Old News

525531_511084732236163_1686059764_nA quick share today of something that recently caught my eye. British Pathé, to quote it’s own website…….was once a dominant feature of the British cinema experience, renowned for first-class reporting……Now considered to be the finest newsreel archive in the world, British Pathé is a treasure trove of 85,000 films unrivalled in historical and cultural significance. Spanning the years from 1896 to 1979, the collection includes footage from around the globe of major events, famous faces, fashion trends, travel, science and culture.

This archive has now been digitised and made available on Youtube. A real gift for theatre makers who want to include historical footage from around the globe in their work. The archive, which covers the most important and significant political, human, and cultural events of the 20th Century, even charts the development of mechanics in theatre. From 1945 and 1932 respectively:

Scenographers everywhere will be thrilled. The archive even has it’s own Facebook presence. Having done a bit of exploring, it seems its easier to search for the content of the footage you might need on the Pathé website itself, locate the title of the video/s that contain it, then search for those titles on the Pathé Youtube channel.

Staging The Screen

An interesting little share today from Ideas Tap. As new technologies expand the possibilities of design in live theatre, whole new fields are opening up. In this interview by arts journalist Naima Khan with Kim Beveridge, digital artist, there is some interesting insight in to the role and the processes behind the art.

WALL OF DEATH: A WAY OF LIFE with National Theatre of Scotland

WALL OF DEATH: A WAY OF LIFE with National Theatre of Scotland

Kim Beveridge on video design

Kim Beveridge has created video for productions at the Royal Court and the National Theatre of Scotland. Kim talks to Naima Khan about avoiding clichés.

What challenges do video designers face when working on theatre shows?

One common problem you face is being asked to work on a production that doesn’t necessarily have the budget to realise what the director and the company want to do. Ambitious projects are more and more common now as you can easily run video off a laptop. There’s not a lot of troubleshooting you can do if, say, your video’s not bright enough. You can’t give it more lumens [measurement unit for light] and you’ll have to communicate that to people you’re working with.

Physical spacial challenges are also common when you put video into a space where actors need to be lit at the same time. You have to work closely with the lighting designer so you don’t bleach out what they’ve created. With the right budget you can get it right but it takes experience and experimentation.

Pests

Pests

Talk us through your working process for Pests

The work I make is very figurative so I like to start with something real and then manipulate it and edit it down to fit the show’s needs. One of the things I always ask is: what is the role that video is playing in this show? What is it here to do?

In Pests, it was clear video was there to illustrate one character’s psychotic hallucinations. The other thing we had to nail were the elements that the playwright Vivienne Franzmann had written about in her script. She’d included fire (that was really pared down by the final edit), blood, which she wanted coming through the walls, and also the presence of men. So I wanted to find images that were actually frightening not Hammer House of Horror-funny because when you start to work with blood it’s easy to go down that road.

We were keen that the images had a real textural quality because they were going to be projected onto mattresses. So I spent a lot of time filming ink and synthetic blood being bled onto fabrics like silk, and cotton. We put the camera underneath a stretched canvas of the material and just watched it move and bleed.

How can video designers and theatremakers use video or projections in a way that is relevant while steering clear of clichés?

When it comes to clichés, the fact that I’m working in collaboration means that it if I make a choice that’s obvious or boring, someone will tell me. But there’s nothing I wouldn’t try. It’s about experimenting. It’s about trying to make things lean, not having projection unnecessarily and only having it to support something that isn’t explicitly written in the text.

I’d also recommend trying to be involved in the collaboration from the earliest stage. Don’t be precious about rough edits, bring them into the space early on so you can show what you’re doing and see if it works before you spend hours on the animation. Be open about what you intend on doing, trust that the people you work with will have good imaginations and they’ll be able to use your rough sketch to come to an agreement about how to move forward.

How did you get your first job in theatre?

I studied Time Based Art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art so my background is doing video installation, sound and documentary. But I was always aware of spaces and I like projecting work in unconventional spaces. It was around 2005 that I left art school and the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) started soon after. I was headhunted by them and hired to work on documenting the process in rehearsal rooms. What I learned was, if you do video and sound, your skills are really transferable and you don’t have to work in theatre design.

Pretty much immediately I started meeting loads of people who make shows and started working with them. It wasn’t long after that that Vicky Featherstone asked me to work on a large-scale production called Wall of Death, which was a documentary installation projected onto eight screens. Getting into theatre can happen quite quickly, it’s a lot about recommendations. I don’t have any business cards but if you get your name out there, things can start to happen.

Wall of Death

Wall of Death

How should video designers prepare themselves for work in the theatre industry?

There’s a book you should read called Staging the Screen: The Use of Film and Video in Theatre by Greg Giesekam. You’ll learn about the history of it and it’s surprising actually how long people have been doing this. If you really want to get into video design, just start experimenting. Find your strengths and see how they work with something live. Document people or performers interacting with your videos. Find a peer group that includes actors, maybe cabaret artists or even live musicians.

You could also go straight to people who are already working in theatre and ask them about work experience or courses. For example, there’s a great company called 59productions, which did some amazing stuff for the London Olympics, and one called Forkbeard Fantasy who do really cool experimental stuff, they also incorporate puppetry and animation. I don’t think you should worry about the industry too much. If you’ve got talent, and the guts to contact these people, they’ll help you through it. If they can, they probably will give you their time.

