judicious use of minimal props – chairs, mainly – and a set that was effectively one brick wall, half of it painted a richly stewed burgundy. My concern going in was that performances pitched at theatre level might seem overblown on a cinema screen; these are, after all, two entirely different forms of acting. I had reckoned without the cast’s combined experience of calibrating performance for contrasting art forms. That Hiddleston chap, he’s done bits and bobs on film as well as on stage, hasn’t he? And Gatiss – he’s been before a camera once or twice. Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, who plays Coriolanus’s wife Virgilia, has a fair bit of Borgen under her belt. They’re getting the hang of it by now.

It helps that these broadcasts are geared toward the cinema experience; the theatre audience for Coriolanus last night paid reduced ticket prices on the understanding that cameras would be getting in their way now and then. For one night only, the popcorn-munchers took priority.

Not that any of us were actually eating. The mood of the audience was just as it would have been in a theatre: hushed, respectful, even tense at times. There were gasps during Coriolanus’s death scene, elegantly staged in a beam of light and a spray of red – an image foreshadowed earlier in the show when the gruesomely scarred warrior showers in a trickle of water before shaking himself like a sheepdog, sending bloody droplets flying about the stage (and screen).

Though lighting can alter the emphasis of a scene, theatre has no equivalent to the close-up, and the camera positions respected that fact: we never felt artificially intimate with the actors, but nor was there a sense that we were too far from the action. With one exception: the curtain call. Here a chasm opened up between the theatre and cinema audiences. There was some confusion over how best to respond. Most people in the packed cinema applauded.

Did they think the actors could hear them?

For clarity’s sake, Emma Freud is what is perhaps best described as a cultural commentator well-known in the UK, and fronts arts and cultural shows on both television and radio. I can but only sympathise with Gilbey – perhaps the solution is to simply give the  broadcast audiences the same programme/play bill that the ‘live’ audience get, then if they want to know more, they can read quietly, to themselves.

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