Still Streaming

89264It has been a few months since I have written about the discussions and debate surrounding the streaming of theatre, live and recorded, to cinemas, performance venues and across the web. In my last two posts on the matter, Something to Stream About and Something Else To Stream About I wrote about the experiences, arguments and concerns as they were being put forward. In the UK in the past few weeks the discussion has gathered pace again, with further written comment, the publication of a piece of research with regard to its impact on audience figures and continued experimentation with the form.

In a piece for The Guardian newspaper, Let’s stop pretending that theatre can’t be captured on screenthe highly regarded, veteran theatre critic Michael Billington wrote:

But while I remain an evangelist for live theatre, I think it’s time we stopped pretending that it offers an unreproducible event. A theatre performance can now be disseminated worldwide with astonishing fidelity. This represents…….a revolution which knocks on the head the old argument that theatre is an elitist medium aimed at the privileged few.

Following Billington’s piece, another theatre critic and editor, Andrew Haydon (who also runs the excellent blog Postcards From The Gods) wrote an article Coney’s no island: could streamed theatre let audiences call the shots? in which he talks generally about the continuing development of the form and in particular about a new show, Better Than Lifeby the company Coney, who describe themselves as:

Interactive theatre-makers….[who] weave together theatre and game design to create dynamic shows and experiences that can take place anywhere that people gather: in theatres, schools, museums, on the streets and online.

Haydon describes Better Than Life thus:

The live premise is simple: you arrive at the “secret location”, take part in a bit of audience participation and then meet Gavin, a man who has been granted the power to draw pictures of future events (a plot wittingly or unwittingly lifted from the wonky US science fiction TV show Heroes). The online premise is more complex: Coney’s stated aim is to experiment with how they might be able to let people interact with the performance even if they are not physically present. To this end, online viewers could choose which camera they watched from, interact in the site’s own chat facility and even control spotlights in the room itself.

BTL_webdesigns-17-1024x1024Now this is clearly a different beast to streaming theatre as it has been developing so far, but indicates the pace at which interactive technologies have the potential to shape the future development of theatre. Arts journalist Miriam Gillinson also wrote about her online experience watching Better Than Life, as opposed to Haydon’s ‘real-life’ viewing, in her blog post, ‘Better Than Life’ review or ‘Is there a triple click option?’. However, both seem to agree that whilst it was a form still very much in development, there was distinct and intriguing potential in the work and how it might point to the we ‘watch’ theatre in the future. To explore Coney’s work more, there is an excellent interview by Rohan Gunatillake with the company’s co-director, Annette Mees, for Native Magazine intriguingly titled Gorillas, beautiful tension & Better Than Life. In the interview, amongst other things, she explores the difference between their work and the more conventional broadcast streaming of theatre.

Coney's Early Days

Coney’s Early Days

As I said at the beginning of the post, one of the things that prompted me to revisit the streaming discussions was the publication of a survey in the UK that seems to show that the advent and growing audiences of streamed theatre is not, as some feared, having a negative effect on live audience attendance either in the capital or in the regions, as some feared. The survey was carried out by Nesta (a charity that funds innovation in the arts sciences and technology in the UK) and you can read their findings here. There is a condensed version of the findings here, courtesy of Whats On Stage

The National Theatre's Frankenstein, Jonny Lee Miller

The National Theatre’s Frankenstein, Jonny Lee Miller

Now obviously, these statistics are for the UK and they left me wondering how they would extrapolate out for international audiences of streamed and broadcast theatre. Since I last wrote about this subject and lamented the lack of broadcasts to Hong Kong, the National in the UK have at last found a cinema partner here.  Their initial foray – Frankenstein – was an immediate sellout (I was too slow) and since then, more and more broadcasts have been added with Coriolanus and The Audience begin shown multiple times in the next couple of months. They are immensely popular with Hong Kong audiences (I don’t mean just expats either) and I can see how they are creating an audience-in-waiting of theatre goers ready for their next trip to London. I could be cynical of course and comment that all of these productions have star actors with international reputations and are therefore an immediate box office draw. However, I won’t and I can’t – I am just delighted that I can now see what I consider to be some of best theatre in the world in the place I choose to call home.

I also want to a mention of another streamed event, that in a week that saw 500,000 people take to the streets of Hong Kong demanding universal suffrage, has significant resonance for me. On June 24th, The National Theatre of Scotland hosted The Great Yes, No, Don’t Know 5 Minute Theatre Show  which streamed for 24 hours, pieces of theatre lasting no longer than 5 minutes to and from around the globe.

greatyes_prod

Driven by the upcoming vote on Scottish independence from the UK, the idea was to create a democratic, dramatic response to the theme of ‘Independence’ – identity, borders, language, and national identity. You can watch some of the contributions again here. Quite rightly, many of them are from Scots making their own comment on what is to come on the 18th September, but there are also contributions from around the world. Theatre and democracy, hand in hand.

So as the experiments continue and the debates rumble on, I leave you with an article, Three Nationals, again from Native Magazine, this time by David Kettle, in which he talks to leaders in the three national theatres of the UK – The National, The National Theatre of Scotland and The National Theatre of Wales – about their digital visions. It leaves me in no doubt digital theatre broadcasting and streaming is hear to stay.

Beyond The Icon

ANNE_hi_res_EnglishA new play has recently opened in Amsterdam eponymously called AnneI doubt there is a school child anywhere who has not heard the story of Anne Frank. She is perhaps one of the most well know victims of the Holocaust and the diaries of her wartime experiences in hiding have be translated and read around the world.

This new production has received much media coverage and is played out in a new theatre, built purposely to house the show, which is epic in its multi-media staging. However, the production has come with some controversy. It is the idea of Anne Frank Fonds (The Anne Frank Foundation) which was created in 1963 by Otto Frank, her father, to administer the funds raised by the publication of the diaries and use them for charitable projects around the world, usually related to young people.  However, the copyright on the diaries runs out in most countries in 2016 so the Anne Frank Fonds is looking at new ways of raising money, so it can continue its good works in Anne’s name. First published in 1947 the diaries have inspired numerous stage versions, although not one that has been particularly successful in great acclamation.  This new production looks like it might be the lasting legacy that the Fonds has been seeking, so where is the controversy? Well have a listen to this report by Anna Holligan for the BBC:

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You can watch the report here too.

anne theu boermans

 

Jpfrank-superJumbo

 

annefrank-superJumbo

You can read more about the controversy in a report for The New York Times by Doreen Carvajal, Amid Tensions, a New Portrayal of Anne Frank. One of the first reviews in English by David Aaronovitch for The Times is here.

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A New Design

Having written last week about immersive theatre, I am going to continue today with a connected theme. Immersive theatre, as well as the experience, is largely what it is because the visual elements it contains, be they the building or place itself or what is placed there. In other words, it’s design. Now it strikes me that the term theatre design is a little redundant when describing the immersive space and indeed this seems to be bringing about a change in how we perceive either the role of a theatre designer or theatre design itself.

9783899861365Increasingly, theatre design is becoming scenography; the theatre designer,  the scenographer. I had been aware of term, although never entirely sure of its exact meaning, but as is often the case, it seems to have been popping up with more frequency in things I have been reading and conversations I have had. A colleague used it this week to describe one of his areas of specialism. So with my interest piqued, I got digging and have been quite fascinated by what I have found.

To begin with, scenography is defined thus:

Scenography is the art of creating performance environments; it can be composed of sound, light, clothing, performance, structure and space

Nothing particularly new there, one might think on first reading. However, it is the bringing together of all of these elements together that is different. Traditionally in theatre we separate out the design roles – stage, costume, light, sound and so on. Throw into this mix the varying role a director can play in the design process and maybe even the dramaturg, and we get quite a complicated web of people and roles making contributions to what we eventually end up looking at and experiencing on stage.

Scenography is becoming quite common in Europe and indeed, theatre designers are designating themselves as scenographers. However, it would seem that in the US the term has not been adopted with the same passion. On her website Stephanie A. Schoelzel, herself a scenographer, describes heated debates over the use of the term and the unique differences between US and European theatre in this regard. It is an interesting read on a number of fronts. Another description of Sceneography and its origins is from Imagined Spaces, the Canadian National Arts Centre in Ottawa is also informative.

Josef Svoboda

Josef Svoboda

Imagined Spaces is a superb resource site for anyone interested in scenic design, with hundreds of beautifully rendered stage designs. In his article on Imagined Spaces, What Is Scenography, Michael Eagan states that scenography emerged from the Prague Quadrennial and talks about Josef Svoboda, himself Czech, as the godfather of modern scenography.

It was at this point in my research that I began to feel a little ignorant. Svoboda is clearly a giant amongst designers and scenographers, but I had never heard of him. When he died  2002, it was estimated that he had designed and/or directed over 700 theatrical and operatic performances.

When I sit alone in a theatre and gaze into the dark space of its empty stage, I’m frequently seized by fear that this time I won’t manage to penetrate it, and I always hope that this fear will never desert me. Without an unending search for the key to the secret of creativity, there is no creation. It’s necessary always to begin again. And that is beautiful.

Josef Svoboda.

You can get an idea of the scale of Svoboda’s work in the following two videos. If you speak Czech or French there are more in-depth videos on Youtube about the  man and his work.

It then struck me to whom I had heard the term scenographer ascribed before. Robert Lepage is one of the greatest living magicians of the performance space and I have had the delight, pleasure and awe of seeing a number of his works. An utter genius and worthy of a post all of his own, so I shall save further discussion of him until then. However equating Lepage and his work with the role of scenographer, I understood the difference between design and scenography.  It also allayed my feelings of ignorance somewhat. For many years scenography has been the preserve of the academics – a theory of, roughly speaking, the meeting of art, design, architecture and space, and how they interact with the spectator and the spectator with them.  Starting to feeI immersive here? I can now also see how two of the most influential theatre designers of the 20th Century, Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig, influenced the development of scenography. 

9789299006313_FotorThere are lots of resources out there for understanding scenography and putting it into practice, but one of the best I have come across is TAJ, Theatre Arts Journal. TAJ is an online journal devoted to the study of  scenography in performing arts. Also, the Prague Quadrennial site is a veritable treasure trove of scenographic wonders. There is even a board on Pinterest devoted to scenography, curated by architect Marios Angelopoulos.

To close, I should point out that scenography is not simply an act of theatre making. It is much wider than that, stretching to cover exhibition design, museum planning and interactive public spaces amongst other things – all things that need to engage an audience.

Immerse Yourself

As théâtre du jour, the popularity of immersive performance keeps on growing. I have written here many times about its attractions and why it possibly draws the audiences that it does. Today I want to share a mixture of things that have come my way in the last week or so, all of which making interesting reading and listening.

Firstly an audio slide show published in the UK’s Guardian this week. Made by  and Felix Barrett, the director of Punchdrunk, explains how they dreamed up The Drowned ManClick the image below to have a look and listen:

The Drowned Man_DC.indd

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second share today is also from The Guardian and written by Veronica Horwell, Casting Call For Buildings explores how site-specific theatre companies go about picking the right venues for their shows? Horwell looks at two current performances – again Punchdrunk’s Drowned Man and The Spectators Guild’s new show, Venice Preserve’d.

Casting call for buildings: on location with Punchdrunk and Spectators’ Guild

It’s easy to see why Paynes Wharf, near Deptford Creek in south London, is playing the lead in the Spectators’ Guild company’s production of Venice Preserv’d. It has an old Thameside maritime facade – a former boilermaking works – arcaded like the Doge’s Palace, next to a new flatblock in the manner of a campanile, and its developers put serious money into the production. And they offered guaranteed availability with a scheduled window in the site’s post-construction schedule.

VenicePlay_RG029-528x790

For, as the guild’s producer Harry Ross and production designer Helen Scarlett O’Neill know from their work with Secret Cinema, the company that stages elaborate movie events, any big, workable, public space in London is hard to find. Should they dream of a place with character, let alone the right looks, they’re into the near-impossible. There is noSpotlight for immersive venues, no showreels for talented but unknown ex-warehouses. The agents do not ring.

Mostly, Ross and friends keep their eyes open and ceaselessly ask around. Ross, who as a cyclist has travelled at just the right speed to observe the built landscape, collects London buildings, holding in his head half the current suitable specimens, tunnels included. He can charm any watchman into letting him past the gates within five minutes, and will wander around the metropolis yelling queries up to blokes on scaffolding, if that’s what it takes.

Once spotted, though, a space can be even harder to secure. It can be done, especially if it’s a pro tart of a place for hire anyway, as with the former Farmiloe stained-glass manufactory in Smithfield, much used as a movie location before being taken over for the duration of Secret Cinema’s The Grand Budapest Hotel-related live extravaganza in March. But the turnover of acquisition, renovation, demolition, repurposing and new construction in London has accelerated so fast since property became the international investment after the 2008 crash, that places the site-specific event companies have stashed away as promising hopes suddenly sprout into multi-storey plutoflats.

HAR250214_VenicePreservd_Web_Logo_640_27_3_14-627x500

That’s what makes Venice Preserv’d as an on-site production a novel venture for everybody – and is maybe the way that immersive theatre will have to go. The developers wanted the company and its production to show off the artistic potential of this great space behind the restored river facade. They’re looking to theatre to put some character into the wharf so that it won’t lapse into just another stretch of the executive luxury-flat cliffs now walling the Thames.

Director Charlotte Westenra has wanted to put on Thomas Otway’s Restoration tragedy for a long time – it being an entirely modern story about selling out, in every sense, in a privileged imperial city awash with money and betrayal, yet sinking fast. Then came this loan of what she feels is “a beautiful, significant space” that, both visually and contextually, correlated with her concept of the play.

I’d describe the production as location-referential more than site-specific. While Westenra exploits onsite advantages with glee – she will flood the central courtyard to simulate a bridged Venetian canalscape – she also looks out to a wider geographic “where” as a context for the old narrative. The audience can choose to come down to Greenwich pier by boat, as if on their way to a Venetian carnival, and, as they promenade the wharf’s tideside terrace or look through the space’s mighty windows, they cannot fail to see the uncaring, rising water and moneyed Canary Wharf on its far side.

Venice Preserv'd

The site’s most overwhelming area is a lofty nave the length of the gutted old building, which O’Neill will dress with decaying lace. Although Westenra’s approach to Otway’s bitter power play will remain a semi-formal staging, in which everybody will view and hear the same scene at the same time, it won’t be a Punchdrunk company gig with each audience member stomping his or her own route with a request to “wear appropriate shoes” on the ticket. If the walls could speak at Payne’s Wharf they’d be talking about investment, dividends, futures. Most of them – other than that 1860s frontage – have no past to speak of.

Get Felix Barrett, head of Punchdrunk, immersive veterans, on the subject of listening to walls, and it’s a whole different story – mostly about the past. He has known since his first student production in 2000, in a Territorial Army HQ in Exeter, all the highs and woes of the quest for unlikely performing spaces. He knows Deptford, too – he put on two shows in the old Seagar distillery, now a mighty block of “lifestyle living” just a drinker’s spit from Payne’s Wharf.

Felix Barrett of Punchdrunk

He’s full of admiration for the guild – “They’re going outside? First thing we do in a place is overpaint all the windows black”. But he doesn’t envy them the site, no matter how painlessly secured, because for Punchdrunk, building a narrative means narrating the building. For that, it needs not a beautifully embalmed corpse of a place, let alone a place that’s mostly newborn, but “a good dirty body of a building”. Or anyway, a building on its last breath, as many of his have been over the past 14 years. The first time he gains entry into a secured desired venue, he has to be alone, because “you have to listen, ask the buildings: what do you want? Tell me what you want.”

Westenra wanted to do her cherished show and was grateful for a supportive, expansive space as setting: Barrett doesn’t cherish anything so finished as a script, just a dozen two-word ideas, as many again in one sentence, and a well-developed few that run as far as a single paragraph. None go further until he can hunt and hold his site. It’s getting more difficult in London. Rare are the developers, he says, “who realise that dormant space could be a positive creative force”. Or that Punchdrunk could give a death-sentenced building a last hurrah (Faust in a former archive in Wapping Lane, The Duchess of Malfi in a doomed pharma HQ in Docklands), rather than a squalid slide into graffiti before the cranes move in. Now there is also competition from proliferating event companies and movie shoots. The economics have changed. The old Paddington mail sorting office, elaborated internally into “Temple Studios” as home to Punchdrunk’s most recent production, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, took three years to run to ground and secure, and was the first site where the company has had to pay properly for use.

How did Punchdrunk find it? Like its predecessors, by a combination of time, luck and legwork. Barrett used to draw a circle on a map, calibrated to the distance an audience might travel, then divide it into blocks. A-Z in hand, his team walked every alleyway, always looking up (“the hidden gems are above your eyeline”). The building should ideally be reticent, reclusive and exude a sense of danger: “The day we found the building for Faust, after nine brutal and bruising months, we could feel the electricity run through the fence. There was a big sign, DANGER: DO NOT ENTER … We went in.” (Punchdrunk never took the sign down, despite the misgivings of its National Theatre backers.) When Punchdrunk was invited into the safe, alive space of the Battersea Arts Centre, a former town hall, the first task was “to kill it off, a stake through the heart” before the right show, which turned out to be The Mask of the Red Death, could crawl out of its demunicipalised woodwork.

Untitled_Fotor

After Punchdrunk field trips, the team usually worked the phones for weeks, and got nowhere. For every hundred spaces that might fit the bill, only one was available for work – until, so often, it was out of the game. Three times Barrett came close to securing a hospital. (He would have liked to put on Faust in hospital wards, grief and loss flowing along every corridor – corridors are all plot.) Every time, in the end, pffft. Eventually, he learned that, “You can’t dream about the perfect space for the ideal show because a show may be almost go after three years” – then comes the NO – “and when you secure another building, it has to be a very different show”. Right now he has seven possibles waiting for a green light, and 50 that could happen, but their stories will have to be scored to what he hears on that first interior walk, “the beats and rhythms of the space, crescendos, diminuendos, staccato”. Punchdrunk is about being site-sympathetic, rather than site-specific, though. In New York, its backers wanted Faust, but Faust was outside the available venue’s range: it performed Sleep No More – Macbeth – brilliantly.

conor-doyle-ed-warner-omar-gordon-tomislav-english-vinicius-salles-punchdrunk-the-drowned-man-a-hollywood-fable-photo-birgit-ralf-0578

Barrettt’s own role is always Prospero. He says he is in the sandcastle business. Almost everywhere Punchdrunk has ever commandeered, all those not-so-gorgeous palaces, has since been replaced with cloud-capped tower blocks. So for the first time, the company now keeps proper records of its plays, including the buildings’ own stories, against the inevitable time they, too, vanish into thin air, shortly after the play closes.

My third and final share comes from one of my students, Mia, who as just written a comparison of the working practices of a number of immersive companies including, Punchdrunk, You Me Bum Bum Train and dreamthinkspeak. As part of her research she contacted the companies and got this great little Interview with Tristan Sharps, Artistic Director of dreamthinkspeak.

Invisible Light

EP-140329286.jpg&MaxW=558&imageVersion=defaultA few days ago a show opened in Sharjah, a tiny emirate that forms part of the United Arab Emirates. Called Clusters of Light,  it tells the life story of the Prophet Mohammed and for anyone who knows about Islam, there is an obvious difficulty here – Islamic convention forbids the portrayal of the Prophet in human form. None the less what has been produced is a truly spectacular piece of theatre, drawing on the latest technology, expertise from around the world, a cast over over two hundred and performed in a brand new outdoor amphitheatre, the construction of which took only 3 months.

1715289621The whole event has been on an enormous scale. According to The Gulf News, The Al Majaz Amphitheatre, based on a traditional Roman design, cost US$32 million to build, can seat 4,500 people, has 400 animated lights, 120 sound speakers, and 21 projectors as well as a  hydraulic stage.

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The opening performance is no less impressive in its conception and the time scale in which it was created. Clusters of Light has been put together in less than 6 months, a time frame that would, I am sure, have any mainstream theatrical producer dancing with delight. The creative team behind the project are some of the most experienced in their field, with a history of staging, literally, some of the biggest shows on Earth. I will let writer Peter Walker and photojournalist Susan Schulman take up the story from here, in a piece published in The GuardianIslam the Opera.

It was quite a challenge, even for the crack team of theatrical experts summoned from around the world: less than six months to produce a hi-tech musical extravaganza about one of the most renowned figures in human history. Oh yes, and the title character can’t appear on stage.

But somehow it happened and on Sunday night a lavish production about the life and teachings of Muhammad, Islam’s main prophet, intended as a rejoinder to more militant interpretations of the faith, premiered at a specially built £20m mock-Roman amphitheatre in Sharjah, the small emirate adjoining Dubai.

The show had to be assembled in months by an international team that includes Piers Shepperd, technical director of the 2012 Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, and the man who made Danny Boyle’s creative ideas happen on stage. Now he has done the same for a show whose scope is roughly equivalent to Islam: the Opera. The 90-minute production, Clusters of Light, has the ambitious stated intent of rebranding the religion internationally.

The story is told with a cast of about 200, including some of the Arab world’s most celebrated singers, such as Mohammed Assaf, the Palestinian winner of Arab Idol, and the Tunisian tenor Lotfi Bouchnak, with spectacular animated scenes projected around them.

Clusters of Light

An inaugural run in Sharjah will be followed by mooted tours to Malaysia, Turkey and even Paris. There are tentative plans to translate the libretto, by a Saudi poet, into other languages with a view to attracting non-Muslim audiences.

From the beginning, the production faced one particular challenge: under Islamic convention Muhammad cannot be portrayed in human form.

The first step for the team, according to Richard Lindsay, the creative director, was to watch The Message, a 1977 film about Muhammad’s life that showed the story from his direct perspective, conveniently keeping him off-screen.

“As we weren’t making a film, we didn’t have that luxury,” said Lindsay. “There’s only once in the show we refer to the prophet, and then we represent him as a source of light, which is accepted. For the rest of the time we didn’t need him in the story, as it revolves around him. The show is about what he’s doing, but it doesn’t actually need to show him.”

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The production is lavish to an almost Bollywood extent, with images projected to a huge screen behind the cast, forming the background scenes, sometimes animating to interact with the on-stage action or provide images such as a falcon seemingly soaring above the audience.

Gavin Robins, the director, with a background in the somewhat different world of the Eurovision song contest and stage productions such as How to Tame Your Dragon, describes it as the most technically advanced show he has worked on, and one of the most dramatic. “You could describe it as a romantic thriller,” he said. “When we first rehearsed the scene about the prophet’s death, the entire company was genuinely weeping. It’s a gift to be able to take that energy from a cast.”

Shepperd said his involvement changed his view about the religion’s take on several subjects, for example the position of women.

He said: “If you look at the popular misconceptions about Islam, that isn’t the case at all. It’s great to be working on a show that explores those kinds of things.”

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Whatever the intended message, the broader cultural context is arguably slightly more complex. Sharjah is sufficiently traditional to possess a set of “public decency rules” that prohibit, among other things, men and women being alone together in public unless they are married or related. The author of the libretto, Abdulrahman al-Ashmawy, has reportedly written a poem criticising attempts by women in his native Saudi Arabia to be permitted to drive. However, the man ultimately overseeing Clusters of Light, Philippe Skaff, said he welcomed Sharjah’s ambitious scheme from the very personal perspective of a Lebanese Christian: “As a Christian Arab, if anyone feels threatened by extremism, it’s us. It’s very comforting to see a work like this commissioned.

“At the start of all this the sheikh told me, ‘If we don’t do this, if we don’t spread the real message of Islam, we’re letting the extremists take over. This is our way of responding to them.'”

In an article for The National, the Bahraini composer of Clusters of Light, Khalid Al Sheikh says it is a story for all nations and times. Interestingly, Al Sheikh worked with German composer Christian Steinhauser and the music was recorded by the German Film Orchestra Babelsberg. Another piece in The National, also by Afshan Ahmed, gives an idea of the complexity of, and technology behind, the staging.

During the rehearsal, a 12-tonne cube slowly appears from behind white scrim. A computer-generated grid pops up and in seconds is replaced by animated images of a marketplace.

“This is not a cinema screen where you have one big projector,” says Hai Tran, the head of technology at Multiple & Spinifex Group, a Sydney-based creative projects company that produced the show. “This involves projecting from all over the arena to get the whole environment looking right.

“The cube is very dynamic. We use it as a stage and it also turns into the Kaaba during the show.”

The commercial for the show (below) gives a very clear picture of the epic nature of what has been produced.

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Now it has to be said something on this scale, and created in this timeframe, can only be achieved by a nation with a lot of money and the ability to hire the best the industry has to offer, but you can’t but applaud the vision. Also, as Peter Walker comments, the broader cultural context of the project might raise a few eyebrows elsewhere in the world, and perhaps this can’t be ignored. Having said this, I think if found myself in Sharjah tomorrow I would probably – no, almost certainly – find myself in the audience.

Being Taken For A Ride

As trends in theatre go, the immersive genre just keeps expanding and redefining itself. This week, some of my own students staged a piece called The Ward which entailed masked audiences, elevators, stairs, four different spaces, touch, taste, smell, specially created video and a cast of 24. It was risky, edgy and played with the form very successfully. We were all delighted with piece and no more so than its creators, deservedly so.

Rift's Macbeth posterIt is seems hardly a week goes by now where I don’t read about a piece of immersive theatre playing somewhere in the world, and this week was no exception. The first I’d like to share is news of a UK company, Rift, who are planning to stage a version of Macbeth. The company have a reputation for staging immersive reinterpretations of classic pieces of theatre. Theatre Critic, Matt Trueman, wrote about this new work in progress in The Guardian.  What caught my eye, however, was that their version comes with a twist – it will take place overnight and the audience will be invited, encouraged even, to go to sleep during the performance. You don’t just by a ticket, you buy a bed and meal and there are 3 levels of ‘package‘ available, depending on the amount of comfort you want to enjoy during the ‘show’. The company says of its plans:

Face-to-face with witches in an underground car park. Feasting with the Macbeths. Bedding down for the night on the 27th floor as a siege rages around you. Characters sleepwalking through the walls: confiding plots, summoning apparitions and conspiring murder. In the morning waking to find the battle lost or won.

This is William Shakespeare’s Macbeth seen from the inside out. This production like a fever-dream leaves you questioning ideas of space and status; dystopia and utopia; waking and sleeping.

This production scatters the story of Macbeth over one night. From Dusk till Dawn

Felix Mortimer, artistic director of Rift talks in this documentary about how they work – in this case on a production of Kafka’s The Trial.

Meanwhile in Australia, the Perth Festival International Arts Festival is in full swing and immersive is clearly the order of the day with Punchdrunk, Look Left Look Right and Rimini Protokoll are all presenting wildly different immersive work. Punchdrunk’s The House Where Winter Lives is for 3 to 6 year olds,  Look Right Look Left are performing a reworking of their city-specific work, You Once Said Yes originally made for Edinburgh and Rimini Protokoll are staging Situation Rooms which requires its audience of 20 to wear headphones and carry iPads.

Australian writer and critic, Jane Howard, wrote about all three shows in her article for the Australia Culture Blog, The Guardian. In it she talks to the creatives behind the pieces.

Perth festival’s immersive theatre: ‘being confused is perfect’

While the headline shows of the Perth festival may be playing to hundreds at a time, in pockets all around the city this week performances are happening on a much smaller scale. These immersive theatre pieces are reliant on the actions of audience members to stage the work: from the solo audience of You Once Said Yes to the tightly choreographed interaction of audience members in Situation Rooms to the rambunctious collaboration of children in The House Where Winter Lives.

Kathryn McGarr, one of the performers with Punchdrunk’s The House Where Winter Lives, tells me that immersive theatre “inspires people a bit more”. And then there’s the practical consideration: even with the best will in the world, faced with a comfy chair in a warm, dark room it’s sometimes hard to stay awake. “People do fall asleep. Whereas there is no way you could fall asleep in a show like this.”

The House Where Winter Lives

The House Where Winter Lives

That much is certainly true. The adventure sees Mr and Mrs Winter take the audience of three to six-year-olds on a journey to discover the lost key to the larder. While Punchdrunk have created many immersive works for adults and even older children, this is the first time the company has pitched at such a young age group – and when you see their reactions it’s easy to think that this audience is perhaps the perfect age to be experiencing this work. Entirely without ideas of what “theatre” should be or how you should behave when watching it, they fully invest in the world.

Punchdrunk give the children a high degree of autonomy in their reactions. “We’ve got the script and we’ve got the structure and we’ve got certain things that we can do, and then we know when we can riff a bit and let them fill in the answers,” says performer and co-creator Matthew Blake.

Co-creator and performer Frances Moulds agrees. “There is a journey we need to go on,” she says, “but we can go with whatever they give us … That we’re open is actually a key thing: we’re open to anything they say and we want to hear what they’re saying.”

Allowing for audience response and choice is also central to You Once Said Yes, a show performed on the streets of Northbridge for an audience of one. That person has to be directed to a certain extent, concedes production manager Rosalyn Newbery, but “that has to be done sensitively and without dictating, because their responses and their reactions are very important, and they will change certain things”.

You Once Said Yes

You Once Said Yes

The title, she says, strongly suggests to the audience how to respond. Yet they can still say no, they can take an alternative route from that which is expected of them and the performers and production team must know how to be responsive to that.

James Rowland, one of the performers who travelled with the piece from the UK to join a local cast, says “no one show with one character will ever be the same, just because of the way people talk to them. The number of shows we’ve done is the number of shows there’s been.”

Many immersive theatre pieces rely on these interactions between the audience and performers and the self-direction and personality the audience invests into the work and the world. Rimini Protokoll’s Situation Rooms is the exception to this rule.

The documentary theatre piece invites the audience to step into the shoes of 10 people each as they talk about their relationship with the weapons industry. Following instructions on an iPad mini, with the world on the screen mirroring the environment built by the company, the audience move and silently interact in the exact place of the person whose story they’re hearing.

One of the creators, Helgard Haug, says the precision of the work is integral. “I think everybody understands that it’s perfect if it works, if you’re following it precisely. If you are in a space and you’re sitting at a table and you’re in the story of a person, and in the film you see a door opening and a person entering the space, and if that repeats in the real environment, in the real space where you are that’s the fun of it.”

While they walk through the space Haug wants the audience to question how these people fit into our society and why we each exist in the reality we exist in. After seeing the show, she says “to be confused is very productive. After half an hour leaving this building and being confused is perfect. Being exhausted is perfect. Needing a cup of coffee and a deep breath to then find your own skin again is just a very good thing to do with that content.”

Situation Rooms

Situation Rooms

While Situation Rooms aims to highlight the realities of a wider world, You Once Said Yes is about highlighting the realities and personality of the participant. Being involved in the presentation of such immersive work holds “massive privilege” for an actor, says Rowland.

“It’s pretty much the only arena in one-on-one performance where you really get that opportunity [to really meet the audience]: without lights, without a stage, in a situation where you just say, ‘No, go do whatever you want to do. Do your thing within the parameters of the show,’ which is lovely.”

That is one of reasons that people have responded so well to the show, he argues.

“By the end they feel they are, and they have been, valued, and it is about them as much as it is about the stories they’re unwrapping.”

A Cultural Democracy

For those of you who read Theatre Room regularly you will have noticed my preoccupation of late with the developments, and debate,  surrounding live streaming. Now of course this deals with how we consume theatre, not how we make it and this got me thinking about how this technology becomes part of the creative act itself. I know that there have been experiments in the field, and this piece by Jessica Holland, published in The National, an english language newspaper from Abu Dhabi, lays out some of the exciting possibilities:

Internet theatre – immersive, real-time shows with actors from all over the world

The answer is a brand-new art form that is being pioneered by performers in cities such as Tunis, Beirut and Dubai.

“It’s the future,” says the Lebanese writer, actor and director Lucien Bourjeily, who lives and works in Beirut. “At the moment it’s avant-garde, but it will become the norm.”

Lucien Bourjeily

Lucien Bourjeily

Last July, Bourjeily collaborated with Elastic Future, an experimental theatre company that started in San Francisco but is now based in London, on a play called Peek A Boo for the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). Five actors, playing spies, programmers and online peep-show entertainers, were divided between New York, London and Beirut, improvising dialogue as they interacted via streaming video. Audience members around the world watched in real-time by signing into Google Hangouts or watching the feed on Elastic Future’s web page. They also interacted with characters on Twitter and took part in a post-show Q&A.

Untitled“It was a breakthrough,” says Bourjeily of the performance, which followed just a week of online workshops and involved some quick thinking from the actors when there were glitches in the internet connection from New York. “It opened my eyes to so many possibilities for how to create a new type of immersive theatre.”

Erin Gilley, Elastic Future’s artistic director, says she learnt a lot from the experience and is eager to keep stretching the limits of the medium. She’s planning another work for this year’s Lift to be streamed online in July, with actors performing live via webcam from Ghana, Portugal and the United Kingdom.

“Theatre can’t exist without an audience and we’re trying to creatively explore what that means,” says Gilley of the work-in-progress. “The goal is for it to feel like you’re sitting in a theatre with other people, even though watching it will be a private experience.”

Gilley is avoiding screening the feed in an auditorium, in case the process prevents her from “discovering ways to create that feeling online”.

Much like Bourjeily, Gilley is evangelical about the benefits of this new, hybrid art form. For starters, it can bypass censors in countries such as Lebanon, where playwrights are required to submit their work to a bureau for approval. Performing online is cheaper than renting a space and flying in actors and it grants access to audiences from all over the world. It creates novel ways for artists scattered all over the globe to cooperate and to interact with viewers.

It can also turn practical constraints into aesthetic virtues….

As technology develops, the artistic possibilities multiply. “We have new ways of getting emotionally connected to our audience,” is how Bourjeily puts it. “The sky is the limit.”

Lucien Bourjeily is a fascinating man, as his website attests. So much so that Index On Censorship – a global NGO that fights for freedom of expression – has made him one of their four nominees for the Freedom of Expression awards for his play Would It Pass Or Not?, which is about censorship in Lebanon.The play was banned – by the censors, thus forcing them to justify their actions in public.

You can watch Peek-A -Boo here. It makes interesting viewing.

Elastic Future have been commissioned by LIFT to create a piece for this year’s festival, called Longitude, which will be streamed online on 9, 16, and 23 June. Indeed LIFT and it’s artistic director Mark Ball clearly see this kind of work as vital, linking the digital (stage) space with a wider cultural democracy – which is another blog post entirely.

David Cecil

David Cecil

As a post script, one of the other nominees for the Index Freedom Of Expression awards, which are in their 14th year and honour people around the world fighting for free expression, is David Cecil. Cecil is the British theatre producer who was jailed in Uganda for staging a play about homosexuality and whom I wrote about in the posts Stonewalled and A ruling for common sense over a year ago. Appallingly, a month ago the Ugandan parliament passed an anti-homosexuality law which, amongst other things, included punishments of up to life imprisonment. David Cecil is not gay. In fact when he was deported he was forced to leave behind his partner and their two young children. As I write, he has not been allowed to return.  The man deserves to be honoured.

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.